Aug. 31—In this episode of the UnCapped podcast, host Chris Sands talks with Philip Valencia of Valencia Glass, after learning the fine art of glassblowing at his studio in Damascus (read this week's cover story to learn more). Here is an excerpt of their talk.
UnCapped: For the last two hours, Phillip has been teaching me how to blow glass, and I have the red arm to prove it.
Phillip Valencia: Just a little sunburn.
UnCapped: I think this just proves that I'm soft.
Valencia: Not an unusual reaction. It's more intense than a lot of people are prepared for in that first encounter.
UnCapped: I think friends will make fun of my soft hands, that I sit behind a desk all day and don't do any real work. So, how did you get into glassblowing? It's not something super easy that you just pick up.
Valencia: I definitely stumbled into it. It was maybe 2010 at Salisbury University, and I was a political science major, and I hated that. It was awful. It was too soon to be a midlife crisis moment, but what I ended up doing is getting enrolled in one of the glassblowing classes. Shortly thereafter, I kinda tricked my parents into being like, "This is great. You should try doing this for a living." I got great advice from them, which was to make sure I got a business degree, but I was very involved with the glassblowing program while I was at college.
UnCapped: That was probably very smart of them. I feel like so many people who may have an amazing product have no idea how to run a business, and if they just had that knowledge, they would be immensely successful.
Valencia: In the 10 years I've been working with glass, I've seen many people come and go in the industry, some who were incredibly talented and just didn't know how to operate and couldn't get the momentum going. In the same timeframe, I've seen people who I never would have thought would have lasted in the industry who have done extremely well, not because they're inherently creative or even that hard-working but just organized and knew how the business needed to be operated.
UnCapped: Most of my listeners listen because they're into craft beer. Anyone who follows me on Instagram knows I have a slight addiction to glassware, and I think that's how you even found me possibly. I'm always posting different glassware.
Valencia: Yeah, somewhere in the hashtags, we lined up.
UnCapped: This is my introduction to this type of glass, which I always forget the name of.
Valencia: It's often called furnace glass or soft glass, but it is soda-lime glass, the most common type of glass in production but distinctly different from something like Pyrex, which is a brand of borosilicate. My glass doesn't handle the thermal stress of going from one extreme, hot or cold, to the other, but it does melt at a lower temperature. Our furnaces are running around 2,000 degrees, and it makes perfectly food-safe, functional glassware. It's more traditional to how people would have been working with glass about 2,000 years ago. The advent of borosilicate glass has created this supremely functional material that you can work with at a lower overhead cost, because torches don't consume as much fuel. The cross collaboration work that I've seen, between torch work and furnace work, is really where I see a future in the industry. A lot of details will be made at a smaller scale with the torch, and the bigger piece can be assembled in a furnace.
UnCapped: At Salisbury, had you only taken one glassblowing class?
Valencia: I think I ended up with four of five semesters of it under my belt by the time I graduated. While I was a student, I interned at Glen Echo Glassworks, which is close to D.C. It's in an old, 1950s amusement park, which is a really cool vibe. It's got, like, a 100-year-old carousel playing music. I taught classes there and learned from the owner of the studio how to become more proficient, beyond what I thought was a capable skillset upon graduating from college. That was a very humbling experience. Every year, I'd start to become satisfied with my skills, and then I'd look at what I was doing a year earlier and be ... embarrassed by it. Glen Echo set me up really well with the skill set of being able to talk and work at the same time. You commented on that a little earlier.
UnCapped: Yeah, while you were teaching me to blow glass, you were doing your typical demonstration. I got to see you at the Maryland Craft Beer Festival.
Valencia: Yeah, we do various venues — breweries, wineries. ... I really like interacting and sharing and educating people, so that's where I've gone with my career.
UnCapped: People like [making] their own stuff. It plays perfectly into the narrative that younger generations don't want to spend their money on things; they want to spend their money on experiences. This is perfect, because you get both.
Valencia: Absolutely. The only downside is it does cost a little bit of a premium, but what I've experienced — and maybe you've experienced the same in the craft beer industry — is people are willing to pay a little bit more for something that's gonna be more memorable. People aren't just trying to drink 30 Bud Lights in a night anymore. They'd much rather have a 4- or 6-pack of something special. ... Craft beer and craft glass — that's like peanut butter and jelly right there.