Good Beer Hunting

Hunter/Gatherer

Hunter/Gatherer #19 — Joey Pepper

Before he was Joey Fucking Pepper and before he was a full-time brewer, Joseph Bruce Pepper-Mellusi was just another guy trying to figure out his life. But in just a few short years, thanks to a ravenous appetite for knowledge, a can-do attitude, and more than a little charm, he’s become a craft beer celebrity of sorts. In a scene as intimate, tight knit, and interconnected as beer, characteristics like those can get you pretty far, pretty fast.

GBH_JoeyPepper_BTyers_Web-3565.jpg
GBH_JoeyPepper_BTyers_Web-3833.jpg

Growing up in New Jersey, his parents divorced when he was just a few years old. Bouncing between their homes in Somerset and Hackensack, he quickly started blossoming into a curious and rather obsessive young person.

“When I get into something, I kinda go all the way in,” he says. “In high school, when I was really getting interested in science, I would stay up all hours putting equations on a whiteboard. When something is important to me, and I take it seriously, I certainly go a little H.A.M.”

Following his science inclinations into college, he slowly came to the realization that “things just weren’t working out” for him at Boston University. Unlike high school, nothing seemed to take hold. He’d bounce between chemistry, biology, computer science, and math, but had trouble visualizing any of these fields in a professional setting. Compounding it all were the recent deaths of his grandfather, great uncle, and family dog. It was a shitty time to say the least.

“I just felt very lost, which is a normal feeling for college,” Pepper says. “I became really depressed and was dealing with a lot of anxiety issues. This was all new stuff for me, so it was a little heavy. I was in a terrible place.”

Eventually, he’d turn his all-consuming energy toward beer. While it’s not shocking that a college kid looked to drown his sorrows in a sixer, this was more than that. In an uncertain world filled with newfound problems, Pepper found a subculture where he could discover, learn, and obsess.

“My friends and I would go get a six pack of Sierra Nevada Pale or Blue Moon, and that was a treat,” he remembers. “But my dad would make these trips down to Rehoboth Beach every summer—the Dogfish Head brewpub is there. He’d come back and give me a 60 Minute IPA. That was one of the first beers where I was like, ‘This is really interesting. I don’t know if I like this.’ Then I started looking more into the stuff—Sierra Nevada, Stone, Flying Dog, Lagunitas. I came from an IPA standpoint at first.”

Still trying to make college work, by his junior year, he’d started reading about traditional Lambic and mixed-fermentation online. Instead of crushing canned macro Lagers and doing keg stands, the 21-year-old found himself driving an hour from school to pick up this new-to-him thing called Cantillon. He was “really, really blown away” by his first taste, and things started to get real.

“I was immediately hooked,” he says. “Like, from a scientific standpoint, seeing everything that’s happening on a microbial level with these beers. But also, like, the history behind it. There’s an art to the blending aspects of the style. And I’ve always loved acidic things. As a child, I’d suck on lemons. I loved Sour Patch Kids.”

GBH_JoeyPepper_BTyers_Web-3789.jpg
1story_collage.jpg
GBH_JoeyPepper_BTyers_Web-3583.jpg

It’s probably pretty safe to say that most people wouldn’t describe dropping out of school as “a conjunction of Lambic and things not really panning out,” but then again, most people aren’t Joey Pepper. Tuition costs adding up and his interest dwindling, he called it quits in 2011.

“That was really scary at the time,” he says. “I knew [beer] was something I was interested in, but I wasn’t sure how to build it into a career or bring it up to my parents.”

He started by, well, “hanging out a bunch in Jersey.” But he was also spending a lot of time reading and learning about homebrewing online, attending local beer events, meeting people, searching for knowledge. Realizing there was no sense in trying to talk him out of it, that his beer-related pursuits were gaining momentum, Pepper’s dad mentioned he had a friend who was part owner of beer joint in the city called Pony Bar. It just so happened they had a bar-back position open.

“I figured that would be perfect to get my foot in the door,” Pepper says. “At the time, I was very open to trying everything within the three-tier system. Starting at a bar would mean interacting with reps and seeing what their life is like.”

Pepper worked there for about a year, but they wouldn’t let him bartend. Despite the fact that Pony Bar was one of New York City’s earlier craft adopters, the scene was a far cry from the modern day.

“They just wanted some guy that knew about sports and how to make shitty drinks and bullshit people,” Pepper says. “They weren’t wanting to curate a beer experience.”

Undeterred, he started homebrewing, focusing on mixed-ferm beers. His first all-grain batch was a Berliner Weisse with Brett C and blood orange zest. For his 22nd birthday, the burgeoning homebrewer made his first-ever pilgrimage to Vermont.

“It was during this time that I got really, really into beer,” he says. “Hill Farmstead, Heady Topper, Lawson’s: those beers, at the time, were tasting pretty incredible.”

He started going to Vermont every three months or so. He started chasing rare Lambic with friends. He started meeting people from BeerAdvocate forums in real life. All of which is to say: he started to become Joey Pepper. A new chapter was about to start, too.

GBH_JoeyPepper_BTyers_Web-3517.jpg

As he was realizing he would have to leave Pony Bar to keep growing, he started reading about this new place called TØRST that was coming to Brooklyn. It was a month before opening, so he knew he was a little late to get a job. But he figured out who was involved in the project, including general manager Jon Langley, and listened to a couple podcasts he’d appeared on.

“There was not a doubt in my mind that I needed to work there,” he says, so he found Langley’s email address and sent him a note. “I was like, ‘I love beer, what do I need to do to work here?’ I explained that I wanted to expand my knowledge.”

It worked, sort of. They agreed to have him come by and show him around. “It’s funny, because it really wasn’t an interview,” he says. “They told me they didn’t have a job for me.”

Always show up with beer—even if you’re going to a fancy beer bar. It’s a Joey Pepper motto of sorts, a move that’s served him well, again and again, over the years. “Bringing beers to places, for me, has always been from a conversation starter standpoint. It’s a jumping off point for tasting and talking about other things.”

So he shows up with some Heady Topper and some Hill Farmstead Saison. The place is in a frenzy with construction and the kind of hurried prep work that comes with a bar that’s opening in a few weeks. He meets Langley in the cellar, along with Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, founder of Evil Twin and co-founder of TØRST. They show him around. He’s blown away by their opening day list, which includes Cantillon.

“Being able to talk Lambic with Jeppe was a big thing,” Pepper says. “He saw my interest. Jeppe looked at Jon and said, ‘Dude, you should get this guy a job.’ Right in front of me. He really put him right on the spot! A week before opening, Jon sent me an email saying, ‘We definitely want you to work here.’”

“Once I got that job, I flipped out,” Pepper continues. “I remember getting the email and literally running around the house like a 12-year-old. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

He started as a bar-back, and moved up to bartender after three months—Sunday night was his first shift actually pouring beer. Maybe he really could make a living in this industry after all.

GBH_JoeyPepper_BTyers_Web-3814.jpg

TØRST was a turning point for Joey Pepper. If you knew about him before clicking on this story, chances are it was because of TØRST. It was there that he interfaced with countless beer lovers from all over the world, befriended brewers, and became an active, known member in the U.S. beer scene.

On the education side, he got to experience working in a top-tier establishment under strenuous conditions. Those first few months were crazy-hectic, which meant he learned how to handle stress while also internalizing the basics of bartending. He discovered new brands like BFM, De Dolle, Tipo Pils, De Glazen Toren—stuff he would’ve never sought out before, but now had to taste and explore as a part of his job. Night in, night out: it was kinda brutal, but also, he learned, plenty doable.

But he also networked. Or maybe that was just another learning: how to come out of his shell and transform into a Craft Beer Personality. Working at TØRST elevated that for him, sent him to events, gave him a bit more of a platform—even if it wasn’t something he would’ve necessarily chosen on his own.

“I’m a shy and anxious person, but in the right setting, if I’m comfortable, I’m pretty outgoing,” Pepper says. “It’s a whole process, like Power Rangers. I need the suit.”

One time he put the proverbial suit on at Hill Farmstead’s Festival of Farmhouse Ales. It was the first year Sante Adairius was invited. He met co-founders Adair Paterno and Tim Clifford, decided they were “the nicest people” and that “their beers were phenomenal.” Jarnit-Bjergsø was there, too, and his Evil Twin was planning a collaboration with Sante Adairius. The gang hung out, got to know each other, had a great time. Later, Pepper found out he had a bigger role in the collaboration than he realized.

“It was Tim’s idea,” he recalls. “He was like, ‘Get Joey involved. We’d love to name it after him. Let’s do this all together.’ That kinda blew my mind. [Jeppe] told me really casually. He’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna do a collaboration. We’re gonna call it Joey Pepper. What do you think about that?’ I was a little taken off guard, but it was very cool.”

GBH_JoeyPepper_BTyers_Web-3590.jpg
GBH_JoeyPepper_BTyers_Web-3626.jpg

Much like with Pony Bar, Pepper had a certain clarity about when it was time to break ties with TØRST. The popular beer bar closed Luksus, the fancy, Michelin-starred, 26-seat Nordic restaurant in its tiny back room, in late 2016. Chef Daniel Burns departed as well, to pursue gelato. Meanwhile, the man who opened the bar and insisted Pepper be hired there, Jarnit-Bjergsø, also left TØRST. He and his wife Maria sold their ownership stake in September 2017 to ensure there were no three-tier violations as they prepare to open an Evil Twin production space in Brooklyn.

TØRST switched its food focus to a more approachable menu that could be ordered at the bar and enjoyed at lunch and dinner anywhere in the bar. And in perhaps another attempt at approachability, the team also started offering wine.

“They’re going in a weird direction over there,” Pepper says. “They picked a red, white, and rosé, and they’re doing it by the glass. They’re not trying to do anything cool with wine—they’re literally just offering it. It gives up on the mission statement, which is a beer-only establishment, trying to elevate beer in that manner. They just gave up!”

Thankfully, he had already started plotting his next move, working part time at a brewery a few miles south of TØRST in Carroll Gardens called Folksbier. When he started telling people he was looking for brewing jobs in the city, a mutual friend connected Pepper with Folksbier founder Travis Kauffman. And since they’d both worked in bars and restaurants before brewing, Pepper says, they “had very similar culinary interests as well as wine and beer.” They hit it off quickly, and he started helping out around the brewery.

“I do regret not going out earlier and trying to get a job at a brewery,” Pepper, 27, says. “I just kept thinking I didn’t know enough yet. It was very silly. I should’ve had more confidence in myself. I wish I would’ve tried that earlier.”

GBH_JoeyPepper_BTyers_Web-3538.jpg
GBH_JoeyPepper_BTyers_Web-3554.jpg
GBH_JoeyPepper_BTyers_Web-3560.jpg

Now lead brewer, Pepper’s been at Folksbier for about a year and a half—full time since March 2017. And he’s learned a lot there, too: working with equipment, figuring out all the ins and outs of what it takes to make beer in a commercial setting, getting skilled at working at that kind of scale. While he’s been brewing on a 3-BBL system, they’ve got a 10-BBL on the way. Along with production manager Ben Dillan, Pepper is doing all the recipe development and hop ordering. 

“With the new system coming, we’re hoping to sign the lease on a new space in Red Hook,” which he says will have a 20-BBL system mostly dedicated to Lager. Once that new space is up and running, the original Carroll Gardens facility will become a place for R&D, mixed fermentation beer, and hospitality.

While he’s enjoyed exploring Lager (Folksbier makes a few of them), there are two beers of which he’s most proud and are his own. Glow Up is a Berliner Weisse that he made a lot at home before he joined Folksbier. They do various treatments of it with seasonal fruit like raspberries. The other is Recurring Dreams, a New England-style Pale Ale recipe that’s always changing—each new version is numbered and has different hops or malt bills. They recently started canning both.

Like the rest of his beer gigs so far, the learning curve at Folksbier has been steep. But he’s always up for a challenge. In fact, now that he’s getting comfortable, it feels like maybe his next leveling up could happen very soon. Are we witnessing a turning point, a milestone that Joey Pepper looks back on one day? Could this be a moment—like dropping out of school, becoming a homebrewer, or working at TØRST—that forever shapes his future in the beer industry?

“It’s wild,” he says. “Once I have my mind set on something, I kinda just go for it. It was certainly hard, the first three or four months. You just have to keep fighting against it and learning from your mistakes. Now, I’m a little bit stagnant in my learning, so I have to push it on myself.”

Words, Austin L. Ray
Photos, Blake Tyers