Walking up to the entrance of the Post Brewing Company, you first notice a waft of wood smoke. Once you're inside the door, the aroma of chicken frying adds spicy notes and the unmistakable presence of chicken fat. At the right time of day, the sweet, malty smell of brewing beer takes precedence. But beneath all of that, the delicate but unmistakable scent of fresh-baked pies adds buttery, homey elements to the mix. That's the stamp of pastry chef John Hinman, who has been head baker here since the Post opened almost a year ago in Lafayette.
Hinman started there on opening day, after the original baker didn't show. He had previously worked for Dave Query, owner of the Big Red F restaurant group, which runs the Post, and his name came up quickly when the need arose. He hurried in and baked fifty pies in two days -- not bad for the first days on the job.
Hinman wasn't always a pastry chef. In fact, kitchens weren't a big part of his childhood, though he recalls that Polish and Italian friends in upstate New York, where he grew up, would invite him over for pierogis or lavish Italian Sunday feasts. Instead, he got his start in the restaurant world as a way to make money while in college at the University of Denver, waiting tables at Pasta Jay's. "I spilled iced tea down some guy's back," he recalls, "and so I ended up in the kitchen." That eventually led to a job at Vesta Dipping Grill, where he managed the kitchen from 1996 to 2000. After that, he did a stint at Roy's Cherry Creek, which is where he got into baking.
Soon after leaving Roy's, he landed at Big Red F, working as a pastry chef for both Jax and Lola. "Everyone works for Dave Query at some point," Hinman notes. During his first round with Big Red F, he honed his craft and learned the art of gelato-making. In 2004, he decided to go out on his own, opening Nosh Gelato in a tiny shack on Old South Pearl Street. He also made another big change in his life: He got sober for the first time in years. The restaurant-industry lifestyle -- long hours and late nights -- had caught up with him, and he needed to make a change. "It's kind of an unspoken thing in the industry," Hinman says of alcoholism. "It kills more people than cancer."
For several years, business was good at the gelato shop. He loved hearing that the baked goods he sold were "better than Mom's," and his gelato had a good reputation, too. "I was making gelato for a lot of restaurants in town," he remembers. "The wholesale business was my bread and butter." But all that came to an end when the recession hit in 2008; he closed Nosh the following year. He also fell off the wagon.
But he soon began picking up the pieces, starting the baking program at Marczyk Fine Foods before moving on to Lucky's Market in Boulder (a job he left for the Post); he stopped drinking again in order to focus on pastries. It was at Marczyk that his passion for pie blossomed. He experimented with crusts to find the perfect ratios, rendered his own lard for the dough and concentrated on classic American fillings. He also began entering pie-baking contests to test his skill against the best. "If you can beat up Grandma, you know you've got something good," he jokes.
Hinman hasn't had a drink for four years now. "I don't learn easy; I learn hard," he says, adding that he tries to aid others in the restaurant industry when they ask for help with their own recovery. Like his pies, he likes his life simple and straightforward. It's an attitude that serves the Post and Lafayette (he lives just a mile from the restaurant) well.
He points to the uncomplicated beer styles coming from brewer Bryan Selders and the down-home cooking of chef Brett Smith as examples of simple, straightforward fare. And although he could bring back gelato, Hinman says he prefers the small-town appeal of the soft-serve ice cream on the Post's menu. "We're out here in the simple countryside. Not to put people down, but this is what people like," he notes.
Keep reading for more about pastry chef John Hinman of the Post Brewing Co.
It's what Hinman likes now, too. "I want to make the best cherry pie, the best apple pie," he says. In fact, his cherry pie is a permanent fixture on the Post's dessert menu, along with two seasonal varieties (right now that's pumpkin and pecan). "I try to keep it homey and traditional; I have no need to reinvent the wheel," he adds. "If I get crazy, I add blueberries to the peach pie."
As a self-taught pastry chef, Hinman find himself falling back on his two years of art school at DU, where he focused on pottery, an art he now considers akin to baking. "There's nothing like seeing twenty pies laid out on a table -- and they all have my handprint," he says. "It's like potting."
He's proud of his whoopie pies, which he fills with whipped vanilla mascarpone instead of the standard industrial marshmallow goo. He also makes an apple cobbler and a variety of cookies, and he's working on perfecting his version of Ho Hos, the chocolate sponge-cake rolls with chocolate coating from Hostess. Hand pies make an occasional appearance, too, inspired by the pies he loved as a kid. "I still walk over to 7-Eleven for a Hostess cherry pie when I'm down in the dumps," he says. His other favorite baked goods include croissants from Lucky's Market and doughnuts -- any doughnuts. "I think the day the doughnut was invented, the human spirit was raised just a little bit," he explains.
For savory cravings, Hinman heads to El Taco de Mexico for a chile-relleno burrito. Or for something a little more upscale, he'll go to Z Cuisine in Highland. "Patrick [owner Dupays] is still doing it right," he says of the pitch-perfect French bistro.
In keeping with his recovery, Hinman focuses on "finding some balance." He rises early every day to begin baking and tries to maintain a forty-hour work week -- a tough goal in the restaurant world. "This company's always been good to me," he says of his current employer, with whom he feels he's found that balance.
"I read a lot -- mostly spy novels," he adds. "And I'm going to start skiing again this winter." He admits to being a closet video-gamer, and in the summer he occasionally goes water-skiing, which he picked up as a kid from his father, who was a state-champion water-skier for many years.
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Simple, uncomplicated: These are the words Hinman uses to describe his desserts, his surroundings, his life these days. Even in the midst of a bustling restaurant with a built-in brewery, Hinman says it's possible to keep things simple by focusing on each task and perfecting his craft.