Q&A: Michael Tonsmeire/The Mad Fermentationist

The Mad Fermentationist is a veritable treasure trove of information for brewers at all levels of experience, stuffed to the gills with posts on topics ranging from advanced tutorials on capturing microflora and commercial yeast dregs to point-by-point, beginner’s primers on the most basic of homebrewing operations. Site owner Michael Tonsmeire also maintains a robust library of original and clone recipes on the site, several of which will become commercially available in some form as offerings by Modern Times Brewing, a nascent San Diego brewery that has enlisted Tonsmeire’s expertise in the recipe formulation process. This Q&A was conducted via email.

Q: How and when did you get into brewing beer?

I took a trip Ireland for my 21st birthday where I drank Guinness at the “brewery.” The following summer, a friend I’ve known since elementary school introduced me to good American beer (e.g., Dogfish Head and Ommegang), quite a change from the carbonic macro lagers I didn’t enjoy at college parties. Beer Advocate was a big help early on as I tried to locate and drink a good example of each style. I’d always enjoyed cooking (especially big, involved recipes), so brewing was a logical combination of these two hobbies. I started brewing beer my last semester in college (Carnegie Mellon) while taking a student led class, Beer Brewing and Appreciation. My first batch was an extract brown ale (our mid-term assignment) with my friend Nicole. It turned out well and I was hooked. After I graduated I made the switch to all-grain, and have been brewing about twice a month ever since.

Q: What made you decide to start the site?

Six years ago I moved to Washington, DC to start a new job, and I didn’t have a good outlet for my brewing energy. I originally started The Mad Fermentationist to have an easy place to access my recipes online, a place I could link to rather than typing the whole thing into posts on homebrewing forums. Appearing on Basic Brewing Radio for the first time for a tasting of my split-batch hop experiment, and having recently brewed my first few 100% Brett beers sent me off in the direction the site ended up.

Q: What do you look for in a yeast strain?

I don’t like fussy yeast strains. I like strains that will get the job done without a lot of hand-holding; those that are forgiving over a range of temperatures, pitching rates, gravities etc. Although in the end I’ll excuse a lot of that if the flavors produced are good enough. I tend to like drier beers, but a strain’s natural attenuation is something I can adjust for with tweaks to the mash and fermentables. I think it is important to ferment several batches with a strain to begin to understand how it reacts to different conditions. The first time I use a new strain I usually start with a relatively conservative approach, pitching the ideal amount of yeast suggested by a pitching rate calculator at the low end of the suggested fermentation temperature range. From there I’ll adjust depending on the results.

Q: What are your favorites? Top performers?

I probably use California Ale (001) most frequently, it stays out of the way in hoppy beers, and performs consistently. For Belgians I’m an Abbey Ale (530) guy, because it provides a wonderful range of characters depending on how warm you let it get. For saisons I really enjoyed my first batch (a moderate gravity recipe with spelt) fermented with Saison 3. For English beers I favor English Ale (002), it doesn’t have the minerally character I find off-putting in some other yeasts (I’m looking at you 023). I’m planning to give Dry English Ale (007) a shot soon since it is supposed to provide a similar flavor with a bit more attenuation. I don’t brew a lot of lagers, but German Bock (833) really stands out as a terrific strain for the malty examples. I currently have an ~11% ABV Weizen Trippelbock that was fermented with it sitting in a five gallon malt whisky barrel from Balcones. Really excited about that one!

I’m a big fan of both White Labs Brett claussenii (645), and the recently released Brett Trois (644) for primary fermentation. For true sour beers I tend to pitch bottle dregs from unpasteurized sour beers along with brewer’s yeast more than commercial yeast/bacteria blends.

Q: Hops have dominated the collective consciousness of much of the craft brewing community for many years now, but lately the tide seems to be turning a bit, with yeast-forward beers such as saisons and sours becoming increasingly popular. What do you make of this phenomenon?

I’m not sure if hoppy beers are falling out of vogue, or people’s interests are diversifying as more people discover good beer. Rather than making hoppier and hoppier beers, I’m excited to see all of the new hop varieties being released each with their own unique flavors. We’re also starting to see many breweries turn to more characterful yeasts and base beers for their hoppy beers than the standard get-out-of-the way malt/yeast of many classic West Coast hoppy beers. Things like Belgian IPAs, Cascadian/Black IPAs, White IPAs, dry hopped sour beers, hoppy 100% Brett beers etc. From a commercial stand-point, hops are also tricky because of the year-to-year variations in their availability. As a homebrewer I can just buy whatever hops are available and brew something that suits them, but commercial breweries are put in a difficult spot when the signature hop for one of their beers becomes either expensive or impossible to buy in the quantity they need it for an established brand. Yeasts and malts are much more reliable to procure, so there is less worry about having to adjust a recipe.

I think there will also be creative brewers looking to create new flavors in their beers by any means necessary. Microbes other than brewer’s yeast (Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus) can create flavors that are impossible to recreate with any other method or ingredients. Acidity rather than bitterness creates a very different balance for the beer, opening up other flavor combinations not possible in a highly hopped beer.

Q: Talk about your role in the development of Modern Times beers.

A few years ago I traded a few bottles of my homebrewed sours to Jacob McKean in exchange for some excellent craft beers. Apparently he enjoyed them enough that about a year ago he contacted me and asked if I wanted to work for his brewery-in-planning, Modern Times. After trying my hardest to get out of it by explaining to him that I live in Washington, DC several thousand miles from where the brewery would be located and had no plans of moving out there, he suggested I consult, developing recipes from a distance. For most of 2012 my homebrewing has been devoted to brewing and re-brewing tweaked test batches that will hopefully be released commercially in 2013 when the 30 bbl brewery opens in San Diego.  Currently some of the leading contenders for year-round beers are a creamy Oatmeal Coffee Stout, ~5% ABV Saison, ~4.5% Citra/Amarillo American Wheat, Red Rye IPA, and a Dank Amber IPA highlighting Nelson Sauvin.

We’ve been playing with some quicker funky beers like a 100% Brett IPA and a Belgian single bottle conditioned with Brett, but we are also planning to have an extensive barrel-aged souring program. I’ll be spending a few months in California around the time the brewery opens to fill barrels and help dial in the recipes on the much larger scale. Jacob is still searching for a Head Brewer, but fund raising is complete, and he is closing in on signing a lease for a building (which will also house a tasting room). It will be exciting to taste those first scaled up batches, each of which will be about the same volume of beer as I’ve produced in my eight years as a homebrewer! I’m also excited that we’ll be close to White Labs!

Q: Could you talk a bit about the text you’ve been working on which focuses on American sour ales.

I’ve been researching and writing the book for about two years now. I started out just writing my thoughts on brewing sour beers at home. As it grew I decided it would be fun to talk to some of the best brewers of sour beers in the country. While there have been several books focused on Belgian and German sour beers, none have given more than a passing mention to the American brewers doing it just as well. Luckily for me, American brewers in general are much more open than their Belgian counterpart; almost all of the 30 or so I’ve contacted have been willing to share their opinions and details of their processes.

I’m hoping that the book will answer all of the practical questions that brewers might have about brewing sour beers: from the obvious things like selecting the right microbes, what sort of base beer to use, determining whether or not barrel age, how much fruit to add, and how to blend; to easy-to-overlook practical aspects like how to measure acidity (pH or titratable acidity?), what sort of bungs to use, and how to compensate for the carbonation lost to aging in oak. Currently I’m waiting for the last couple brewers I interviewed to provide comments on the sections that cover their breweries before final copy-editing takes place. I’m in late-stage discussions with Brewers Publications at the moment, but if that falls through I’m prepared to self-publish.

Thanks so much, Mike. Be sure to check out the Mad Fermentationist site for (much) more information on all things homebrewing, fermentation and yeast oriented.

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