Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal Ales

Going Pro by | Dec 2010 | Issue #47

Brian Strumke didn’t set out to be a nomad. It just happened. But the Baltimore-based brewer, who produces adventurous ales on both sides of the Atlantic, now sees some advantage in not having a home. “It allows a lot more freedom to be experimental,” he says. “If I had a massive loan, I might be more pressed to flood certain markets, or to be more straightforward.” Nothing about his Stillwater Artisanal Ales project is straightforward, from the beer in the bottle to the labels outside. “Everything is an artistic statement,” Strumke explains. “I want to make a product that intrigues people and gets them to look deeper into it, instead of just laying it out.”

1. Create something
Before Brian Strumke was the man behind Stillwater Artisanal Ales, he was a homebrewer. Before that, he was a music producer and DJ. Making beer and music aren’t all that different, he argues. There’s artistry in both. “Producing something is important,” he says. “Taking an idea, and putting it into a final format. I’ve always looked at myself as more an artist. It’s just the media that changes.” Soon after he threw himself into homebrewing, he knew he’d found his next career. “I don’t do hobbies very well,” he jokes.

2. Make it different
Strumke is a big fan of hoppy beers, but much of his brewing output follows Belgian traditions. He credits the Brewer’s Art, the Baltimore brewpub, with turning him on to Belgians. He was drawn to Belgians’ complex yeasts and the room they offered for interpretation. Early on, he decided that there wasn’t much sense following established styles. “If I was going to put all this time and effort in, I was going to do something different. I wasn’t going to spend an entire day to make a Pale Ale when I could go buy a Pale. I wanted to make things you can’t buy.”

3. Leap right into the deep end
By the time he met Brian Ewing, founder of 12 Percent Imports, Strumke had been toying with the idea of opening a nano-brewery for a few years. Ewing loved Strumke’s homebrews, and the two kicked around the idea of flying Strumke out to brew at some of Ewing’s small-batch Belgian breweries. Then Strumke came into contact with a nearby brewery with a 30-barrel brewhouse and a lot of extra capacity. The batch sizes would be much bigger than anything Strumke and Ewing had talked about. Ewing had actually never bought a 30-barrel batch, let alone a 30-barrel batch from a brewer few retailers had heard of. Both men took the leap anyway. The first batch, brewed on spec, quickly sold out.

4. Saison is a philosophy, not a style
Stillwater beers fall loosely under the Belgian Farmhouse banner, but to Strumke, Saison isn’t much of a style. That’s why he’s so drawn to it. He didn’t see much need to re-create styles as a homebrewer, and he has no interest in selling consumers on a beer that exists somewhere else. “Saison is more of a concept than a style,” he argues. His Saisons share certain characteristics, like spicy, dry finishes, but for the most part, the Saison “allows me to do whatever I want. I just want to make new works for people to enjoy.”

5. Go big, slowly
Stillwater’s first batch was only sold in the Baltimore/DC region, and it sold out long before Strumke had an encore ready. He wasn’t too worried about running out of beer. He’d jumped straight from 10-gallon homebrews to 30-barrel commercial brews, and he wanted to be sure the recipes turned out right. “We didn’t want to jump in over our heads,” he said. He set a wide and shallow distribution footprint, focusing on the quality of retailers over quantity. “The only strategy we’ve had is to go step by step, not go too fast, and make sure the quality and consistency of the product is paramount.”

6. Take the West Coast on a road trip
Stateside Saison, Stillwater’s inaugural brew, wasn’t a recipe Strumke scaled up from his homebrewing portfolio. He wanted to create something personal, unique and accessible, so he grafted the nose of a hoppy IPA onto the body of a Saison. It’s hopped with West Coast standbys Columbus, Centennial, Cascade and Simcoe, and its outrageous aroma comes from New Zealand-grown Nelson Sauvin hops. The beer’s malt bill is mainly built on biscuit and Belgian aromatic malts, so it finishes dry and spicy, as any Saison—even one that thinks it’s a San Diego IPA—should.

7. Lighten up complexity
Strumke originally intended Cellar Door, his second flagship brew, to be a seasonal release. Runaway sales blunted that impulse, and now the recipe, which combines Citra and Sterling hops with wheat and aromatic malt—is a light year-round offering. Strumke designed the beer to be refreshing and cleansing by balancing crisp citrus, grass and sage notes. “Summer beers are usually the least exciting seasonal offerings to come out, and I wanted to change that. I wanted the beer to be refreshing and complex, but subtle enough where all the flavors came out integrated.”

8. Drink it, it’s new
“I hate the term Black IPA,” Strumke says. But until consumers will buy a beer with a label that reads, “This is my new beer,” style-bound descriptors, however nonsensical, are a necessary evil. Thus, we introduce Stillwater’s latest project, Existent, as the child of a sort-of Black IPA and a Saison. It’s dark but not roasty, Strumke says; it’s hoppy, but in an earthy kind of way that shuns its citrus-forward cousins. Of course, you won’t find any of that on the label—just a picture of Friedrich Nietzsche. “I purposely don’t give too much of a description,” Strumke says. “I tried to leave it up in the air.”

9. Evolve
“There’s so much you can do as long as you allow yourself to think outside conventional style guidelines,” Strumke says. And Stillwater is a vehicle for unconventional thinking. Take Autumnal, which combines a spicy Belgian yeast strain with malt and hop flavors commonly found in an Altbier. Or A Saison Darkly, a beer that marries Carafa malt with rose hips, hibiscus and a rare, flavor-shifting Chinese fruit. They’re highly unconventional, and they’re just scratching the surface of possibility. “I’m hoping to see things that are even more out there. As humans, we strive to create new things. Beer should be an ever-evolving path.”