I recently met with Khris Johnson - head brewer and co-owner of Green Bench Brewing Company - who works closely with business partners Steven Duffy and Nathan Stonecipher.
If you've never been to Green Bench, it's conveniently located just minutes from Tropicana Field in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg. The name heads recognition to the green benches — over 7,000 of them — that once lined the streets beginning in the early 20th century, offering places to rest for visitors and the retirees who made up a large portion of the population. There are even a couple of the original green benches - restored - in the tasting room.
"Most of us were born and raised here, and I've lived here since elementary school," said Khris. "There was nothing down here when we were growing up. It was pretty lame and not a lot of businesses were open. Store fronts were boarded up and it was a ghost town. I was trying to open a brewery elsewhere, but it made the most sense to have our location downtown."
The guys looked all over town for years to find the right location for Green Bench, and their current facility was essentially perfect for what they wanted to do. There's an outside area for famlilies and pets to roam freely around the premises. They kicked off the newest boom of businesses, including Red Mesa Mercado.
"Having Mercado next to us has been pretty cool - people are here drinking and then want food, and it’s right there," he said. "The home games for the Rays are fun, too," he mentioned. "We’ve got a pretty good crowd before and after the Rays games, and we usually end up going to the games after work."
Using a foeder
When deciding which beers to brew first, they made what beers they love and flavor profiles they like.
"We’re pretty unapologetic about what kind of beers we make. They’re aggressively hopped and we do a lot of low alcohol IPAs. My absolute favorite styles are sours and farm-house ales, so I had the idea that I wanted to experiment with 100% oak fermentation and decided to get an oak foeder."
You may not know what a foeder is - it's okay, I didn't either. A foeder is just a fancy Deutsch word for fermentation. It looks like this:
"We’re pretty unique in the type of foeder we got and what we use it for," Khris explained.
"We’re the first brewery in the southeast to own one and the only brewery in the world with the concept of farmhouse ales with 100% oak fermentation in a custom-built foeder. It’s 75% French oak staves and 25% American oak staves. It’s pretty complex," he said.
All of the sours
They essentially had to adopt different techniques that are used in the world and adapt them into their own process. People are unfamiliar with a lot of their beers because they're so unique. Khris mostly focuses on kettle soured beers - a technique of rapidly souring a beer over the course of just a few days with the use of a bacterial strain of lactobacillus.
"I’m a pretty big advocate for kettle souring and the reason we do that is a space issue. My goal is to brew every kind of sour there is. Anything you can possibly think of for a sour beer, we’re probably going to make it - whether it’s spontaneous or mixed culture fermentation," Khris told me.
"I’m going to use this kettle sour technique and try to perfect it and make the best sour beers anyone’s ever had," he explained. "The cool thing about the technique is it presents an opportunity for breweries to brew the cleanest lactobacillus fermentation sours we’re ever had."
Their approach at Green Bench is particular, and they constantly ask themselves what they can do that's never been done before.
The starting line
Khris started off as a home brewer in college who volunteered at Cigar City. A few months later, he was offered a job and worked there for nine months. He then spent time at Southern Brewing and Winemaking.
"Southern Brewing wanted to open a small brewery, so I joined the team that helped open a nano brewery. I assisted them with their licensing and brewed a lot of their first beers. I also taught classes for over two years. I knew I wanted to open my own brewery, so I wrote a business plan and got together with Nathan and Steven," he said. Thus began the development of Green Bench.
Khris really enjoyed the product and the people. Going to home brew club meetings, winning awards in the Florida circuit, learning and experimenting was all part of the experience.
"I would have a hard time picking one reason on why I like beer. It’d be easier to list the reasons of why I shouldn’t make beer," he laughed.
Setting the bar for beer education
"Beer education is our biggest challenge," Khris told me. "It’s difficult to educate the customers and St. Petersburg right now. It’s not as cut and dry and black and white as they think it is. When people walk into a place and they don’t see a blonde ale or a wheat, they have no idea what to do. So it’s a constant struggle to educate them on that end. And those are just the simple beers."
When you get into sour wild beers, it’s a lot harder. A lot of people may not understand the various types of craft beer, and it's the brewer's job to try and educate them.
Tastes around town
"7venth Sun is probably my favorite local brewery. I love what they do, and they’ve been making sour wild beers for a while. Bob Sylvester at Saint Somewhere in Tarpon Springs has been making world class wild and sour beers before anyone knew about them. He’s the godfather of wild beers. Bob’s the man! Everyone needs to go meet him - he’s one of the first breweries in the world to sign with the Shelton Brothers, which is arguably one of the best distributors in the world," Khris explained.
It’s a good time to be in the area.
"My hope is that my passion pours through the product. We’re all doing very different things in downtown St. Pete. We're so different from the other core breweries around downtown St. Pete. If someone comes in wanting a beer that we may not have, I'll say something like 'you should go try so-and-so from Cycle.' We're all supportive of each other," said Khris.
There's a lot of St. Petersburg history behind the beers and their names.
"There’s quite a lot coming out soon," Khris told me. "We did our first called the Wood Parade spirit barrel-aged series, which is a reference to a wood museum near the Old Northeast area from the 70s that is no longer there. The man that owned it had murals made out of wood," he said.
Webb’s City is their sour program based off the drug store from downtown St. Pete, which later transformed into a massive department store. The second one is coming soon. Every year, Green Bench releases four Webb’s City sour beers from the cellar room, which is a tiny, temperature-controlled room.
"We plan on releasing our oak fermented sour farmhouse blend as a series of #1, #2, #3 and so on. Every batch is unique to itself, and the the idea is to capture the characteristics of all of them," he told me.
Saison De Banc noir and The Vert are coming soon to a bottle near you, along with the St. Peter’s Belgium line, which is 100% farmhouse oak fermented.
And finally, an Imperial Stout - apple brandy and tequila barreled - which will be released within the next couple of months
Khris plans to host an event called Foeder For Thought in March to educate consumers on what the beers are and just how unique they are in the world.
"I have some really cool collaborations coming up with some of my favorite brewers in the country which I plan to release within the next year. I’ve been drinking their beers for years. TRiNiTY Brewing in Colorado is some of the best beers I’ve ever had. I get to meet the brewers at events and bring them beers. One of us usually flies to the other place and we brew and have a good time," he remarked.
"We sent a lot of beer out to Denver for the Great American Beer Fest and the response was amazing. Our first event was at Crooked Stave - one of the best breweries in the country. We were the first brewery they’ve ever tapped other than themselves," Khris mentions.
"I have pictures being around idols like Lee Chase - and there’s this big sign with our name on it. It was insane! They invited me to What the Funk?! and I poured beers there, lined up next to some of my favorite breweries. It was easily the biggest moment in my career," Khris recalled.
St. Pete's brewery
When asked if Khris plans to grow and expand outside of Florida, he stands by wanting to remain St. Pete's brewery.
"I would love to supply all Florida with awesome beers - and right now I have no aspirations beyond that," he said. "We’re trying to do 3,000 barrels next year and make a lot more beer. Eventually, we want to see our core beers in cans around town."
Their number one goal is quality and cleanliness. It’s easy to grow rapidly - to drop in tanks and make a lot of beer. It’s difficult to pump the brakes.
"Our first year, we made a lot of mistakes and dumped a lot of beer down the drain until we found what we wanted. We vowed that instead of expanding, we’re going to invest in our lab and are committed to letting the lab run the brewery. Until I am comfortable with the process and the beers we’re making, we’re not going to expand."
Green Bench hours, as of January 2015:
- Mon: Closed
- Tues-Thurs: 2pm - 10pm
- Fri: 2pm - Midnight
- Sat: 12pm -Midnight
- Sun: 12pm - 10pm