It's rare that DCBeer reports on an individual beer beyond its availability in the DC metro area, but a 4.5% ale made with adjuncts, like corn and rice (which make up 40% of the grain bill), and hops that aren't trendy, like Cluster, Norther Brewer, and Saaz, piqued our interest. Oh, it's also fermented with a farmhouse strain of yeast, and then two strains of Brettanomyces. The beer? It's called Premium, and it's from Stillwater Artisanal Ales. Interested? You should be. Bottles of Premium may still be available. You should also check finer establishments to see if it's on draft. Brian Strumke, the sole employee of Stillwater, graciously agreed to an interview via email to discuss this beer. We're pleased to break the news that this beer will be coming to cans later on this year.
DCBeer: You’ve been labeled a “gypsy brewer.” Where was Stillwater Premium post-Prohibition style ale made?
Brian Strumke: Westbrook Brewing in South Carolina
DCBeer: Why make a beer that’s 4.5%, using corn and rice? It seems as if it’s almost a "statement beer," because those specs are more commonly associated with macro-brewed American adjunct lagers.
Brian Strumke: Premium was absolutely a beer made with a statement. I have worked with deconstruction recipes in the past being food, spirits, cocktails, etc. but Premium is rather a 'reconstruction.’ I wanted to take the baseline ingredients that make up the ironic hipster swill that floods the market and deliver them in a format that would be definitively Stillwater. The concept was part tongue in cheek (the name for instance), while at the same time [it was] a very serious proclamation that it's not always the ingredients that make beers inferior, but often the technique and approach to its construction.
DCBeer: I've heard beer historians talk about how there may have been a time when many British pale ales tasted like Orval due to improper and/or then-unknown sanitation techniques that allowed Brettanomyces to flourish. You've created, or "reconstructed," a very modern beer in the style of post-Prohibition adjunct beers, yet your use of two strains of Brett in this beer strikes me as a throwback. Is this dichotomy within your beer, between modern and pre-modern, intentional, something you grappled with? Can you talk about this for a bit? To me this tension is perhaps the most interesting part of the beer.
Brian Strumke: Great point you bring up, and I am glad that you picked up on the concept. There is a user on Beer Advocate that often quotes in his reviews of my beers "one foot in tradition, the other in outer space." I really like that wording and find it fitting for what we do with Stillwater. So, yes, I did indeed reconstruct this style of beer with a nod to historical brewing while taking a forward thinking approach. This craft beer revolution has brought with it a slew of myths and misconceptions about what makes a beer good or bad, craft or crap, so this is kinda my wrench to throw into the mix.
DCBeer: A similar question with regards to your always meticulous label art, done by Lee Verzosa. The overall motif and themes you and Lee use in label art strike me as very traditional, yet there in the middle of label there's your Internet sign off, a semi-colon and a 7. ";7." Again, I see tension here between modernity and pre-modernity. Your thoughts?
Brian Strumke: Lee and I carry the same philosophy with visual design as in the beer construction. We like to refer to it as 'Old World Psychedelic'… and I see that you picked up on the 'dirty smirk'… that is something that started out as an inside joke between us (like many things), and we are starting to develop it into a project that will come into fruition slowly over the coming year… In the meantime, we are just subliminally sneaking it in where we can. Perhaps it will make more sense in the future (or not).
DCBeer: You've framed Stillwater Premium at least in part as a joke. Who do you expect to get the joke? How easy is it for someone to get the joke given that the beer was made in very limited quantities?
Brian Strumke: While it may be a cheeky concept, it's certainly no joke…Batch #1 was 60BBL and year-round cans are in the works!
DCBeer: The hops (Cluster, Northern Brewer, Saaz) you use in this beer are obscure and perhaps un- or underused by the standards of today’s craft brewers. Why these hops?
Brian Strumke: These are very similar, if not the same hops used in the above stated 'reconstructed' beer. They are classic old school American lager hops, but when used in abundance provide a really cool spicy earth character.
DCBeer: I believe this is the first session-strength beer you've made. What do you session with, and what are you thoughts on the state of session-strength beer at the moment, using 4.5%, the Lew Bryson definition, as the cut off?
Brian Strumke: I personally really enjoy lower ABV beers for their refreshment and drinkability. I think there is a time and place for beers of all strengths and don't want to turn the concept of producing moderate weight craft beers into a trend, I just think the idea of session beers becoming popular again is rubbish.. 90+% of beer drinkers have been and do drink beers between 4-5%. I just think that 'session beer' hype came as a backlash to the popularity of heavyweight extreme beers that took the scene by storm, and while I love to get down with a case of Prima Pils, I also like to session with Orval (6.5%) when I am in Belgium, but that’s how I roll.
DCBeer: What's in your fridge, what are you drinking now?
Brian Strumke: I had a sixer of Slyfox Pils in the fridge, but my 'session' last night depleted that. Currently I am drinking a Multi-Green Kombucha.
DCBeer: Any plans to make more Olde Bay Saison?
Brian Strumke: Full intention, but it's still in negotiation.
DCBeer: You used to be a DJ. Please explain Skrillex.
Brian Strumke: I dunno, man… haven't really heard his stuff.