Beer: An itinerant brewer with a taste beyond categories

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."

Most Beer 101 books peg saison as a specific beer style, but Strumke sees it as more of a concept. "Almost every farmhouse in Belgium had a brewery attached to it. When they weren't farming, they were brewing. And every farm had a different style. They used whatever ingredients they had. If they had a lot of wheat or spelt or oats, they used that. If they had no hops, they used spices."

He views his own beers as "pieces of art; they don't follow style guidelines."

Stateside Saison, his first commercial beer and Stillwater's flagship brand, pours a hazy orange with a billowy white head. It has a peppery finish that Strumke attributes to the yeast; he says no spices are added. He uses Belgian biscuit and aromatic malts for added body and flavor, and Nelson Sauvin hops, a New Zealand variety with a gentle, fruity flavor sometimes likened to that of white wine.

Autumnal, a cross between a Belgian saison and a German-style altbier, is the brew Strumke recommends for pairing with your Thanksgiving turkey. It's soft and malty, with a Juicy Fruit sort of flavor that would do justice to the succulent meat. (Alternatively, if you're serving a sage-based stuffing, you might opt for Cellar Door, a light-on-the-palate offering brewed with one-third wheat and spiced with white sage.)

Strumke says his Love & Regret has tapped out, but in December he'll introduce A Saison Darkly, a black ale flavored with hibiscus and rose hips that he brewed at the Huisbrouwerij Sint Canarus in Deinze-Gottem, Belgium.

In December he'll also premiere a new year-round beer, Existent. It's hoppy but not to the same degree as the Cascadian dark ales (also called black IPAs) now in vogue. It has the bittersweet-chocolate and black-coffee flavors of a stout, but a dash of caramel malt balances the roast, like the cream in your coffee.

Existent might be unique among beers in having a picture of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche on the label, along with a Nietzschean quote: "And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

Strumke explains that it's kind of an existentialist commentary on a brewer imposing his own view on the beer universe.

"I leave it to the imbiber to decide what style it is."

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