Last month, I had the pleasure of chatting with Doug Dayhoff and Dusty Howe, president and sour beer brand manager, respectively, of Upland Brewing Company at one of their promotional events at RFD. Upland, founded in 1998, is one of Indiana’s oldest craft breweries and is named in honor of the Indiana Upland geographic phenomenon. They don’t really have mountains in the Midwest, so these folks get super jazzed about their hills.
What you should get jazzed about, assuming you’re not from Indiana or the immediate Midwest distribution zone, is that Upland Brewing’s beers are now available in the DC area via Madidus Importers. While Upland has a large portfolio of clean beers, most of what will be available in DC, both in bottle and keg formats, are beers from their sour program. The sour program at Upland started in 2006 and is older than most commercially available sour beer in America. That decade-plus of experience has led to some truly tasty libations. For those disheartened by Wicked Weed’s sale to AB-InBev, Upland provides a welcome new alternative in the DC market. (More on that here.)
The key to Upland’s program are their three sour base beers: blonde, oud bruin, and a high gravity Flanders Red. These beers are all aged in one of Upland’s 11 foeders or 500 wine barrels, which are/have been inoculated with a mixture of wild yeast strains. While Upland does make some coolship beers, you’ll have to visit Bloomington to try them out. For the first six years of Upland’s sour program, the brewery focused almost entirely on the traditional Belgian styles of sour beer and emulating the iconic breweries of Belgium. However, starting about four to five years ago, Dusty Howe, head of the sour beer program, really started to turn up the experimentation. Upland beers now come with a variety of fruit, dry-hop, and other additions. Additionally, their Cursed Kettles series is based on a multi-stage fermented beer that is kettle soured, and then goes through traditional Saccharomyces fermentation, before finally being aged in barrels.
The real magic of Upland, however, is their blending program. Rather than simply relying on pulling beer from a barrel or foeder once it is “done,” Upland focuses instead on creating finished beers that take advantage of the idiosyncrasies that have developed in each of their barrels and foeders over time. Upland does not neutralize any of the spirit or wine barrels that they acquire, so each one develops a unique micro-biome. Each new beer is created out of a blend of the three base beers focusing on factors such as: age, base type, ratios of each beer from each barrel, and additions. The goal of this blending program is to introduce approachability into the sour beer world from both a taste and, more importantly, price standpoint. The blending process, plus the expansion of the barrel house “The Wood Shop,” has allowed Upland to produce younger wild fermented beer that is still quite complex, while being at a lower price point than a beer which is aged for two or more years. Consumers can expect to pay $25-30 for a large format bottle of long-aged beer. Upland’s younger beers, which will be available in 500 mL bottles, are likely to cost between $10-$12.
After our meeting, I had the chance to ask Dayhoff some questions via email. What follows below is a lightly edited transcript.
Greg Parnas: You mentioned that the key for independent craft breweries going forward is investing in their local communities and through that process demonstrating to beer drinkers the value of that independence. However, given the sheer size of ABI's marketing budget, I was wondering if you really thought that was a winning strategy? The High End just put on a massive 10 year anniversary party for 10 Barrel in Bend, a brewery that hasn't actually existed since 2014. They've also put massive advertising dollars in commercials and marketing for Goose Island and Blue Point, specifically tying them to their origins in Chicago and Long Island. I imagine Devils Backbone won't be too far behind. Since most consumers, even dedicated craft beer consumers, are not aware of the conglomerate behind these brands (and ABI is trying very hard to keep it that way), how does Upland or any other independent brewery truly distinguish themselves as local?
Doug Dayhoff: The big brewery corporations have money, which is formidable, but that’s all they have. Independent brewers have soul, and our way to share our soul is to get out to meet people and share our beers and stories as much as possible, then hope for friends and fans to pass along their enthusiasm to more people. Is success guaranteed? No. But to paraphrase Margaret Mead, that is the only approach ever to succeed in changing the world.
GP: How does that value of independence translate to markets that are far from Bloomington, such as DC?
DD: Your soul as a brewery has to stand for something more than just “local.” You have to pay off beer quality and innovation in objective ways: you must also be better. And your independence must also yield some unique point to your identity.
Upland comes from this great, funky, progressive college town surrounded by hundreds of miles of traditional Midwestern values in all directions. We began experimenting with wood-aged sours back long before anyone was talking about sours. It came from our spirit of exploration - again in a part of the country that celebrates practicality and consensus, not innovation and difference. In our world, you could barely find a bottle of Lindeman’s lambics, let alone the Cantillons and Rodenbachs, on any store shelves.
GP: Finally, our editor Bill had this follow-up: how do you compare Upland's entrance to the DC market to Wicked Weed pre-ABI and to Cascade? I always love to hear from new breweries coming in what they think their niche is.
DD: Our intent in DC is not to sell “as much beer as possible.” Instead, it is to sell “as little beer as is practical.” We only care to be sold in about 25 bars and liquor stores in the entire city - those with staff and consumers with really high beer IQ. We need to sell enough for shipping costs to be reasonable and for those accounts to see our beers regularly such that they learn about Upland and develop confidence in our skills as brewers and blenders and trust the quality of beers we package. That’s all.
Thank you to Doug and Dusty for making the time. You can find Upland’s bottles for sale at the Craft Beer Cellar, Odd Provisions, and other select high-end beer shops around town. On tap, Upland will be available at ChurchKey, Meridian Pint, RFD, and a few other select accounts.