About once a year, we like to check in with Baltimore-based globe-traveling brewer Brian Strumke, the sole employee and owner of Stillwater Ales. Previous installments can be found here and here. Below Jake Berg talks with Brian about the Stillwater Remix project, new releases and formats, and the possibility of more brick and mortar locations for Stillwater creations in a lightly edited interview.
DCBeer: How did the remix project get started? Was Omnipollo the first? Who's idea was it?
Brian Strumke: It was another idea of mine that was derived from my days as a musician. I did many remixes of other artists’ material that were then released into the market. The idea of taking the core idea or theme of an artist's work and deconstructing/reconstructing it to possess attributes that are defining of the 'remixing' artist’s aesthetic always intrigued me as you could at times deliver ideas and concepts to an audience that may not necessarily indulge in the original (or vice versa). This seemed like the ultimate collaboration idea for me, and with the true concept of the project in mind I do my best to choose beers that stylistically are far removed from the work I do as Stillwater. This way there is an obvious difference be be had with the remix, and a completely new product is formed while still maintaining elements of the originating beer (or else it would be a 'clone' project and not a remix). I decided to start with my friends Henok & Karl from Omnipollo as they work in a very similar fashion to myself and my artist Lee, working almost more as artists then brewers per se, and they also seemed like the most obvious team to help me finish the other portion of the project and that was also having the visual artists involved remix the art for the label.
D: When you remix a song, what are you looking for? Are you trying to bring something in that song that's buried out to the forefront? Do you get a vibe or a theme from the song that you want to highlight, and how does that tie into the beer? Do you really like a particular aspect of the beer that you want to focus on, that you want to the consumer to realize? Also, does the remix make you think differently about the original?
BS: When remixing a song it's always important to integrate the obvious signifying elements of the original tune, but it is the remixing artist's job to focus in on specific non-frontal elements that are sometimes buried under the leading characteristics on the work. This is where the 'art' idea of remixing anything comes into play; artists are supposed to have a vision that transcends the obvious. When working this into beer it's quite the same, and for this reason I am also choosing beers that have defining elements to work with as well as subtle nuances that can be expanded upon. For instance I would not choose to do a remix on a standard pale ale or any other basic BJCP-styled beer, because even if the beer is 100% perfect to style, it is designed to be perceived as just that, a pale ale; and any unique character added to that equation is considered a flaw in that realm, so there isn't much to work with there. So I am choosing to work with cutting-edge brewers that are creating unique offerings that have elements to break apart and expand upon… and there is nothing better than deconstructing something to help you understand it.
D: Let's introduce some further complexity, because a beer like Stillwater Premium is, in a way, already a remix, no? It's your take on American adjunct beer, which is, in turn, BudMillerCoor's take on a German-style lager. So, what are the signifying elements of German lager in an American adjunct lager that are also present in Premium and its remix? Or, what aspect(s) of Premium did you want to highlight in its remix, and why?
BS: Very very good point there… and I suppose that was a success in many ways as I did deconstruct the post-Prohibition American macro-adjunct-lager when creating Premium… and at the same time devised a beer that while constructed from elements of the previous, showed enough unique character to stand on its own as an original work that could again be deconstructed and remixed. If my 'Premium' is the OG remix, then I guess the elements I did my best to capture and pull from were the lean dry body due to rice and mild perceived sweetness presented from the use of corn, I then pulled from the subtle aspects of the original, hops and yeast… while I may have turned the yeast character up to 11 on Premium, that worked as macro-lagers inherently have no yeast profile… and hops? Hops in macro-lagers are so mild that they are often overlooked completely, so I delved deep into their character and pulled them out to the front to express them which lead to a beer (that while is hopped at an aroma and flavor rate similar to many IPAs) with a unique hop presence that most beer drinkers perceive as "mildly hoppy," but it's actually the hoppiest beer Stillwater produces (that and its sister Classique)… but the aroma and flavor that these 'unfashionable' old school American hops bring to the table are not the big citrus bomb current beer fans are accustomed to… so essentially I wasn't really remixing a specific beer so-to-say, but more so I was being cheeky and deconstructing a style as I didn't think anything could get naughtier in the craft beer world then to produce a beer with those elements… and also succeed.
D: How is the Omnipollo beer made? When you remix a song, you can sample it, take snippets of the original and move it to the remix track. With brewing, it's a bit different, right? You're starting from scratch with the same or similar ingredients, but not actually using the beer, correct?
BS: When remixing a beer we are not using the other beer (well, not yet) but the elements are obtainable such as types of malt or hops… but it's more of a cerebral breakdown… working off the concept of the beer and the elements that signify it as a unique product. Omnipollo decided to ramp up the body and ABV a bit on Premium and then include a lovely bright fruity hop profile that definitely speaks out the the hop heads out there.
D: A follow up to that is if you're familiar with Adroit Theory Brewing out of Virginia. Adroit Theory made a beer called Cannibalism. instead of brewing with water, they used kegs of macro lager, and turned it into a milk stout.
BS: That's pretty cool idea… I am guessing they boiled it down enough to remove the alcohol prior to fermentation?
D: I believe so, and it was a small batch. They started with three kegs being boiled down.
BS: Right on… cheeky indeed.
D: So, back to the remixes, how do you decide what to remix, and with whom?
BS: Well like most of my collabs I choose to work with people I relate to and those who I consider friends… also in order to have these released in tandem we run everything through the 12% Imports distributor network so they can be released as a set. When after choosing a partnering artist, I then pick a style that really exemplifies them as a brewery and also may be substantially different than any beer Stillwater would create on its own, not style – but 'beer.'
D: So a gose, for example: Westbrook has a really good one in a can, so they're a natural fit for a sour German-style ale (for the Gose Gone Wild remix)?
BS: I would not say that German style is their main thing per se, but their gose was one of the beers that really put them on the map, and they are quite known for. It's also important to pick beers that have had some acclaim and has been tasted by many that way people can understand the differences in the remixed counterpart.
D: In that sense, are some of these beers not only a Stillwater remix, but a remix of something from the partnering brewery? Is your work with Westbrook as much a remix of their gose as it is a remix of your beer?
BS: I do my best to keep my works crafted to the parameters of Stillwater and not the housing brewery that I use… that is why my beers maintain a particular profile no matter where they are produced. In the case of the Westbrook we did merge some of the production parameters to produce it, but that is what the project is about, and we would have done the same even if I produced my version of the remix elsewhere.
D: How many remixes are there, and how many are in the works?
BS: So far it's Omnipollo, Westbrook, Evil Twin, and Against the Grain, with more to come of course.
D: Any plans to have 12% do a box set?
BS: Actually was discussing that this week… I would really love to, but it is a logistical nightmare.
D: Outside of remixes, anything else going on? New 4-pack bottles, new cans?
BS: Oh indeed… we just released Of Love And Regret, A Saison Darkly, & Debutante in 4 packs… and we have a lovely new canned offering in the works under the name 'Psycho Delicate'… I also started a barrel aged project at my friend’s new brewery (Faction Brewing) in Oakland, CA where I have a slew of funky beers aging in used wine barrels up upcoming blends and such to be released.
D: Any info on Psycho?
BS: I’ll leave that vague for now… but let's just say it's going to be bright, vibrant, and refreshing.
D: Fair enough. Speaking of the bay area, I see that Mikkeller has a bar open there, any plans to do anything like that?
BS: Actually yes… there have been plans being formed for some time now… we'll see what develops in the near future.
D: In the Bay area, or on the east coast?
BS: There are talks of both. I have some concepts worked out, but the first half of this year was consumed with expanding my global reach and travel.
D: Is the second half going to be about putting down more roots?
BS: I visited and brewed in five continents in the past three months, so the second half is a bit more about strengthening the roots of Stillwater and also growing our global market that I been working to set up.
D: And in terms of production, you can meet global demand?
BS: I felt like 2013 was the year of (in musician terms) remastering all my older works. I moved majority of my core products from a 15BBL brewhouse to a 100BBL and with that said, our production capacity is by far higher than it has ever been before. We like to maintain our cult status and spread the beer around the world… but now when something takes off (like Classique did) we can ramp up and meet the demand. And now that we have transitioned over, i have more freedom as an artist to create new works!
D: Excellent, so what are you thinking of?
BS: More cerebral concepts and artistic composition of beers… many of them inspired by my travels this year to new places like Japan, Australia, and Brazil.
D: In terms of ingredients? Process? Something you noticed there?
BS: In some cases… but more so beers designed from experiences in these places… for instance there is one from Brazil coming up that was related to a unique Amazonian ritual that I participated in. As mentioned time and time before, Stillwater is more an art project then a brewing company. There is also some cool new Sensory Series collabs in the pipeline. Tennis from Colorado is next up, and I'm flying down to Louisville, KY next week to work with Will Oldham (Bonnie 'Prince' Billy) and a new band called Watter (members of Slint & Grails) as a three-way collaboration to be released this fall.
D: Very cool. Thanks, Brian.