By David Clarey email@example.com
Minutes after 5:30 a.m. on the first Wednesday of February, Shaun Piggott was busy.
Columbia Craft Brewing Company’s head brewer prepped the company’s newest canned release, the Hazy IPA, and waited patiently. Piggott took notes, glanced at the mash — the early stage of a beer in progress — and occasionally tinkered with various knobs to open up steam valves. The temperature of the concoction was shifting more than it should, but that was a small worry. Everything was going well.
It’s a scene Piggott has repeated countless times since Columbia Craft opened in 2017.
Brewing, after all, is largely made up of waiting. The process starts with physical labor to get all the ingredients, but then come the hours it takes to turn water, barley, hops and any additional additives to become something tasty and alcoholic.
It’s not a glamorous process, and Piggott, 30, doesn’t put up any pretense to the contrary. He looks like many 30-somethings in Columbia, sporting long hair — undoubtedly lengthened by the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on how we present ourselves — and a short beard that hides neatly behind his brewery-branded mask.
The dazzling array of IPAs, lagers, sours and other concoctions both traditional and far from it bely this demeanor.
His work has won accolades at prestigious beer festivals, including a 2020 gold medal for the Carolinian Blonde at The Great American Beer Festival, considered one of the two most prestigious competitions in the brewing world. It was the first time a Columbia brewery won gold at the Great American.
The brewery’s core selection of canned six-packs — the Carolinian, the Alien Hat Watermelon Sour, the Famously Hop IPA, the Columbia Craft Lager — have become a fixture on local taps and grocery store shelves, and the quickly rotating selection of taproom and limited package releases keep local beer obsessives coming back for more.
For proof of the popularity of Piggott’s beer, one need look no further than the exterior of Columbia Craft’s Vista building, and the in-progress rooftop bar and patio upgrades that continue despite a pandemic that has hampered craft breweries across the nation.
“He knows just about everything there is about beer and is passionate too,” shared Ran Minter, who works under Piggott as a production assistant and cellerman. “His passion for it kind of permeates the entire staff.”
Like most, Piggott’s first experiences in craft beer were in consumption.
The Cape Coral, Florida native can’t quite remember what his first craft beer was. After some thought, he settled on something from Samuel Adams, which Piggott isn’t sure would still be considered craft in today’s world.
“I always wanted to try all the different beers,” Piggott said. “Then I just decided to try my hand at brewing it.”
Once he began homebrewing, it became another way for the Florida native and his fellow University of Central Florida friends to hang out, getting together to make a night of the process.
The early returns were promising, he recalled. A saison stood out, as did a Belgian tripel. But mainly he experimented in IPAs, contrasting with the early 2010s fad of high bitterness IPAs. These early efforts gave him enough experience to get hired to the production staff at Fat Point Brewing near Fort Myers in 2013.
There, he worked on a 15-barrel system, the same size system he uses at Columbia Craft Brewing, but it also had a half-barrel and a three-barrel system — meaning he could experiment in smaller quantities. He better learned how different ingredients work together and how flavors play off each other.
“We still do a lot of experimenting,” Piggott said of how that approach influences his work in Columbia. “There’s so many combinations that can be used between all the different raw materials. So it’s just a constant learning experience. Having that foundation was really good.”
In 2015, he then attended Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology, the oldest brewing school in the U.S., to receive formal training. There, he learned and a small cohort of classmates learned about the intricacies of the field, including instruction in Germany.
Piggott was one of the few students in his class with professional brewing experience and displayed, like others, a dutiful approach to the program, said Stefano Annicchiarico, a classmate, former coworker and fellow brewer now based in California.
The two shared a view that craft brewers at the time were trading quality for novelty.
“We both agreed that although everyone should concentrate on the roots of brewing and the traditional styles that there is room for creativity but not so much that you risk quality,” Annicchiarico recalled.
After the program, Piggott and Annicchiarico worked together at the newly opened production facility of Big Storm Brewing Co. near Tampa in 2016. There, Piggott brewed only for distribution, leaving little opportunity to flex his creativity, but challenging him to learn a new, larger 30-barrel system and be more efficient.
It wasn’t what he was hoping to do, and he looked for other opportunities, ideally as a head brewer.
“I’m kind of an impatient person and also don’t like authority a whole lot, so I didn’t like working for other head brewers, so to speak,” Piggott said. “I always wanted to try and do it on my own. … Some might call it headstrong, some might call it arrogant, I’m not sure. I always thought I could do it better than other people. I just wanted the opportunity to prove it.”
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