Portrait of a Brewer: Aaron Justus, East Village Brewing

After charting a course and weathering storms along the way, a craft-beer devotee has found a home of his own devising

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There are hundreds of talented brewing professionals giving their all to help maintain the San Diego beer industry’s storied reputation. While these industrious practitioners share numerous similarities, each is their own unique person with individual likes, dislikes, methodologies, techniques, inspirations, interests and philosophies. The goal of San Diego Beer News’ Portrait of a Brewer series is to not only introduce readers to local brewers, but dig in to help them gain a deeper appreciation for the people making their beer and how they have contributed to the county’s standout craft-brewing culture, all while presenting them in the finest visual light care of exceptional local lifestyle photographer Matt Furman.

Today’s featured brewer is…

Aaron Justus
of East Village Brewing

What is your current title? 
Owner, co-founder and brewer 

Where did you grow up? 
Prairie Village, a suburb of Kansas City 

What brought you to San Diego? 
I was changing careers and needed to go where there were job opportunities in craft beer. The climate, culture and beauty sealed the deal.  

What was the first beer and/or alcoholic beverage you ever had? 
A sip off my dad’s Hamm’s when I was probably four years old and he wasn’t looking.  

What was your a-ha moment that turned you on to craft beer? 
My dad drank craft beer back in the late 80’s when it wasn’t cool. Beyond that, drinking Boulevard, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium when I was in college.  

What led you to consider a career in brewing? 
I was in TV and ready for a career change. I was considering culinary school, but loved homebrewing. The smell of wort never gets old. I job-shadowed at Legends Brewing in Richmond, Virginia, and Mad Fox Brewing in Falls Church, Virginia. I wanted to make sure it was the right decision. 

Where did you first apply for a brewing job and where did you get your first brewing/brewery position?|
I started at Ballast Point as a keg washer and eventually moved to the brewhouse on the overnight shift. 

What breweries have you worked for over your career and in what roles? 
I was at Ballast for over 10 years, then started East Village Brewing with my partner, Brandon Green. 

Who have been the individuals that have helped you the most to learn and advance in your career, and how? 
I attended the American Brewers Guild, led by Steve Parkes. A good portion of my brewing philosophy comes from him. Alex Tweet – formerly of Ballast Point, now Fieldwork Brewing – let me hop on the brewhouse at the end of my shift to learn the basics of the 50-barrel brewhouse. Former Ballast Point VP James Murray trained me on how to brew professionally. Another former Ballast Point VP, Colby Chandler, taught me a lot about flavor and food pairings. I learned a lot about raw materials from conversations with several people. For malt, Dave Richter, formerly of Briess, and Tyler Schoales from Great Western. For hops, Hopsteiner’s Jay Prahl, VGF Farms’ Darren Gamache and CLS Farms’ Eric Desmarais. And for water, John Palmer from How To Brew.  

What singular piece of advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a professional brewer? 
Job-shadow for at least a day. Make sure you like the manufacturing environment. Some people might like beer, but the production side of a brewery might not be the best fit for your personality. There are many paths to making your passion a career – sales, marketing, quality, etc.  

What ultimate career goal would you like to achieve? 
Have East Village Brewing become a well-oiled machine so that I can focus all my attention on just making beer and doing some more research. 

What is your favorite beer you’ve ever brewed, be it on a professional or amateur level? 
My first wet-hop beer, when I was a specialty brewer at Home Brew Mart. Brandon was there, as well. The hops arrived late, so it was an evening brew. It didn’t matter – we were so excited! Another memorable brew was a weizenbock at Scripps Ranch for Great American Beer Festival’s pro-am competition. It was a single-decoction on a 50-barrel system that was not made for that technique, which made for a fun brew day. 

What is your least-favorite beer you’ve ever brewed on any level? 
Probably 90% of my homebrews. My friends hated me. 

What are your favorite and least-favorite hop varietals at present? 
I’ve always enjoyed domestically grown Saaz. Cluster is my least favorite.  

What are some of your favorite brewing ingredients that aren’t hops? 
Smoked malt. I like to sneak it into wheat beers and other styles. Also, time. Often patience is the best thing you can give a beer.

If you weren’t a brewer, what do you think you would do for a living? 
Private island caretaker 

In your opinion, what non-brewing position is of great importance at a craft-beer company but often gets overlooked or less credit than those making the beer? 
Sales, though they aren’t really overlooked.

What is your favorite beer style? 
Is “cold, carbonated and free” a style?  

If you could wipe one style of beer off the face of the Earth, what would it be? 
Seltzer. Oh wait, it’s not beer. 

What single brewing company’s beers and/or ethos/style has been most influential on your style? 
New Gallagash. It’s if New Glarus and Allagash had a baby. 

What is your favorite San Diego County brewing company? 
Mcilhenney Brewing after a long hike. It reminds me of the days when Brandon and I would visit Alpine and have a pitcher of Nelson IPA.  

What is your favorite brewing company outside of San Diego? 
I’m a firm believer in beer being an experience, either at a special place or with good company. One of my favorite memories was at Mahr’s Bräu in Bamberg, Germany. I was there with my wife and Ballast Point R&D brewer Chris Takeuchi for Euro Beer Star. It was cold outside, so the bartender was keeping the fireplace hot with fresh wood. You could see snow falling out of the stained-glass windows. A group of old men were enjoying a jovial conversation over steins of lager while on lunch break. It was the best festbier I’ve ever had in my life. It was November 2016, when the world seemed so turbulent, but at that brief moment, everything felt alright.

What three breweries that you haven’t yet visited—local or elsewhere—are on your current must-see bucket list? 
I’ve always wanted to check out some of the older historical breweries throughout the United States, like Anchor and Yuengling. Abroad I’d like to visit Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen. 

What are your favorite local beer events? 
I honestly never get out anymore. What are some good ones? 

If you were to leave San Diego, where would be the next-best place you’d want to brew? 
A ski town in Colorado

Which musical genre or artists are on your brew-day soundtrack/playlist? 
I’m one of those weird brewers who prefers silence while brewing alone. If I’m brewing with others, then I’ll put on some Cuban music. 

What motto rules the way you brew and approach brewing in a professional brewhouse? 
Think twice before opening that valve. 

When you’re not at work, what do you like to do for fun? 
Exploring every corner of San Diego 

Where do you like to drink off-the-clock? 
My wife and I have been enjoying drinking wine at Mia Marie. 

What do you consider your greatest professional accomplishments? 
I wrote an article about beer bitterness in a Technical Quarterly of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas in 2018. It won best article that year. It was a year-long study at Ballast Point that required help from numerous people to collect all the data.

What are you proud of having achieved in your personal life? 
I’ve mastered making sourdough bread.

What is your favorite beer-and-food pairing of all time? 
Rauchbier and a savory salad. Don’t believe me? Try it! 

If you could somehow plan your last beer dinner before dying, what would you drink and eat, and who would you invite to join you? 
A proper Belgian dubbel and Arthur Bryant’s BBQ from Kansas City with my wife.  

Who do you think you are (a purposely broad question)?
Simply put, I am.

If you’re a brewer at a San Diego brewing company and would like to be featured in our Portrait of a Brewer series, drop us a line at [email protected].

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