Thursday, March 6, 2014

Brew & A with The Mad Fermentationist (Mike Tonsmeire)

For this Brew & A, we reached out to Mike Tonsmeire, AKA The Mad Fermentationist. Mike is known for his homebrewing blog and for his work with Modern Times Beer out of San Diego. Even though he is a consultant for the barrel program at Modern Times, he actually lives on the East Coast. Beyond his homebrewing and production endeavors, Mike is also a great appreciator of sour beers. He has upcoming book that delves into the world on American sours. A few of us caught up with him after a lecture he gave and were happy he agreed to take part in our latest Brew & A article. 


Better Beer Authority (BBA): Sour beers have a very polarizing effect on people. If someone were to try one out for the first time, is there a beer you would recommend over others as a sort of "gateway" sour beer? 

Mike Tonsmiere (MT): I don’t think there is a single beer I could recommend to everyone who wants to get into sour beers, it all depends what sorts of clean beers you enjoy drinking. Sour beers (in America especially) exist in a huge range of color, maltiness, strength, and hoppiness. Recommendations are also tricky because so many sour beers are produced in small quantities and so aren’t available widely.

Here’s a few with good distribution:

Sour (not funky): Bahnhof Berliner StyleWeisse

Funky (but not sour): Orval


Fruity/Tart: Lindemans Framboise or Kriek


Your best bet is to go to a good local beer bar that pours samples, and try as many sour and funky beers as you can to determine what works for your palate. In the same way that it can take time for your taste buds to adjust to drinking high alcohol spirits, some people need repeated exposure to adjust to the acidity of sour beers. If the sourness is too much for you, consider cutting a sour beer with a bit of saison in the glass to temper the acidity.

BBA: You mentioned that you helped Modern Times in their infancy get started with recipe building and now work on their barrel program. Is it difficult for you to manage that program while living out here on the East Coast? 

MT: Commercial recipe development was a lot of fun. Jacob McKean (the founder) and I talked about our vision for the beers and what sorts of constraints we’d have (you can’t produce four core beers with four different yeast strains or base malts for example). I brewed at my house in DC, counter-pressure filled six bombers of each batch to send to him for evaluation, then we adjusted and I rebrewed. Some of the core beer recipes have remained pretty true to those original test batches, while others have continued to evolve.

Luckily the three brewers actually brewing the beers in San Diego (Matt, Alex, and Derek) are great guys who are more than capable of handling things out there. While sour beers are aging there isn’t a huge amount that needs to be done. An occasional taste test, maybe a top-off or two. At this point it is mostly allowing the microbes the time to complete their ester, phenol, and acid production. Hopefully the first two batches (a brown and a red) aged in wine barrels will be ready to blend, fruit, and package by this summer. I’m planning on being out there for that.

BBA: You mentioned that on top of all your endeavors, you work in DC as an economist. Have you ever had moments where your economic background has crossed paths with your love thing craft beer? 

MT: I work on the Consumer Price Index (one of the primary measures of inflation). One of the 250+ item categories we collect prices for is “Beer, Ale, and Other Malt Beverages.” I’ve had a couple spirited debates with the Commodity Analyst about the structure of the Checklist our data collectors use to describe beers. It’s tricky as craft beer is still a relatively small part of the market, but accounts for so much of the variety.

In the other direction, my personal railing against large format bottles and the associated higher per ounce price got me quoted in the NY Times last year. I’m susceptible to it too, but a “reasonable” $10 750 is the equivalent of a $26 six-pack. Even a great deal on a bomber for $5, is more than $16 in six-pack terms.

BBA: Modern Times Fortunate Islands is a Tropical Hoppy Wheat ale.  Our travel writer Richard Hartogs loved it while in San Diego.  He said, “this is what a session able IPA should really be.”  With all the “session able” IPAs coming out, most of which seem to be lacking flavor, is pale wheat the way to go?

MT: Honestly I’m not big on style categories, especially for newly-popular flavor profiles. The line between a hoppy pale American wheat (like Three Floyds Gumballhead or Modern Times Fortunate Islands), a hoppy American pale ale (Hill Farmstead Edward or Half Acre Daisy Cutter), and a session American IPA (Founders All Day IPA or Lagunitas DayTime) is pretty much non-existent. It comes down to how the brewer chooses to get the hop character into the beer, and what balance they are looking for. The grist in these beers is often overwhelmed by the big hop character, so putting a bit of extra effort into enhancing mouthfeel and body can really help (the added protein in wheat malt for example).

At Modern Times we are focused on hop aromatics rather than bitterness, so we load in big additions during the whirlpool, in the hopback, and fermentor to achieve the saturated hop character. We have the advantage at the moment that our distribution is small, and demand is high. The importance of freshness can’t be understated for hoppy beers.

BBA: So the Modern Times Amber is labeled on the can as "dank." Can you clarify what it means for a beer to considered "dank?" 

MT: Dank is resiny, herbaceous, maybe a little fruity, but not in a bright/tropical way. It is fresh, raw, and maybe slightly green, like sticking your nose in a fresh bag of hops. It is the stickiest of the icky. For Blazing World dankness is achieved with a combination of Nelson Sauvin from New Zealand, supported by American Mosaic, and Simcoe. These are all relatively new hop varieties with high oil content that combine to produce the right blend of flavors. It took about half a dozen test batches to nail down the dank hop flavor, but we’ve continued to tweak the malt profile to get that in line. Oddly when we tried Columbus hops in the blend, a variety I consider very dank on their own, the aroma shifted too fruity. Aroma perception is very tricky science, really the only way to figure out works is to brew and adjust.


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