Edward Westbrook of Westbrook Brewing Company
Five years ago, South Carolina didn’t have a homegrown beer industry. State laws boxed craft beers out of existence. But good beer has flourished since the state lifted its cap on beer alcohol content, and Edward Westbrook’s Mt. Pleasant brewery has been at the heart of it. Westbrook Brewing puts a creative, high-turnover spin on production brewing; Westbrook is constantly experimenting with barrels and single-hop expressions, and looking for ways to match up malts and hops and yeast strains in unconventional combinations. “Some people think of South Carolina as maybe being unsophisticated, beer-wise,” he says. Not anymore.
1. Get schooled
Edward Westbrook tasted his first eye-opening beer in Cologne, Germany. German Kölsch didn’t taste anything like the beers he’d had before—which is to say, it tasted really good. Back home, Westbrook began exploring craft brews, a six-pack at a time. He cooked a lot, so a homebrewing habit was almost inevitable. At one point, he recalls, he had close to 20 carboys going at once, full of IPAs, Stouts, Belgians, sour and wild beers, and oak-aged concoctions. “In grad school, I realized I was spending a great deal more time on beer and brewing than I was on the curriculum,” Westbrook says. By the time graduation rolled around, “brewing was the only thing I wanted to do.”
2. Let the suds do the talking
Westbrook demurs when asked to describe his brews. “It’s something I’ve struggled with, and I’ve resisted it—for good or ill, I don’t know.” Westbrook operates his commercial production facility like he’s still brewing at home, tackling a broad range of recipes, reinterpreting classic styles and experimenting constantly. “It’s saying, these are the beers I want to experiment with, these are the beers I want to brew, so let’s brew them,” more than trying to cram them into an overarching concept. Appropriately, most of Westbrook’s recipes have their roots in beers he’s brewed at home.
3. Grow with purpose
Westbrook has been careful about growing at a manageable pace, and that means growing close to home. Most of his efforts have gone into deepening his local customer base, not spreading his geographic footprint. He’s also been careful about ramping up production capacity; Westbrook’s brewery was built to handle as many as 25,000 barrels per year, but a planned mid-year expansion will take him to 7,000. “We’re not going to grow just to grow,” he insists. “We have to make sure our customers are happy, make sure we’re managing our distributor relationships. We’re going to be very careful about that.”
4. Try something different
“I made a little bit of everything when I was homebrewing, and now, I still like brewing something new every time,” Westbrook says. “I like to keep it fresh.” Westbrook brews two year-round flagships—an IPA, and an Asian take on a Belgian Wit called White Thai—and rounds out his portfolio with a raft of semi-seasonal beers he pushes out every six to eight weeks. He may repeat a handful of seasonal favorites, but the bulk of Westbrook’s 2012 seasonal lineup will be distinct from last year’s. “I don’t like having to brew something because I feel like I have to,” he reasons. “And people love trying new stuff.”
5. Go big
There isn’t a whiff of crystal malt in Westbrook’s flagship IPA. Instead, he builds his malt backbone with Carapils and Munich, and then lets his hops do the heavy lifting. The exact hop bill varies, since Westbrook won’t have a crop under contract until this fall’s harvest, but he always uses bright, citrusy, American varieties. Big late additions and an even bigger dry-hopping charge yield a massively hop-forward, West Coast-style brew. “If you’re going to make an IPA,” Westbrook says, “you have to go big on the hops.”
6. Stay away from sweets
The aversion to Crystal malts isn’t unique to Westbrook’s IPA. He shies away from the malt whenever possible. Crystal “can really dominate the malt character of a beer too easily, particularly in a pale beer,” Westbrook argues. He prefers dry, bready and biscuity malts to Crystal’s caramel sweetness, and he believes that a shot of dark and light Munich provide the color commonly associated with Crystal malt, but with a more restrained, toasty sweetness.
7. Cook up something new
Many brewers compare brewing to cooking, but White Thai, Westbrook’s second year-round beer, is literally descended from his stove. “My favorite Belgian Witbier is Allagash White,” he explains, “and I thought, why bother trying to make a beer like Allagash if they have it down already?” Westbrook found the inspiration for his Wit in Thai curry. White Thai is spiced with ginger and lemongrass, and fermented with a Trappist yeast strain; Sorachi Ace hops layer in what Westbrook calls “lemon candy.”
8. Roll with accidents
Farmhouse IPA, a late-winter seasonal from this year, wasn’t supposed to happen. Westbrook hosted Stillwater’s wandering brewer, Brian Strumke, last fall, which resulted in a couple strains of Brettanomyces floating around the Mt. Pleasant brewery. When a mismarked barrel of Brett got pitched into Westbrook’s IPA wort, he rolled with it. He dry-hopped the batch with Galaxy hops, and wound up with a beer that was dryer than the regular Westbrook IPA, showed some spicy Saison character and smelled of big tropical fruits. “We realized we made a mistake pretty quickly, but we kept going, and wound up with an interesting beer.”
9. Celebrate with cake
Plenty of craft brewers produce big beers to celebrate special occasions. Westbrook marked his brewery’s first anniversary with an Imperial Stout, but he also wanted to kick the celebration Stout up a notch. Westbrook has been playing with Chocolate Stouts and mole beers for years; his Mexican Cake anniversary Stout took a thick Imperial Stout and aged it on cocoa nibs, vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks and fresh habanero peppers. The beer starts with sweet and roasty malt notes, with the peppers’ heat building slowly. “It’s a nice way to balance the sweetness,” Westbrook says, “in a different way than just using a lot of hops.” ■