Beer tasting masterclass: a lesson in funk from a unique gypsy brewer

How do you create good craft beer? The most common answer to that question would seem to be – add hops, and if that works, then add some more. It’s a method that has been a recipe for success for many craft brewers and led to some wonderful beers but at some point the old add-more-hops trick started to wear a little thin.

And that’s what was so refreshing about the range of American gypsy brewer Stillwater Artisanal that I sampled at a tasting at Prince Wine Store in Essendon the other week. There was not a hoppy IPA in the bunch. Instead there was a greater focus on the more subtle and complex flavours that can come from different yeasts and spices.

The Stillwater beers have not been seen much in Australia to this point but are highly rated on the likes of RateBeer and this was a rare opportunity to taste 7 beers from their range a bargain price of $15, while being guided by a rep from the beers’ distributors, Northdown Craft Beer Movement, who really know her stuff. 

First up was the ironically named Premium, a beer brewed with malt adjuncts, corn and rice, more commonly used in “premium” lagers, primarily to reduce costs and create a thin-bodied fast-drinking beer. In this beer however, corn and rice enabled the funk from the saison yeast and the touch of brettanomyces to really shine through, creating a refreshing light-bodied beer with a unique funky aroma.

Table Beer was a similarly funky, unique and refreshing beer just with more body and a smoother finish.

The American Farmhouse Ale Cellar Door tasted a bit more to-style than the previous two, with the cloudy complexion and citrus aromas of a Belgin wheat beer but with a few twists. The addition of sage added a peppery taste at the finish, as each sip seemed to bring different subtle flavours into play. While I generally struggle to get through wheat beers these days, this one was complex, nicely balanced and drinkable.

Then there was the Cellar Door Barrel Aged in pinot noir barrels laced with Bret, giving this one more funk and sour characteristics, and a vinous quality. It was nice but was actually less complex for me as the barrel ageing homogenised the flavour a little.

The best value beer in the range was Existent, a Belgian Dark Ale retailing at $8 at Prince. It shaped up like a Dubbel with nice dark fruit and spice aromas but rather than the typical sweet finish of traditional Belgian ales, which I often find too much, this one finished dry and earthy.

My favourite of the range was the Saison Darkly. It’s a difficult beer to describe, the official website reads:

“This black saison carries qualities similar to a stout with light roast and burnt sugar flavors, spiced with Rose Hips, Hibiscus, & Schisandra berries.”

The best way I can describe it is:

This beer weaved an intricate tapestry of flavours that danced on my tongue in beautiful harmony.

And finally, there was Folklore, a Foreign Export stout style beer. This beer style seemed incongruous with the Belgian influence of the range but again it came it with a twist. It had the requisite coffee and dark chocolate aromas you could hope for in a stout but with a slightly lighter colour and body, while the saison yeast caused the beer to finish short and dry.

The rep at the tasting spoke about Brian Strumke, Stillwater’s gypsy brewer, as an artistic type who was prone to speaking about beer more in philosophical terms than technical, and who refused to conform to styles or definitions but wanted to let the drinker draw their own conclusions.

In a world prone to trends and a need to define everything, it was refreshing to spend an evening tasting beers that didn’t want to be placed neatly in a box but that could be enjoyed simple as they were – unique, complex and funky. Well, at least that’s my conclusion.

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