Todd Ashman of FiftyFifty Brewing Company

Going Pro by | Apr 2011 | Issue #51

Jennifer Yin / SF Beer Week

Todd Ashman likes what he sees when he steps outside—mountains and pine trees, and loads of Bay Area residents on their way to Lake Tahoe. Ashman calls Truckee, Calif., one of the most beautiful places in the world to brew. The stuff inside the glass doesn’t look too bad, either. Since 2006, Ashman, a barrel aging pioneer, has plied his trade at Truckee’s FiftyFifty Brewing Company. The barrels are still the draw. “The secret ingredient is time,” Ashman says. “If I can do a year, I’ll do it. It’s hard to do that much time in the barrel if you don’t have the space. But if you do, that’s where the brewer’s art, the distiller’s art and the cooper’s art all come together, and the end result is incredible.”

1. Create something
It was the hops that got him hooked. Ashman was living in Sonoma County in the mid-1980s when he had his first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and when those hops hit him, it was all over. He fell in with a group of homebrewers that included Paddy Giffen and Grant Johnson, of Marin Brewing fame, and he knew he’d found his calling. “I’ve always been a creative person,” he says. “I’ve always done things with my hands. Brewing gave me the autonomy I was looking for to create what I wanted to create, and still have people enjoying my product.”

2. Work for your breaks
Ashman graduated from the American Brewers Guild in 1995—right when the craft industry was entering a major period of contraction. “The places that had been built because if you built it, they’d come—a lot of those places were closing,” he recalls. He wound up at a tiny place in Alamogordo, N.M., churning out recipes on a system cobbled together from old Colgate-Palmolive toothpaste tanks. He earned some glowing press that caught the eyes of a couple opening a new brewpub on Chicago’s outskirts, and was quickly put in charge of the pub that Ashman says really launched his career—Flossmoor Station.

3. See where it goes
Ashman debuted Flossmoor’s barrel program in 1997, less than a year after he helped open the pub. He’d heard about barrel aging at Goose Island and Boston Beer, and he had access to some Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s barrels, so he figured, “Hey, let’s try it and see where it goes.” He wound up hitting gold with barrel-aged Stouts and Barleywines. “I’ve always felt the wood barrel is an extension of the brewer’s art,” he says. “It’s such a natural thing. Putting a beer into a spirit barrel, it’s an incredible thing.”

4. Great barrels need great bones
The base beer for FiftyFifty’s marquee barrel-aged beer, Eclipse, is Totality. It’s a massive, chocolaty, roasty Imperial Stout that’s designed to be big enough to survive several months in the barrel, with honey boosting the alcohol content. Ashman loads Totality up with hops to stand up to all that booze, but they’re fairly neutral (Millennium, German Magnum and Mount Hood), so they won’t overwhelm the beer’s malt bill—or the spirit notes it picks up in the barrel.

5. Skip ahead to dessert
When is a complex Stout perfect? “They’re great beers on their own, but to have them age in bourbon or whiskey or brandy, it’s such a poignant statement if it’s done right.” Ashman started with bourbon barrels, and he hasn’t strayed far. He’s never taken much of an interest in wine barrels. Instead, he has remained captivated by the flavors that are created when big Stouts meet dark spirits. “One of the first things I think of is dessert, a rich, chocolaty dessert, almost like the chocolates with the spirits in them.”

6. Dive deep
Instead of broadening his barrel approach through the years, Ashman is diving deeper. That means creating several different incarnations of Eclipse, splitting the same big Stout into different spirits barrels, and then reveling in the nuances that develop. Last year, FiftyFifty aged Eclipse in single-barrel Elijah Craig, Four Roses, Evan Williams and rye. This year, Ashman is adding 12- and 20-year-old Elijah Craig, a Buffalo Trace blend, and dropping Evan Williams. “It helps expand customers’ awareness of what we’re trying to do,” he says. “It’s entirely different than what we were doing at Flossmoor. We’re raising awareness of what the barrel aging actually brings to the product.”

7. Quality is worth waiting for
FiftyFifty is currently experimenting with sour barrels. It’s a small side project that demands patience. Ashman hopes to end up with something along the lines of a Flanders Red; it’s only 10 months into sour aging, and Ashman believes he won’t know whether he’s on the right track until he hits the 18-month mark. The funk needs time to take hold, and then FiftyFifty has to figure out whether, and how, to scale the project up. “It’s not something we’re considering trying to pursue until we figure out where [the first barrel] goes. It would be a disaster to have a whole lot going and not end up in place.”

8. Keep the people happy
Barrels are Ashman’s calling card, but in his pub, it’s the IPAs flying out the door. Ashman tries to keep at least two, if not three IPAs on tap at all times. Otherwise, he says, “We have sad customers. If we’re out, you have never seen someone with a sadder look.” His approach to the style is straightforward—heavy on the flavorful, aromatic American hops. “For the most part, they’re stronger than they should be, and higher in gravity than style should dictate,” he says. “They tend to migrate higher, although they might not fit comfortably in the Imperial or Double categories. It’s how I like my beer, and how I’ve always brewed.”

9. Brew what you know
In addition to FiftyFifty’s straight West Coast IPA, Ashman keeps a Rye IPA and a Red IPA in the rotation. The Red, in particular, is a nod to the Sonoma brewing scene that Ashman came out of. Inspired by Bear Republic’s Red Rocket Ale, it’s brewed with Special B, a generous helping of caramel malt, and loads of Amarillo and Centennial hops. It was the first recipe Ashman’s brother formulated for FiftyFifty. “Looking back, the beers that everybody now knows as West Coast-style beers, that was the epitome of craft brewing to us.” In short, the recipe is home, in a glass.