Bruce Lish, this year’s featured brewer, is proof that the American Dream can still be lived. At least his version of the dream, which tends to involve lifting heavy sacks of grain and sweating over huge vats of boiling liquid. It might be hard work, but Lish spent most of the last 20 years doing what he loves- brewing beer- as his profession. Along the way, he’s had a hand in shaping craft beer here in Rochester, around the USA, and even across the Atlantic.
Very few craft brewers get into the industry on the ground floor; they usually start in the basement as homebrewers, jury rigging equipment, competing with other hobbyists, and fussing over every detail of their beer. Lish is no exception. He brewed constantly throughout the ‘90s learning from other homebrewers and books, refining his recipes and technique, teaching himself what beer could be.
Lish became a professional brewer in the mid ‘90s when he took over at the The Rohrbach Brewing Company, then still in its location on Gregory Street. He would ultimately do two stints at Rohrbach, during which he learned the ins and outs of running a brewery, maintaining facilities and equipment, and managing the inventory necessary to keep the beer flowing. He played a key role in setting up Rohrbach’s Railroad Street brewery.
He next found himself in Honeoye Falls, at Custom Brewcrafters (now CB Craft Brewing), where he would eventually take the head brewer’s reins. Here, Lish had a chance to get creative with the CBs Signature Series, including the Borislav Russian Imperial Stout and Krysztoff Baltic Porter. He also formulated OT-20, which was intended to be a one-off beer for British pub The Old Toad’s 20th anniversary; it went over so well that the bar keeps it on as a regular offering to this day.
The working relationship forged between Lish and Old Toad bar manager Jules Suplicki would change the beer scene in the UK. The Toad is staffed by British university students, who come to Rochester for a work year abroad. Through regular visits to Custom Brewcrafters, and direct collaborations with Lish on specialty brews, many of those students gained the experience to work in the UK’s nascent craft beer scene, which, at the time, lagged considerably behind our own. Breweries like Brewdog and Thornbridge snapped them up; these days, many former Toadies hold management positions in UK brewing companies. Additionally, brewers who worked under Lish at Custom would go on to brewing positions all along the eastern seaboard.
Around this time, while at a rock concert, Lish met three guys with a crazy plan to start their own brewery. The chance encounter would end up in a protracted collaboration between Custom Brewcrafters and Three Heads Brewing, the success of which allowed the Heads to realize their plan and build their own facility.
When Canandaigua’s Naked Dove Brewery called, Lish felt compelled to follow his passion. Naked Dove owner Dave Schlosser, a top-notch brewer in his own right, shared Lish’s reverence for traditional European beers. Together they made exceptionally good Helles, Bocks and Doppelbocks. Lish’s five year stint at the Dove was, literally, a golden age in local beer for those who loved German styles.
Lish is in a new job now, hired by old friends. As Head Brewer of the Three Heads Brewing Company, he’s back to brewing the classic beers which he helped take out of the homebrewer’s basement and put on store shelves. It’s a partnership that should excite lovers of local beer, and that will cement Rochester’s rightful place on the map of great beer destinations.