Meet the brewer: Charlie Johnson, Ronin Fermentation Project

Meet the brewer wandering in Lake Tahoe

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In the forests of the Rocky Mountains, around 30 minutes north of Lake Tahoe, is an unprepossessing log cabin, coils of malt-scented steam peeling from its roof, as birds wheel about, enjoying the warm lift in the chilly autumn air. This spot marks the rough half way point between the Lake itself, where Charlie Johnson spent his childhood, and Reno Nevada, where his girlfriend is from. It also marks the spot where Charlie finally came down to land after nearly 20 years brewing all over the world, to create something truly his own, where he could freely explore everything he’d learned. The result is the wonderful Ronin Brewing Project.

The name ‘Ronin’ itself means ‘wanderer’, referring to samurai warriors left without a master in feudal Japan, while ‘project’ too suggests an ongoing journey, as Charlie explains.

“We call it a ‘project’ because it's constantly growing and trying to be better,” he says. “There’s another Japanese word, ‘Kaizen’, which means being better tomorrow. So naming the brewery a ‘project’ was our like our outward statement of that philosophy, and we try to live by it. For example a lot of Americans use the term ‘brew master’ pretty frivolously. I keep that term in high regard, and I definitely don’t consider myself one – I keep it as something to work to.”


Baseball-capped Charlie is warm, modest, and what I’d probably term a ‘thinking brewer’. He’s running a business, sure, and loves to brew, but is just as concerned with what he’s contributing to the beer world, and where Ronin fits in the continuing story of Californian craft.

Charlie continues: “Your classic, modern California brewery typically has a strong lager programme, a hoppy beer programme and then some sort of a barrel programme. For us, the barrels probably make up around a third of our volume, which is kind of unusual. We also didn’t want to just come in and do classic mixed-culture coolship beers, so I leaned into our experiences of working in Japan, where we did a fair amount of consulting. 

“I’d had the pleasure of meeting and working with a lot of sake brewers, so I started drawing parallels between what they were doing, and some mixed culture brewing techniques. It was like a hybridisation. Over the period of about six or seven years there, I had like a private 300-litre brewhouse with a 700-litre tank, that was like a lab, right? So I’d go in there and just work on our koji project [for which Ronin is now famous] and all these other barrel projects. I like working with barrels, it's more laborious."


Despite the global influences, Ronin Fermentation Project’s beers are very much an expression of where they’re brewed, taking cues from nature, the seasons, and the somewhat slower pace of life in this highly rural part of the western US. 

“A lot of our processes are slower, old world techniques, all natural carbonation, things like that… So, like, we brew winter lagers that we actually lager in wood, because we’re here in the snow and it’s negative 10 Celsius outside. We also have a lot of barleywine and different liquors in oak. We just released our first blends of those, taking three-year-old barleywine and blending it with one and two-year-old barleywine. So borrowing from the Lambic blenders, and in typical American fashion bastardising it,” he says with an apologetic grin.

The total team at Ronin is just five people, including tasting room staff. Charlie leads from the front, getting his hands dirty in every area of the business except pulling pints (it’s the one job where he feels he’s done his time). This is very much by design, and is a key part of the brewery’s modus operandi. 

“It’s important to me that every single team member is trained in every part of the brewery operations, from lab work, to brewing, to keg washing to kegging. The reason for that is we value every step in our brewing process equally; everyone needs to be proficient in every realm, because they're equally important. You could have the most brilliant beer in the world, but if it gets to packaging and a guy doesn't fill the keg properly, it won’t be so brilliant when people get to drink it,” says Charlie.


“But yeah, no more bar work for me. If you see me in the bar now, it's usually just to say hi to someone. I have a great face for radio, as they say so, I’m much more use out the back; it's just kind of like chefs, we brewers sometimes have quirky personalities. Don’t want to scare the customers!”

Ronin’s setting really is idyllic, and several people had independently told me that its tasting room is among the most magical anywhere in the world. If ever there were an argument for enjoying a beer at source to properly understand it, this is surely it. For all that Charlie lets his surroundings influence his brewing though, he still regards beer as a global community, and believes firmly in sending the natural magic of Tahoe out into the world.

“It’s definitely not just about having people come to us. It’s almost like we have so many people from our country travelling the world who don’t really understand their culture, so if we can say in some small way ‘this is what we have, this is what our part of the world is like’ then I think that’s really worth doing. It's a love letter, from our area to the world.

“I think the really fun part about beer globally is it attracts the same type of human beings wherever you go, globally. In a way it becomes an actual human language, based on this fermented beverage, right? Because our society was developed around agriculture, with farming of cereal grains playing a huge role in our development. So I kind of like the idea of tying a lot of that together, and showing people that, hey, this is the cultural contribution that California has brought to beer.”


WHAT'S IN THE BOX?

Soigné dry-hopped pilsner

“This is kind of named for a buddy of mine, Paul Bentley, who owns a bunch of restaurants in Australia, Hawaii and Mexico. Him and a bunch of other high-end chefs used to say, ‘oh, that's soigne,’ to mean kind of ‘ooh-la-la’… For the label, we went with different shades of layered purple, for a more royal look.

“For the beer itself, we’ve used Nelson Sauvin and HBC 586 for aroma, really elegant hops. And we kind of took the model of a classic West Coast IPA – I mean, Chico ale yeast is done at Sierra Nevada, which is an hour from us – bittered with Columbus. You get this dankness which is a pretty resonant flavour of Northern California breweries, beers like Pliny the Elder, Sierra Nevada pale, Ballast Point, things of that nature. So we felt like from a cultural standpoint, we really liked using that in this beer.”

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