Beer: An itinerant brewer with a taste beyond categories

Brian Strumke founded Stillwater Artisanal Ales. His beers, such as this American Farmhouse Ale, are brewed all around the world. (Stillwater Artisanal Ales)
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By Greg Kitsock
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 19, 2010; 8:16 PM

Brian Strumke is the modern equivalent of the minstrels who crisscrossed Europe during the Middle Ages. He does have a musical background, but these days his preferred instruments are barley and hops.

Strumke is the founder of Stillwater Artisanal Ales, maker of Belgian-inspired beers that defy pigeonholing into specific styles. He calls Baltimore home, but you won't find a storefront with his name stenciled on the window. A self-described "gypsy brewer," he has made beer in seven breweries in three countries over the past year.

Much like Paul Rinehart, whose Rockville nanobrewery Baying Hound Aleworks I profiled in last month's column, Strumke is a self-taught home-brewer who went pro. After six years of brewing 10 gallons at a time, he scaled up to 30-barrel batches. But there's more than one path to the big leagues.

Contract brewing - renting another company's tanks to brew beer - has its risks: Because you can't be at the host brewery 24-7, you must trust a stranger to nursemaid your beer through fermentation and conditioning. On the other hand, Strumke reflects, "I don't have to pay off a $2 million building loan, so I can take risks, like making a beer with flowers."

Love & Regret, which Strumke brewed at the 't Hofbrouwerijke brewery in Beerzel, Belgium, in February, is a saison (farmhouse-style ale) spiced with heather, chamomile, lavender and dandelion. It accompanied the first course of a beer dinner at Pizzeria Paradiso two weeks ago. (Stillwater is expanding its market to encompass 18 cities nationwide, and I caught up with Strumke in the midst of a road trip that had already taken him to Vermont, Boston and New York City.)

None of the unusual ingredients stands out by itself, but Love & Regret has a delightful floral perfume that wafts up the back of one's throat and fills the sinuses. It measures 7.2 percent alcohol by volume (reasonable by the standards of today's high-octane "imperial" beers) and offers a crisp aftertaste that perks up the appetite.

Complexity, subtlety, moderate alcohol and a dry finish are the hallmarks of Strumke's beers.

The closest he comes to having a home base is the DOG Brewing Co. in Westminster, Md., a 45-minute drive from his home. He brews his Stateside series of beers in a 15-barrel brew house there and uses a cramp-inducing manual eight-head bottler to package them in 750-milliliter bottles.

DOG Brewing devotes most of its output to a line of American- and English-style ales for the Pub Dog Pizza & Drafthouse restaurants in Baltimore and Columbia. "It's like a charter fishing boat," brewery president George Humbert says of his relationship with Strumke. "He's the fisherman, and we own the boat.

"He's got an amazing sense of taste and knows just what he wants to do," Humbert said. "I've learned a lot about Belgian beers from him."

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