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Stillwater Artisanal Ales is less than six months old, but their signature Stateside Saison, a fresh take on farmhouse ale with American and New Zealand hops, has found a following in D.C. Founder Brian Strumke, a Baltimore homebrewer turned pro, released his first offering in February, and since then has collaborated on brews with Oliver Ales and Voodoo Brewing Co. .
I spoke with Strumke (online, as you can tell by my uncharacteristic lack of interruption) in advance of his June 28 beer dinner at Birch and Barley. Tickets are $76 for five courses and seven beers; call for reservations.
Beerspotter: You’ve been sending a lot of variations on Stateside Saison to D.C. — like casks with chamomile or oak chips in the barrel. Where do those ideas come from?
Brian Strumke: The resurgence of cask ale has been quite fun. What I really enjoy the most is being able to experiment on a small scale and play with different additives. It also gives me the opportunity to present a wider range of variety. When choosing what to add I always try to use ingredients that will compliment and add to the complexity of the beer, not detract or overwhelm.
B: Statewide has been a good base for that, too.
BS: Stateside, yes. There are a lot of spice and fruity elements in that beer that work well especially with dry-hopping and chamomile especially.
B: Before Stillwater, I’d never seen a saison on cask before — in my mind traditional saisons are very effervescent. How did you hope a cask version would turn out?
BS: Good question. I had a few people present similar concerns and I was also looked at quite oddly for the idea of a saison in cask form. To me it seemed natural to do so, being that saison is a traditional farmhouse beer. While I love the effervescence in bottle conditioned saisons, a fresh cask of saison can also present itself with a lively body and creamy foam.
B: Are people surprised when they first try it?
BS: I think so. The cask form has actually become to be one of my favorite formats, especially when dry-hopped, although the last chamomile-spiced one was pretty fantastic. In fact the first-ever showing of Stateside was at Max’s Belgian Fest, and it too was in cask form.
B: OK, let’s talk about your collaborations — you’re serving two of them at the Birch & Barley dinner. Channel Crossing, which you made with Baltimore’s Oliver Ales, is a “Belgian bitter”? That’s a new one to me.
BS: Yeah, it’s new all around! Basically Steve Jones (Oliver Ales) and I found ourselves crossing paths quite a bit in the recent months and eventually after sharing many beers together we got the idea to make a collaboration. We wanted it to be a true collaboration in every way. With the UK and Belgium being so relatively close yet so diverse in beer styles we thought blending the elements would be interesting. We didn’t really set out to make a specific style, but rather approached the project with the mindset of blending technique and ingredients. We used a mix of Belgian and English malts, noble hops and my saison yeast strain. The outcome was a beer with a firm grassy/herbal bitterness with fruity esters from the yeast and a light toffee flavor from the UK crystal malt, thus “Belgian Bitter” seemed appropriate.
B: How about this other collaboration with Voodoo, from Pennsylvania? The description says “black wheat ale brewed with pureed raisins, hibiscus, juniper, rose hips, and Schisandra berries.”
BS: Yes, that was another fun project. Again we did not set out to create any specific style. We discussed the various elements we wanted to see in a beer and set out to craft just that. The outcome is a dark beer at 8% abv with a rather light body due to the wheat. There are hints of slight chocolate roast, dark fruits, and restrained spice from the additions made. While the description is certainly a mouthful, the beer is actually quite balanced and all the elements are integrated nicely.
B: I haven’t had Jungle de Rues yet (the Voodoo collaboration), but something that might surprise people is that your beers are actually pretty restrained and nuanced, despite how wild they sound on paper. It’s refreshing to drink them next to so many extreme beers.
BS: That’s my goal with my brewing. I look at all the elements in a recipe like notes in music, they all have to fit in their place and know their role. Just because I use a specific ingredient does not mean that it will be the focus of that beer. For instance with Cellar Door my goal was to create a beer that would symbolize cleansing and refreshment. So for this I started with a light base of wheat and pale malts to give a light body while retaining a silky mouthfeel, I accented it with two hops, Sterling for their grassy and herbal contributions and Citra for their citrus and tangerine character, then in the end I finished it off with a touch of white sage for the slight musty herbal spice to help complete the “cleansing” aspect of my goal. What is a shame is that the beer becomes listed as “wheat beer with sage” but all the elements are there to work together and the sage is no more prominent then any of the other ingredients.
B: Would you say that genres help or hurt in classifying your beers?
BS: I suppose I have a love/hate relationship with genres. I understand the importance of them but it can also be a frustration due to their limiting factors. Majority of the beers I make will be considered “saison.” I chose to specialize in the style because saison is more of a process then an actual style. There is plenty of freedom with this genre for me to explore. Brewing to me is my art, I want to make something new. I use style guidelines as a launching point to help construct the foundations for the beers I want to make, but that is all.
B: And you’re definitely doing that with the Stateside. I need to go back for a sec — what the hell is a Schisandra berry? When I Google it all I get is herbal supplements.
BS: Haha, Schisandra is an interesting discovery I made a few years back at Roots Organic Market. I am always on the look for new and unique herbs and spices. It literally translates to “northern five flavor berry.” The best way for me to get someone to understand its flavor is to have them chew one. It starts out tart and floral, then shifts into bitter and almost salty. It also has liver-protecting compounds to it so there is an added benefit when brewing with it!
B: I’m sure it outweighs the dangers of alcohol.
BS: Of course!
B: Another thing about more nuanced beers is that they make for better food pairings. Can you walk me through how you’re working on that with Birch & Barley?
BS: Good point and a very important part of my brewing. From the beginning I wanted a beer that would rival wine when it came to food pairings and I have been pushing to get my beer onto the menus of more upscale restaurants. While I love fine food, my specialty is brewing, so I find chefs and restaurants that I enjoy and respect and leave the cooking to them. I usually meet with the cook prior to do a tasting and discuss the concept of the beers.
B: What’s your go-to pairing when you’re eating at home?
BS: Cheese, with out a doubt! And with saisons, usually a nice earthy chevre and rustic whole grain bread.
B: Cool. Well Brian, thanks a lot for taking some time to talk, and best of luck at your beer dinner.
BS: Thanks man!