Back at home, he was brewing a whole lot more than one beer a month. “By law I can’t say how much I was producing,” he says, with more than a hint of mischievousness. “Let’s just say I threw some fucking mad parties.”
He’d been homebrewing for two years by then and had met fellow beer makers and connoisseurs along the way. As JT’s circle grew, so too did his connections within the beer world. Eventually, he crossed paths with a guy working as a cook at Barley John’s Brewpub in New Brighton. It was April 2013 and the pub’s head brewer, Brian Lonberg, was leaving. Seeing an opportunity, JT gathered together a few of his best homebrews and set up an interview with Lonberg and John Moore, co-owner and co-founder of Barley John’s, which opened in 2000. He got the position almost immediately.
“Brian told me he’d liked that I had a food background and knew how to make soups and sauces,” JT says. “John said he hired me was because I’d brought him beers that were over a year old and none of them were soured or infected.”
That connection between knowing how to make food and knowing how to make beer wasn’t new to JT; it’s how he’s always approached his beer. “When I think of beer, I think of it as a soup or a sauce,” he says. “When I was taught as a cook at the retirement home, I was taught by a Southern chef who made me focus on soups and sauces. He always said, ‘Remember, if you add anything, you can’t take it away.’ Beer is the same way: you can add a certain amount of ingredients into it, but you can never take away.”
JT has been at Barley John’s for three years now. Although he retired his title of head brewer at the New Brighton location in January 2016 to be the assistant to head brewer Bob McKenzie and packaging manager at the New Richmond location, which opened in August 2015, JT still has access to the pub’s smaller 3.5-barrel system when he feels like experimenting.
One of his most famous concoctions is Two Face: a double-decocted, double-fermented, double-hopped, 176 IBU, 10.5% ABV imperial IPA aged on medium-toasted oak chips. “Some people tell me I must hate myself, because of how much crap I put myself through,” JT says. “Masochistic. That would be a good way to put it.” He laughs.
It’s that intensity and desire to push the limits that drives JT. Anything less just won’t do. But putting his whole self into every beer and every project often leads to burn out. JT is well aware of this, but treats it more as an inevitable part of life than something that needs redressing. As he puts it, “It’s the work that’s the fun part. In both beer and art, there’s a point where I think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But then I reach a point where it’s worth it. I go from hating what I’m doing, to liking it, to hating it, to liking it, to wanting to torch it—and then, in the end, it’s worth it. Every time.”
People often ask JT when he might to start his own brewery, but he dismisses the idea—at least for now. There are other things he wants to do: kayak the entire Mississippi River. Help improve breweries that aren’t doing well. Camp more. Make his way to one of the coasts and spend all day surfing. There is no predictable trajectory for JT’s future, but that’s okay—there never has been.