It’s one thing to brew a great beer. It’s something else entirely to brew a great beer over and over again, day in and day out, for years. “For me, it’s awesome when people come up and say, ‘Oh, man. I love your beer.’ But it’s just as awesome to hear, ‘You guys make the most consistent beer in DFW.’” This is Shawn Vail talking, head brewer at Lakewood Brewing Company. “You can make the best beer in the world,” he says, “but if you can’t make it again, it doesn’t matter.”
In the five years they’ve been around, Lakewood Brewing Company has become one of the most beloved beer brands in Dallas — not only for their consistency, but also their quality. Most notably their 9.1% stout named, oh so appropriately, The Temptress. If you live in DFW, you’ve probably gotten drunk on this stuff at some point in the recent past. It’s one of our all-time favorites. Which is why we were thrilled to spend some time with Shawn and talk about brewing, drinking, and growing beards.
Lakewood wasn’t brewing the day we stopped by their facility, a surprisingly beautiful building in an otherwise sparse industrial district in Garland. Shawn showed us the inside of the vats, which just a day earlier had been brimming with some of the finest beers in the country. The whole place smelled like malt and grain. Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” was echoing around the hangar-sized warehouse, where thousands of gallons of The Temptress, Lakewood Lager, and All Call sat in various stages of fermentation.
Beard Supply Co.: Do you remember your first beer?
Shawn Vail: I do, actually. I don’t remember how old I was; but the first time I had a sip of beer, it was off one of my parents. After that, I didn’t drink beer until college. I was kind of a late bloomer. And then, like everybody else does, I started with macro lagers.
BSc: Millers, Buds?
Shawn: Yeah. They’re readily available, and they’re good for playing drinking games. The beer I found after that was Newcastle. Which I still really like. Then Fat Tire. Then Blue Moon. Those really opened my eyes to, “Okay, there’s better tasting stuff out there.” I quickly progressed through stouts and IPAs. But I remember one important moment in college when I first tried Arrogant Bastard. The maltiness and the hoppiness. It was — and still is — a very good beer. After tasting that, I pretty much instantly became a craft beer fan. That’s about the time one of my roommates decided he wanted to try home brewing. I’d never heard of home brewing before, so we gave it a shot and made a couple batches. They came out decent! Mostly because we followed the recipe. But after that I started experimenting.
BSc: What did you think you wanted to do with your life up until that point?
Shawn: I wanted to get into robotics. But around the time I started home brewing, I realized I couldn’t understand mechanical engineering to save my life, which is kind of a big roadblock in robotics.
BSc: Only if you want an electric robot.
Shawn: Right. Well, I’d just finished a home brew batch, and I realized how much I enjoyed watching people’s reactions to something I’d made. I was like, Why don’t I just do this? So I switched my major from mechanical engineering to general engineering with a minor in Wine and Viticulture. I wanted to learn some fermentation science, but I also wanted to get out of college as soon as possible. After that I went to Siebel, a brewing school in Chicago, and to finish out the program I went to Munich.
BSc: The home of beer?
Shawn: It depends on how you define “home of beer.” Germany is where a lot of the standardization came from. The Reinheitsgebot. It’s basically a law, enacted in 1516, that said the only things you can use to make beer are water, malt, and hops. They didn’t know about yeast yet. In reality, the law was a way to regulate beer, which would allow them to tax it; but it was also the very first food purity law. A lot of the practices we have now were developed way back then.
BSc: Is there a beer for everyone?
Shawn: When people tell me they don’t like beer, I’m like, “You just haven’t had the right beer yet.”
BSc: Are you on Untappd?
Shawn: It’s funny. I gave some of the guys here a good deal of shit about that. One day we were all sitting around and enjoying different beers. I was smelling and tasting mine, and then I looked around and saw everybody else was on their phone. They were like, “You aren’t on Untappd?!” And I was like, “No. I’m trying to actually enjoy my beer.” Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great website and a great app, but I tend to stay away from it because I don’t want to be distracted. And I really don’t want to look at the ratings for the beers we make. There are critics everywhere.
BSc: Does it feel personal?
Shawn: I try not to take it personally. Everyone has their opinion. I do wish consumers would take some time to educate themselves a little bit, so they’d know what tastes they don’t like and how to articulate that to give better feedback. There are a lot of flavors in a beer. And everybody’s taste buds are different. We actually taste things differently. After a while you learn which flavors you’re sensitive to and which ones you’re not.
BSc: What does it take to be a great brewer?
Shawn: Attention to detail. A good palate helps. But overall, it takes a certain kind of person to work in a brewery. It’s a labor of love. It’s not the most well-paid industry. We do it because we love it. And it’s kind of funny — there are a lot of different personalities in the industry, but there is still a commonality between us all. There are guild meetings where we all get together and shoot the shit and just enjoy drinking beer and being together. It’s a very demanding job. There’s a lot of physical labor in unairconditioned warehouses, so you’ve got to enjoy it.
BSc: What’s the best drunk decision you ever made?
Shawn: All of my best drunken decisions involve food.
BSc: If you had to go a month without your beard or a month without beer, which would you choose?
Shawn: Oh, man. Sadly, it would probably be my beard. I can’t go without beer. I can’t. I can grow facial hair pretty quickly, so I could do a month without it and then grow it back. But going a month without beer. Man.
BSc: It’d be hell.
Shawn: Beer is my passion. I figured out pretty early on that this was the right place for me. I’d just done a shift at Stone Brewing Company. I’d been running my ass off for eight hours in 95-degree weather, and afterward I went to the taproom and poured myself a beer — the very stuff I’d just spent all day dealing with — and I sat there for hours drinking beer and talking to people about beer. I can still sit for hours drinking beer and talking about beer. There’s no question that this is where I belong.
BSc: Why did you grow your beard?
Shawn: I grew a beard based off a coworker’s challenge not to shave for six months. (I’ve had a beard for about three years now.) But I kept the beard because I like the way it looks. Plus, there’s the convenience factor of not having to shave.
BsC: Do you think beard maintenance is important?
Shawn: I do. Using products that are designed for beards and that keep the skin moisturized work great to prevent itching as you’re growing out your beard.
BsC: Do you think society is more accepting of beards in our current time?
Shawn: Yes. There seem to be a lot more beards out there now than there were several years ago. The tougher question is whether or not it stays that way. Facial hair has trends, and it’ll be interesting to see if the popularity of beards lasts. But even if beards become less popular, there will still be people out there rocking them.
BsC: Is there an unwritten rule that all brewers should rock a beard?
Shawn: There isn’t an unwritten rule, but facial hair is definitely the norm. Working in a brewery attracts a certain kind of person, due to the physical nature of the job and other factors. Because of this, there are a lot of like-minded people in the brewing community, and a lot of us like having a beard.
BsC: What is your favorite Beard Supply product?
Shawn: My favorite is the IPA beard oil. The aroma is great, and it was fun working with Cody during its development.
Check out our IPA beard oil, created in collaboration with IPA expert Shawn Vail.