Dennis R. Hock of Draai Laag Brewing Company

Going Pro by | Aug 2016 | Issue #115
Photo by Noah Purdy

Dennis R. Hock eschews traditional styles in favor of singularity. He embraces rustic flavors, and sets his beers down for long periods of aging in barrels spiked with wild yeasts and bacteria. In a brewhouse just outside Pittsburgh, Hock embraces the wild critters floating through the air to create beers that could only come from Pittsburgh. “I look at beer as liquid art,” Hock says. “There are so many organisms out there that we’ve yet to find. We’re foraging for new organisms, and manipulating them to make new flavors we never knew existed. And when you find them, you say, ‘Wow! I discovered that!’”

1. Study up
Hock was brewing wild beers long before he could drink them. Fascinated by the science and art of fermentation, the teenager made a deal with his mother: He could experiment with all the beer he wanted, as long as he didn’t drink it. So he brewed, gave the beer away to his neighbors, and catalogued their feedback. He devoured books on brewing, biochemistry, and microbiology. He sharpened his technique, honed his recipe formulation skills, and learned how to layer flavors. And then, once he actually started drinking, the world opened up.

2. Find inspiration
While Hock’s brewing chops came from years of experimentation at home, his deep respect for brewing culture has European origins. Touring the continent in between military deployments, he favored small village pubs over the clubs his buddies frequented. He marveled at the variations on styles he would find, and the flavors that were only commercially available one place on earth. And he became convinced that there was no reason American brewers couldn’t follow that example.

3. Import the basics
Two revelations from Europe defined the way Hock built Draai Laag Brewing. First, if Belgian brewers could pull beer-friendly microorganisms out of the air, it should be scientifically possible for Hock to do the same thing in Pittsburgh. Second, marrying wild organisms with wort shouldn’t cost millions of dollars. Hock recalls a trip to Wales, where he tasted exemplary ales that came from a wood-fired mash tun. “The brewer told me, ‘You don’t need new equipment to make great beer, you just need to know how to make great beer,’” Hock says. “Boom—that was like an explosion in my brain.”

4. Break the rules
Hock founded Draai Laag in 2009 with a brewing system he built from $800 in spare parts. To this day, he and part-owner and head brewer Tony Zamperini brew on a hand-built brewhouse, and ferment in converted dairy tanks. There’s a straight line running from Belgian brewers’ historic disregard for German brewing strictures, and Hock’s desire to carve out a wild beer niche in a city dominated by hop-forward ales. “I love this wild world because there are no rules,” Hock says. “You use whatever you want to, and create something different.”

5. Build momentum, wherever it comes from
Hock figured Draai Laag, like other startup breweries, would begin small and local and grow from there. “We were the first ones in town to concentrate on wild Belgian- and French-inspired beers, but I thought, as long as the quality is good, people will buy it.” He adds, “I was very, very wrong.” Draai Laag struggled selling a niche product to a market that wasn’t fully ready for it. Hooking up with Shangy’s, a distributor that expanded its reach to Philadelphia, and, more recently, a broad footprint through the Shelton Brothers importers, created momentum that has, in turn, fed growth locally.

6. Keep a deep Rolodex
Hock is committed to using simple raw ingredients, and then driving layers of complexity through funky microorganisms. Recenty, Draai Laag fermented ice cream in a beer called Black Dinosaur and made another with peaches and Penicillium roqueforti, the mold used to make blue cheese. “We rely on the organisms to do the work,” Hock says. “We know them intimately. We’ve categorized these strains through tons of notebooks, so we know what organism does what in which situation, and we can Rolodex it.”

7. Hunt with science
Draai Laag embraces airborne biodiversity, systematically hunting out new wild microorganisms, mapping local agriculture, topography, and wind patterns to identify prime spots to intercept wild critters. “Swabbing fruit is great, but you’re not going to get a lot of diversity,” Hock argues. By going full geek, and applying a fluid dynamics analysis to wind patterns and local agricultural geography and topography, Hock sets himself up to capture a broad range of wild yeast and bacteria that give his beers a uniquely funky, and uniquely local, bent.

8. Stay wild
Hock isolated and cultured Wild Angels yeast from a spontaneous fermentation experiment. Wild Angels is finicky: It doesn’t like fermenting on fruit, and it resists mixed fermentations. On its own, though, the wild yeast is an unlikely star that presents itself in vastly different ways for three vastly different beers. In CRU, a wild Old Ale, the yeast leaves layers of sourness on top of a roasted base. In Geestelijke, a funky farmhouse built on Pilsner malt, it lays back, drawing an aromatic lemon nose from the malt. And in R2 Koelschip, a spontaneous farmhouse ale, it comes forward with a restrained tartness. The indigenous yeast strain means these beers don’t, and couldn’t, exist anywhere else in the world.

9. Go antiquing
By chance, Hock ended up with an antique cabinet from a 17th-century French monastery. And, because his brain is wired the way it is, Hock worked with Zamperini to crack into that cabinet in search of historic French yeast cells. “We extracted something, and we fermented a beer out of it, and you’ve never tasted a beer like it in your life,” Hock says of the resulting recipe, dubbed Relic. A base of red wheat and Pilsner malt, virtually unhopped, gives the Relic yeast room to run and jump, from citrus tones in the nose, to tart sandalwood notes on the tongue, to a tart, lactic finish. It’s a testament to Draai Laag’s mission. “That thing would’ve been dead and gone,” he says, “if we didn’t have the mentality of using our terroir to create something different.”