Jason Pellett of Orpheus Brewing

Going Pro by | Jan 2016 | Issue #108

When Jason Pellett took up brewing several years ago, it was because he was geeking out on a newfound love of sour beers, and couldn’t find enough bottles around Atlanta to satisfy his cravings. At Orpheus Brewing, the Atlanta brewery he launched in 2014, Pellett has gone to lengths to act as an evangelist for beers that push drinkers’ palates, and to help carve out a local market for sour and funky flavors among more casual beer drinkers. “We sell more sour beer outside the city than inside it,” Pellett says. “We’re selling to people who want to drink something that’s a little different, but still familiar and wine-like. There’s definitely a beer geek side to it, but I also get a lot of people saying, ‘This is my first sour.’ At our tasting room, ninety percent of the people who come in are from the neighborhood, and they’ve never had a sour beer.”

1. Embark on a quest
Jason Pellett remembers his first taste of Flanders Red Ale. The beer was unlike anything he’d ever drank before, and it resonated deeply with him. “I immediately went out on a quest to find out what else could be done like that,” he recalls. Pellett began devouring information about sours and farmhouse styles. He scoured bar beer menus for new expressions of the styles. And, when he couldn’t buy enough of the stuff, he decided to start brewing it himself.

2. Obsess
Pellett says he was drawn to sour styles by “the huge variety of flavors you can get from a sour beer, and the depth of flavors that come from a more complex fermentation.” The jump from drinker to brewer wasn’t a great one, Pellett says, because he was such an obsessive drinker. “I read everything I could about every beer I drank. So as an obsessive hobbyist drinker, I already had a fair amount of knowledge about what was going into these mixed fermentations. And for the same reason, it was very easy to get obsessed with brewing these beers.”

3. Find your zen
There’s no science degree in Pellett’s background; he’s a trained orchestral trumpet player. He’s learned to master the operational side of running a brewhouse because he had to, to stay in business. Pellett credits Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for helping to show a music major how to troubleshoot mechanical failures: “I’ve never been somebody who was purely mechanical. But when something gets in the way, if you keep working at it, methodically, from different directions, you can get through it. In my prior life, I’d spend eight hours in a practice room, going over the same two measures. That transferred. When a pump breaks, you look at it, figure out how it works, and then fix it.”

4. Avoid gimmicks
Orpheus Brewing produces a range of sour and wild beers, modern farmhouse styles and juicy IPAs. In the coming year, Pellett will triple the size of his barrel-aging program, and begin distributing barrel-aged and blended releases in earnest. “I always said, if I was going to open a brewery, I didn’t want to make beer you could already buy,” he says. “And on the other hand, I don’t like the idea of just making something because it’s crazy and gimmicky. I hate when people talk about sour beers like something to work up to or get used to.”

5. Create an alternative
Atalanta, a soured plum Saison that’s Orpheus Brewing’s flagship ale, started as a frozen dessert. “I had this sour plum popsicle from a local popsicle maker, and I thought, this needs to be a beer,” Pellett says. He brewed the first batch the next week, and continued to hone the recipe until it became something to build a brewery around. Fermented with French Saison yeast and spiked with the brewery’s house mix of lactic bugs, the beer has a clean, lemony tartness, offset by the spicy yeast, and deep fruit flavors. “People like wine, sour candy and fruit, and that’s how we’ve portrayed our beers. You don’t have to drink wine; you can drink Atalanta.”

6. Explore the possibilities
Lyric Ale, Orpheus’ aromatic, hoppy farmhouse ale, was originally Pellett’s attempt to play around with hop flavors without making an IPA. He wasn’t a fan of the bitter IPAs that dominated the market at the time, but, he says, “I love the possibilities of hops.” Several years ago, before he was exposed to the new wave of Vermont-brewed IPAs, Pellett dreamed up a beer that wound up being the farmhouse cousin of Heady Topper—a pale, light-bodied Saison that favors fruity and aromatic hops over bracing bitterness. Pellett has since brought his yeast onto more equal footing with Lyric Ale’s soft, fruity Hallertau Blanc, Galaxy and Azacca hops, but the beer remains a meditation on late-addition hops, without being delivered in a standard IPA.

7. Stake a claim
In January, Orpheus will debut its first year-round IPA. The new recipe will complement a rotation of seasonal IPAs, but up until now, Pellett has gone to lengths to de-emphasize the style in his lineup. “It happens a lot that, when people open with a bunch of beers, and there’s an IPA in the bunch, that’s the beer people think about,” Pellett says. “I wanted Orpheus to be known for something other than that one IPA. I wanted people to think of Atalanta as our flagship.” A year and a half into operations, Pellett says, Orpheus’ identity has become well established enough that it’s not going to be overrun by one kickass IPA. “Plus, it’s kind of selfish, but in the tasting room, sometimes I just want that IPA to drink.”

8. Be distinct
The IPAs Pellett rotates into production seasonally—a session ale brewed with Mandarina Bavaria and Wakatu, a single IPA hopped with Hallertau Blanc and Azacca, and a Double IPA with Azacca, Apollo, Wakatu, Galaxy and Mosaic—are all riffs on the same theme. They’re light-bodied, and loaded with late additions of juicy, fruity, aromatic new hop varieties. Until recently, Pellett says, that flavor profile didn’t exist in Georgia. As he did with Belgian sours while homebrewing, when Pellett wanted to drink beers with that new IPA profile, he had to brew them himself. “These are really made for my taste,” he says. “They’re current versions of the kind of brewing I was doing with those early batches of Lyric Ale.”

9. Practice patience
The barrel room at Orpheus is stocked with 100 barrels, full of Saisons and Old Ales aging on wood and slowly growing funky. Pellett is only now beginning to harvest wild barrels he filled shortly after opening; the 200 new barrels he’s about to put into rotation won’t pay off for years. For Pellett, it’s worth the wait; he views the recipes he’ll be able to draw out of those barrels as the height of brewer’s art. “I love the idea of blending to get a depth you don’t get in non-barrel beers,” he says. “A good Geuze has more depth than anything else out there. In the end, there’s more control, and more possibilities for depth. There’s such a wide variety of flavors to bring together, flavors that would never happen on their own.”