Joe Pond of Olvalde Farm and Brewing Company

Going Pro by | Nov 2013 | Issue #82

Joe Pond is a chemical engineer who brews with a decidedly pre-industrial mindset. He began making beer because he wanted to explore historic brewing methods and ingredients. Olvalde Farm and Brewing Co., the southeastern Minnesota brewery he founded two and a half years ago, is a throwback to the rural, agriculturally focused brewhouses that existed before refrigeration and malt catalogues.

1. Share your labors
Joe Pond came to brewing 12 years ago, hooking on with Goose Island after growing frustrated with his engineering job. He worked as a brewer, a cellarman and in the lab for the brewery, which was still small, but growing at a furious pace. “There was a lot of new equipment going in, a lot of build-out, new piping, new pumps,” he recalls. “I really liked that when you’re done, you have a product you can enjoy and share with friends. I liked the creativity and the physical labor. I never liked sitting at a desk, staring at a screen.”

2. Keep your brew kettle weird
It took Pond a few years of working at Goose Island to get into homebrewing, and when he did, he had no interest in brewing a Pale Ale. Instead, Pond threw himself into plays on historic brewing styles—open fermentation, raw grains, beers made without hops, Porters made exclusively with brown malt, weird beers with obscure smoked malts. Pond took cues from early Minnesota pioneers, who “brewed a lot of beer, but didn’t have much for materials,” he says. “They didn’t have hops, but they had prairie grasses, bitter flowers, wild and sour berries. If people could’ve used it in the past to make beer, they almost certainly did. That’s always been my playground.”

3. Focus on fermentation
Pond has long been drawn to beers that don’t remotely fit within brewing guidelines—first at home, and later, at Olvalde Farm and Brewing. For Pond, brewing means focusing on fermentation. He’s less interested in following industrial brewing norms than in experimenting within the broad bounds of an act that’s been around as long as civilization has. “For me, beer boils down to starch and fermentation,” he argues. “Those are the two things you have to have.” And everything else, be it hops or spices or herbs, is extra.

4. Embrace the fields
Most small breweries, Pond contends, are just scaled-down versions of large industrial breweries. He wanted to build something different at Olvalde: a farmhouse brewery where the emphasis is as much on the farm as it is on the beer. “Beer is an agricultural product,” he says, but one that’s been taken far away from agriculture. Olvalde tries to reestablish that connection. Pond brews with spruce tips, juniper berries, herbs and spices, all grown on his wife’s family farm, and with locally produced honey and rye. He celebrates the seasonal differences in raw materials instead of blending them away. He’s ramping up barley- and hop-growing efforts, and is advancing plans to malt his own grain on-site. The ultimate goal is a wholly estate-grown beer, made with grain, hops, adjuncts and yeast from the farmland around him.

5. Do it yourself
Olvalde is a one-man show. Pond handles brewing, cleaning, packaging, sales and distribution. That’s partly because, if he tried brewing on an industrial scale with a larger crew, he’d have to brew tons of Pales and IPAs to generate sales volume—something he has no interest in doing. But it’s also because he wants to stay close to his beer, instead of managing a staff. “I’m a brewer because I like to brew,” Pond says. “I like throwing valves, troubleshooting, fixing the pump that breaks. When I’m selling, there’s no passing the buck on that, either. That’s the personality I have. I like the independence.”

6. Stress the mundane
Plenty of Olvalde drinkers assume that Pond’s house yeast is a Belgian strain. It isn’t, but he’s able to create complex flavors normally associated with Belgians from a “really mundane” yeast strain because he takes his time with fermentation. “I like stressing the yeast,” he says. Pond’s ales ferment warm, aren’t temperature controlled, and sit in old dairy tanks for six weeks. He lets his yeast rise in temperature as it ferments, then settle out slowly, creating varied layers of flavors. Given pre-industrial farmhouse conditions, Pond notes, “you get things you’d associate with a farmhouse beer.”

7. Drink like a barbarian
The Auroch’s Horn, Olvalde’s flagship brew, is a modern take on the beer that the wine-drinking Romans discovered northern barbarians drinking. Pond’s barbarian beer uses huge additions of wheat and raw local honey, bumping the alcohol content up to 10 percent while keeping the color light. The massive pile of fermentables—a quarter of it honey—puts Pond’s beer through a workout, creating strong apple, pear and banana notes. He finishes the beer with just enough American Fuggles to keep the malt bill in check. “One of my pet peeves is honey beer you can’t taste the honey in,” he says. “It’s a pain in the butt to use, so if I’m going to go through all that trouble, it’s going to taste like honey.”

8. Set sail
Many brewers love making Russian Imperial Stouts. Pond’s Ode to a Russian Shipwright puts a historic spin on the style without simply re-creating an old recipe. He nodded to the Tsars but broke the style by asking, “If I were back there,” brewing in the imperial Russian navy, “what would I use?” His Imperial Stout Porter marries rye (a Russian staple grain, now grown by Olvalde’s neighbors) with spruce tips (consumed by sailors for vitamin C) in a recipe big enough to survive a maritime voyage. Here, the rye’s spiciness and the spruce tips’ piney notes put forward flavors usually derived from hops. It’s historically minded, but firmly rooted in Olvalde’s farmhouse ethos.

9. Create art
Brynhildr’s Gift is brewed in the vein of a traditional Scandinavian beer, but it’s far from a Sahti. Pond brews the beer with rye and juniper berries, but he scorches his rye and pale malts, creating rich caramelized flavors in the kettle. The beer uses Olvalde’s house yeast, but it reacts far differently with a less intense base of sugars than it does in a beer like The Auroch’s Horn. A shorter, less vigorous fermentation creates more banana esters, and less apple. “You don’t need a different yeast every time you brew a different beer,” Pond says. “I pull different flavors out with different temperatures and different sugars. That’s the artistry of brewing.” 

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