Troy native is first Labatt USA brewmaster, mind behind Blue Citra
Troy-native Ryan Brady’s unlikely path has led him to a position few home-brewers might ever achieve: the first-ever brewmaster for one of the region’s most ubiquitous beers, Labatt Brewing.
As brewmaster for Labatt’s "innovation brewery" at the Labatt Brew House in Buffalo, N.Y., since 2018, Brady’s job is to make the macro brewer micro. To be sure, guests will find Blue and Blue Light on tap, but they’ll also find a host of others: IPAs, kolschs, Belgians, sours, goses, and experimental beers that you might not expect, but might eventually find on your local store’s shelves under the Labatt name.
“Everything that I do, if you took away the name, it’s a craft brewery from start to finish,” he said. But the end goal – developing a new mass-market product – is different.
It’s where the company’s current hot product, Blue Citra, a hoppy session lager brewed with Mosaic and Citra hops, came from: an experiment. Brady was back in Michigan Friday and Saturday to attend the World Expo of Beer in Frankenmuth and to talk about that experiment.
“We’re trying to expand our product offerings because forever it was just Blue and Blue Light and in the summer you’d have the grapefruit or the lime. That was it. Citra is the first expansion of that line,” Brady said.
The innovation brewery is a 10-barrel small-batch system that’s tiny in comparison to Labatt’s nearby American headquarters. “I can kind of do whatever I want, just come up with new recipes. The stuff I do on a daily basis is craft in nature. It’s small batch,” Brady said. “It’s all regular ingredients, there’s no adjuncts. And then we get instant consumer feedback in our taproom. What do people like about this? What do they not like?”
Brady said the Citra project was a two-year long experiment that involved 14 different test batches. “We had kind of a vague direction” for the new product, but it took a half those tries to get to something to take to blind taste-testing with larger groups to find one to bring to market.
“We narrowed it down and we narrowed it down and eventually got to the product we liked, which is the Citra in the can,” he said.
Brady readily acknowledges that process isn’t micro, but the kind of thing only the larger macro breweries might do. Labatt, while still primarily a regional beer in Canada and the mid-northern tier of the U.S., is part of FIFCO USA, the eighth largest brewing group in the country, just behind Boston Beer Co., makers of the Sam Adams beers and hard ciders and teas.
“It’s not intended to be craft. We don’t pretend that it’s craft beer. We’re a macro brewery,” Brady said. “It’s just a nice beer with more flavor than you’d expect from a macro brewery.”
Blue Citra is approachable to the casual beer drinker more familiar with Blue or Blue Light, with tones of a slightly-sweet malty lager. The Mosaic and Citra hops add a little earthy, lemony citrus brightness to the beer that gives it a crisp kick that would make it a nice lawnmower beer (only 4.7% alcohol by volume) on a hot summer day.
Brady, 38, grew up in Troy, attended Brother Rice his freshman and sophomore years, and graduated from Troy High in 1998, then went to the University of Michigan. Still proudly wearing his Tigers cap, he said Blue Citra is well beyond what he drank in his college days.
“It was college, so it was a lot of Natty Ice, Natty Light, Keystone, whatever the cheapest keg was. If we saved up or had enough cans, we would pool our cans together, and our ‘fancy’ beer back then was Honey Brown because it was just different than everything else,” Brady said. Then, one day, he found himself brewing beer for the Rochester, NY., brewery that makes Honey Brown.
“It was a funny full-circle moment. I thought ‘this is where that beer came from. This was our fancy beer back then.’ It’s still nice, but it’s certainly not fancy by any stretch.”
Brady also drank a lot of Labatt Blue Light “because it was a standard here,” and because he and friends would drive to Windsor to pick up the brand’s other beers that weren’t imported to the U.S. because “they were even fancier than Labatt’s.”
His beer brewing began as a home hobby, with him making 5-gallon batches on the stove. Eventually, he and his wife moved from Philadelphia, to Boston, to Washington, D.C., for her job. “I didn’t want to pursue the legal thing anymore, so her job was good enough, and I told her I’m going to try to do this beer thing full-time,” Brady said.
Brady applied to several breweries, but “it was a little difficult at first because my resume was not typical for someone looking for a $10-an-hour job.” He landed with local brewer DC Brau, folding boxes and doing whatever else was required, slowly working his way up. “I folded boxes. I ran the canning machine. I did all the cellar work. I did some brewing. So I experienced all that. It’s benefitted me a lot having seen everything.”
That led Brady to Genesee Brewing, in New York, and eventually to Labatt Brewing, where he became the first-ever brewmaster for Labatt USA, the American arm of the longtime Canadian beermaker.
“It’s been a fast ascent for me, but it’s been great,” he said.
And, now that he’s a brewmaster and no longer a poor college student, what does he drink when he’s not drinking one of his own products?
“If I want something I know I’m going to enjoy, it’s Bell’s Two Hearted Ale,” Brady said. “I grew up here. That was my first intro to craft beer, and because it always tastes good, it always tastes the same, and I can get it anywhere.”
Tom Gromak is the director of digital innovation for The Detroit News, and blogs about beer for First Draft. He can be reached at email@example.com.