Oh Captain, my Captain
Captain Lawrence founder Scott Vaccaro was born to brew
Wednesday 02 September 2020
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Captain Lawrence founder Scott Vaccaro was captivated by brewing before he’d had a chance to fall in love with beer. At 17, he was only a high school junior when he went round to a friend’s house, and was fascinated to find his pal’s father standing over a bubbling brew kettle in the kitchen.
“I asked him what he was doing, and he told me he was making beer,” says Scott. “And, you know, my mind was just blown at that point! I grew up with this family and they were really close with my parents, so I said to him ‘this is mind blowing. Can you teach me how to make beer?’ And he told me to go home and ask my parents.
“My parents clearly were not paying attention when I asked. Or maybe I didn’t present it quite as clearly as I should have, but in any case they said, ‘sure, go figure it out’! That was the November of ’95, and I did my first batch of cranberry celebration ale out of Charlie Papazian’s book. I’m actually staring at the bottle right now – I still have it in a little box full of beer – it looks extremely oxidised and fairly inedible at the moment, but that was the beginning.”
When it came time for Scott to move onto college though, his parents were a little less laissez-faire, and his father insisted that – if he was dead set on a career in brewing – he would need to get a degree in business first. After a year at Villanova studying accounting, Scott knew it wasn’t for him so (much to the chagrin of his parents) he resolved to transfer to California’s UC Davis and enrol in its prestigious brewing course.
“I don’t know how I convinced my parents yet again. They may have seen the writing on the wall that I probably wasn’t even going to be allowed back at Villanova, they went with it, giving me the ultimatum that if I didn’t make this stick I’d be on my own.”
Fortunately for everyone, it quickly became clear that Scott had found his calling at UC Davis, and he was taken under the wing of the wonderfully-named Professor Charles Bamforth.
“The professor is a true English gentleman, and is famous in the brewing community for his research into foam. For me, he was a great teacher and mentor, and eventually helped me get a job at Sierra Nevada up in Chico, working under for Ken Grossman.
“That was an amazing two and a half years – which I viewed as an equivalent to grad school – seeing how it can be done when money is no object. That place was just absolutely gorgeous; copper and marble and everything done absolutely without compromise. I’m proud to say that I believe I was the first brewer to ever put a cask conditioned Sierra Nevada on tap in their pub.”
Chico is light years away from metropolitan New York though, both physically and spiritually, so there came a point where Scott knew he wanted to move back east. This was 2002, and New York’s craft scene hadn’t really taken off so, after putting in applications to Brooklyn and a handful of other local breweries, he finally scored a job at a small brew pub in Danbury, Connecticut, called the Colorado Breweries Steakhouse.
“I was there for the last six months before the business sadly closed. But it was great experience, in that I was in charge of everything from raw materials and brewing to the federal reporting. When I was done there, I finally felt I was ready to strike out on my own, so spent the winter of 2004 bumming about Tahoe and putting a business plan together. We had shovels in the ground by spring ’05, and Captain Lawrence started brewing that December.”
From Day One, it was clear that Scott’s approach to brewing would be driven by his love and respect for the European traditions, as well as his education on the West Coast. He talks with great passion about the “styles I grew to love before I even drank, just by reading Michael Jackson” and took advantage of his time on the west coast to try as many weird and wonderful bottles as he could lay his hands on.
“I was constantly seeking out and collecting; I wanted to try them all and really grew to love sours and Belgian ales. So when I finally had the reins to do whatever I wanted, I had kind of a three pronged approach to it. I was going to do some Belgian ales, I was going to do some super hoppy, imperial IPA type stuff, and I was going to do some sour ales. So within a month I had some wine barrels being filled.”
Scott feels New York is the perfect home for his magpie approach to beer, with a local clientele for whom seeking out new flavours and experiences is already a way of life.
“All New Yorkers like to think of it as the epicentre of the world,” he says. “The culinary scene here, especially throughout the lower Hudson Valley and into the city is really intense and vibrant. It’s such an international city, with people coming from all over the world, so it gives you the opportunity to sell all these different styles of beer and know you’ll find an audience for them. But it’s also a transplant city; if you look at where all the brewers in the city today came from, I can bet most of them did not come from New York. That gives you these diverse brewing backgrounds and cross-fertilisation of ideas.”
Having been on the scene for 14 years now, Captain Lawrence may not be the city’s oldest craft brewery, but it’s certainly lived – and thrived – through the scene’s boom years. Scott doesn’t say as much, but it seems clear that many of the breweries that have followed in its wake have taken inspiration from Captain Lawrence’s melting pot of traditions, particularly those staffed by its many alumni. And to think, he could have ended up an accountant.
“You can only drink so many hazy seven and a half percent beers during the night before your palate’s shot and you’re fall out of your stool. The culture in this country has gotten to the point where everybody’s going to the store and buying these super heady, super hoppy beers, but they’re also picking up something light, clean and crisp to break up the session.
“We’re using imported Pilsner malt from Holland, as well as some domestic corn and really keeping it as light as possible. We’re letting it dry out, down to under one degree plato, so there’s very little residual sugar left in it. That Holland malt has this beautiful round flavour that gives you this crisp, malty backbone. We’re not looking to make Bud Light here, so having that malt flavour was really important, but it’s still light enough that you can throw back a few and move on with your day.”
“Effortless grapefruit has been such a fun beer to make, and a good one to drink too. It’s a low-ABV session IPA; well, it’s a session IPA for us over here at 4.5%. But the important thing is I treated it like an IPA first, you know, so it’s not a fruit beer. It’s very heavily dry hopped, then we have this beautiful grapefruit essence that we add to it, an all-natural flavour that just takes it to the next level.
“Then we have two-row malted barley, Crisp Crystal from Crisp Malts in the UK, which adds such a nice hue and colour. Then we really try to dry it out, because we don’t want it to be too sweet on the back end. It’s just a nice snappy thirst quencher with gorgeous grapefruit complimenting the grapefruit aroma from the classic US hops. And then as you swallow, you end up getting a little bit of grapefruit on the back end that kind of just makes you want to take another sip.”
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