WhiteFrontier’s Katie Pietsch: An American Brewer in Switzerland

Thousands of miles away from her home state of Minnesota, Katie Pietsch (sounds like “peach”) has deviated from her original career trajectory. This American originally came to Switzerland to earn a PhD at ETH Zurich, which she did, and then went on to complete a postdoctoral program in the pharmaceutical industry. Today, she manages the cellar and quality control at WhiteFrontier Brewery in the Swiss canton of Valais. How did she get there?

Katie Pietsch. Photo credit: WhiteFrontier Brewery.

After years of quietly following her brewing career from afar, I finally got the chance to meet Pietsch last month at her place of work in Martigny, Switzerland. Coincidentally, she grew up less than 30 miles away from where I was born in Minnesota. Wildly intelligent, fiercely independent and incredibly open, Pietsch talked about how she got started in brewing and what she’s currently working on at WhiteFrontier.

Learning by Doing – How Pietsch Got Started

I first learned about Pietsch back in 2013, when my husband met her very briefly while volunteering at a beer festival near Zürich. At the time, she worked at the Bier Factory in Rapperswil. She got her start there after learning the basics of home-brewing and really enjoying it. Given her experience developing her own recipes, she decided to apply her scientific background to the field of brewing.

At the brewery, she started helping out by doing whatever she could, like washing and filing bottles and observing the beermaking process. While she was away doing her postdoc, the brewery invited her to officially join the team as an intern, and so she continued learning about the process of making beer on a larger scale.  At the end of that year, she had the skills and knowledge to take over as head brewer.

For people who want to get started in the Swiss beer industry, Pietsch says that on-the-job training can be effective way to break in. However, she said it can depend on the brewery, as some only hire people that have completed an official apprenticeship. “I think I was pretty lucky to get in when and where I did. Learning by doing worked great for me, and I supplemented it with my own studies (reading books, blogs and podcasts, etc.). Then, I had someone with decades of experience who showed me the ropes. If I had gotten interested in brewing beer before doing my PhD, I probably would’ve done a brewmaster’s degree instead.”

Thus far, the only formal training that Pietsch has completed was a beer taster training with Aroxa. She knows many people who have taken the Bier Sommelier course offered by the Swiss Brewery Association, which WhiteFrontier is a member of, but she has not taken this course. Her previous brewing assistant is currently enrolled in the Brew & Malt Master program in Munich with Doemens. Pietsch has considered taking some additional training programs at Doemens or the Certified Brewmaster Course offered by VLB Berlin.

At the small craft brewery near Zurich, Pietsch built up a reputation as a “pioneer” in Switzerland’s beer industry. When she left her job there, she ended up in Manchester, England, at Cloudwater Brew Co. — named the second-best brewery in the world by RateBeer in 2018. After a stint working as their quality manager, she decided to return to Switzerland — this time on the French-speaking side. She celebrates her one-year anniversary at WhiteFrontier Brewery this month.

I asked Katie what she likes the most about brewing beer, and she brought up several aspects of the process. First, she mentioned the creative aspect of beer making. “How can we tweak a process to improve flavor? How can we incorporate ingredients ABC and get flavors XYZ in the final product? What would pair well with this type of food?” Second, she enjoys the challenge of beer making. For example, how to make a WhiteFrontier’s Core Series beer taste the same every time. Finally, she feels that you can always learn something new when it comes to making beer, something she thinks is fostered by the collaborative nature of brewers. “The wide majority of people that I’ve met in the industry are so lovely.”

Making Craft Beer at WhiteFrontier

Founded in 2014, WhiteFrontier opened at its current location in Martigny two years later. The company currently has about a dozen full-time staff, including Pietsch and two others that work in the brewery. Founded by Nicolas Roberti, who hails from Belgium, the brewery features state of the art equipment. Brewery staff can monitor and control certain phases of brewing from their smartphones.

Pietsch’s academic experience at ETH Zurich helped prepare her in many ways for her current role as Head of Cellar and Quality at WhiteFrontier. The skills she learned in project management, problem solving and hypothesis testing can all figure into to her daily responsibilities. She also told me that “having a background in chemistry and biology isn’t the worst thing for this job – for basic calculations and dimensional analysis, and especially when thinking about metabolic pathways, off-flavor formation and degradation, etc.” In the brewery, she applies her knowledge of general lab procedures and instrument handling. In addition to a pH-meter, the brewery also has a density meter and a carbon dioxide and oxygen meter. In the future, she hopes to use cell culture and aseptic techniques to do microbiological analysis at the brewery.

Katie Pietsch. Photo credit: WhiteFrontier Brewery

At 3,000 liters per batch of beer, Pietsch told us that it generally takes about 6-8 hours to brew, followed by fermentation and a whirl in the centrifuge to remove yeast and other solids. She walked me through the entire process of brewing at WhiteFrontier, which tripled its capacity in August 2018.

During my brewery tour, I learned that WhiteFrontier has three categories for its beer:

When I asked about Swiss ingredients, Pietsch mentioned WhiteFrontier’s Imperial Stout made with Swiss chocolate from Felchin. It has a smooth cocoa flavor, but without the sweetness that you might expect. Another brew with a Swiss twist is Moscháto, a collaboration beer with Track Brewing Company from Manchester, England. As the name suggests, it contains Muscat grape must from the canton of Valais. If you usually prefer wine instead of beer, you should try this one — it reminds me of a young, dry white wine with some light bubbles.

I even got to taste of few of WhiteFrontier’s latest brewing projects, straight from the massive steel holding tanks. Two of the beers were aged in wooden barrels used to store rum and bourbon, giving them a delicious flavor. We tasted another beer in its early stages that will eventually have mango purée added to it — a collaboration with the Swedish brewery, Brewski.

WhiteFrontier’s Taproom

Following our tour, we moved on to WhiteFrontier’s Taproom to sample a few more beers. WhiteFrontier first opened this space as a full-service restaurant. Today, the focus of the Taproom has changed to small plates of food to pair with your beer. They have about 20 different beers to choose from. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind the bar, you may catch a glimpse of Pietsch and her colleagues hard at work in the brewery.

WhiteFrontier’s Taproom. Photo credit: WhiteFrontier Brewery.

I tried the Saison with spices — my current favorite beer from WhiteFrontier, seasoned with coriander, orange peel and grains of paradise. We also chose a planchette of sausage, sourdough bread and pickles. While you’re there, I recommend that you try the FWT Citra Pale. Developed for the 2017 Freeride World Tour, it earned the title of world’s best “Pale Ale” at the 2017 World Beer Awards.

Pietsch’s favorite beer for the time being is WhiteFrontier’s Decoction Lager. Named for its brewing process, decoction refers to when the brewers boil part of the mash to develop the character of the malt and give it a greater depth of flavor. Part of the Lab Series, this new beer is available in limited quantities.

You can also purchase beer to take home, with a 10 percent discount if you have had a drink in the Taproom.

One to Watch at WhiteFrontier

In the last 20 years, Switzerland has experienced an explosion in the number of breweries, and in turn, the diversity of its beer selection. With the Swiss beer scene heating up, Pietsch has smartly positioned herself at an expanding brewery known for its innovation. An August 2018 article from Beer Advocate cites “newcomer” WhiteFrontier as “one to watch.” Certainly, this label also applies to Katie Pietsch, who has the talent and the creativity to push the Swiss beer industry in new and exciting directions in 2019 and beyond.

WhiteFrontier Brewery, Rue du Levant 99, 1920 Martigny, +41 (0)27 775 69 18, info@whitefrontier.ch

Brewery tours available in French and English.

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