Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Interview with The Mad Fermentationist

If you like sour ales and are into homebrewing, chances are that you've come across The Mad Fermentationist.  The blogger and brewer-in-chief of this fantastic resource is DC's own  Mike Tonsmeire.  Mike was kind enough to participate in an interview with yours truly.  Mike has a real talent for brewing creative ales and he's a pretty darn good writer as well.  I find myself checking out his blog several times a week and you should too.

Holz: Welcome Mike.  How long ago did you start brewing and what got you started? 

Mike:  I started brewing my senior year of college at Carnegie Mellon, about seven years ago. I had  gotten into craft beer a year earlier, and brewing seemed like a natural next step since I already loved cooking. I took a student taught course called Beer Brewing and Appreciation, where our midterm was to brew a brown ale.

            Holz: How did you become interested in blogging about your adventures in beer as ‘The Mad    

Mike: The blog started as an easy way to record recipes online so I could link to them on forum posts. I also started putting up tasting notes on my beers because I was sick of seeing hundreds of beer recipes online that had no indication of how good the results were. I started right after moving down to Washington, DC to start a new job, so it was a good outlet.
            Holz: Much of your brewing explores the realm of sour/wild ales.  Was there a particular commercial    
            beer or beers that originally piqued your interest in brewing these types of ales?

           Mike: Cantillon Kriek was the first really sour beer I tried, but it was too acidic for me at the time. I  
            came to sour beers over a year or two, but the one that really launched my obsession was the first batch 
            of Russian River Beatification. Unlike subsequent spontaneously fermented batches, this one was 
            Redemption (their Belgian single) aged for 23 months in barrels that previously held New Belgium’s La 
            Folie. It had a depth of flavor I had never experienced, lavender, lemon, vanilla, sour cherry etc. all 
            from the microbes and wood.         
            Holz: What is it about sour/wild ales that you love?

Mike: The variety of flavors from the base beer as well the microbes, wood, and fruit, is hard to compete with. Playing that guessing game of where a flavor came from. I also enjoy aging beers and seeing how they change. I also really like hoppy beers, for example, but they have a very short span when they are at their peak. 

            Holz: Have you brewed anything recently that you are particularly excited about?

Mike: My first truly wild beer, that is made with microbes I captured in my backyard, is just about ready to bottle. As soon as the fruit on my mulberry tree is ripe I’ll be adding a few pounds of it to half of the batch when I bottle the rest. I’m writing an article about the process for Brew Your Own magazine which will be in the July issue.

            Holz: So you are working on a homebrewing book, correct? What is the book about and what inspired 
            you to start writing?

Mike: Not a big surprise, but the book is about sour beer. I’m especially focused on American brewers. Their equipment and techniques seem much more applicable to homebrewers. After more than 500 posts on the blog it seemed like it was time to distill out what I have learned over the last six years into a more useful form. It also motivated me to talk to brewers I admire.  After talking to more than 20 (not to mention the people who run yeast labs, and award winning homebrewers), the biggest issue I have is too much content (I’m over 125,000 words at the moment).

My goal is to write something like John Palmer’s seminal How to Brew, but for sour beer. While I think Wild Brews is a terrific book, it is more focused on the culture and science of Belgian sour beers. I want to answer all of those practical questions that I get emailed to me every week (Which microbes should I pitch? What sort of airlock should I use? How do I prepare a barrel for filling? Etc.)

            Holz: Have you found a publisher yet?  If so, do you have an idea of the publication date?

Mike: I’m still waiting to hear the final word from Brewers Publications, but the more I think about it the more I am leaning towards self-publishing. As a blogger I like the idea of having complete control over the end product. After a year of working on the first draft I’d rather be able to just edit/format it and be done. 

Whereas Brewers Publications might take as long as three more years to get it out. Periodic revisions to the book, especially the insights I gain helping Modern Times Beer start their barrel program, would also be much simpler if I self-publish.

                      Holz: You’ve done quite a bit of experimenting with barrel-aging.  How do you go about selecting a   
Mike: The character of the barrel needs to suit the beer. For example a light pale sour beer would not be a good match for the bold coconut and vanilla flavors of a new bourbon barrel. It is also about accessibility, I’d rather get a barrel locally so I can get it and fill it as quickly as possible after it is emptied. Leaving a barrel empty for an extended period is asking for issues with leaks, mold, and Acetobacter.

            Holz: On ‘The Mad Fermentationist’ you frequently discuss different yeast strains and bacteria that 
            you  are currently using in your brews.  Where do you usually get your yeast and bacteria?  And how 
            do you go about selecting them?

Mike: That is a big question. I get my microbes from a huge number of places. Wyeast and White Labs make some terrific strains, and that is the easiest place to start. The yeast sediment (dregs) of unpasteurized sour beers are also a great place for microbes. I also get microbes isolated by microbiologist friends (I just bottled a tripel that had been aging on calvados soaked oak with a culture of Brett my friend Matt isolated from Russian River Temptation). Re-pitching yeast from previous batch is also good in a pinch.

            Selecting the right microbes takes experience. You can read descriptions, but without tasting the result it 
            difficult. It would be like reading descriptions of spices and trying to pick several to combine in 
            something you are cooking. That is one of the reasons I like bottle dregs, you can taste the beer that   
            those microbes helped produce. However, your results will not be exactly the same unless you mimic 
            that brewery’s production (pitching rate, aging time, wort production etc.), a nearly impossible task. 
            Holz: You just posted about an opportunity you have to do some brewery consulting.  Is it ultimately   
            your goal to become a professional brewer or are you happy to remain an (exceptional) amateur?

Mike: For the time being I’m happy to get my feet wet helping get Modern Times off the ground. I worry about ruining the hobby I love by turning it into a job. Depending on how consulting goes, how much I enjoy it, and the success of Modern Times, I’ll certainly be considering doing it full time. If I can turn the hobby I love into a job I love, that really is the goal.

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