Q&A: Tom Ciula

Tom Ciula, 66, known as Grynder, became a beer judge after retiring from Rockwell Automation. Now, he pens an authoritative beer newsletter.

Tom Ciula, 66, known as Grynder, became a beer judge after retiring from Rockwell Automation. Now, he pens an authoritative beer newsletter that is read by the high priests and priestesses of brewing all over the country.

How did you become interested in beer?
I was in the Army in 1970. I was stationed in Germany and I got a week’s leave, so I went to Paris, London and Brussels. [At the time], all I drank was American lagers – Schlitz and Blatz. When I was in London, I noticed everyone was drinking a darker type of beer. I tried it and was floored. I thought this was the best-tasting liquid I’ve ever had in my life. It must have been a brown ale or a sweet stout, something we hadn’t heard about in the United States.

How did you become a certified beer judge?
You take a three-to-four-month course to pass the test through the Beer Judge Certification Program. They warn you there is going to be a three-hour exam, and it’s going to be one of the hardest exams you’ve ever taken. I thought, I have a philosophy degree with a chemistry minor from Marquette – I know all about hard exams. I studied all winter and then in 2006, I took the exam. It was by far the hardest exam I’ve ever taken.

A three-hour exam on beer?
Four times during the exam, they give you a glass and say, “This is an American stout. Tell us if it’s a good or bad one.” If there are any flaws – and they’ll deliberately flaw it – you’ve got to spot it and say how to correct it. Or that may not even be an American stout. You’ve got to catch that. Four times during that three-hour exam you get those glasses. Can you imagine – on that fourth beer?

What’s your favorite Milwaukee beer bar?
If I could only go to one place, it would be Romans’ Pub. Mike Romans has been doing it longer than anyone in this city. I personally designated him the grandfather of craft beer. Anytime there are new people that come to meet him, they’re required, I think, to kiss the ring. He’s the most politically incorrect owner/bartender in the city. He sometimes gets into trouble that way. But he reminds me of my Polish uncles who walked around in T-shirts all day and said what they thought.

In 2013, craft beer sales surpassed Budweiser, a milestone. Why have our taste buds changed?
It’s a simple test. You ask people what their favorite beer is. They bring out that American lager, and then you say, “Try this,” giving them a well-made craft pilsner or a lager. You give them a blind taste test. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they’re going to identify the craft beer as the one that tastes better. Then it’s simply a matter of conversion. It makes sense to drink a few good beers as opposed to five or six tepid, bland beers. I’ve always said there’s no such thing as a person who doesn’t like beer. There are only people who haven’t tried a style that fits them.

Are there any new markets to break into?
Northern Wisconsin is virtually untouched. What they’re drinking are strictly macro brews and spirits, especially during long winters. Who wants to drink a Schlitz or a Pabst on a 20-below night when you can be drinking a 7- or 8-percent porter or a wonderful stout?

Is there anything unique about Wisconsin’s craft beers?
Probably not. Wisconsin’s not known for their great hops beers. That’s the West Coast. The Midwest is getting a reputation for their great malt beers. The closest thing to that is the fruit sour beers that Dan Carey [co-owner of New Glarus Brewery] is responsible for. He’s one of the first to come up with that idea of storing [fruit beer] in these barrels that have bacteria that gives it the sour taste.

Really? Sour beer?
Right from the get-go, you like it or you don’t, and that’s the way it’s going to stay. It makes sense, right? The sour taste, just like IPAs’ bitterness, that’s nature’s way of telling you there’s something wrong, this could be deadly. It takes a human being’s rationality to figure out that this bitterness isn’t necessarily bad.

How did you get your nickname?
You’d never guess it by looking at me now, but I was an avid runner. I did a 3-hour, 24-minute marathon. But there was a time when my energy was starting to run down, and I didn’t feel like [running] very much. Somewhere along the line, I discovered this music called grindcore – very fast guitars, very fast drums, and death metal vocals. I thought, “I’m not supposed to be listening to this music. They may be chanting about the devil, but frankly, I can’t understand what they’re saying.” Yet I noticed when I was jogging and listening to that kind of music, my pace picked up.

Condensed and edited from a longer interview.

This story appears in the March, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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Claire Hanan worked at the magazine as an editor from 2012-2017. She edited the Culture section and wrote stories about all sorts of topics, including the arts, fashion, politics and more. In 2016, she was a finalist for best profile writing at the City and Regional Magazine Awards for her story "In A Flash." In 2014, she won the the Milwaukee Press gold award for best public service story for editing "Handle With Care," a service package about aging in Milwaukee. Before all this, she attended the University of Missouri's School of Journalism and New York University's Summer Publishing Institute.