The Gypsy Brewer of Craft Beers
By Michael Vyskocil
It used to be that Budweiser and Coors Light were names synonymously linked with the cold ones you knocked down in between innings at the ballpark or during your own at-home happy hour. Now there are Belgian-style ales and other types of craft beer attracting attention among beer enthusiasts. And thanks to the efforts of individuals like Brian Strumke, people are sitting up in their easy chairs and taking notice.
Strumke, the founder of Stillwater Artisanal Ales, is the equivalent of a musical conductor. Although he has a musical background, Strumke now spends his days dealing in barley and hops, rather than bass clefs and half notes. The 35-year-old brewmaster concocts hand-crafted, Belgian-inspired beers. He calls Baltimore his home, but you won’t find a Stillwater Ales production facility in Charm City. That’s because Strumke, a self-described “gypsy brewer,” prefers to work with some of the world’s renowned brewers to transform raw ingredients into ales that defy strict categorization. He’s worked with some 25 different breweries in the past 2 1/2 years he’s been in the beer business. This year, he was ranked 58th in the top 1,000 best brewers in the world by ratebeer.com.
A self-taught home brewer who stepped up to the big leagues of the beer industry, Strumke is in the process of opening his first Baltimore business venture, a market and tavern called Of Love & Regret, to showcase the best of artisanal, craft beers.
Contract brewing, or renting another individual’s tanks to produce beer, poses unique challenges for brewers. Because of the inability to keep watch over the product during its fermentation and conditioning, one has to rely on individuals to carefully monitor the investment. And that’s fine as far as Strumke is concerned. “I didn’t have a million dollars to build a brewery. I don’t know how to weld. I don’t know how to fix the glycol system,” he says, noting that he also didn’t want to brew someone else’s beer as an apprentice.
“Getting into brewing was kind of like scratching my creative itch,” he says. “I wanted to create original beers. I wanted them to be an expression of what’s going on with me.”
Strumke’s discerning eye for quality is evident in his selection of breweries he chooses to work with. Take his Of Love & Regret, for instance – a creation brewed at ’tHofboruwerijke in Beerzel, Belgium. He brews in the saison (farmhouse-style) tradition with the addition of unusual ingredients like lavender and chamomile, dandelion and violets. But don’t think these ales are like a dose of herbal tea. The subtle undertones of the ingredients contribute to the overall aromatic quality and hearty flavor of the ales.
The complexity of flavor, moderate alcohol content and a crisp finish are some of the distinctive features of Stillwater Ales products.
When Strumke is in the U.S. (he recently returned from a brewing expedition in France when he sat down for a discussion with the Frederick Gorilla at Frederick’s Volt Restaurant), his choices for breweries are also local. DOG Brewing Co. of Westminster, Maryland, brews his aptly-named Stateside series of beers.
Beers in a Rocky Market
The Brewers Association, an organization made up of more than 1,400 brewery members, reported that in 2010, beer sales were down in the U.S. by an estimated 1.2 percent and 1.3 percent in 2011. But during that same period, the craft brewing industry rose 13 percent by volume and 15 percent in dollar amounts in 2011.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that with the variety of styles and flavors to choose from, Americans are developing a strong taste for high quality, small-batch beer from independent brewers,” says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association.
Most beer introductory manuals will identify saison as a type or style of beer, but Strumke views his own beers as transcending a specific style. He also says that beer rankings, such as those by ratebeer.com, beeradvocate.com and others, are just that – rankings. “If you’re putting a product or something out there for the public, it’s going to be judged and you’re going to be open to criticism,” he says. “Not everybody is a proper judge, but that’s life. I’d still be doing what I’m doing with or without the rankings.”
A Sip of Saison
Stateside Saison was the first beer Strumke and Stillwater introduced to the market. It’s made with the finest European malts and incorporates hops from New Zealand. Saison is fermented using a traditional farmhouse style of ale yeast.
Then there’s A Saison Darkly, an ale that takes its cues from its deep, dark color. This beer contains slight hints of flavors imparted by the addition of rose hips, hibiscus and Schisandra berries.
Débutante resulted from collaboration between Stillwater Ales and The Brewer’s Art, a Baltimore-based institution that, according to Strumke, “helped to pioneer the Belgian beer movement in the States.” Brewed with both spelt and rye, it also incorporates flavors of the “h trio” – heather, honeysuckle and hyssop.
Strumke’s labels are also unique and an embodiment of his brewing style. His Existent label, for instance, bears an image of and a quote from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Call it a social commentary on Strumke’s approach to the world of craft beers. “This is an ale for you to define,” he says.
Did You Know?
The Farm Brewery Manufacturer’s License Bill was introduced into the Maryland state legislature earlier this year. The bill will allow Maryland farmers to acquire a permit allowing them to brew and sell as much as 15,000 barrels of beer per year from their farm. Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the bill into law on May 22. The bill goes into effect July 1. Learn more about the provisions of the bill here: http://mlis.state.md.us/2012rs/bills/hb/hb1126t.pdf