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Dust Bowl’s Don Oliver: From homebrewer to brewmaster

Dust Bowl’s Don Oliver: From homebrewer to brewmaster

Dust Bowl Brewmaster Don Oliver (left) discusses an upcoming batch with assistant brewer Kevin Becraft at the local brewery.

POSTED March 9, 2012 11:12 p.m.

Some sons play catch with their fathers. Others work on cars.

But Don Oliver, brewmaster for Turlock's Dust Bowl Brewery? His dad taught him how to homebrew beer.

What started as a small hobby, doing simple extract-based brewing, soon grew into a full-blown passion for the Hilmar native. He bought book after book on brewing, gradually learning the fine art of all-grain brewing.

“I really got into it,” Oliver said. “I enjoyed the science and the art of it, putting the two together to make a delicious beverage.”

Despite the early start, Oliver took a circuitous route to the world of professional brewing, spending five years with the U.S. Marine Corps as a helicopter mechanic. But Oliver couldn't shake the brewing bug, and one day, while living in Japan, an epiphany struck.

“I don't want to want to work on aircraft anymore,” Oliver said. “I'm going to make beer for a living.”

Oliver concocted a plan: He would first go to business school, where he would learn the skills needed to run a brewery. Then, he would obtain a brewing degree, helping him transition his home brewing skills into a larger scale operation.



A wrinkle struck Oliver's plan when, in 2006, he was named winner of the Samuel Adams Longshot Homebrew Competition. His winning recipe, a rare style known as an Old Ale, was distributed nationwide on a short run by Samuel Adams.

Turlocker Brett Tate, a retired high school teacher and coach of 20 years, read about Oliver's success in a newspaper article. He instantly became intrigued, and started drawing up plans to start a brewery.

There was only one problem – Tate couldn't figure out how to contact Oliver. Tate held on to that newspaper clipping for over a year before, by chance, Tate ran in to Oliver's mother's boss at a youth soccer game.

A meeting was brokered, and Oliver and Tate found themselves wrapped in discussions for three hours on their first encounter. Oliver said he was interested, but at that point just a home brewer – not equipped to run an actual brewery.

So Tate told Oliver to skip the business degree and head straight to the University of California, Davis Master Brewers Program.

On his graduate exam, the Diploma in Brewing Exam, Oliver posted 2008's top score in the world. That earned him the John S. Ford Award, awarded to the top worldwide scorer each year – and a trip to Cork, Ireland, to retrieve the award.


Starting Dust Bowl

Degree in hand, Oliver set to work on an India Pale Ale which would become Hops of Wrath, now Dust Bowl's flagship beer.

After nearly a dozen test runs, Oliver settled on a brew which addressed what he sees as the shortcomings of other hop-heavy IPAs.

“They forget about the malt side of the house,” Oliver said of competing IPAs. “They're unbalanced.”

The big beer from Turlock's microbrewery has already earned worldwide recognition.

At the World Beer Championships, Hops of Wrath earned a Gold Medal. The Beverage Tasting Institute scored Hops of Wrath with a 93 point “exceptional” rating – the third-best IPA ever scored by the institute – describing the beer as, “A hophead's wet dream.”

After the IPA, Oliver set to work on a white ale and a pale ale. The white ale was ultimately scrapped, given difficulties of competing with dominant white ale Blue Moon, but the pale ale survived to become the Old Wire Rusty Ale.

The particular taste characteristics of Old Wire – a pale ale which uses specialty malts and hops to add caramel undertones – speaks to Dust Bowl's brewing philosophy.

“We try to make beers that don't taste like anyone else's,” Oliver said.


Layers of Flavors

Dust Bowl currently has 13 house-made beers on tap at their 200 West Main St. tap room in Turlock, ranging from Scotch Ales aged in whiskey barrels to ales brewed with buckwheat and pale ales using rare Australian galaxy hops.

Each brew exhibits subtleties in flavor, with layers of bitterness and sweetness intertwined.

“I don't want to taste a beer and have a singular flavor,” Oliver said. “I love those layers.”

Customers are loving the beers too, with Dust Bowl now distributed in over 100 bars and restaurants – not including the perennially-packed Dust Bowl Tap Room. And Dust Bowl just picked up a new distributor, covering the Sacramento to Lake Tahoe region, and soon expects to begin selling six-packs of Hops of Wrath.

Despite the success, Oliver said not to expect Dust Bowl to slow down anytime soon. A potential brewery expansion – and, of course, new brews – are just over the horizon.

“I've got a lot of styles that I really want to do,” Oliver said. “We're just going to keep coming out with interesting beers.”

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