Monday, November 9, 2009

Bullfrog Brew Day

Having tried a few different and striking bottles from Bullfrog Brewery in Williamsport, PA we knew it was only a matter of time before we would be making the trek up to meet head brewer Terry Hawbaker: friends of ours had smuggled to DC bottles of Bullfrog's "El Rojo Diablo" - a Cabernet Sauvignon barrel aged sour red ale dry hopped with 3 pounds of hops in the barrel, and "Magic Beans" - a barrel aged, soured black saison with chocolate and vanilla beans. Terry's experiments with wild yeast and barrel aging have garnered him both a GABF gold medal in the Wood and Barrel Aged Sour category for "BeeKeeper" and a cult following amongst the beer geekerati.

When we contacted Terry, he was enthusiastic to have us up for a brew day and we had a feeling it would be memorable trip to Billtown. Turns out Terry is a brotherfish, with a birthday in March like ours which ventures speculation on the predilection of Pisces and the umami of sour beer.

Because the brew house at Bullfrog is front-in-center of the pub, Terry and his assistant Nate keep bakers hours so as not to get in the way of the lunch crowd. We were up early to start the brew day at 3AM, with a brief tour of the cellar and a sample of a just tapped cask of an 18 month old Flanders Red, a vinous and intriguing blend, that Terry was going to be transporting to Wilkes-Barre later that day for the grand opening of his friend's restaurant AuRants. With the first sip, we knew this was going to be an amazing day...and the taps kept flowing and the bottles popping.

Terry and Nate are obsessed with the possibilities of their beer. They've learned that patience and the art of forgetting are keys to the life of long aged and mixed fermentation beers: "Beekeeper", a buckwheat honey spiked saison, spent well over 2 years in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels before it was released and at times was thought to be a lost cause. Long aging in oak barrels make for significant investments of time and space for a small brewpub.

Their ambitious schedule of bottle releases of single barrel experiments, painstakingly blended and hand bottled in the cellar have been wildly successful. It's a demanding job keeping the pub supplied with interesting, new drafts and burning the other end of the candle keeping the bottling schedule on-line and it's apparent that these guys are not getting a lot of sleep (and further apparent they're doing so without regret). They are not giving themselves a break either, with plans to put in several more barrel racks in the near future: Underground, Independent...Maximum Rock N' Roll.

Their kegs gone wild series are original, off-the-cuff riffs on Bullfrog's clean draft beers that Terry inoculates with wild yeast and acid producing bacteria in the keg, giving these beers funk without the added wood notes that accompany their barrel aged beers. On the occasion of our visit, the current interpretation was Smokin' Amber Gone Wild. A delicious, hugely complex enigma of smoke, malt and gamey-lacto-funk.

Terry's big 8% abv Edgar IPA is his best selling beer, which they have to scramble to keep in the tanks. Bullfrog has bullied and corrupted their local clientele to expect evermore artful and compelling beers with each return visit. Even his hop bombs haven't escaped the creeping influence of wild yeast, as shortly before our trip Bullfrog released bottles of "Undead Ed" which is a reformulation of Edgar IPA with brettanomyces, which dries out and sharpens the beer, as well as adding enticing aromatics.

It seems Terry is near bursting with ideas for new beers and is only bound by the limitations of the physical space of the cellar and hours in the day. He apprenticed in a very serious bakery that specialized in spontaneous leavening years back that served as his introduction to wild yeast and acid producing bacteria, and he has proved an apt pupil. Terry very consciously sees his brewing as an act of art, yet without any pretense or pomp.

Both Terry and Nate are that great combination of easy going and really engaging, equally music and beer possessed and have fanatic homebrewing backgrounds. Nate just bought a used 55 gallon system to start filling barrels at home: a man after our own hearts. They are both passionate about the entire spectrum of brewing from dialing-in their house Blonde, to Terry's quest for the ultimate Scotch ale, to all the barreled madness.

A bottle of De Dolle's Oerbier Reserva stands sentry over the mash tun. It's one of our favorite and inspiring beers, a mixed fermentation goliath (~13% abv), aged in used Bordeaux casks for 18 months, and it made absolute sense to see it there. We also spotted a bottle of Pretty Thing's Baby Tree on the stairs down to the cellar, who we visited with just a few months back.

Bullfrog was founded in 1996, and still operated by Steve Koch and his father Bob. Charlie Schnable brewed there for 5 years before leaving to open Otto's in State College, PA. Terry came on board in 2004, after brewing for the now shuttered Black Rock Brewing Co. in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Steve has given Terry free rein in the brew house which has paved the way for some really radical creations.

The copper brew house at Bullfrog is an Old World showpiece...

The fermenters and conditioning tanks are right behind the bar, making even transferring beers something that must be done before any customers arrive. Bar patrons have a front row view to the ageless mystery of fermentation.

Like many of the breweries we have visited, a farmer comes by to collect the spent grain once it is removed from the mash tun.

As the brew day wound down, Terry was kind enough to open up a bottle of "Frambozen" for us to sample. A perfectly balanced sour raspberry beer blended from two barrels of completely different beers (one higher gravity, one lower, one with raspberry puree, the other with freshly picked berries). All of their sour barrel aged beers start out clean with the rest served on tap, no special grainbill, mashing , or hopping, the magic is in the microbes and time.

We sat the fella's down for a detailed interview in which we cover all things wild, barreled and otherwise Bullfrog, that we'll have posted soon. If you've never been to Bullfrog, there's no time like the present (to get ripped apart). Thank you Bullfrog.


  1. Man i love it, professional brewery buys 55 gallon home brew setup. That's the story I would lead with if I ran a local tv news channel. Story at 11. That's true geekery, Cheers!

  2. Nice article. I'm fortunate to have them in my backyard.

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