Barrel Culture Brewing & Blending
Durham, North Carolina
You may notice in the photo above that the beer inside the glass seems especially vibrant. According to Barrel Culture founder Steve English, that’s no accident.
“We spend a lot of time thinking about the presentation,” English says. He likes to bring up a story he read in which a researcher presented a group of sommeliers with white wines turned red with food coloring. “Suddenly, these supposed experts were calling out flavors like cherry and plum—flavors you’d only find in a red wine. It really inspired me to read and research more about color and the visual impact on flavor. I think that really takes the beer to the next level.”
But vibrant hues alone don’t get you on Untappd’s list of the top-rated breweries in the world (Barrel Culture was standing strong at #16 at our last check). Especially not when your brewery isn’t even officially open yet.
So how does that happen? For Barrel Culture, it started with yeast. Months ago, English and his brewery partner/blender-in-training Jared Strauss built up stock of 65 batches of yeast and bacteria blends, which he left in jars to ferment. He eventually narrowed those 65 down to 30, and those 30 down to 17, which he used to brew 17 different beers. After testing the results for himself, English packaged the beers and handed out the “ghost bottles” to friends, family and random visitors. The word-of-mouth marketing from these brews was powerful; without a website, email address of phone number (all its info is on a Facebook page), Barrel Culture built such a cult following that people started lining up at 7 p.m. the day before its first true bottle release. More than 1,000 people came to visit the brewery taproom during the actual event.
“We had gotten some good feedback initially, but were worried it was an American Idol situation, where your friends tell you you’re a great singer and then you get in front of some actual judges and learn the truth,” English says. “But it wasn’t like that at all. It was unreal. They drank like 400 gallons, five ounces at a time.”
English and Strauss attribute a big piece of their popularity to their work with fruit. “We spend a lot of time tweaking our base beer, trying to match it perfectly with each different fruit,” Strauss says. They’re always trying new produce to create interesting flavor combinations, English says. “We have a Smoothie King down the street, so I go there all the time and harass them to let me try new fruit.” Plans are in place for a monthly super-small-batch series of bottle releases featuring expensive and rare fruits such as mangosteen, which plays into English’s plan to “gamify” Barrel Culture’s beer releases. “I have a bachelor of science in game design, so I want to see how we can make this fun for people,” he says. “We want to see how hardcore people will be, what limits they’ll go to to get the beer.” He’ll find out soon: Barrel Culture soft-opened September 1.
Speciation Artisan Ales
Comstock Park, Michigan (a suburb of Grand Rapids)
Mitch Ermatinger’s brewing biography begins with what he calls “the stereotypical college story:” Thirsty for beer, he and three friends went in on some homebrewing equipment together. Not so typical, however, is where they ended up. Three of the guys—Ermatinger included—eventually landed jobs as pro brewers. (The other found religion and became a priest. “I have no idea how that happened,” Ermatinger says.)
Ermatinger’s first gig was a doozy: He signed on with Former Future Brewing Co., the Denver, Colorado-based predecessor to Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales. Not only did owners Sarah and James Howat educate Ermatinger on the intricacies of operating a brewery (“I would consider them our mentors; they guided us through everything,” he says), but they also instilled in him an appreciation for sours that would eventually shift the plans for his brewery from one focused on low-ABV session beers to one fully devoted to wild ales. After two years, he returned to Grand Rapids to begin the business of bringing wild ale to the masses. And cousin, business is a-boomin’.
“It’s been way crazier than I expected it to be,” Ermatinger says. “We didn’t know if the Grand Rapids market was quite ready for an all-sour brewery, but people have been really excited about our beers. I planned to release one or two 10-barrel batches a month, and now I’m doing three a month and will be up to four by end of year. That’s a ridiculous amount of sour beer.”
It’s especially absurd considering the work and time that often goes into making wild ales, many of which might ferment for years before they’re ready to sell. But through methods he developed while at Black Project that combine aspects of traditional spontaneous fermentation with more modern techniques, Ermatinger creates nuanced wild ales that can be fully fermented within two or three months.
“We’re introducing some wild aspects of the environment, but not a ton; just enough to get a little nuance from batch to batch,” he says.
The catch? The brewery’s only open to the public one day a month, on every second Saturday, and only to people who signed up to buy bottles online a week before. The process fulfills two purposes, Ermatinger says. First, it enables him to sell bottles directly to customer. And second: no lines. “I hate waiting in line for beer, so it was a priority for us to not have any lines,” Ermatinger says. “It’s good for marketing, but I just hate it. I don’t think anyone who’s come here has waited longer than five minutes.” Ermatinger certainly could have lines if he wanted them; a 10-barrel batch of one of his fruit-infused beer, such as the golden sour ale Incipient, usually sells out in 10 minutes.
Though he’s incredibly happy with his current success, Ermatinger says some changes are in store for his young brewery. Long-term, he says, the focus will be on expanding his fully spontaneous fermentation program. (He’s especially excited about the Laurentian Spontaneous Series, a sequence of wild ales fermented via coolship at each of the Great Lakes with the goal of capturing their unique bacterial terroir.) A bigger priority, however, is to take advantage of Grand Rapids’ huge beer tourism market by opening a tasting room. Ermatinger hopes to have that done in about a year; he’ll probably have to get used to lines before then.