Mark A. Vierthaler is the Head Distiller at Hamilton Distillers Group, Inc. in Tucson, Arizona – distillers of Whiskey Del Bac, a line of international-award-winning American Single Malt Whiskeys. Vierthaler has been distilling for six years at various craft distilleries across the country. He is actively involved in the American Craft Spirits Association and sits on the ACSA Education, Guild and Government Affairs subcommittees. Vierthaler lives in the Sonoran Desert with his wife Jenn, silver Labrador Moose, and standard-issue cat Rump Roast.
Kris Ketcham is the Senior Manager of Brewing & Innovation at Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station. He oversees the brewery production process of limited, one-off beers, including ingredient procurement, recipe formulation, and the brewing schedule for the 10-barrel brewhouse system. Since starting with Team Stone in 2004, Kris has worked in packaging, distribution, and as a production & brewing Supervisor. Since Stone Liberty Station opened in 2013, Kris has taken home 4 GABF medals and developed over 500 different recipes ranging from just about any beer style you can think of these days.
Anne is an East Coast native with experience in world-class hoppy beer, Lambic-inspired wild ales, and wine making in Willamette Valley. She has called Portland home since 2013 when it was decided she was not going to teach and instead, utilize her science background towards brewing. Anne is often found hiking with her dog Maple all over the Pacific Northwest.
SEASON 3, EPISODE 2: SMOKE ‘EM IF YOU GOT ‘EM (PART 1)
TOBY TUCKER – DIRECTOR OF SALES, COUNTRY MALT GROUP
GRANT LAWRENCE – TERRITORY MANAGER, COUNTRY MALT GROUP
JOHN EGAN – TERRITORY MANAGER, COUNTRY MALT GROUP
KRIS KETCHAM – SENIOR MANAGER OF BREWING AND INNOVATION, STONE BREWING
MARK VIERTHALER – HEAD DISTILLER, WHISKEY DEL BAC
ANNE AVILES – LEAD BREWER, STEEPLEJACK BREWING
Key Points From This Episode:
- How innovation involves playing with different recipes, styles, and ingredients until one sticks.
- Chocolate, vanilla bean, or chipotle; which flavors of smoked beers are better?
- Why it is difficult to keep the smoked beer style going, gain traction, and capture following.
- The Smoked Beer Process: Add more and more smoke, but pay attention to percentages.
- What is mesquite and how it was added to smoked malt and distilled.
- How Whiskey Del Bac’s Smokehouse Setup uses a giant wrought-iron, custom BBQ smoker.
- How to find the fine balance of enough moisture for smoke to cling on, finish kilning.
- How to make award-winning, national attention-getting single malt whiskey.
- How BBQ and Asian dishes complement smoked spirits.
- How Grodziskie integrates Polish heritage and culture to step into smoked beer styles.
Transcript - Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em
EPISODE S.3, E.2
[SMOKE ‘EM IF YOU GOT ‘EM – PART 1]
[00:00:02] TT: What’s happening? We want to continue to talk about smoked beer and smoked spirits. We’re not trying to revive these styles by any means, but in our podcast group, we decided that we want to learn why the style isn’t as prevalent as you see in other areas, specifically in Germany. John Egan, who is a brewer by trade and spends some time over at Stone Brewing, immediately said we got to get somebody from Stone on to talk about smoked beers. Kris Ketcham, I don’t think he decided. We kind of just bent his arm a little bit.
[00:00:36] KK: John spoke to me. He said, I hired you; you better do me a favor.
[00:00:41] TT: That’s what I figured. I figured he pulled some strings, but thanks for joining. Kris is the Senior Manager of Brewing and Innovation over at the Liberty Station location. Good to have you.
[00:00:48] KK: Thanks for having me, guys.
[00:00:49] TT: I’m going to assume, like most guests, that you haven’t listened to our podcast, but I could be wrong.
[00:00:54] KK: I catch things here and there, but I’m trying to get back […], but it hasn’t been easy.
[00:01:03] TT: Cool. Tell us a little bit about yourself, Kris, and we’ll fire some questions over at you. Interested to dig in a little bit more about the smoked beers and the history that Stone Brewing has with that particular style.
[00:01:21] KK: I started at Stone in 2004. Hired by that wonderful John Egan that’s on this call. I was just a big fan of Stone, started on the bottom line, and worked my way through over the years. I assumed various different roles until I got down to our Liberty Station spot that I’ve been now for nine years. It’s kind of like a brewpub mixed with some R&D. You name it; it’s just a mix of things.
[00:01:51] JE: It’s like a dream job going from a big production brewery to that place, isn’t it, Kris?
[00:01:56] KK: Yeah. I can’t beat it. It’s a lot of responsibility and making some big beers for brand names like Stone. Working for Stone and how long they’ve been around, it’s kind of rad to be like, hey, just need this special hop or something like that, and they go grab it from […] or whatnot. A little spoiled on that end, but it comes with it.
[00:02:32] TT: Kris, are you like the brainchild, if you will, of playing around with recipes, different styles, and different ingredients, and if one hits, it goes over to bigger production?
[00:02:47] KK: Yeah, I’m kind of like a three-headed snake. There are three of us on the innovation side at Stone. We’ll probably add another one sometime this year. There’s myself, Jeremy Moynier, and Steve Gonzalez. Steve Gonzalez is pretty much the other one that comes up with a lot of the recipes, and they brew it up at our pilot plant up in Escondido and Napa when we had it. For Liberty station, we’re kind of just one-off; we’ll try something out. If it catches some liking from everybody, then we’ll eventually move it up to production scale.
Beers like Stone Delicious IPA, Buenaveza Salt & Lime Lager. They fall in something else that we brew here, and now it’s, oh, Stone Hazy IPA, yay. Those all came from here and are being produced nationwide now.
[00:03:25] TT: Nice, and you mentioned 2004 you’ve been with Stone?
[00:03:29] KK: Yeah.
[00:03:29] TT: That’s a good amount of time there. We’re talking about smoked porters or smoked beers specifically, but when did Stone Smoked Porter come out, was it 2012? Did you have a hand in bringing that to market?
[00:03:42] KK: I think even way before that. It was, I think, our first year as a company.
[00:03:50] JE: ’96 or ’97, something like that.
[00:03:54] KK: Yeah, 25-year-old good old beer.
[00:04:03] TT: We’ll get into that a little bit more, but over the years, I’ve noticed that Stone has put out several different one-off varietals of Smoked Porter, like Chocolate and Orange, Chipotle, Smoked Saison using cherry wood. The Old Guardian, I think, was an oak-smoked, and then I think John had mentioned that he tooled around with vanilla bean additive into it.
[00:04:27] JE: Laura Ulrich was actually the vanilla bean queen, and I was the chipotle man. We have like a little internal battle going on for years of which one is better? The one with vanilla or chipotle? It was a lot of fun.
[00:04:46] TT: Do guys still produce smoked beer seasonally, or is it kind of completely historic at this point?
[00:05:04] KK: We retired Stone Smoked Porter a few years back. I do a series here at Liberty Station, we call Stone Classics. I will rebrew beers like Stone Smoked Porter, Stone Pale Ale, Stone Levitation—the beers that got us to where we are. There’s a fan base that misses them, but unfortunately, out in the market because beers don’t really perform as well as they used to.
[00:05:26] TT: Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons we thought it would be cool to have you on. Number one is we all know that this particular style is hard to get traction, right? There are people out there that actually truly love the style and look for it, but as a brewer that needs to go out and pay the bills, if that’s your only lineup, if you will, if that’s the only style you’re making, you’re going to have a hard time capturing the following.
I wanted to talk to you briefly about the challenges. Let me take a step back here. With all the different varietals in your Smoked Porter, kind of tossing around, like we said, the chocolate orange, chipotle, vanilla bean, and all of that stuff, was that in an attempt to try to keep that beer style around and just capture some additional mouths to drink on those things? I would say, […]. Was it a dying style, or was it just not a whole lot of popularity because it was a smoked product?
[00:06:17] KK: I think it was a combination of a few things. John probably knows the history more on why we started doing the Vanilla Bean Smoked Porter, but I know when Laura Ulrich made that beer by adding vanilla beans to the Smoked Porter, it was an instant hit. I’m assuming the thought behind the rest of the variants was like, well, vanilla bean porter was such a hit. Let’s see what other variants we could make, like smoke porters, and it’s a great beer. Some people might get turned off by the smoke character, but if we add something to it, it might draw some different people in. What do you think, John?
[00:06:51] JE: Yeah, totally. If I recall correctly, it all started with the cast program. We used to tap a cast every Friday afternoon at the old brewery on […]. As we moved into the new brewery, I think it was the same type of thing. Friday afternoons, we tap the cast. One of my responsibilities at the time was managing that cast program and just trying different things and new things. That’s where that was kind of the impetus behind trying it all was just different variants.
Of course, Greg Koch, he was a big fan of us playing with that beer, and he was always really interested in what we were doing with it and the different directions that we were going. It was kind of a cast program that really made it all, and then we started doing some stuff in the draft and just played around with it for a while.
[00:07:56] TT: The original Smoked Porter, was it with Peated Malt?
[00:08:03] KK: Yeah. I think they were making us their own blend at that time, and it was lightly peated.
[00:08:09] JE: Yep, LPDM.
[00:08:16] TT: It’s interesting. I don’t see or hear a lot about brewers or beers on market that are peated or with peated malt. It’s a unique nose on it and a certainly unique flavor that’s typically seen in scotch and then on the distilling side.
[00:08:34] KK: Yeah, I find that with peated versus a lot of smoked malts, peated in that small percentage goes so much further than with your traditional smoked malts that are out there. After the lightly peated blend went away, I think we’re using 2%, and then when we got fully peated, it was like 1% smoked quarter. It was still just like, whoo, that’s smoky.
[00:08:53] TT: Yeah, I think it’s one of those if you’re just walking by that product in a warehouse is a huge waft of it. In some situations, and you guys correct me if I’m wrong, but I see in some breweries that they completely segregate that product from anything else because of the strength, and the aroma can actually bleed into some of the other malting grains if it’s side by side or stacked up on top of each other.
[00:09:19] KK: I don’t think we had that experience, but I think we always kept it pretty separate too. That’s interesting.
[00:09:25] JE: It was definitely one of those beers that when it comes to filtration, you’re not going to chase the Smoked Porter filtration in the DE filter. You’re not going to chase it with anything else. You’re going to break down, clean up, completely resanitize. Whereas if you’re filtering a pale ale and you need to filter an IPA right after, you can just chase it because there’s no flavor impact whatsoever. You’re not going to have anything. With the porter, it was definitely something where you process it; you manage it, you clean up, and move on so there’s no carryover, draft lines included.
[00:10:03] KK: Yeah, definitely dominated anything.
[00:10:07] TT: Grant, did you do any smoked beers?
[00:10:11] GL: Yeah, I’ve just got to hear in the background, just a huge fan of Stone just trying to absorb as much as I can here. But yeah, we did some smoked beers. Never did peated back when I was brewing, and it was always beech wood smoke. We did like an Adam beer. It’s like a special release back in the day at the Saint Arnold brewery I was at. I was just really excited to hear Kris’ take on things.
I hope the smoked beers don’t go away. I’m a big fan. Knowing now hearing about the R&D program here, my question is, have you ever tried any other smoked malts besides the peated? Have you tried the cherry wood from Breeze, mesquite from Breeze, or beech wood from BESTMALZ, any of those?
[00:10:51] KK: Yeah. I was actually going to say we’ve done two other smoked beers here. I don’t want smoked beers to go away either, and getting this topic of conversation going, I’m like, I really need to brew some more smoked beers because I haven’t had them. We actually just brewed one last week for our team out in Richmond, Virginia. They’ve been sending me some recipes on brewing something for them every three months or so. We made a smoked Belgian Quad with some cherry wood smoked malt, about 10% in the blend. It came out really nice.
Personally, whenever there’s a smoke beer, I’m like, add more smoke, add more smoke. We don’t want to mess with it too much, so it’s got this wonderful smoked note in there, then it’s that huge caramel, toffee, chocolate thing going on with some nice banana esters from the east, and it came up fantastic.
We also did a collab with a brewery called Silvaticus, Massachusetts, three years ago, and we made Smoked Schwarzbier, and it was 90% smoked. We did a blend of the best malt, smoked malt. And we did some beechwood smoked malt from […]. Then we did Breeze Cherry Wood, Breeze Mesquite. We were trying to find whatever smoked malt we can get our hands-on with a little touch of Pilsner malt, some […]. That one actually got us silver at the US Open for smoked beer that year. It was pretty killer.
I was going to say, too, as far as smoked beers, one of the most requested beers I get for people just like as Stone Classic rebrew, I’m constantly asked for Stone’s Smoked Porter to be rebrewed.
[00:12:18] GL: That’s one of the ones I was going to say. I tried to copy the recipe in homebrews in the past and definitely used to buy the bombers of it back in the day. Just always kind of been a fan of that beer, personally.
[00:12:32] KK: Oh, it’s going to be rebrewed here now because I’ll be […], get it on the schedule.
[00:12:36] GL: It sounds like I need to make a pilgrimage to San Diego.
[00:12:43] TT: Who here has been to Bamberg, Germany?
[00:12:47] KK: I was close by, but didn’t get the chance to stop in there, unfortunately.
[00:12:51] GL: Same for me, never made it.
[00:12:54] TT: I was fortunate enough to go probably eight years ago. I had smoked beers in the past, but it was eye-opening what they’re doing with that style there. I’d pony up there. It’s not much of a bar, right? You just go up the window, and they’re pulling beers out of a barrel. You could sit there and easily have four or five of these handles, and it was fantastic. It’s not overly smoky.
I think that’s something that most North American breweries just haven’t really perfected the use of smoked malts in their recipes. There’s been some damn good stuff here at the stateside, and we will have somebody from Germany hopefully in another segment for this episode, but it’s pretty interesting the difference in what you see as far as a smoked beer over there, and then you do here.
[00:13:54] KK: Yeah, over there, they’re just smoking their own malts for everything. I’d love to learn more.
[00:14:00] GL: I think some of them do, but I think a lot of them just buy them from a German malt supplier.
[00:14:06] KK: Yup. We’ve only done one beer here where we did […] from our friend from […] in […]. We made a Smoked Hazy IPA. We smoked all the oats for the beer just on—brewer Mike over there; he had his own smoker, so he smoked all the oats for us, and we just used those. It smelled like a pure ashtray.
[00:14:23] GL: You got to experiment, though, right? That’s the first I’ve ever heard of a smoked hazy, but that’s wild. That’s a risky one for sure.
[00:14:30] KK: […] that polarizing thing. Back when John was at Stone too, we had Stone IPA and Stone Smoked Porter; we would make a beer called Smokey Indians. We actually brewed another smoked IPA here using the peated malt, and that was for our StachetoberFest for our firefighters, and they want us to brew them a beer. I was like, firefighters want it? We’re doing smoked all the time, so […].
[00:14:57] GL: What was their reaction to that?
[00:14:59] KK: They actually love the beer. It came out really well. We called it Ashy Staché. I think we brewed it for two or three years for them, and then the final year, they actually started talking to me, and they’re like, hey, can we brew something with you? I was like, hey, do you like smoked beer? They’re like, can we not do a smoked beer, please?
[00:15:21] GL: I think you kind of bring up a good point. One thing that I definitely noticed about smoked beers, as much as I liked them, the first sip always twists your palette. The very first sip, you’re like, did I pick the wrong thing today? But then the second sip, the third sip, you’re like, this is great. This is the beer for the time and place.
[00:15:52] KK: Yeah, it’s funny. There are so many other people I talked to and so many other brewers too, it’s like, what’s your least favorite beer? They’re like, I hate smoked beers. I’m like, come on, man. Why do you not like them? I just can’t do it. For one, sometimes it’s just a band-aid for them, or it tastes like baloney for them. I’m like, just power through it. There’s so much flavor there.
[00:16:16] GL: Yeah, it’s definitely like a fine line, it seems to me, to walk. I think one thing is like you said, the different smoke malts, you have to treat them each as their own individual thing. You can’t just blanket, say put 4% in or whatever. It really depends on that exact malt, I think.
[00:16:40] KK: Yeah, agree on that.
[00:16:42] TT: For the three of you guys, you obviously have a background in brewing. How do you go about trialing? If you want to kind of step up and put something on your tap, you just start on a small system, or do you do the hot steep and get a taste for kind of percentage? What does that process look like if you’re developing a smoked beer?
[00:17:04] JE: On my end, I kind of just go for it. […] The peated malt we still smoked for years. We just kind of had that experience, kind of knowledge of like, hey, don’t use more than x percent, otherwise, it’s going to just be way, way too much. With the smoked beers or just plain smoked malts, the more, the merrier. Let’s keep throwing some in.
[00:17:31] TT: The good thing about you guys over there at Stone, I’m sure whatever you guys put on taps is going to sell. Even some that don’t come out as expected, I’m sure somebody will drink it.
[00:17:43] JE: I’m really good at it; if it’s not perfect the first time around, I’ll really concern myself a really good blender of things to make it so you’d never even know.
[00:17:43] TT: What about you, Grant? Do you still dabble on the homebrew side? How would you go about developing a recipe specifically if it was your first smoked beer?
[00:17:51] GL: It’s hard. It sounds really dorky, but I would write out kind of a journal thing of what I’m actually trying to do. We used to kind of have to do that. We test brewed everything on a Sabco. A lot of times, I would brew over and over again on the Sabco until I was really happy with it, then I would then pass it up the chain and then tweak from there is how l would do it.
Certain beers, you could nail on the first one or two tries, but definitely not with smoked beers. I think it takes a lot of honing in to nail a smoked beer, at least for us when we were going to do a giant bottle release. At the time, we didn’t have the pub-like Kris does. When I was there, it was just production, so I had to really get it perfect is how I did it.
[00:18:35] JE: Personally, I kind of go with the way Kris does it. Just kind of go for it. If I were, today, try to tackle something like that, I would probably just call Kris and ask him what he would do since I’ve been out of the game for a little while.
[00:18:53] TT: What’s the wildest beer you’ve run into a brewer that’s been tooled around with different smoked malts? I know there are people out there that are smoking their own products, but anything interesting that you guys ran into or know of? Like Colorado Malting, who we distribute for, has done some very interesting stuff like cottonwood smoked. They actually have a product using the 80 laws of bourbon barrels, pretty cool stuff. What about you all? Have you seen or heard of any unique smoked items out there?
[00:19:26] KK: I personally have not. I mean, when it comes to smoked beers, on our spot, it’s kind of like a hit and miss, and it’s not really thinking too far in advance on it. The only things we’ve done that were outside of the smoked malt range is we got some Laphroaig barrels, and we did that with Arrogant Bastard. I think was called […], and it was just a peated […], it was amazing. Then I did a […] here many years back with smoked sea salt, and it was fantastic.
[00:19:57] TT: That sounds cool.
[00:19:59] KK: Yeah, it was just this nice savory smoked character, and then you get that bright citrus on the tartness. It’s really fun. I’m actually going to do another beer with that but use […] instead.
[00:20:13] TT: I’m interested to talk about some smoked beer and food pairing, which I think we’re going to have Heather Jared join us later on in the episode to talk about that. You mentioned that smoked sea salt goes with, I was just thinking, nice planked salmon with some asparagus. Hmm, sounds good right now. It is lunchtime over here, so I’m hungry.
[00:20:38] GL: That’s a good point about the Laphroaig barrels and the smoked salt. Good point of being able to add smoke to beers. Thinking outside the box, not just using smoked malt, but I love the Laphroaig. I’ve only had two different beers from different craft breweries in Laphroaig barrels over the years, but gosh, I hope there’s more because I haven’t had a bad one yet, bad in a thousand, but anyway.
[00:21:05] KK: Fresh ones are great to have on.
[00:21:08] GL: You get freshly dumped Laphroaig barrels sometimes?
[00:21:11] KK: No, this was from when we did the Arrogant Bastard. Steve Gonzales got them into the states, and then once they dumped them, I was like, can I get one of those? […] years ago for this long time Stone fan that passed away named Mitch […]. We called it […]. It was 75% beechwood smoked, and then we took some of that and threw that in Laphroaig barrels as well. It was just a masterpiece.
[00:21:43] GL: Yeah, it’s like a masterpiece scotch and then just kind of amplifying the beer that you’re aging in it, very cool.
[00:21:49] TT: It’s interesting, Grant, that you mentioned other ways to impart that smoked flavor into beers. Was there a time several years back, I could be wrong here with my timeline, but we had some heavy smoke and fires out in the Pacific Northwest, and some of the hop crop was affected and picked up some of that smoked characteristic.
[00:22:19] GL: That’s right. From what I was told, most of it ended up as cattle feed, but I don’t know if somebody actually got to brew with it. I’m sure they did. That’s a good follow-up question. I have to ask YCH about that one.
[00:22:33] TT: Yeah, absolutely.
[00:22:35] JE: Make some good brisket.
[00:22:37] TT: There you go. Kris, what else do you do? Anything you want to plug over there at your place?
[00:22:44] KK: Right now, I’m working solo, so my brain is just kind of mush right now. Yesterday, we had friends from Fort Myers Brewing out of Florida join me for collaboration brew day. I’m brewing a second batch today, but we just made an Imperial wheat IPA with some bergamot hops and some nectar on. Then we got some Buddha’s Hand from our friends up in Serato farm. I […] love Buddha’s Hand. I don’t know if you guys have ever brewed with that stuff, but it’s just like his bright citron and just sweet lemon notes on there. It’s really floral. It’s a killer.
[00:23:20] GL: Never had, but now I want to. I’ve seen them at the grocery store, so I can get them. You just zest them or what? I know we’re kind of off the smoked beer topic.
[00:23:29] KK: I mean, smoked Buddha’s Hand would actually be really good. There’s a bunch of different ways you can zest them. On brew day, we just chop them up, put them in bags, put them in the kettle, and extract. Secondary zest it or pureed is the best. The inside of it is a kind of jicama consistency.
[00:23:51] TT: You said the Smoked Porter you’re bringing back to life again and will be available sometime in March?
[00:23:47] KK: I’ll put it on the brew schedule, probably brew it in March. We’ll do the Stone Classic Smoke. I’ll definitely have it on. If I brew that beer, I have to do the vanilla bean version because that’s the other most requested. It’s such a weird thing.
[00:24:04] GL: […] with you, John?
[00:24:10] JE: It’s all good. I concede. I might have to come down there for that, Kris. It’s either brew day or tapping day, either or. I miss that beer.
[00:24:24] GL: Speaking of vanilla beans, we’re bringing in some chopped Madagascar vanilla beans to Country Malt. We have those.
[00:24:32] JE: Oh, really?
[00:24:32] KK: Are they under a certain price range?
[00:24:40] GL: That’s a great question. I’m not up to speed on the vanilla market right now, so I don’t know, but we can certainly get to that.
[00:24:53] TT: I plead the fifth on that one.
[00:24:56] GL: It’s coming, though. I think we’ve already got some in stock. Country Malt has vanilla beans.
[00:25:01] TT: John, I was thinking about your chipotle addition to the smoked porter. I don’t know why I thought about this, but my wife ordered a bunch of cheesecakes from this cheesecake place, and one of them was a green chili cheesecake.
[00:25:17] JE: Oh man, that sounds good. I’d be into that.
[00:25:22] TT: I should ask them if they do any smoked cheesecake. I’d eat it.
[00:25:28] GL: It would work.
[00:25:29] TT: Yeah, absolutely would. For the listeners out there, if you’re around the San Diego area, certainly say hello to Kris and try some of the stuff he’s putting out over there with Stone at Liberty Station. Kris, really appreciate your time. You know what we should do is really at least try to put together North American Smoked Beer Day. Is there such at this point? Just organize. We got some pretty big breweries that we know. People that are in the know, put together a day where everybody releases a smoked beer, it’d be awesome.
[00:26:09] KK: I’m 100% on board with that.
[00:26:11] JE: I can dig it.
[00:26:11] KK: Let’s do a giant smoked beer collaboration across the board.
[00:26:16] TT: There we go. Let’s do that one. I want to make it happen. Kris, thanks so much for joining us. Really appreciate your time. Again, for those folks that are in there, go see Kris. Go continue to support Stone and what he’s doing out there. I look forward to catching up on the next segment to continue to talk to some folks about the smoked beer and the smoked beer style. Thanks, Kris.
[00:26:45] JE: Thanks, Kris. Today, I’m joined by Grant Lawrence.
[00:26:45] GL: Hey, John.
[00:26:47] JE: Hey, Grant. And Mark Vierthaler from Whiskey Del Bac.
[00:26:51] MV: Hey, hey.
[00:26:57] JE: Mark, first off, happy anniversary to you guys. It’s like ten years.
[00:27:01] MV: Thank you. We’re just coming off of our 10-year celebration, which was a year-long celebration of everything Whiskey Del Bac, Tucson, and the Sonoran Desert. Obviously, heading into 2022 looking forward to another ten years.
[00:27:17] JE: Awesome. You’re relatively new to Tucson and the company. Give us a little breakdown of your past distilling history and how’s everything going over there?
[00:27:39] MV: Yeah, definitely. You’re right. I took over as Head Distiller here at Whiskey Del Bac. It would have been July of 2021, just six months this last January. Before that, I was Head Distiller of Tenth Ward Distilling Company in Frederick, Maryland. I was Head Distiller out there for just about three years, and before that, I was a Distiller and Director of Marketing at Boot Hill Distillery in my hometown of Dodge City, Kansas. I was there for just about three years as well.
About just coming up on six years here in the industry distilling, and finally getting into it vis-a-vis the marketing side. Of course, like a lot of people, has some front-of-house experience bartending experience that the previous two distilleries had the chance to make a little bit of everything. I had this opportunity to pick up, move cross country from the East Coast down here to the southwest, and take over the helm here at Whiskey Del Bac. It’s a huge opportunity to be able to specialize.
In the past, like I said, it was a little bit of everything. Here at Whiskey Del Bac, we do one thing, and we do one thing very, very well, and that is we make American Single Malt Whiskies.
[00:28:55] JE: I will give you a little background. I started at Country Malt about three years ago. Prior to me joining, Grant had Arizona as his territory. We met up in Arizona, we’re cruising around, and he mentioned you guys a couple of times. He’s like, man, they make some amazing whiskies. There was so much going on at the time that I was like, okay, cool, but I was kind of overwhelmed.
[00:29:24] GL: I was like, what’s your second job, something like that.
[00:29:27] JE: Yeah, pretty much. It was just information overload, but I always kept thinking about, man, what is that distillery? They’re my customer, but I’m just trying to get my hands wrapped around all this. Anyway, I finally visited in 2019, had some samples that I took home, and was very, very impressed with everything you guys are doing over there. That was really cool.
[00:29:54] MV: Thank you.
[00:29:58] GL: We wanted to have you on today, Mark, to ask you a couple of questions. The point of this episode is we’re talking with brewers and distillers that do smoked spirits or beers. I just think what you do is so unique. We’re just thrilled to have you on the show because you own, is that mesquite-smoked malt?
[00:30:09] MV: It is mesquited, not peated malt. That’s what we like to say—mesquited, not peated.
[00:30:13] GL: Awesome. You’re smoking that yourself on-site, right?
[00:30:21] MV: Smoking it and malting it ourselves, yeah. The bulk of the malted barley that we use, we get from you guys. We’re currently using the non-GN, trying to look forward and be responsible producers. But yeah, that was one thing. Like you say, we started just over ten years ago, and our co-founder, Stephen Paul, for 30 years here in Tucson, had a furniture business called Arroyo Design.
He really specialized in making mesquite furniture. If you’re familiar at all with mesquite, it’s very much a tree or a bush of its place. It’s very Southwestern. It’s this very kind of twisted, very naughty-looking, but it makes just jaw-dropping furniture. For 30 years, he was making this furniture, and he and his wife are both big Highland Whiskey, Highland Scott fans.
One night, they’re sitting in their backyard, and they would always burn their mesquite chips. One evening, Elaine, Stephen’s wife was like, hey, they use peat to dry malt in Scotland. Has anyone ever tried this with mesquite? Stephen is the type of person that once he gets his claws into something, he doesn’t let go, so he became obsessed with this idea.
Over the course of a couple of years, he taught himself how to malt, playing around with how to smoke that malt with mesquite, and then started playing around with distilling it. As the company had grown, we realized that for a while, we malted everything that we used. Then as we got bigger, we realized that wasn’t as feasible. But one thing that he wanted to make sure that we kept doing was that mesquited malt stayed in-house.
It’s a standard Scarlet two-row barley. We get it in super sacks, and we have a custom malting system set up here in the distillery. About twice a month, we make a batch of mesquited malt that goes into our Dorado. That’s what we call our mesquite, a single malt, versus our classic, which is unsmoked, but it is malted, it is smoked, and everything is done right here in Tucson by ourselves.
[00:33:02] GL: Can you tell us a little bit about the smokehouse setup for those listening? Can you illustrate that for us? It’s been a while since I’ve been out there, so I actually don’t remember myself. It’s like a giant barbecue smoker. Is that correct?
[00:33:16] MV: It really is, yeah. It’s this big wrought iron custom smoker that one of Stephen’s friends built for him. It’s a very Rube Goldberg-esque of pipes, vents, and everything that feeds from the outside in our yard and that feeds in through the wall into our germination kilning tank. Yeah, it basically functions as a gigantic meat smoker, except for we’re using it to smoke our malt.
[00:33:48] GL: That’s awesome. If you can even share this with me, is it like a smokehouse where you’re burning in a house, and then there’s a long tube that’s smoking […] side, or is it just like a giant offset smoker?
[00:33:01] MV: Yeah, it is basically a long tube going through because we’ve learned over the years that if we’re attempting to smoke the malt while it’s too dry, those phenols just don’t grab to it. You just end up with light smoke. Before we actually kiln the malt, we do what we call a smoke day, which is myself and the rest of the production team—I’ve got three distillers that I work with—we basically tend this smoker for between 8 to 10 hours.
Obviously, we want to control the heat that’s getting in because we don’t want too much heat hitting that malt and drying it out too quickly. It’s kind of this fine balance of getting enough moisture in there so that that smoke clings to it. Then once that’s done, we can actually finish the kilning process.
[00:34:49] GL: Very cool.
[00:33:02] JE: Wow. Yeah, that was my big question: what part of the process is the smoke introduced? That totally makes sense to introduce it before it’s fully dried, so it gets in that kernel a little bit more.
[00:35:06] GL: Is there a certain way that you build the mesquite fire a certain way? I smoke briskets and stuff here in Texas pretty often. Do you try to have the coals burned down, or is there any kind of art to it like that?
[00:35:22] MV: There really is. The running joke is I’m the one that gets to start the first fire because I’m the worst at it. Then my crew steps in and actually does it correctly. Raymond, one of our production distillers, he’s got the magic hands with it. It’s a double-layer smoker, so we have the smoke.
We basically build a log cabin-style fire on the bottom, and then we put some of the larger logs up on that second level and utilize the fire and that slow smoke to smolder the logs that are up on the second level. Again, we’re paying a lot of attention to the amount of heat that’s coming out of that vent and going into the kilning tank.
What we’ll do is once it hits what we figured is way too hot, we’ll pull those bottom logs out, take those top ones, put them down, and then put a brand new set up logs up on that second level, really just trying to focus on keeping that nice low and slow smoke.
[00:36:30] GL: I guess you have a smokestack or something, so some kind of like a perfect clean-burning deal just like you would a barbecue smoker.
[00:36:40] MV: Exactly, and mesquite is so finicky. It’s such a beautiful smoked flavor. But if you get it too hot too fast, it gets really stringent. Again, it’s art. There’s science to it, obviously, but there is also that art of looking at it, testing it, and keeping an eye on it. If it gets too fast, you have to pull back, and if it goes too slow, then we’ve got to stoke the fire again. It’s such a cool hands-on experience.
[00:37:17] GL: Sure. Yeah. Like you were saying, just quintessentially southwest, right? I don’t even think mesquite trees grow really outside of the southwest. I could be wrong on that, but I think they like that desert climate.
[00:37:31] MV: Yeah, it’s interesting. Here where we are in the Sonoran, they’re everywhere, and they’re considered a major part of the flora of the southwest. The woods have been used to cook with and to build things with. The mesquite pods are sweet, and so they’ve been used as a candy or a sweetener sometimes.
It’s just so tied in, but then you get outside of the southwest and some areas where there is mesquite; it’s considered a pest because they’re so hard, and it’s just so well-suited for drought conditions.
[00:38:08] GL: Awesome. It’s like your own single malt scotch with its own southwestern kind of providence. Love it.
[00:38:17] MV: Exactly.
[00:38:20] GL: Okay. Can you tell us a little bit about the spirit itself? I know it’s won some awards. I’ve sipped on it. Can you just tell me a little bit about how it’s been lately? What do you really like about it? What do you think makes it unique?
[00:38:36] MV: Yeah, definitely. One of the things that really attracted me to the position out here was, like you guys, I had heard of the brand. Growing up in the Midwest and being somewhat involved with the spirits industry for a little over a decade, I started hearing rumblings of this single malt whiskey producer down in Arizona that’s starting to make some waves. I moved out to the East Coast and continue to hear more and more about this.
The opportunity came up, and I was able to sit down, again, do an interview with Stephen, the co-founder. His daughter, Amanda, is the other co-founder. I got to sit down and talk to the CEO, Kent Cheeseman, who actually came from High West. So you have just this amazing preponderance of knowledge.
This passion for it too that, obviously, being a fan of single malt and keeping an eye on the growth of the American single malt movement, Del Bac’s one of the originals. They’ve been around since 2011. I was interested in getting my hands on it and tasting it before I even had an inkling that I would come down here and take the helm in the distillery.
When I finally was able to get my hands on some, I was just so impressed with it. It is a single malt; it can be a very tricky thing to distill and age properly. When you’re working with a single grain, you run the risk of one-note flavor profiles and a lack of nuance. By Stephen’s own admission, he stumbled on the perfect formula here at Whiskey Del Bac because one, he had the passion for the scotch. He knew what he wanted a single malt to taste like. He wanted to have that tie in with the southwest and with the Sonoran Desert.
Like a lot of craft distilleries, when you start out, you look at smaller barrels. For better or for worse, there is a negative connotation with aging spirits in smaller barrels. Here at Whiskey Del Bac, he started with 15-gallon barrels. The Sonoran Desert is just so insane because, like today, we have a 30-degree swinging temperature. When I left my house this morning, it was 36 degrees, and it’s going to be in the high 60s when I leave this afternoon.
What that does is where other distilleries who maybe don’t know how to use a smaller barrel, let it sit too long, let it extract too much. It gets astringent, gets unpleasant. Stephen, the previous head distiller, and the other distillers had figured out, you do a short age, you get a lot of push and pull, and it creates this very nuanced, very balanced single malt in a really short amount of time. They were able to figure out something that a lot of other craft distilleries haven’t been able to, which is how to make an award-winning national attention-getting single malt whiskey in a small barrel in a small format.
I always point to people who, again, will still come at us; I can’t believe you’re using 15-gallon barrels. My response is, well, those 15-gallon barrels just got us named a Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Spirit of 2021 in the world.
[00:42:09] JE: Hard to argue with that.
[00:42:11] MV: Exactly.
[00:42:15] GL: Like you were saying, I have heard some people say that, but I’ve had plenty of craft distilled spirits that were test batches out of those smaller barrels. People could turn them really quickly, like you were saying, and I don’t see it as such a bad thing. You drink it, and you’re like, this tastes like it’s three years old and it’s not. It’s a lot faster than that.
[00:42:36] JE: It’s adapting to the environment too. The environment down there is dry. You’re in a dry […]. Like you said, temperature swings like it can be freezing cold in the morning and 75 degrees in the afternoon. That smaller barrel is just an adaptation of the location. It’s unique for sure.
[00:42:58] GL: Yeah. Lots of movement in and out of states with those kinds of swings. That’s really cool.
[00:43:03] MV: Yeah, and also we talked about this. Shameless self-plug, at the start of January, we started a social media campaign. Every Monday, we do what we call Monday with Mark, which is a little 60-second video of me talking about technical things like, okay, let’s get nerdy about distillation, fermentation, et cetera.
The two of the past two Monday with Marks we’ve done, one was why we choose 15-gallon barrels, and another is the Sonoran terroir. Yeah, it’s learning where you are; it’s learning how to adjust your production processes. Again, it’s a mix of experience, knowledge, just getting your hands dirty, and going, wow, that sucked. Let’s never do that again. Hey, this is really good. Let’s keep doing this.
[00:43:55] GL: For sure.
[00:43:56] JE: Are those videos? Do you guys have those on YouTube or Instagram? Where can people find them?
[00:44:01] MV: They are on our YouTube page, and then we do also post them as reels on our Instagram.
[00:44:07] JE: Awesome.
[00:44:08] GL: Excellent. What’s the Instagram?
[00:44:09] MV: @whiskeydelbac.
[00:44:24] GL: All right, excellent. A moment ago, you mentioned using the non-GN. I think the last time I was out there, we didn’t have the non-GN at the time. It’s a newer thing that’s come from the Scotch industry. That’s really cool to hear that you guys have brought it on and embraced it. What are your thoughts about it? Why non-GN?
[00:44:46] MV: It’s one of those things that one, it’s responsible because you’re making extra special care. If you’re focusing on non-glycosidic nitrile-producing barley, you don’t have to worry as much about producing poison. It’s one of the challenges; especially, it’s so high in barley. When you are doing a single malt, you run the risk of creating something that could potentially poison people.
It was basically looking at the EU has adopted more stringent guidelines. It’s entirely likely that the US will. It’s that balance of one, let’s be responsible producers, keeping an eye on best practices within the industry, but let’s also make sure we’re ahead of the game before we’re told to do something. Should that regulation come about, we can say, well, the good news is, we’ve done that already. We’ve already been able to focus on that.
[00:45:54] GL: I think that’s really cool. Yeah. As you were saying, it hasn’t quite hit the US yet. It’s more so like an EU thing, but yeah, who knows? It’ll probably come on more here in the US. It’s what we’re thinking. We’re just trying to get ahead of the game.
The malt, in general, the variety is Odyssey, which is originally a Scottish variety. What do you think about just how it looks, the plump, and all that stuff? I was very impressed with it the first time I saw it.
[00:46:25] MV: We’ve been really, really pleased. It’s always one of those things when you make that switch you do with a little bit of trepidation. I always tell people, we’re American single malt whiskey. There are four ingredients in our product. It is malted barley, water, yeast, and a barrel. You change one of those four things, you’re changing your flavor profile.
The good news is, though, that we really didn’t see much of a qualitative difference. Our yields are still holding strong. We didn’t notice any decrease in the yields when we went from just the standard distiller’s malt. The flavor profile is right where we want it to be. We’ve been very impressed with it.
[00:47:13] GL: Excellent.
[00:47:14] JE: Great to hear. I got a good one for you. How do you like to enjoy some of these smoked spirits? What’s your way to drink it? Neat, on the rocks?
[00:47:29] MV: It is going to depend on what it is, and I know that’s such a weak answer. I will fully admit, I really like smoked spirits. I’m a huge fan of them if they’re done well. One of my go-to scotches is the Laphroaig Quarter Cask. It’s like drinking a tire fire, and I love it.
Back at Tenth Ward, we made a smoked bourbon that the corn was smoked by the farmer who grew the corn. I obviously have the soft spot for smoked spirits. Over time, we’ve adjusted the recipe of our Dorado, which again is our smoked main core product. But a lot of us here in the building, and the distillery also has that love of a heavy smoke.
We produce a seasonal product that we call our winter release, which is kind of our excuse to really go back to that core Scotch model and make a smoke […]. It’s floral; it’s blossomy. It’s really mesquite-heavy. In times like that, with our winter, I really like it over just a big ice cube.
Our Dorado, though, isn’t a full mesquited malt mash bill. It’s about 60/40 with unsmoked malt, and then that gets blended with some more of our classic, which is our aged unsmoked. You still get that mesquite, but it’s not nearly as pronounced. That one is really, really good, either neat or even to stand up in a cocktail because it is just a little bit sweeter and offers this really nice balance.
To me, what am I wanting to get out of what I’m drinking? That’s going to determine what I pick. Super heavy smoke, I really like it. I’m going to have it neat or with a single rock. Something a little bit lighter, a little bit more balanced isn’t the right word, but not as aggressive. You obviously can be a bit more utilitarian and be used to mix with.
[00:49:42] GL: If I remember correctly, last time I was there, and it’s been probably 2018 or so, I want to say that me and John had a smoked old fashioned and it was just gorgeous. I really liked it, really good. We certainly appreciate you joining us today. Was there any other questions you wanted to cover, John?
[00:50:04] JE: The last thing I thought of was food. Everyone likes to eat and drink together. What kind of foods would you say are your preference when you’re enjoying some smoked whiskey?
[00:50:17] MV: Obviously, the go-to is barbecue because smoke and smoke, of course, that’s good. I will tell you, my wife and I are really big fans of—obviously, we like cooking at home. We met and bonded over being foodies and being home chefs. Since coming down here, we have discovered that some really, really nice, really bright Asian dishes actually complimented really well with a smoked spirit.
I put the caveat on there to be very careful because obviously, that smoke can overwhelm some of those more nuanced flavors. But again, I’m going to brag. It was 75 degrees the other day in the middle of winter, which was awesome. We made some banh mi, poured myself a glass of Dorado, sat out on our back porch, and I would say that’s about as close to a peak experience, food and drink wise, as you can get.
[00:51:20] JE: That sounds great. I’m jealous.
[00:51:25] GL: It’s in the banh mi as well. If you’re getting these sandwiches with a little bit of pate on them, I think is customary; I love those.
[00:51:35] MV: Yeah, like a nice toasted baguette. Get some pickled radish on there. It’s so good.
[00:51:42] GL: Yeah, for sure. Awesome.
[00:51:45] JE: Cool. I don’t have any other questions right now. What about yourself, Grant?
[00:51:50] GL: No, I think that about wraps it up. It’s been a great segment, Mark. Thanks again for coming on. Just so you know, we’re going to have about four or five breweries or distilleries altogether in this episode. This should air not this coming Friday, but the Friday after. We will keep you in the loop. We’re just bringing on folks that love to talk smoked. Your passion really came through, man. Thank you for coming on.
[00:52:18] MV: My pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m always happy to talk shop.
[00:52:24] GL: Excellent.
[00:52:26] JE: Great. Thank you so much, Mark. You have a great rest of the day, and we’ll chat soon.
[00:52:31] GL: Yes.
[00:52:32] MV: Yeah, you too. If you guys need anything else from me, feel free to reach out. I’m always happy to help in some way.
[00:52:39] GL: All right. Moving on into our next segment. We have another awesome brewer for the podcast this week. Her name is Anne Aviles. She is the Lead Brewer at Steeplejack Brewing in Portland, Oregon. Did I get that right, Anne?
[00:52:51] AA: Yeah, this is where we are.
[00:52:53] GL: All right. Hanging with me today on the show, I’ve also got Zach Grossfeld. Him and Anne go way back, and we would just be remiss if we didn’t have them on together. Just another segment talking all things smoked beers. Anne has some good info for us there. Anne, can you tell us a little bit about your background and the brewery right now?
[00:53:13] AA: Definitely. Yeah, we are new, and by we, I mean, Steeplejack Brewery. We’re actually located in a 114-year-old church now converted into a brewery, dining hall, drinking space, and gathering space. We’ve been open since this past July. We’ll be coming up on our one year this summer, which is, I cannot believe it.
[00:53:26] JE: Time flew by.
[00:53:26] AA: Yeah, what is time? But then again, COVID time, I’ll tell you what, it’s a whole other animal. But yeah, that’s the brewery, and myself I’ve been brewing for probably close to five, six years now. My background is all over the place.
I started brewing an exclusively wild and kind of in a style Lambic-inspired. I worked at a brewery, De Garde, out on the coast for a couple of years. That’s how I got my feet wet, pun intended. Then I was at Breakside for the next three or four years learning how to make some world-class hoppy beer. Here I am now in a church doing all of the things.
[00:54:18] GL: It’s a hell of a background, two awesome breweries.
[00:54:21] AA: Yeah.
[00:54:22] JE: Yeah, would you say that Steeplejack has a kind of lane they like to stick in? I suppose like the Lambic and hoppy styles?
[00:54:29] AA: Yeah, it’s interesting because when Anna, who’s our head brewer, when we got together for the first time, the owner knew that he wanted to hire the both of us, but he didn’t know if we would get along, so he kind of gave us each other our contact info and was like, all right, sit together and figure out if this can vibe.
Some of the guys come to me asking about the style of smoked beer because when we want to go get coffee that morning, I vividly remember, she was like, so we don’t have a plan of what our flagships are going to be or what style of beer we’re going to do, but if there’s a type of beer that you necessarily want to stick to or really, really go for, what would that be? I’m like, well, I also have that same question for you. I say on the count of three, we’ll just yell it, and on the count of three, we both said smoked beer.
[00:55:19] GL: No way.
[00:55:20] AA: Yeah, so it was love at first smoked for me and Anna. It’s really rad, but in terms of what we got going on, we have everything from a really jammy Southern Hemisphere hops, Double IPA to a Belgian single, a traditional English mild. We have a couple of cask engines going. We try to have a pin every week with a different infusion, and we have our smoked beer on. We’re doing it all.
[00:55:50] GL: Yeah, that’s a wide gamut there. Okay. All right. Can you tell us a little bit about your—you do a style that I think a lot of brewers don’t even know what it is, but can you tell us a little bit about your Grodziskie?
[00:56:06] AA: Yeah. This is a really special beer just in terms of the brewing world and the beer world, but for me personally. I’m half Polish and half Ecuadorian, and I’m a first-generation American. Growing up, my parents didn’t really do a good job necessarily integrating their culture into my and my sister’s lives, so it was just like you grow up an American kid, we’re going to forget what we’re bringing to this country, and then we had to figure out on our own our heritage.
Of course, through my interest of that became beer at some time, like late high school, early college. Of course, I started delving into Polish beer styles, South American beer styles, and the one that I gravitated to the most was a Grodziskie. I’ll tell you what, it wasn’t love at first. It was definitely an acquired taste.
I can see that, especially in the taproom, newcomers coming in and being super interested. Because this smoked beer is so delicate, it’s so approachable, and it’s so cool, I think it’s such a neat little way to step into that smoked beer world.
[00:57:21] GL: It’s not a style that I ever brewed commercially, of course, but my limited knowledge of it is like wheat malt, pils malt, probably a little bit of beechwood smoked malt?
[00:57:32] AA: It depends. Traditionally, it uses 100% oak-smoked wheat. The one that I make is traditional. It’s 100%. It’s oak-smoked wheat, which is super fun. Aroma-wise, you definitely get that smoked character. On the palate, like I said, it’s very delicate. You wouldn’t guess that it’s 100% smoked malt, which is very neat.
I definitely lend that to how we brew it. We do a single decoction with a couple of steps. I use a lager yeast, so it gives it a nice little clean ferment. These ones are cold for about three and a half, almost a month just sitting. Yeah, it was able to clean up really, really nicely. But not to say that you can experiment with blending base malts like Pilsner malt.
I know people that have thrown in a little bit of acidulated to give that pH buffer. Because the other special thing about this style of beer is minerality. There are a couple of ways of going about it. If you want to truly make it as close to Polish water, which I’ve seen, it’s a little finicky because Polish water is very high in magnesium, which doesn’t taste very good.
[00:58:47] GL: It’s really loaded up with Epsom salt, I guess.
[00:58:50] AA: Yeah. The one that I’m drinking right now, actually, is the third iteration of me doing this beer, and I’m really happy with the minerality content. Yes, definitely a good play of Epsom salt, a little bit high sodium, no magnesium.
[00:59:07] GL: Okay.
[00:59:08] AA: Yeah.
[00:59:09] GL: Cool. Very cool. They’re also low ABV beers, right?
[00:59:13] AA: Yeah, 100%. This one’s finished at three and a half percent. That’s definitely the range you want to keep it at. With these beers and the other thing that it’s known for is called the champagne of beers in Poland. You’re going to have a really nice head retention, really high carbonation volumes, and you’re between high 2.6, to 2.7, to 2.8.
When they did it back in the old days of the 15th, 16th century, the way that they “lager beer” was bottle it off, put it in a crate, bury it, check up on it about a year later, and that’s how they found their beer. That gave it the ability to give it a good amount of head retention. They bottle conditioned everything, but modern brewing technology let me carve this up with the help of a little amylase in the mash. That helped a lot with the head retention because wheat is tough. Wheat is really, really tough.
[01:00:13] GL: Yeah, for sure. So you’re bottle conditioning this, okay.
[01:00:19] AA: This one is just served off a brite tank.
[01:00:21] GL: Got you. All right.
[01:00:22] AA: Yeah. I was just saying how they did it originally in Poland.
[01:00:25] GL: I see.
[01:00:26] AA: They bottled it and conditioned it.
[01:00:29] GL: So they’re in your brewery, you just serve brites, basically?
[01:00:34] AA: Yes, 6-fermenter, 7 brite tanks, and this baby fermenter for 33 for a couple of weeks, and then it further conditioned in the cold tank for two and a half weeks.
[01:00:47] GL: Very nice. German oak-smoked malt is something that I haven’t used too much of, mostly beechwood and […]. These different segments we’re doing with brewers, we’re talking peated malt on one. We’re talking all these different smokes, so it’s really cool. The oak is just its own beast.
[01:01:12] AA: Oak is its own beast. It’s really cool because you get these fruity esters from the smoke that I think are really neat. You get some green apples in a not bad way, but a good way green apple. A very nice delicate fruit, almost like papaya if you search for it. It’s super neat.
[01:01:34] JE: Do you find yourself having to be lighter handed with the oak-smoked compared to a peated malt to find that balance?
[01:01:33] AA: A thousand percent. Yeah, definitely lighter. At least for me, every time I use an oak-smoked, it’s going to be the majority of the smoked malt in there because it’s so delicate. Whereas things like beechwood, cherrywood, stuff like that, that’s going to be a little bit heartier and heftier, and you want to tone that back. But then again, you do whatever you want. I think things like oak-smoked, if you want to make it that delicate showstopper, do more than 60%.
[01:02:12] GL: You mentioned doing a bunch of steps in your mash. The first thing comes into my mind when you say 100% wheat is like a really slow lauter, but you’re saying three-ish percent. How’s it compared to your other brews? Is it lauter slow, and you just deal with it or what?
[01:02:32] AA: It’s a long brew day. It’s definitely a labor of love, which is part of the other reason why it’s so special. It’s one of those beers that we’re not going to do a lot of the time because the system that we have here, it’s a nice little trough pub system. It’s a little combo tank and a kettle/whirlpool, that’s it.
When it comes to the step infusions, it’s all with water. The rest are anywhere between 20 to 30 minutes, there are three rests, and then we’ll do what we can do to the extent of a decoction here in our kettle. I start my brew day around 7:00 AM, and I’ll take my boots off around 5:00 or 6:00 PM.
[01:03:17] GL: Yeah, that’s a long one.
[01:03:17] JE: A long one, yeah.
[01:03:19] GL: For a single batch?
[01:03:20] AA: For a single batch.
[01:03:22] GL: Yeah, okay. Labor and love indeed. Okay.
[01:03:27] JE: We know you love it, and I can speak to its quality too. It’s a beer I really enjoy drinking. What’s the general reaction to it around the pub? I know, every time I’ve been there, it’s been on draft. It’s at least a pretty common beer you keep around.
[01:03:43] AA: No, it’s cool. It’s actually a really cool thing to see. First of all, it’s an interesting word in and of itself because we do the thing where we’ll have the beer name and then next to it the beer style. A lot of the time, people have never even seen this word before, and they don’t know how to pronounce it, like most Polish things. It’s a little bit of a tackle, but it’s a chance for education, I think, and just get out of your comfort zone.
For us, we have the luxury of being in such a special space that you made it out here anyway. You’re going to be drinking in this beautiful 115-year-old church; you might as well try something different. It’s a cool little conversation piece.
Something that we do here, too, is we try and keep most of our beers below 6% or 7% just so you can have more than one. Because we want to encourage people hanging out for a little bit, so with this beer, we just hit the nail on the head with doing something that not a lot of people have either had or doing. It’s actually really funny to see now that a lot of people are starting to experiment doing this beer. I see it around town now, at least in Portland.
At least three or four breweries, since I first brewed this beer, have given it a go because we call it the brewer’s Gatorade because it’s got that nice little electrolyte type minerality to it, 3%. We all hang out and drink. We’re coming in at 6:00 AM the next day. We’re not trying to hurt ourselves drinking, so it’s cool. It’s really cool to see how it’s now evolved into the new Brut IPA, I’m hoping.
[01:05:32] GL: You mentioned just liking smoked beers in general, and we chat a little bit about the Grodziskie, but do you have any other ones cooking?
[01:05:41] AA: Not us necessarily. Yeah, we were talking about doing a smoked porter in the next coming months. That’s something that we’re still talking about, though, but not us necessarily.
[01:05:53] GL: Okay, awesome. I’m not sure exactly where your brewery situation is, what your typical clientele is. This is just my Texas perspective, but you have a much more educated beer population, I feel like, up there. What’s the reaction like whenever you just have somebody stroll into the brewery and have some Grodziskie?
[01:06:15] AA: The way our brewery outlay is, is kind of funny. We’re in this, essentially, a pit situation. We are where the pastor used to be, basically giving the sermon. They dug out where the pastor used to be, the front and center underneath this giant stained glass window that I get to brew under every day—talk about crazy dreams.
You can see in, but it’s a hard time for me being in a little pit to see out. Because I’m in my own little world most of the time brewing or doing cellar work or what have you, it’s rare that I ever interact with guests coming in. But of course, like any neurotic Brewer, I check online check-ins or […]. I’ll tell you what, it’s really cool because when I do find those few people that don’t like it, it’s just people who never had it before and they don’t know what to expect. I think my favorite was, too much campfire, tastes like hot dog water for cars.
[01:07:32] GL: So like four after that?
[01:07:34] AA: Yeah, but he still rated it high. He wrote it out like he wasn’t a fan of it, like it was too smoky.
[01:07:41] JE: That’s a compliment.
[01:07:42] AA: Yes, that’s exactly what I was going for on that 10-hour brew day. It was hot dog water. Of course, my peers coming back, seeing my fellow brewer friends coming back to drink this beer, that’s all I need, honestly. Screw the on-tap reviews.
[01:08:03] JE: I like the setup of the brewhouse because you can always check and bug you when you’re working while drinking your beer.
[01:08:12] AA: Yeah. I’m actually really glad we decided to not go with—they’re talking about having plexiglass up over the little on-railing. For people that haven’t been by, my brew deck is parallel with bar seating. We’re open at 8:00 AM usually when I’m mashing in. When I’m mashing in, I can have a person sitting two feet away from me asking me about what I’m doing and the process. They’re smelling the smells.
On days when I’m doing a smoked beer, they’re smelling the smoked malt, and even that’s much more interesting. But yeah, that whole interaction is something that’s super special here. Of course, me being used to a hidden behind-the-scenes brewer was mortified that I came into this space. It’s something that I’ve grown to really appreciate.
[01:09:03] JE: Yeah, that’s great.
[01:09:05] GL: Yeah. It would be a little nerve-racking for me with somebody looking over the shoulder in the middle of the brew, for sure.
[01:09:11] AA: People don’t know what you’re really doing, so it’s cool.
[01:09:13] GL: Yeah, exactly. We used to get people to just bang on the glass-like we had glass separating the brew deck.
[01:09:20] AA: That’s what I’m saying. With the glass, it’s more of a zoo situation where they’re even more welcomed going at you and knocking on the glass, whereas here, it’s like, I see your eyes, all right.
[01:09:35] GL: Nice.
[01:09:37] JE: Okay. Besides Steeplejack, is there anything you particularly want to promote? Any good beers you’ve been drinking? Yeah, just kind of a time for a shot out.
[01:09:48] AA: Actually, this is an interesting time for most breweries, and actually, any service industry, it’s really slow, especially, COVID winter number two we’re going through. We have slowed down with our core a little bit “production,” whatever 10-year-old brewhouse production is.
We’ve gotten a chance to do some truly creative little projects between Anna and myself. We brewed one of them. It is going to be our first sour. We’re doing it with a local, all-women-operated and owned distillery called Freeland. They specialize in gin.
They came by and helped us brew sour bass. Then in a couple of weeks, we’re going to blend in some of their spent gin botanicals, which is going to be super yummy. Then coming up this weekend, too, we’re going to be brewing another woman-owned industry job winery called Landmass. We’re going to do a hazy pale that plays to the nuance of some great […] that we’re going to get from them, they’re going to ferment with.
This is all going to be coming through, if you’re a Portland local for […] festival. It’s the first time it’s back since COVID, and we’re all very excited for it. It’s rad because we wanted a chance to invite women that aren’t usually invited to collaborate, so non-women brewers or front-of-house staff. Just give them a chance to be part of it, and it’s going to be happening in March. I’m not sure of the day, but it’s going to be during Women’s History Month.
It’s just fun connecting with women in the industry who come from different backgrounds but still know fermentation. I know very little about distilling, and they know very little about brewing. The day that we spent together was just mind-blowing how much we learned from each other.
[01:11:42] JE: That sounds so cool. Those projects sound amazing. I can’t wait to […] to those.
[01:11:47] AA: And we’re all good, yeah.
[01:11:50] JE:. Awesome.
[01:11:51] GL: Thank you for coming on the show today, Anne. It’s been a real pleasure. It’s been neat hearing about Grodziskie and your perspective on it. It’s really cool.
[01:12:00] AA: Sweet. If you see one out there, drink it.
[01:12:04] GL: Yeah.
[01:12:05] AA: It’ll legitimize us.
[01:12:10] GL: I haven’t had yours, but the only one I’ve ever had is Live Oaks’.
[01:12:16] AA: That’s the one. […] special. At least from what I’ve been told, theirs are super cool because they’re like a lager half, then they’ll use a German ale strain, and then they’ll blend the two batches to give it a little bit of complexity.
[01:12:32] GL: I think you’re right on, fingers crossed. Hopefully, we can get to do this on the show for a separate segment.
[01:12:36] AA: Oh my gosh, send contact info, please.