Tuesday, March 2, 2010

At Home with Stillwater Artisanal Ales

Brian Strumke is an East Baltimore native, ex-techno dj/producer and current Belgian beer fanatic. Michael had met up with him a few years back to talk homebrewing sours, but this time around we wanted to talk to Brian about Stillwater Artisanal Ales, his new commercial venture. So we headed up from DC to Baltimore after work to meet up with Brian at his house in Brewer's Hill, appropriately in the shadow of the old National Bohemian Brewery (Natty Boh). As an added bonus, noted Belgian beer expert, and Brian's East Baltimore neighbor, Chuck Cook joined us for the evening. Chuck told us a great story about how he smuggled a bottle of one of Brian's sours over to Belgium and into the hands of that godhead of Belgian beer arcanery Tim Webb, who when pressed to identify the beer, mistook it for one brewed at one of the tradition lambic houses.

Brian is one of the most passionate and naturally talented homebrewers we've encountered. He has won awards at both the NHC, with an extraordinary Cabernet Sauvignon Lambic, and at the Sam Adam's Longshot competition. He understands flavors and recipe development in a way that few homebrewers do, drawing on his music background and synesthesia to construct beers unlike any others you are likely to try. What strikes you most about his philosophy is his insistence upon doing things "right": the idea of the inauthentic (like adding lactic acid for a hint of tartness), or cutting corners with less expensive malt or hops horrifies him. As an example he had just secured a couple thousand dollars worth of hopback hops to increase the aromatics on future batches of Stateside Saison and he insists on bottle conditioning.

Brian has just bottled his first beer under the Stillwater banner at the Dog Brewing Co. in Westminster, Maryland. Brian's vision is for a travellin' brewer setup similar to Pretty Things, whom Brian had not heard of until just recently, in which he rents time, space and resources at an established brewery. This has allowed him to start brewing commercially for a much smaller cash outlay than it would have to buy the tanks and equipment necessary to start brewing from scratch. It also allows him the flexibility to brew a smaller amount of beer, or switch brewing facilities if a better situation comes along. He has also teamed up with 12% Imports which will be taking his beer all across the country with shallow/wide distribution. Brian hopes to complete against similar Belgian operations which are highly sought after, but hard to come by.

We started out the night by cracking his second bottle of the just produced Stillwater Stateside Saison. Brian had drank the first bottle earlier in the night after letting it sit for several days to settle, but with this second bottle he roused the yeast. He preferred the character of the bottle with the yeast mixed back into suspension and is considering adding that as a suggestion on the label (much as hefeweizen bottles do). We told him we'd help spread the word, so SHAKE WELL!!!

The beer was beautifully dry, (thanks to the Wyeast 3711 French Saison yeast strain sourced from one of our favorite's Brasserie Thiriez) with firm hops. Many American versions of the style don't come off as crisp and hoppy as a fresh example from Belgium; we're not sure if they are too low in IBUs or just not dry enough. The yeast influence was nice: lightly spicy, with complimentary fruit notes. Overall a great first commercial batch.

Nathan got the chance to try a special dry hopped cask of Stateside that was produced for Max's Belgian Fest a few weeks earlier; the dry hopping added an IPA-like, brashly American hop assault that changed the focus from the yeast derived flavors of the bottled version.

Next up we had samples of a test batch saison Brian had brewed that wasn't even finished fermenting when the 30 bbl batch of Stateside was brewed. It was a different beast entirely: with a bigger, fruitier hop nose (from more high alpha acid Nelson Sauvin hops than he was able to get for the big batch) and some definite Fantome style rustic qualities. It was an interesting beer, with more complexity, though not nearly as accessibly drinkable as the commercially produced version.

The other beer he had on tap was another one that he hopes to brew commercially some day: A Saison Darkly. It's a brooding beer with 7 malts, and 3 herbs, that still manages to find an elegant balance. We also indulged in a couple homebrews from Brian's cellar: including a gruit with nicely restrained herbs and a bit of funk, and a big, dark, Belgian sour with a delightful blue cheese funk that was just about perfect. Stepping down to his basement provided a magical mystery tour: low ceilings and crannies packed full of carboys and corked bottles full of homebrewed lambic aging on their sides.

It seems like Brian is getting off to a great start in fair weather, and we are looking forward to seeing what other interesting beers he comes out with...an imperial stout with coffee from a local roaster was mentioned as a possibility.


  1. Did you delete the audio interview with Brian? It showed up in my RSS reader a while back but when I tried to listen to it today it was not there. I love hearing the brewers chatting with knowledgeable beer folks. Thanks!

  2. Brian thought it might be a bit too casual, so we pulled it down.