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19 min read

Being John Holcombe

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John. Holcombe.

Is he related to royalty? Has he lived a thousand lives before? What made him want to be both an editor and brewer? These are the questions we find ourselves asking about John, this year’s cover of the 2019 Iron Horse Brewery brand guide and calendar. He’s a man of mystery and a kind-hearted comedian. And more importantly he’s a cousin of Iron Horse Brewery. And someone we’re proud to know.

We agreed to meet with John in the mill room at Iron Horse Brewery where we could escape most of the loud noises of the production facility, and take a break from our normal work to chat about his time at the company.

John walks in wearing the go-to brewer’s uniform, close toed shoes, pants and protective eyewear which in his case are his regular ocular improvement eyewear. Iron Horse brewer John Holcombe tries his best to work outside of the spotlight. If you ask him to be in a Facebook Live video he will likely decline politely with a modest but honest comment about not being a camera guy, and will then let you know he’s willing to help with something else instead.

That’s not to say that John isn’t a team player because he should be the number one pick at any sport being played. He doesn’t walk around touting his own accomplishments or making himself seen. He’s a quiet leader, leading by example. He’s the kind of guy who does the dishes in the break room even if he didn’t contribute to the mess. He covers shifts for coworkers so they can go on vacation. When you’re dreading looking into a jockey box that’s been sitting in the back of someone’s car for a week he’s willing to bring you chemicals and water or even help you clean it. And when you run into John at the brewery –  usually as he’s hustling across the production floor – he always makes the time to give you a smile and say, “ Hi how are ya?”. He takes a moment to have a conversation with you before turning back to whatever task he was doing before you crossed his path.

And despite not wanting to be in the spotlight he’s compromised with us and agreed to let us photograph him on many occasions. For four years running he has been the editor of our brand guide, which tells our story to our distributors and wholesalers. Of course two of the years we repurposed photos from the first year, but he still went along with it.  

This year we needed him to take new photos as the coach since our theme is all about sportsballing. He responded with a “Sounds Good” in just a little over an hour after the initial email was sent. The day of the shoot he showed up early in the clothing we requested and nailed the shot. It might have been the fastest shoot we had that day.

That’s John. He gets you what you need and gets the job done.

John Holcombe Coach

A little more about John
Status: Married (sorry, humans)
Favorite IHB beer: Hand Cannon right now
Official title: Wort production master
Hobbies: Cooking, hiking, spending time with his family

Perched upon a stack of Bairds chocolate malt bags, Johns settles in to tell us about how he ended up in Central Washington working at Iron Horse Brewery.

He grew up in Tacoma, Wash. and went to a vocational school during high school for printing offset reproductive graphics. He did printing out of Seattle for 16 years. Specifically, he took original photographs or transparencies and separated them into the four basic ink colors: cyan, magenta, yellow and black, then printed each single-color layer separately, one on top of the other, to give the impression of infinite colors, and exposed it to the printing plate.  

When John met his wife Kristy it was a typical human meets human at a bar kind of tale. Specifically, the two met at the Swiss Tavern in Tacoma, the same place where years later our Beer Wolf IPA had a debut release complete with limo rides.

“She was out with a group of friends and I was out with a group of friends and someone in my group knew someone in her group so there you go,” John said.

The place where John met Kristy. We cannot confirm or deny whether hands were held. (photo credit J. von Eberstein)

In 2000 the couple picked up and moved to Ellensburg. Kristy grew up in Ellensburg, where her parents resided, so the couple had spent many weekends visiting before the move. The small town feel is what drew them to the community. The added bonus is being able to park in downtown and knock three errands off a list at once because everything is close by, John says.

They made the move with no jobs lined up, but both found work. John got a production job working for Wilbur-Ellis, an agriculture product distributor that provides animal forage and nutrition products. The facility in Ellensburg was previously located at 312 Wenas St. near the train depot. The company shut down the Ellensburg location in 2012 in an effort to consolidate its operations for the region at its Clackamas County, Ore., facility.

“I’ve always kind of worked production between printing and that (Wilbur-Ellis) and now brewing,” says John.

John used to work at Wilbur-Ellis in Ellensburg before the facility shut down.
(Brian Myrick / Daily Record photo)

At the time Wilbur-Ellis shut down Iron Horse Brewery had just expanded production to its new location on Vantage Highway. Jake Fleming, brewhouse manager, hired John at the recommendation of head brewer Tyson Read, whose family had some ties to John.

John has now been working at Iron Horse Brewery for six years.

His current roles at the brewery include wort production master, facility controller, and chemical inventory controller. As a chemical inventory controller John works to keep adequate supplies of chemicals around for production needs and for science. As a facility controller he works to keep the production building functioning by doing things like coordinating repairs and interfacing with third party pest management because Ellensburg has rats. Iron Horse 50, Rats 0. Are you tired of the jargon yet?

As wort production master (wort is the runoff from the grain that you drink), John works to produce high quality wort for fermentation by monitoring brewhouse operations, maintaining brewing equipment, maintaining the boiler room and maintaining the grain silo. It’s all very scientific.

But he didn’t start out with the glamorous job titles of master or controller. When John was first hired, he was working the packaging line. He boxed up the bottles, filled kegs, and shipped orders.

“There have been crazy changes growthwise,” John says. “When I started, myself and one other guy did all the kegging, all the bottling and all the orders… just the two of us. Now six years later we’ve got two guys in the warehouse doing the orders, six guys packaging plus a manager. We had one guy in the cellar who overlapped brewing as well. Now you have three guys in the cellar and another three plus brewers so it’s pretty substantial.”

Morgan still talks about how when he learned to package from John it was the same thing every day – they’d rock out cases of bottles and the bottler would be running nonstop and done and they’d both be out of there by 1 p.m. every day.

Because beer consistency is paramount to the success of a brewery and because John demonstrated the most friendly, robot like tendencies, John began the transition to brewery operation, despite his love for watching beer flow into bottles. It was back when Iron Horse’s brewing system was still mostly manual.

“One of John’s really good strengths is that when he gets a process and learns the process he follows that process every single time,” Jake says. “This was great on our system when it was all manual labor. John would brew consistently every single time.”

The brewery’s current Braukon brewhouse went online in 2016. It’s more automated than the previous one, meaning brewers don’t have to spend as much time checking on water temperatures, levels or mash transfers.

“Half the day you’re brewing, half the day you’re finding projects and things to clean,” John says. “I do a lot of cleaning really. I just try to keep things in order and running.”

“John’s always just a happy guy and always brings up the morale quite a bit. He knows when to joke and when to lighten the mood a little bit.” — Jake

Process makes perfect, or something like that. Cousins at Iron Horse Brewery describe John as constant, steady and dependable.

“John’s just rock steady,” Jake says. “John shows up every day five to ten minutes early before his shift starts. He’s the morning guy.”

What Jake means by morning is 4:30 a.m. before the sun’s up morning. Brews typically start at about 1:30 a.m. each day so by the time John gets to the production facility it’s time to get things cleaned up, get hops loaded and get grains going for the next one.

“Hopefully when you come in everything is running like it should be,” John says, noting that’s not always the case.

Some days the mill isn’t working properly or the chain falls off and has to be put back on. Sometimes he has to give Jake a 5 a.m. wake-up call with bad news about machines malfunctioning. On those occasions it’s usually an obscure error that hasn’t happened yet on the brewhouse and it results in the team digging through manuals to find out what went wrong.

Sometimes we never know what went wrong. Jake recalls a botched batch of Cozy Sweater that stuck and could only be described as jello or corn syrup. To this day the cause of that batch is unknown.

“It wasn’t necessarily John’s fault,” Jake says. “I don’t know how it happened, but that was the first time I had heard John Holcombe cuss and it was a couple of loud ‘Fucks!’ I still don’t think I’ve heard him cuss all that much since.”

When asked what his favorite curse word is, John jokes that he uses a whole slew of them in rapid fire, then admits the “f-bomb” is probably his go-to for those rare occasions.

The day to day tasks and the people are what John loves about the job. He’s a self-described production worker who enjoys structure, a schedule and going through the motions (in a good way).

“The biggest stress factor for me is things breaking,” he admits. “I’m not mechanically inclined.”

As John walks through the facility he will lend a hand if he sees someone is busy or getting backed up with a task, but it goes both ways, he assures us.

When it comes to brewing the beers, John doesn’t have a favorite. Some of the beers are a little more labor intensive like the IPAs which have more hops that have to be weighed out and added in. As far as drinking goes he rotates between the brews. With the recent seasonal changes he’s been back on Irish Death because it’s colder outside and goes better with foods he’s making this time of year.  His latest beer and food pairing? Beer and brats.

At age 52, John is the oldest guy working every day at the brewery, and he’s candid about it. “He doesn’t shy away from the fact that he’s older,” says Greg Parker, IHB owner and general manager. “He makes jokes about how decrepit he is, which he obviously isn’t, which makes it self-deprecating humor.”

Greg thinks John’s age gives the brewery a different perspective that would otherwise be missing. Additionally, his work ethic is high and his tolerance for discomfort is higher.

“He’s old school but in a good way,” Greg says.

One summer the brewery was very hot and there were emails floating around with complaints about how it was so hot people could hardly stand it, and John sent an email out essentially telling people to suck it up and get after it, Greg says.

“I think his overall perspective was this is a good place to be, and I think we can appreciate that fact. There’s a little bit of discomfort but it can’t all be alleviated so just be grateful and do your job.” Greg recalls.

Another winning trait John possesses is gratitude. Greg says he’s been pulled aside a couple of times when John wanted to tell him how much he loves the brewery and the way cousins (employees) are treated.  

“I think gratitude is a potent force for yourself and others,” Greg says. “He’s a pretty stable force so when someone like that comes to you and expresses a strong emotion or feeling, it’s extra impactful.”

John says the work is a grind sometimes but it’s to be expected from a production job. It’s the people and the culture that make it a good experience.

“I think everybody tries to have fun,” he says. “Greg is real good about being hands off, you can do your own thing. He wants everybody to have a good time and if you can change something to make it better he’s all for it.”

Perhaps the most telling thing about John is that he refuses to go on double dates with Greg because not everyone would refuse an invite from the person signing their paychecks.

“I’ve invited him to many different things, Paint Ellensburg a couple of times… Every time I do he respectfully declines and says he appreciates the offer,” Greg says.

Outside of work John likes to spend time with his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, his granddaughter, and apparently, never Greg Parker. They own a home on the north end of town in Sander’s Mill, and have two King Charles Cavalier spaniels. Their hobbies include the typical Pacific Northwesterner answer – hiking – and cooking.

Is retirement on his radar soon?

“I’d have to check with my wife,” he says with a laugh.

For now he’ll keep showing up every day ready to work.

“It’s weird, every Friday they put me on the schedule for the next Monday so I have to come back,” he says. “I think they just feel sorry for me.”

IHB Calendars
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Featuring the cousins of Iron Horse Brewery, sportsball and motivational quotes.

“Maybe that’s what’s great about John – he doesn’t have that hurried feel of people who have grown up in the smart device age… good job being old, John.” — Greg