David Sakolsky of Blue Lobster Brewing Company

Going Pro by | Dec 2013 | Issue #83

David Sakolsky brews beer because brewing lets him obsess about things inside his mind, while ending up with an inherently social beverage in the end. “I’m always in my own head,” he says. “Brewing has this beautiful balance to it. It has plenty of details to be super neurotic about, but there’s enough physical labor involved that I can still sleep at night regardless of what’s happening in my head.” Sakolsky learned to brew at a pair of relatively new New England breweries, White Birch Brewing and the Hill Farmstead Brewery. At Hampton, New Hampshire’s Blue Lobster Brewing Co., Sakolsky brews innovative beers—session hop-bombs, Wheat IPAs, Smoked Porters, Bière de Gardes and experimental DIPAs—that nevertheless remain rooted in classic styles. He wants to innovate, while letting his traditional inspiration shine through. “I know it keeps me slightly boxed,” he says, “but I adore classic styles.”

1. Open up
“I’ve always been a pretty obsessive, neurotic kid,” Sakolsky admits. “When I get a hobby, I go overboard with it.” This inability to do anything in moderation transformed Sakolsky from a guy who almost never drank into a guy who brews beer for a living. Two beers in particular opened up Sakolsky’s eyes, and his palate, to brewing: The Red #7, a house Amber from The Seven Barrel Brewery in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and Dogfish Head’s Palo Santo Marron. The Amber taught Sakolsky that beers don’t have to be imperialized to be flavorful, while Dogfish’s wood-aged beer opened up new worlds of flavors. “It was unearthly,” he says. “It really changed me.”

2. Work, don’t grind
Sakolsky’s obsessive nature meant that he was deep into the craft industry before he realized he’d found a career. Sakolsky spent six months apprenticing at White Birch Brewing, a small New Hampshire outfit where he’d volunteered on bottling days; for Sakolsky, White Birch wasn’t about building a professional résumé, but about learning his hobby as deeply as he could. It wasn’t until he was six months deep into a year-and-a-half stint at Vermont’s Hill Farmstead that Sakolsky realized he was doing what he was supposed to do. “I realized I loved this more than anything. I wasn’t averse to putting in 48-hour-long workdays, because it never felt like work.”

3. Let your brain play
Hill Farmstead was a transformative place for Sakolsky. He came to the brewery the same way he came to White Birch—through volunteering at events and on bottling days. He wound up sticking on as an apprentice, working for gas money, and mining Shaun Hill and his crew for brewing theory and philosophy. “It was like a mental playground for someone like me,” Sakolsky says. “I never had a bad time out there. There was great beer, epic food and great conversations with amazing people who were willing to chat about how to make a better product. But more importantly than that, they actually cared. It was a level of dedication I hadn’t seen anywhere, especially in beer.”

4. Cook up a better pint
Sakolsky’s time at Hill Farmstead taught him to approach brewing as a culinary creation, not as an equation on a spreadsheet. He drilled down deeply into ingredients, and learned how to get them to work harmoniously. “It’s a theoretical approach,” he says. “At Hill Farmstead, I never saw numbers or recipes. I’d ask questions, and get the ‘why’ back. To me, that was way more important. It’s like a chef’s plate. We’d taste constantly throughout the process. You have to be on top of every piece of the puzzle. Beer is a consumable. We have to obsess over it. We owe it to the customer.”

5. Be succinct
Conversations with chef friends have convinced Sakolsky that there’s much more skill in letting simple recipes shine brightly than in overloading a recipe to cover up mistakes, a philosophy he took with him to Blue Lobster when he came onboard during the brewery’s development stages. At Blue Lobster, Sakolsky says, “I pride myself on simple recipes that are high in flavor. We make succinct profiles. We don’t use 50 ingredients to get there. Using lots of ingredients can hide imperfections, but most folks don’t realize you’re muddling the rest of the profile when you cover something up. If you use fewer ingredients, you get stronger notes from each one in your final product. I find it’s best just to stay as simple as possible.”

6. Beef up that body
“I pull inspiration from every beer I try and like,” Sakolsky says, “so when I find something I like a lot, I try to pursue that essence.” Gold Claw, Blue Lobster’s take on a hop-bombed session Pale Ale, is a play on Hill Farmstead’s hoppy Blonde, Walden, which was inspired by an old Alchemist recipe. Sakolsky chafes at weak, thin session beers; Gold Claw, like Walden, is a low-alcohol hop-bomb that drinks like a beer with 6 percent alcohol. He lays oats and wheat onto a simple malt base, manipulates water and mash temperatures to drive body as much as possible, and bombards the beer with Ahtanum and Falconer’s Flight hops. “Low-alcohol beers can have body. We know how to do this.”

7. Ask, “Where’s the beef?”
Sakolsky is an advocate for simple recipes, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like adjuncts in his beers. For Sakolsky, the trick is in remembering that adjuncts aren’t ends unto themselves. Blue Lobster’s Berliner Weisse shows this approach in action. Sakolsky fruits his Berliners with local, seasonal fruit. One adds apricots and kiwis, one adds blueberries and plums. In each case, he uses a restrained hand, because “the beer should be a Berliner first, and a fruit beer second. The base beer should shine through. It’s like when you get a hamburger with a bunch of stuff on top: You should still be able to taste burger, not just the ketchup and lettuce.”

8. Prepare for the long haul
Sakolsky’s insistence on keeping accents from overtaking their base beers extends to Blue Lobster’s nascent barrel-aging program. “We’ll never take a beer we’re happy with and just barrel-age it, because it doesn’t work like most think in the long term. Beers have to be designed for the barrel, in my opinion,” he says. Sakolsky builds up beers destined for the barrel so they’ll emerge as complete beers, not just vessels for wood flavors. Blue Lobster’s first anniversary beer, Celtic New Year, is an amped-up Wee Heavy aged in a port wine barrel, a beer that marries deep toffee and caramel malt notes with pops of vanilla and fruit. Sakolsky is pleased: “It’s a complete beer.”

9. Welcome competition
New Hampshire’s liquor laws mean that beer geeks often have to drive out of state to find a robust, moderately priced selection of craft brews. That’s both a blessing and a curse for Blue Lobster. On one hand, New Hampshire’s craft breweries have plenty of elbow room without benchmarks on the shelf at affordable prices. But by restricting the reach of the wider craft market, Sakolsky fears his state is handicapping consumer education. “If we had more proper representations of styles on the shelf at a fair price, it would keep some breweries from putting out something they call a Saison, but that’s brewed with a Trappist ale yeast. If we open up distribution, consumers will get a more pleasant experience, because it’ll force everybody to step up their game in the best of ways.”