Getting Personal Helps When Things Get Weird – The Stories Behind Two Innovative Beers

Getting Personal Helps When Things Get Weird – The Stories Behind Two Innovative Beers

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

For those of us old enough to remember, there used to be a radio personality named Paul Harvey. He specialized in telling the stories behind the stories of things we took for granted or events we thought we understood. Paul would finish each episode with the same phrase ”…and now you know the rest of the story.”

Harvey’s stories didn’t shock the world. They didn’t investigate or solve world problems, but they did help people understand subjects a little better and taught them to look deeper. After any story he tackled, the listener came away with a greater more knowledge of a subject, and that helped them appreciate it more. Knowledge facilitates connection.

image credit: Stitcher

It’s no different in craft beer. You can visit a brewery or talk the beer with a server at a restaurant, and you can appreciate the beer for what you know of it. But if you know “the rest of the story,” that respect for the beer, the brewer, and the brewery becomes much more robust. The story helps build a relationship between the drinker and the producer, and relationships are the key to succeeding.

In no small way, the story makes the beer. This especially true when the brewer has gone out of his/her way to dig deep into processes and ingredients to come up with something new. I have a couple of examples of this going on right now in Indiana craft beer, and they both happen to come from Muncie. On a recent visit to Elm Street Brewing and The Guardian Brewing Company, I encountered stories that made the beers mean so much more – I swear it made them taste better.

In one case I had to ask about a certain aspect of a beer, but then the floodgates opened. In the other case I simply ordered a beer, and the brewer asked me if I knew wanted to know the story behind it. In both cases, I was thoroughly pleased with the results – pleased enough to relate the stories here. But the lesson here isn’t for you to let me tell you these stories, the lesson is that you need to go out and discover stories like these on your own. Talk the brewers and servers and you won’t be disappointed.

Story 1. What the hell is Sea Buckthorn? A story of ingredients from The Guardian Brewing Company.

I saw a posting on the beer board for an upcoming beer – a Sea Buckthorn and Honydew sour. I asked Jarrod Case about it, and he told me the story of how The Guardian looks for new and interesting ingredients. This included the cloudberry used in a different sour. I had drunk the that beer and just assumed that Cloudberry was a part of the name they made up – nope, there is such a thing as a cloudberry. Here’s the story Jarrod told me:

image credit: The Guardian Brewing Company

“As far as ‘weird beers’ go, we at The Guardian Brewing Company have always tried to push the envelope on unique ingredients and adjuncts. When I was the director of our research and development department, I always approached beer recipes just like I would food. What tastes good? What pairs well?

Our first experimental beer was our Squirrel Shoes Margarita Gose. That is hardly a weird style now, but in 2015, there weren’t very many goses on the market. Looking at the natural flavor of a gose seemed to lend itself to the flavors of a margarita, so it seemed only natural.

Pushing things even further, when we were building our recipes for our Wicked Pumpkin ale I really wanted to try to capture the creamy spiciness of a pumpkin pie. Rather than try to add various adjuncts and purees to achieve this, we decided to go straight to the source and put whole Wick’s pumpkin pies into the boil, as well as lactose sugar and heavier doses of calcium chloride in our water profile to achieve that creamy mouthfeel. This opened the door for our ongoing series of “pie beers.”

We keep 5-10 small batch or seasonal beers available all the time. Of those small batches and seasonals, we try to always keep a lager, sour, something dark, an IPA variation, and something experimental. When approaching an experimental beer, inspiration comes from many places. For the Neon Viking Cloudberry and Apricot Sour Ale, I had tasted a cloudberry marmalade, and loved the unique flavor and yogurt like creaminess. I did quite a bit of research on the cloudberry itself. I looked into its origins and common food dishes. Being a tart raspberry type of fruit, putting it in a sour ale seemed like a good fit. I wanted to pair the tartness with something a little softer and sweeter. Many food dishes paired cloudberry and apricot together and the flavor combo is very complimentary. Once we found a hop variety that fit, we were on our way!

image credit: The Guardian Brewing Company

Currently we are expanding our sour program, so I’ve been looking for fruits, herbs and spices to compliment the tart and sour flavors. We are in the process of developing a Sea Buckthorn and Honeydew sour. Much like the Neon Viking, I was researching various herbs and it led me to the Sea Buckthorn. I was intrigued by the multiple uses of the plant and berry and instantly wanted to make a beer with it. Again, I wanted to pair it with a more familiar fruit that was soft and sweet. Based on the distinct sea buckthorn flavor, we found that honeydew would be the best pair for the sea buckthorn and hop variety that we had chosen.

Sometimes we have farmers or patrons lead us to a source for an ingredient and the beer style chooses us, and other times we have to look a little harder to find what we are looking for. Sometimes a beer name will dictate what we are brewing. There really isn’t a straight forward template, inspiration comes from everywhere. We look at beer making as an art form and believe that by having a strong base in the fundamentals and a good working knowledge of classic beer styles allows us to use our imaginations and creativity to say something new with beer, all while being accessible and approachable. And if that isn’t enough, it’s fun!”

Story 2. You did what to add more flavor? The story of a brewer seeking to get it just right At Elm Street Brewing.

After visiting The Guardian, I moved over about three blocks to see what Seth Ruskowsky at Elm Street Brewing had on. It’s never a matter of if they have something new, it’s a matter of how many. I tried a couple of new beers and then went to a favorite of mine, the cucumber, honeydew, and mint sour called Doom Zumba (always count on Elm Street for good names). Seth came out and asked if I knew the story behind the finished product. Here’s the story he told me:

“Doom Zumba was a beer that had been bouncing around my head for about 4 years or so. Since day one, I’ve always wanted to do a cucumber beer- I love cucumbers and I think they’re under utilized in the brewing world. Sure, I’ve had a handful of cucumber beers from Flat 12, Burn Em, Cigar City and Pipeworks, but I’ve been in the industry for 13 years now and those are the only cucumber beers I can think of. While most of those beers were good, they never really scratched my itch and I couldn’t figure out why.

image credit: Elma Street Brewing

I tossed the idea of a cucumber beer out to Tyler (Hutchinson, former head brewer at Elm Street) when he was running the show, but I could just never come up with something that was interesting enough and would really work so it just got put on the backburner. As head brewer, Tyler would take a lot of inspiration from the culinary world, and I have tried to stay true, to an extent, with that vision. Over the years, I’ve found myself looking at cuisine, but also at cocktails for different ideas of flavor components.

From experience with the cucumber beers I had tried, I knew there was a sweet spot in there. I knew that too much cucumber would give me a flavor I wasn’t really looking for, but I needed to make sure there was enough to get the flavor. Can you get bitterness from too much cucumber flavor somehow? I assumed bitterness from a cucumber would come from the skin, so I knew I had to avoid that, but also through the experimentation with cocktails, I knew you need to get some of the oils out of the skin to get that cucumber-y flavor.

At this point, I knew this was going to be a cucumber sour only based off of two sours that went over really well last summer. It’s a series I would like to continue to play with, sour & flower beers. The first one, before there was a naming theme was Mammoth Hammer, a hibiscus, rose hips and black currant sour, the second and third ones were Angry Yoga and Angrier Yoga, a blueberry lavender sour.

I chopped up a seedless cucumber that our kitchen had, and realized that the immature seeds and the little membrane-y thing they sit in is what give another huge bite of cucumber flavor. I was purposely trying to avoid using any seeds so I didn’t clog anything, so I had to think again about what I was going to do.

I feared that without the seeds and the seeds juice, and without the skins on the cucumbers I was going to have a really one-dimensional flavor so I had more to figure out with this beer. I know mint and melon go together from a culinary and cocktail perspective, I assume melon and cucumber go together because they’re in the same family. I never once have heard about a sour with mint in it, but I thought I could make it work. Truthfully, there was a part of me thinking, ‘There’s a reason why mint isn’t in sours, it’s not going to work’ but typically that just gets me more excited to figure it out and make it work.

image credit: Scott S. on Untappd

Doom Zumba was the last beer that I brewed before the shutdown, so I had time to mess with it. This is where these beers are fun but also a little stressful. When adding something like lavender or mint to a beer, I’ve got one shot. I add these ingredients into the boil, so I need to be right or else there’s not much fixing it.

I had missed the sweet spot with a couple of previous beers, and same thing could have happened with Doom Zumba. When it was time to add the mint to the boil I weighed out about half a pound and started to dump it into the boil, but very quickly I got nervous. I was only about an ounce in to the process and the entire brewhouse was smelling like mint, so I reduced my addition. Once I finally finished the brew day I took a sip of the wort and it was so freaking minty, I thought I may have ruined that beer.

However, the next time I tasted it I was super happy with it. The mint flavor was still a little high, but I knew with the amount of honeydew fruit I was going to add should get things to the proper levels. Also, I took all of the cucumber skins, froze them and thawed them over the next two days, muddled everything and added it to the fermenter in a cheesecloth bag. This brought out just enough cucumber flavor.

I think Doom Zumba is one of the few beers I’ve done where my vision of the beer is surpassed by the actual beer. There’s skill in fine-tuning beers with more delicate flavors. I don’t really know if mint sours will take off, but I have at least one more combination I want to use, then I’ll be onto the next weird idea.”

Conclusion. If you’ve had Doom Zumba before (and a lot of you have), I defy you try it again without appreciating it more. Likewise, the next time you’re at The Guardian, you’re going to look harder at what goes into those beers and you’re going to value and respect the innovation and research that is involved with them. Now – go drink beers and seek out ” the rest of the story.”

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