Wild Ale

Interview with Crooked Stave’s Chad Yakobson

Chad Yakobson has done the world of homebrewing and microbrewing a great favor by making the results of his academic investigations with brettanomyces yeast available on his website and participating in online exchanges about the use of brettanomyces in homebrewing. Chad is also one of the (early) readers of Lambic and Wild Ale and has contacted me from time to time about an item I posted. I am therefore quite pleased to publish this interview about his artisan brewing project called Crooked Stave.

1. Did your desire to start a brewery come out of your academic studies, or did you always want to start a brewery?

I actually wanted to stat a winery at first. I studied grape growing in my undergrad and then moved to New Zealand to study wine making. Throughout all of this I was always more passionate about brewing and during my travels after New Zealand I decided that I wanted to work for a brewery instead of a winery. I was still interested in further academic studies so I eventually made my way to Edinburgh, Scotland, to study at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling…with the final goal of one day opening a brewery of my own.

2. How would you summarize the most significant findings of your studies with brettanomyces?

I would say the most significant finding was that Brettanomyces yeasts are capable of Primary fermentation in a manner similar to Saccharomyces strains but with an incredibly different means to metabolite production and even greater variability in their ability to ferment and produce secondary metabolites like esters and phenols.

3. What is the biggest challenge of 100% Brettanomyces brewing?

Choosing the right strain to match the beer you’re trying to brew and hitting the fermentation profile you’re looking for with that beer. There aren’t enough strains right now, so most Brett beers taste the same. Brewers only have a few strains to choose from and it takes time to learn how the different Bretts ferment and how best to accentuate their characteristics in the beer.

4. Do you think it is possible to brew a quality 100% Brettanomyces beer on a similar timescale as a regular ale?

I do! Our last Brettanomyces fermentation took 6 days to go from 14 Plato to 3 Plato. To make a quality 100% Brettanomyces beer is a bit more of a trick. That is my goal through producing a series of beers called Wild Wild Brett. The first series plays off the color wheel (ROY-G-BIV), incorporating an ingredient into the beer that in some form relates to the color of the color wheel for that particular batch. In the end I’m looking for the ideal Brettanomyces beer, one that can be produced as part of a brewery’s normal lineup of beers.

5. Do you favor certain grains and hops in your brewing?

Absolutely, I can’t say I favor them as much as the yeasts (both wild and non-wild) I use, but every brewer will tell you they have certain ingredients they like to use. For me I like what rye can do as well as steel-cut oats. I use steel-cut oats in quite a few of the beers. Special B is a great malt as well as Carafa II debittered. As for hops, it’s really specific on the beer and the flavor profile I’m looking for. Centennial is a nice hop with a good aroma in a beer. I haven’t had a chance to play around with the fancy new hops that brewers are using so I’m looking forward to trying some of those out and developing a greater opinion on how I can use hops in the beers we’ll be brewing.

6. Can you give us a taste of the kind of “unique ingredients” that you have encountered during your travels that you would like to use in brewing?

Something I get the most out of when traveling is visiting markets and trying the local foods, to me that is a big part of culture. We don’t have anything like the markets I’ve visited throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, even South America. Walking through the markets grabbing new fruits like buddhas hand or a mangosteen is exciting to try and think how they would incorporate into a beer. The spice market in Cairo is the largest of its kind and the variety of spices is unreal. Maracuyá and Lulo from Colombia are similar to passion fruit and have a great acidity, there is also a raw pressed cane sugar called panela which lends a some dried fruit flavors when used in fermentation. The variety of fruits, herbs, spices, and flowers that exist outside of what we have available is amazing and the way the various ingredients are incorporated into the local foods is also unique. Every culture is different and they incorporate the ingredients differently. A curry might have 10 spices which come together to create a singular flavor while a still equally flavorful dish in South America might have only 2 or 3 ingredients but still be just  savory. It’s all about the way the ingredients are used that bring out their unique flavors and I like to think of brewing in the same way.

7. Your brewery seems off to an ambitious start. Can you tell us something about your objectives and achievements to date?

Our objective is to produce expressive well crafted beers. I’m building a library of barrels and filling them as fast as I can to get them souring. I’m only adding certain cultures of critters to the barrels to see how they develop to build our house flavor. It’s not something I can control but I do play a hand in it when blending barrels, and choosing which stay and which get tossed. We are concentrating heavily on Brettanomyces fermentations and I want to see the abilities of these yeasts culture and find new strains and discover new flavors. Bioflavoring is very promising with these yeasts and can really lend some interesting characteristics to the beers. Playing around with the barrels and making sour beers is exciting for me, but I look forward to having a very diverse portfolio of beers. Diversification is our model and we plan to produce many types of beers in every fashion possible. With creativity the options are endless.

8. How big is your brewery currently? How much space do you think you will need in the future?

We are currently using about 5,000 sq. ft. of space shared between two breweries. This is going to put our limits at about 100 barrels the oak foeder and the 17bbl fermenter and bright tank for a total of around 500-600 barrels of beer a year. We’re are looking to expand into Denver, Colorado, to have a brewery of our own as soon as we get the capital raised. At that point we will be looking for something with at least 10,000 sq. ft.

9. What are your short and long term goals for Crooked Stave?

Short term goals are to open a brewery location in Denver and be a successful brewery, one which people look at and hopefully think we are trying new things and making exciting beers. From there we’ll see what the future holds. Ideally we would build a green site brewery out along the front range up against the foothills west of Denver and have acreage for agriculture crops. I’d love to have an onsite orchard, small vineyard, and greenhouses for seasonal crops and herbs and spices to use in small batch beers.

10. Do you have any specific plans for spontaneous fermentation?

Absolutely! We actually just brewed a no boil beer to start a sour culture going this past week. If that works we’ll have a spontaneous culture to always use for souring wort for natural acidification in the brewhouse and post fermentation. From there I have a few more ideas like using fruits harvested and mashed which then will start fermentation spontaneously. I’ve played around with this a little and know some distilleries doing natural fermentation with fruits before distilling the product. A coolship is always an entertaining idea so we’ll see where we go with this, but a Colorado spontaneous beer will be produced one day.

11. How has your exposure to wine making influenced your brewing?

I think it has greatly influenced the way I look at fermentation, the organisms involved, and the level of my involvement with those organisms. It has given me a great understanding of how fruits can be used in primary fermentation and the characteristics they bring. Also our use of oak barrels goes hand in hand with those of a winemaker and the understanding of palate development and blending to achieve a desired final blend. A developed palate and blending skills makes the difference between a good wine and an average wine. I also treat my barrels much as a winemaker would. I take them apart and inspect each one, fix them if needed. This gives a greater understanding of each barrel and the the influences a barrel will give.

12. Can you tell us something about the artwork you envision for your labels and promotion materials?

We have a few variations for the labels depending on the series of beers. The labels for the sours are the most artistic and I’m happy with they way they are coming along. Each label has unique typography being hand created which will make the labels stand out. I like the gracefulness a wine label has with its simplicity and elegance. We are trying to bring some of this into our labels as well. I would like to see our labels continue to change even having guest artists doing labels or series of labels.

13. There has been increased interest in sour ales, wild ales and spontaneous fermentation in American microbrewing. Do you think an affordable year-round wild ale is economically feasible?

I do, and its what I’m hoping to do with our American Petite Sour. As well as being able to always have a Brettanomyces beer available.

14. What are your favorite brewers and beers?

I have quite a few… It would be hard to list all them… plus so many I’m yet to try but know of…

15. Are there any collaborations with other brewers in the works?

We just did a Fort Collins Collaboration with all the breweries in Fort Collins getting together to brew one beer that will be served during American Craft Beer Week. Also a few months back we had a Super Saison Friends League brew which was a 12% Saison aged in some of our Chardonnay barrels and inoculated with 10 different strains of Brettanomyces.

Recently we have been talking with Epic Brewing Company in Salt Lake City about doing a Collaboration. So we’ll see if that happens. There are a lot of brewers I’d like to do collaborations with, so we’ll see if that starts to happen as we get going.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do an interview. I’ve followed your website since I was studying back in Edinburgh so it’s exciting for me to get to be featured in a post.