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American brewers want to sell you on Scottish heavies and Italian grape ales

With more than 5,000 breweries operating in the U.S., it takes creativity for new ventures to stand out. For some, that means mining family heritage and decades living abroad to test Americans’ appetite for imported styles like authentic Scottish wee heavys and Italian grape ales. The challenge: to keep it from turning into a taproom version of Epcot.
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Lochiel Brewing's Ian Cameron with his family tartan | Photo by Jill McNamara for DRAFT

Lochiel Brewing’s Ian Cameron with his family tartan | Photo by Jill McNamara

Brewing winds through Ian Cameron’s family tree like a vine, encircling branches and snaking far down toward its trunk through the 18th and 19th centuries.

The brewer and founder of months-old Lochiel Brewing in Mesa, Arizona, traces his family’s Scottish brewing history back to the 17th century; to this day, Clan Cameron of Lochiel owns a huge tract of land in the verdant, craggy Scottish Highlands, in the general area of Lochabar. The abundance of grain grown there lends itself naturally to distilling and brewing, the latter aided historically by the family’s access to hops through trade partners. For generations, the Camerons brewed their own celebrated brand of Scotch ale that supplied the army—and, at 13% to 14% ABV, kept them warm as well.

A much lower-alcohol version eventually became a commercially produced cask ale. That recipe is, without too much modification, the recipe Cameron uses to brew Lochiel’s wee heavy. His other beers are recreations of Scottish, English and Irish styles that come largely from family recipes.

Lochiel is part of a small group of new breweries specializing in beers that reflect their owners’ heritages and the brewing traditions of other countries. They hope to set themselves apart in an increasingly crowded American brewing field—one in which even small towns boast a handful of breweries filled with ubiquitous Citra-hopped IPAs. But striking a balance between novelty, authenticity and popular appeal has no set roadmap, no matter where you come from.

The first time Cameron thought of himself as carrying on that family brewing legacy, he was, naturally, in Scotland, brewing a cask ale with some distant relatives.

“Actually, it was frustrating. It was a beast of a beer to wrangle with and I was a bit of a greenhorn at brewing then,” he says. “On top of having to understand heavy Scottish accents.”

Back stateside, Cameron honed his homebrewing skills, but on more modern equipment. Once he discovered that the Phoenix area’s high-magnesium and -calcium water profile was nearly perfect for the types of malt-forward beers he was drawn (perhaps by DNA) to, the idea of a commercial brewery began to coalesce. Lochiel opened in October 2016 with seven core beers: a wee heavy, a Scottish porter, an ESB, a Colonial Golden (a wheat-free British version of a golden ale), an Irish red, a Scottish amber and a British mild.

“I figured that the cry for something other than IPAs, IPAs, IPAs here in America was my in,” Cameron says. “It was almost as if the market was wide open there and I just filled it.”

But doesn’t this strict adherence to U.K. styles fly in the face of American brewing’s penchant for innovation, for hops, for fruit, for throwing everything in a weird spirits barrel?

“Authenticity is important to me as a classic brewer. I have super-high standards for the specific style I’m making and my beer must match it, or it gets tossed,” Cameron explains. “I’m not the type to shoot off doing weird things. At the same time, people seem to be searching for a staple craft beer, and my styles lend themselves to daily consumption. That, in turn, helps the brewery become a presence, a permanent presence for people.”

Bringing Birra to Denver

There isn’t the same codified brewing tradition in Italy, where Alex Liberati was born and raised before moving to Denver two years ago to found coming-soon Brewery Liberati, which will specialize in Italian grape ales and traditional Italian food.

“Italy is, more or less, the Galapagos of beer. Brewing developed in a separate environment with no tradition; it evolved in its own crazy way,” says Liberati. “Italians who are 30-years-old-plus don’t much speak English. For the past 15 to 20 years, it was hard to find an Italian brewer who spoke English, so it was harder for them to get into the international brewing community. We developed styles like the Italian grape ale just by experimenting.”

Liberati plans to hang his hat on Italian grape ales, a largely unfamiliar style of beer in the States that’s defined as a beer with a minority portion of grapes (not necessarily of Italian origin) in its recipe. The Beer Judge Certification Program, which sanctions homebrew competitions and creates their stylistic guidelines, added Italian Grape Ale as not much more than a note at the end of an appendix of “local styles” in its 2015 guidelines. According to Liberati, this works in his favor.

“Expect anything,” he says. “To make you an example, if we brewed, theoretically, an American pale ale with one percent sauvignon blanc grape in it, that would by definition still be a grape ale. It would have a strong character of a pale ale, but it would probably show up some notes of Bell peppers, for example, which is characteristic of some sauvignon blanc grapes. That’s one end of the spectrum. The other end is a beer made with 49 percent wine must, aged in a wine barrel and fermented with wine yeast; on that end of the spectrum, you’re looking at something much more wine than beer, maybe even served flat and around 12% in alcohol. That’s how broad this thing is. It’s hard to define it, that’s why it’s going to be good for us.” Serving beer and food that are true to what Italians enjoy is Liberati’s sole focus.

Though he cops to enjoying Domino’s pizza occasionally (“you want to call it pizza, fine,”), Liberati says Americanized versions of Italian food won’t be on his menu when the brewery opens this fall.

“I don’t want to do the chicken Alfredo thing. We just don’t have that in Italy,” he says. “We want to reproduce the reality of food there. We’d like to do something closer to what we’ve been used to eating in the past 30 years of our lives there.”

That means adjusting the Denver tap water pH for his pizza dough recipe, finding the right source of flour for perfectly textured pasta, and learning where to draw the line between compromise and sticking to his guns.

“We are restaurateurs and want to know what our clientele thinks. We might love zucchini a la scapece, but maybe the clientele doesn’t,” Liberati says. “But then, for example, unfortunately some of the neighborhood here has asked us to open for breakfast … In Italy we don’t really have breakfast; it’s a croissant and a cup of coffee, so we will never be able to compromise on that.”

Down Under Meets Houston

Compromise, blending, assimilation, overlap— whatever you want to call it, Houston’s Platypus Brewing hopes the less-than-a-year-old brewery hits a sweet spot between the managing partners’ Australian roots and the area’s Texas attitude.

“The risk was that we’d just go way too far with the Aussie theme and it would get cheesy,” says Australian-born partner Sean Hanrahan. “We’re looking for a nice blend of Australia and Texas, showing through in the menu and the beer and the atmosphere. In Houston, we’re looking at people who take life seriously but also know how to kick back and relax and not make too much of a fuss about it. There’s a wonderful synergy of the cultures there.”

Platypus hopes to carve a niche with its handful of Australian-leaning beers like the flagship Bobby Dazzler Australian Ale as well as with pub food like an Australian meat pie and sausage roll. Many of the beer styles will be familiar to American palates, but heavy use of Aussie hops including Vic Secret and Topaz should help set them apart.

Head brewer Kerry Embertson also has plans to use Australian-grown fruits and herbs in upcoming beers—if she can get them. She has her eye on a saison brewed with wattleseed, the edible seeds of Australian acacia trees, but she’s not sure they can be imported to the U.S. Embertson herself is not Australian, but says Platypus is about merging the cultures of Australia and Texas, not trying to recreate it exactly.

“If it was just me trying to replicate Australian beers, that would be lame,” Embertson says. “But when you have a guy with a thick Australian accent walking around, people trust it.”

2 Comments

  • Tim Hamlin says:

    Hey Kate, Thanks for doing this piece on one of my favorite new breweries here in the Greater Phoenix area. Ian is in a class all his own when it comes to brewing. Looking forward to seeing many great things coming out of Lochiel Brewing in the future.

  • Ken Howes says:

    I know that cry for something other than IPA, IPA, IPA. I don’t know what happened, but along about 5-7 years ago, it seems that all anyone wanted to brew or sell was IPA. I don’t want to be overpowered by hops. Hops are the spice on the beer; they’re not the heart of the beer. That’s the malt. I’d be interested in sampling Mr. Cameron’s original Scotch ale with the 13-14% alcohol; my guess is that it would take the Belgian Quadrupel (something I like) one better.

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