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Dan Weirback of Weyerbacher Brewing Company
In a dozen-odd years of professional brewing, Weyerbacher Brewing Company’s Dan Weirback has traded restrained English-style Ales for big, brawling Belgians, bourbon barrels, and imperialized… well, whatever he can make an Imperial, he will.
1. Why not?
A friend first introduced Weirback to homebrewing in the 1980s. He’d already been an avid “microbrew connoisseur,” so brewing his own beer was a logical next step. And, from homebrewing, brewing on a commercial scale wasn’t far away. In late 1993, Weirback was a businessman in need of a business. He’d previously owned a swimming pool service company and a potato chip distribution route. While vacationing in Vermont, he and his wife toured a brewery. “She said, ‘Why don’t you look into starting one of these?’ Two years later, we produced our first batch of beer.”
2. Innovation is relative
Weyerbacher Brewing launched with two beers, a Pale Ale and an ESB. Neither recipe has survived. “At the time, the craft brew industry was just beginning to emerge in a big way, and we thought we’d have some session beers with an English-style slant to the brewery,” Weirback says, laughing. “That’s how we first perceived ourselves, and it’s certainly not where we are now. It is kind of strange. We wanted to be more interesting, that’s why we went British style, and maybe get some nice Goldings hops in there—we thought that was really innovative!”
3. When the pie shrinks, bake a cake
The brewery’s original recipe portfolio has given way to big innovative beers, thanks to the collapse of the ’90s microbrew bubble. “We had a fad upsurge, as opposed to the true upsurge we have now, with truly interested fans and consumers,” Weirback recalls. “We were doing great, then all of a sudden, the fad crested and the bottom dropped out. The core piece that was left was much, much smaller, so what we’re left with is one of a million Pale Ales out there, with Sierra Nevada always outselling everybody by a mile.” The answer to surviving, it turned out, was to brew something other than another Pale Ale.
4. You can’t predict success
Weirback says his brewery’s embracement of big beers as a sales leader wasn’t premeditated. When he first brewed Blithering Idiot, his Barleywine, “I expected it to be a lark,” he admits. “I thought we’d do it, and then get back to trying to figure out how to gain some major interest in our other beers. It ended up being so popular, we listened to the customers and started doing more big beers.” The brewery bowed to consumer demand, and a Raspberry Imperial Stout, a Dubbel, a Tripel, and the nation’s first bottled Quadrupel followed. “We kind of backed into it, I guess.”
5. The ultimate beer judge: your tongue
Understandably, Weirback has a complicated relationship with beer style guidelines. He launched as a traditional English-style brewery, and his Belgian brews don’t deviate too radically from established style guidelines. Others, like an Imperial Pumpkin Ale (the malts’ caramel flavors have been dialed way, way up), or Blasphemy (Quad aged in bourbon barrels) border on, well, blasphemy. The point, Weirback insists, is to “try and do something unique, something that hasn’t been done before. Sometimes it’s within style, sometimes it’s totally un-styled. But it’s still got to work as a beer. It’s still got to taste good.”
6. Catch-alls catch none
While styles give brewers and consumers a reference point to work from, they can be problematic for both groups, Weirback says. In fact, he fears that today’s craft industry is evolving to the point where excellence is difficult to recognize. “I think something has to be reconciled there, ultimately. There are a lot of good beers out there that couldn’t win any medals because they don’t fit a style guideline. And having a catch-all category, like Strong Ale or Special Ale, that’s not really fair, either—you’ve got a hundred beers in that category that are all entirely different from each other.”
7. Think different
A brewery trip to Belgium cemented Weyerbacher’s orientation toward big, unique beers. Face-time with Rochefort 10 and Westvleteren 12 convinced Weirback to brew his own Quad, and trips to the Trappist breweries helped with technique and spicing. More than that, though, “What I saw in Belgium was that every one of these beers was fairly different. There were many great non-styled beers there, and that’s what these little breweries did—they had to be unique to make a living.”
8. Take a great idea, and make it better
Right now, Weyerbacher is wringing uniqueness out of the staggeringly popular Double IPA. The brewery uses 100 percent Simcoe hops, a variety of hops that’s low in cohumulone. The result is a beer that manages to come in at 80 IBU without punishing the tongue at all; it’s incredibly aromatic but not harsh, and has the citrus sweetness that’s characteristic of a wet-hopped beer. “It started as an experimental thing to say, what would it be like to brew it, what would it be like to drink it? And then you have the second generation come in and say, let’s take the idea and finesse it—that’s where we’re at right now, and that’s what Double Simcoe’s all about.”
9. Sour can be sweet
Weirback is also attempting to finesse Brettanomyces. He brews a Dark Amber Ale with raspberries, infects it with a cultured Brett strain and ages it in spent bourbon barrels. The Brett’s sourness combines with the raspberry tartness and is balanced by the malty backbone in a way that’s balanced and nuanced, Weirback says. “They go together really nicely, and it just makes it an eminently drinkable combination. It’s almost hard not to guzzle it. We’ve had a lot of fun tasting it as it’s gone along. This is what makes us passionate about brewing—experimenting with flavors, seeing what we can develop on our own, and seeing how we can make it unique. It’s a lot of fun for us.” ■