Interview: brewmaster Brian Strumke (Stillwater Artisanal Ales)
No longer must brewers be constrained by convention, geography, or even walls. In a world with a global economy, a new band of gypsy brewers can make beer where they please with complete disregard for borders. One such individual is Stillwater Artisan Ales owner Brian Strumke, a former electronica musician and IT pro who’s based in Baltimore but has been known to brew as far away as Fanø in Denmark. On August 10, as part of 12% Imports’ West Coast promotional tour with Evil Twin brewmaster Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, we met Strumke on the back patio at Library Alehouse, and he better explained his background and approach.
What inspired your initial interest in beer?
Me, personally, I used to be a musician. After I retired – I used to produce electronica, DJ, techno – I retired in 2004, got a normal IT job and needed a more creative outlet, so took the parallels in creating music and kind of got my creative fix by creating beers. It kind of fills the same void.
What was the first beer that you made, and how did it turn out?
My first is just a hoppy, basic pale ale. It was a recipe that I followed. I went to the homebrew shop, just kind of picked one, made it. It turned out fine. It was really good. I thought it was too easy to follow a recipe, so I think right from then, my second beer was a saison with mangoes, strawberries, some ginger. That was cool. The bottles got overcarbonated. I didn’t understand how to use that yeast at the time. From there, I just kept getting more and more crazy, because I realized that if I’m going to spend an entire day, and then multiple hours after that, caring for this beer and packaging it, I wasn’t saving money by making beer at home, so my idea was just to make something that was unavailable in the stores. I didn’t want to make IPAs or stouts. I wanted to make new libations. From the very beginning, that’s how I started the path that I followed.
What is the criteria for Stillwater ales?
I don’t know. For brewing is to me, and what I’m trying to get out of it, it’s a creative outlet and it’s more of an artistic endeavor, as opposed to a business venture. It was a way for me, originally, to express my creativity. Even the artwork for our beers, I work really closely with a good friend of mine who’s a tattooist and has a background in graphic design, so the beer’s sort of conceptualized from the recipe to the statement with the name and the visual component. To me, I want to make something unique, complex, but with subtle complexity. I don’t like extreme beers. I sometimes use crazy ingredients, but I make everything to be very compressed, but very balanced out. Balance is the word that every brewer talks about – “It’s all about balance” – and that’s one thing, but to me it’s kind of a visual aspect. When I write a recipe, it needs to look right in my head. It’s a synergistic type of thing. I always see it in colors.
One beer we’re having today is Debutante, which is a spelt and rye farmhouse ale. Most of my beers – the ones I brew here – I call them American farmhouse ales. The other ones just have a name, don’t really have a style. A lot of them fall into the saison category, just because it’s a very loose category and I can do a lot with it. It allows me a lot of creative freedom.
Is Debutante the most recent beer that you made?
No, but it’s probably the most recent Stillwater beer to hit the West Coast. This is probably the first tap in L.A. It’s spelt, rye, honey malt, and they all dance together. For this one, I took heather flowers to complement the spelt and hyssop to complement the rye, and honeysuckle to complement the honey malt. Nowhere in the beer, if I never told you those things were in there, you wouldn’t be able to pick them out. You’d be like, there’s some kind of floral component, some kind of spiciness, or some kind of tingle on your tongue, and there’s some kind of dryness, but it’s got to work together. I see people, “Oh, I made this beer with Ingredient X.” That’s all you taste, and that’s not how – I want a nice, tight package.
What other brewers or breweries inspire you?
American wise, by far my favorite brewer is Ron Jeffries as well. Jolly Pumpkin, he’s done some fantastic stuff and had some great success with it. Honestly, most of my brewing inspiration hasn’t come from the brewing world. It’s more artists and musicians. It’s more philosophical to me. I’m looking at brewing the exact same way I looked at music. It’s just a different medium. You go about it, it’s the same approach and the same creative process. Because I was making electronica music when I was doing music, the reason I got into brewing, that was so digital and so futuristic that I wanted to make something that’s completely low-fi. It’s like doing an acoustic recording or a demo on tape after using synthesizers and digital recording the whole time. I was so burned out, not on the crative process of music, but the medium that I was locked into, so when I got out, I wanted out and wanted to do something with my hands to make something old and follow human tradition, something that’s been going on for thousands of years.
Beyond Jolly Pumpkin: Fantome, Saison Dupont and Orval.
If you could only have one more beer, and it wasn’t…
Orval. It’s amazing this Trappiste brewery has done nothing but make this one beer…
Jarnit-Bjergsø: For like 400 years.
Strumke: Yeah, it’s just so unique.
If you could drink it anywhere, where would you drink it?
That question depends on where do I want to be? I’ll drink it anywhere.
Jarnit-Bjergsø: I hear they have it on draft at the monastery. You can’t get it through the public. They have it on draft in the monastery, in the basement, only for the monks. I would like to drink it down there.
Strumke: I thought that was a different beer completely.
Jarnit-Bjergsø: It’s the same beer without Brett. It’s only for the monks. It’s never been out in public.
How interested are you in establishing a permanent location for your brewery?
Both of us are interested in looking for a permanent location for production, but not in the same vein as a lot of brewers. We’re not pressed to run out and build a brewery for the moment. Collectively between all the people we know, we have a lot of access to really good breweries, and we’re able to produce really good beers in these places. It’s not the volume that we want. Personally, as myself, I have my limitations. I’ve never worked in a brewery. I need the direction, I need the help to take creativity. I’m really good at recipe development and know exactly what I need to achieve outcome, but at the same time, all the mechanics and logistics in running a manufacturing plant – which is what a brewery is, in essence – it’s not this magical place where beer comes out. It’s like making canned soup. It’s a big kitchen with a lot of equipment, and that’s not my skill set. I’m more than happy to have somebody else handle day to day operations in a brewery and it allows me the time to focus on new concepts and new beers and new marketing strategies and such.