Before 2016 ended, I was lucky enough to sit down with MobCraft Beer’s Head Brewer, Andrew Gierczak for a wide-ranging conversation. Ostensibly the reason for our meeting was to talk about his process for structuring the flavors of MobCraft’s Tequila Barrel Aged Imperial Cream Ale, Señor Bob, but as I found, like the beers he brews (at least fourteen of which are currently on tap in MobCraft Beer’s Walker’s Point taproom) Andrew is not the kind of personality to be constrained by the subject at hand.

While he did discuss his process for crafting Seńor Bob (which I’ll be writing about here on Milwaukee: Beer Craft in the upcoming week) our dialogue turned up a number of interesting insights ranging from fermentation, to brewing philosophy, and how beers age.

Here, in no particular order, are five of the most fascinating insights from our dialogue.

  1. Smaller Is Better (Especially If You Love Variety)

The scale of production at marco-breweries means they face a serious problem when it comes to variety. As Andrews sees it, “when you’re at that large scale, and you’re … brewing millions of hectoliters of beer a year, you have to have some consistency, because if you don’t you will sink very, very fast.” The need for consistency essentially limits the variety of beers macro-breweries can brew because the production of each beer is so finely tuned and there’s no range for variability.

“What is comes down to is the smaller you are the more you can afford to be experimental and the less you have to adhere to specific principles,” Andrew continues. Case-in-point: MobCraft itself.  “The wonderful thing … about the size we’re at is that we can still do wonderfully experimental things but also be able to produce consistent products on a regular basis.”

Just consider MobCraft’s current tap list. They currently have, Brett Saison – a Saison conditioned with Brett, Hoppy Pils a dry hopped Pilsner, two different IPAs, Laughing Clown Imperial Chocolate Stout, and El Punto de Walker, a Lager. To say nothing of the beers chosen through their crowd-sourced model.  All-in-all, MobCraft has at least fourteen of their own beers available on tap. That kind of variety is no small feat to achieve at a very large scale.

  1. Brewers Are Alchemists

Depending on who you talk to, and what kind of beer they make, brewers generally think of themselves as either scientists, carefully manipulating sets of key variables to produce a product that meets specifications laid out by a recipe, or artists, crafting flavor through a process that’s as much about technique and self-expression as about technical skill.

Thankfully, Andrew collapsed the dichotomy when he told me this: “Alchemy is this marriage of science and art.” Seeing brewers as alchemists, who create liquid gold from ordinary elements, frees us up to appreciate both sides of a brewer’s practice, and allows for a more complete picture of what they actually do in the brewery.

As Andrew says, “the true pinnacle of excellence is a marriage of those two narratives: it’s not all art, it’s not all science; its selective application for both depending on circumstance, depending on what you’re going for.”

Take MobCraft as an example. Some of the beers they produce are sour and wild ales, often aged for months in barrels with yeast and bacteria that can produce unpredictable flavors. These artistic beers often take time to develop the right character, and Andrew and his team often have to taste and sample them frequently to monitor their progress. Brett Saison, Night Creature, and Savor The Flavor are all examples of this style.

On the other hand, you have MobCraft’s Hoppy Pils and El Punto de Walker, both carefully balanced, clean lagers which took careful designing and brewing.

But, as Andrew tells me, “it’s really interesting to see how those narratives fuse and how everything works together.” He couldn’t be more right. To totally understand me, grab a flight of MobCraft’s beers that includes sours like The Ale Project B, Night Creature, and Savor The Flavor, Brett Saison, the two lagers, and maybe Laughing Clown, a stout, and you can taste Alchemy at work.

  1. The Classics Are Classic For A Reason

I love beer that’s out of the ordinary. Mobcraft’s Night Creature, a dark sour with malty notes of raisins? Yes, absolutely yes. But as good as Night Creature is, it’s also an example of a beer which is relatively contemporary — which may be in part why I find it appealing. It’s new. It’s interesting.

What about the classics though? Old styles that were pretty well defined even before Michael Jackson wrote The World Guide To Beer in 1997. Bock, Pilsner, Stout, I’m looking at you.

About the classic beer styles, Andrew tells me “I’m thinking something along the lines of a Vienna or Munich lager — basically the kind of beers the Germans started brewing when they started their lagering process.” “They hit upon a style of beer that wasn’t readily available prior to that; it was very clean, mostly free of defects because it was stored at really cold temperatures, and the yeast was given more than enough time to clean up the beer and make it taste like nothing the world had ever seen before. And a lot of people drank it and a lot of people liked it.”

Those clean, malty, balanced beers are famous worldwide because their flavor “structures work well for large amounts of people.” So, as much as we may love something new, let’s take a second to honor the brewers who, without modern brewing knowledge, created the beers our forefathers tipped back after a long day at work.

You can even find a few at MobCraft. Oddball Kӧlsh, Hoppy Pils, Shati, and Laughing Clown Stout may not be exactly what was brewing up in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, but they certainly pay homage to those classics.

  1. Some Beers Age Better Than Wine

For many wine drinkers it’s nothing new to line up vertical flights, tasting vintages of the same wine to see how it’s changed over the years, but that’s still a relatively new concept for beer drinkers.

In fact, strong, dark beers like Barleywines, Imperial Stouts, Dark and Light Belgian Strongs, all make good choices for aging if kept upright at around 54 𒎓𒓉degrees in a dark place. For a beer to age, there has to be what Andrew describes as “a base complexity to it.”

Elaborating on how aging can change a beer, Andrew tells me, “beer can age just like wine — in fact in some cases it ages better. With age you do get some more complexity; you get smoother flavors rather than a distinct beginning, middle, end. You get a symphony. You get rolling hills, and it kind of goes, and it’s smooth.” Which just makes me want to drink an aged beer. Actually, let me just run down to the cellar.

Now take as an example Señor Bob, the Tequila Barrel Aged Imperial Cream Ale. I sipped with Andrew during our conversation. As we nose, quaff, and roll the beer around our mouths, it seems to me very changed.

“I don’t think the character of the beer has changed,” Andrew says, “ the tone of the beer’s changed. It’s gone from little bit more aggressive, a little bit more up front, and now it’s more like hanging out and chilling.”  There’s a “spiciness to it on the front as opposed to an alcoholic assertiveness,” he adds. All of which perfectly captures of how Seńor Bob has changed in the months since I first drank it.

Part of this change in flavors comes from the yeast in bottle-conditioned beer. As an aside, MobCraft bottle conditions all their wild and sour ales. The yeast first continues fermenting the residual sugar in beer and absorbing byproducts of its fermentation before eventually dying in a process called autolysis, which, in the best cases, produces hazelnut flavors.  Certain esters can also develop in the bottle due to the small amount of oxygen introduced during bottling, and some malty flavors can turn nutty or toffee-like.

Another part of this change comes just from the beer aging in the bottle: hop aromatics degrade, and as they fade they reveal some of the more bold and robust malty flavors underneath.

This is exactly why I have a bottle of MobCraft’s Barrel Aged LAughing Clown aging in my basement. Because it’s delicious, and it’s only going to get better.

If you’re looking for more beers to age, go to MobCraft and grab Black Tart: Outlaw, a sour ale, Batch 100, a Golden Belgian, and Cherry Moon, an Imperial Stout, resist the temptation to immediately drink all three (and the urge will be strong, I assure you), then store the bottles in a cool, dark place for at least a year. They’ll be delicious.

Or, as Andrews says, “these layers of complexity start to develop and you start to say ‘wow, that’s really fucking interesting.’”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  1. Not all sugar is fermentable.

For most people it’s common knowledge that to produce the sugar-rich liquid precursor to beer, called wort, brewers steep crushed grains in hot water, (mainly barley, but other grains too like wheat or oats, which brewers called adjuncts). This process, Andrew explains, is called mashing, and “converts [the grain’s] starch into sugars.” Brewers then boil the wort, cool it, and add yeast which ferments the sugars into ethanol alcohol, among other things.  

What many people don’t know is that “you can add non fermentable sugars to bring up the sweetness” in a beer. That’s right. Typical brewers yeast cannot ferment every kind of sugar.

Take, for example, maltodextrin, which Andrew describes as “a complex chain of malt sugars” produced during mashing, “that normally contributes to body, head retention, mouthfeel, maltiness, and sweetness in different various levels.” It’s the residual maltodextrin left over after the yeast ferments the simpler sugars, that contributes to the sweet, malty, creaminess of Imperial Stouts and other styles of beer.

Lactose, or milk sugar, is also unfermentable by any kind of brewer’s yeast, so brewers often add it to a Stout to create a thicker, sweeter, Milk Stout. MobCraft’s Batshit Crazy is an example of a Coffee Brown Ale with coffee and lactose added to give some sweetness and body to the beer.

As one of MobCraft’s flagship beers, this one should be easy to find in cans around the MIlwaukee area. Go grab one.

Cheers

— Nathan