"We all worked our asses off on this album," says Khemmis drummer Zach Coleman of Desolation, the Denver doom band's third and latest full-length, which drops June 22nd. "We had hours of material to work through and try out, and we were ruthless with cutting shit down to what we felt were the best riffs, parts and song structures. I wanted this album to be to [2016's] Hunted like Master of Puppets was to Ride the Lightning. I mean, Ride the Lightning rules, of course, but you listen to Master of Puppets, and it's like, 'Fuck! That's a jump up!'"
By those parameters — and by pretty much any other measure you can think of — Desolation is an unqualified artistic success. The album's six tracks are tighter, punchier and more action-packed than anything Khemmis has previously recorded, without diluting any of the classic metal grandeur of Phil Pendergast and Ben Hutcherson's majestic twin guitar arrangements. And while five out of six tracks run six minutes or longer (with the epic closer "From Ruin" clocking in at nine and a half), "Isolation" demonstrates that the band can also deliver a killer song in under five. "'Isolation' was specifically a thing of, 'Can we write a shorter Khemmis song that's still compelling?'" Coleman explains. "Any time that we can make something that we worked so hard on easy to digest, then I think that's great."
Coleman knows all about working hard to make something easy to digest. When he's not pounding the skins for Khemmis, he works as the Head Brewer for TRVE Brewing in Denver. Founded in 2011 by Nick Nunns, TRVE — whose beers can now be found in 10 states — has gained a well-earned reputation for pushing the stylistic and sensory boundaries of beer, due in part to Coleman's tireless tinkering with the fermentation process.
"A lot of the beers we make aren't what's popular right now in the 'pastry stout' kind of world," Coleman says. "I don't really have an interest in that. Personally, as a brewer, I think there needs to be an inherent sense of rebellion — not in a juvenile sense, but in the sense of that we're challenging people's palates, and also challenging what the flavor norms of the culture are."
For the inaugural installment of our monthly beer, wine and liquor column, Revolver caught up with Coleman to discuss his brewing career, his endless quest to create the perfect beer and why music doesn't actually have any influence on his brewing.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WITH TRVE BREWING?
ZACH COLEMAN This will be year five. When I started working at Trve, Nick [Nunns] brought me on to start a sour beer program, and I spent about two years fermenting beer with different things to see what it would do. I would take various Brettanomyces strains, various lacto strains, and just see what their behavior was, and what their characteristic was, kind of slowly building towards blending a culture of yeast and bacteria that would end up being our house culture. But it took me two years to come up with something that I liked.
SOUNDS FUN, THOUGH, LIKE YOU GOT TO PLAY MAD SCIENTIST.
Exactly. And doing that experimentation led me on a path of brewing in a certain way, the way that I kind of approach brewing now. What I realized from fermenting with bacteria and atypical yeast strains was that there's a certain amount of it where you just have to let go of control, and see what's going to happen. You can control a certain amount of variables, but fermentation is an uncontrollable thing to a certain degree. It's gonna do what it's gonna do.
I NOTICED THAT THERE'S A HIGH PERCENTAGE OF MIXED CULTURE SOUR BEERS ON TRVE'S MENU. IS THAT YOUR INFLUENCE?
It was definitely a thing that I wanted to focus on. It gave me an opportunity to explore that side of fermentation, which is something that is still super-interesting to me. But at the same time, we've always had a full line of clean beer, like pale ale and stouts and IPAs, and a year and a half ago, we started making some lagers. But for the last three years, I'd say, a lot of the focus has been on mixed-culture sour beer. Subtle complexity is one of the centerpieces of my brewing, and what I'm always trying to create and establish. We'll take a sour beer, even if it's highly acidic, and I'm able to take something that's more basic, PH-wise, and blend it in so that it hits a more subtly complex flavor profile. It's a sensory-led way of brewing, because I'm trying to create beers that have a certain flavor profile, so I'm able to take basically anything that we do and drive it towards that.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO BREWING IN THE FIRST PLACE?
I started doing it as a hobby when I was living in Texas and getting my masters. I was living in a rural area, with only about 1200 people, and there really just wasn't a lot else to do. And I needed to do something else while I was going to grad school — I mean, I didn't need to, because I didn't have time [laughs], but I wanted to something else to focus on, so I wouldn't totally lose my mind.
WHAT WERE YOU GETTING YOUR MASTERS IN?
Technical communication, which is basically a specified English degree. So I started home brewing, and I got really far into it and was entering into competitions, mostly because I didn't have people around to really bounce things off of, so I would get the beer evaluated from a third party and see how I was doing. [Laughs] After I got my degree, I started working as a technical writer in Dallas. I did that for a few years, and really hated it, so I was just trying to figure out what I could do in my life that was going to be different from that. And I really felt like brewing was worth exploring, because you're always learning — there's an endless amount of things to learn with brewing. So I thought, "OK, I'm going to give brewing a shot!"
At the time, there was only, like, one brewery in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, so I knew that the job market wasn't really going to be great, especially because I had no experience. And I'd always liked Denver. I'd come to Denver a number of times over the years ... It really was a thing where I just said, "Fuck it — the worst thing that can happen is I go broke, and then I move back home, get a job and figure it out." So I quit my job, packed my shit up and moved to Denver. I thought, "Man, I'm gonna volunteer and get my foot in the door — nobody will turn me down, because I'll work for free!" But when I would go around and try to volunteer at breweries around Denver, everyone was like, "Man, we already have 20 people like you who want to work here!" [Laughs] And I was totally shocked — I couldn't believe it. I thought I was going to just be able to walk in and say, "I want to work for free," and they'd say, "Sounds good! Here ya go!" But it was more of an uphill battle than I anticipated.
HOW DID YOU EVENTUALLY GET YOUR FOOT IN THE DOOR AS A BREWER?
I got a technical writing job in Colorado Springs to cover the bills, and eventually some people at breweries started letting me volunteer. I did that for a few months, and then I got my foot in the door at an upstart brewery in Broomfield here, called Big Choice Brewing. I would work an 8-to-5 job in the Springs, then drive about an hour and a half after I got off work to go work at the brewery until 10 or 11 at night — and then get up at 6 in the morning and do it all over again. So I did that for months, and then once Big Choice got big enough to hire me on, I started working full-time there, and worked my way up to Head Brewer. All the while, when I would get off shift there, I would go to TRVE to drink, because I was a metalhead. So I'd go over there and hang out, and me and Nick, the owner, became friends. I eventually talked him into giving me a job, basically. [Laughs] And five years later, here I am.
DOES MUSIC INFORM WHAT YOU DO AS A BREWER, OR ARE THEY TWO COMPLETELY SEPARATE HALVES OF YOUR LIFE?
It's two separate things for me. I'm glad you asked that question, because it's a thing that's assumed a lot, but no one ever asks me. [Laughs] When I think about beer and brewing, I don't think about music — it's a different thing. I think about compositional elements in beer in maybe a similar way that I would in like a song, but it's not like, "Oh, this In Solitude song makes me want to make this kind of saison," or something. Mostly, I think about flavor combinations, or things that I'm trying to do as a brewer, and the beers are all driven that way. A lot of inspiration for brewing for me comes from food, just the way that flavors are put together. And also, from just looking at the natural world around me, and trying to pull things from around our area that are native to Denver and, more broadly, Colorado, and work them into our beers.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST BEER YOU MADE WHERE YOU FELT, "OH, MAN, I TOTALLY NAILED THAT"?
I still haven't had that beer. [Laughs] In all seriousness, I have a hard time drinking the beer that I make, because I am almost wholly unable to stop analyzing it. Even when I taste something and go, "That's good," almost immediately, I'm like, "Well, you know what you could do next time ..."
ARE YOU THE SAME WITH MUSIC? CAN YOU LISTEN TO DESOLATION AND ENJOY IT, OR ARE YOU CONSTANTLY PICKING IT APART?
I'm more able to turn that off with music. Right now, I'm able to listen to the album and be proud of it. There are some small things where I'm like, "Oh, I should have done this," or "Maybe it didn't need that crash hit there," but there's only a small amount of those moments. I do have a hard time listening to Absolution now. I feel like such a better player and such a better songwriter now — like, "If I could play then like I can play now, I would have added a bunch of cool fills," or whatever. But I am also enough of a fan of music that I can understand the thing of, "But you didn't, and this is what it is." Like, even if it's not great, it is the thing that you made — and so that's special, in and of itself.