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"Where are my Premium cans!?" An interview with Stillwater's Brian Strumke

About 14 months ago, Brian Stillwater Strumke let us know that Premium was coming to cans. It is not. I confronted him at the Craft Brewers Conference and demanded answers, which are edited for clarity and content. The good news is that we’ll see a lot more Stillwater products in four-packs, and a new beer, Classique, in six-pack cans by July. 

DC Beer: Where are my Premium cans? Basically, what happened there?

Brian Strumke: Well, basically here is the situation. We “hand canned” a sixer to see how it would behave in can form. After testing a can every month or so (stored warm) we saw minimal carbonation issues (unless it's warm and and you get off the subway and try to shotgun it in the East Village... that can get messy! Heh.).

Did you talk to the brewers at Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, who are the only people to have successfully canned a brett beer, on what they did?

The bigger issue arose in finding a facility that would not only brew with Brett, but also run it through the canning line, for obvious cross contamination risks. But fear not, Premium will remain in production at Westbrook [in South Carolina], but for now will remain in bottle and draft form.

This seems like an occupational hazard of being a "gypsy" brewer, then. Any regrets on that, or thoughts on the "controversy" surrounding that term? There are some craft brewers who own/operate facilities who think that itinerant, wandering brewers don't have any "skin in the game,” so to speak. [Note: here is a link to said controversy.]

No regrets, and I'm not sure where the controversy lies. Stillwater is known for making unique high quality beers (globally) and having a successful business model... seems like a good thing to me, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I suppose.

Are you and Hugh Sission [owner of Heavy Seas] cool now? Baltimore ain't that big a town.

Sure, why not? I was never the one who was upset in the first place.

Why the move from SC to CT?

There has not been a "move" so to say, but rather a production “shift” of the core Stillwater beers from their previous homes to facilities with larger capacity. Some of the brands are growing so rapidly (Cellar Door, Stateside, etc.) that we could not keep up with production in their current homes. Also, one thing that I have been working on since the beginning was a way to produce my beers at better cost to the consumer and also introduce additional packaging formats. Working at Two Roads in CT allows much greater output and better pricing due to bulk purchasing of raw goods & packaging materials, not to mention more efficient equipment. The new 12oz formats for Stateside, Cellar Door, and Existent hit the market this month and the quality is as high as always while the price tag took a noticeable plunge. Price has always been the biggest criticism with Stillwater and I vowed to address as so as we were able.

What kind of price drop can consumers expect? What percentages did your costs decline by? I ask this recognizing that wholesalers and retailers will do what they do.

Without divulging my financial records, I will say that consumers will see a drop on some of my core beers to be anywhere from 30-50% in some cases. Stateside Saison, for example, has gone from a $10-12 for a 750ml [25.4 oz] bottle to a $10-12 12oz four-pack [48 oz.] (priced depending on the market and distributor), while maintaining complete integrity of the product.

Is Classique the same beer as Premium, sans brett?

They’re pretty similar. The grain bill is the same, but I did adjust the hopping to provide a little more fruit aroma and additional herbaceous / mustiness to make up for the lack of Brett. The outcome I will say is a more accessible beer to the average consumer. While I love Premium, the funk in the aroma can really put off the average beer drinker with no experience with Brettanomyces. We played a little experiment at Of Love And Regret in Baltimore to see how the two would be received to the public, and Classique was crowned champion. One of my favorite situations was a Sunday afternoon when I was sitting at the bar and a family came in for brunch. A grandfather in his mid-to-late 70's asks for a “National Boh,” and with my bar being located across the street from the old National brewery he was shocked when he was unable to get his old favorite. The server then suggested a “light beer from Stillwater.” The man accepted, gave it a once over, took a sniff, then quickly polished off the glass of Classique and ordered another! I observed this myself from the bar and thought, “hmmm Classique - 'your grandfather's new beer.'”

What's the yeast strain? Belgian-style, American, a mix? Premium uses Saaz, Cluster, Northern Brewer hops. What did you add to Classique, hop-wise?

It is indeed a Belgian yeast, hence the name 'Classique.’ It’s a play on words as the beer is built upon the classic American industrial beer with a Franco-Belgian twist. In addition to the hops used in Premium, Cascade was added to impart a slight fruitiness.

Your restaurant, Of Love and Regret, is across the street from the old National Bohemian factory. Does looking at that building influence you in brewing Classique? Some sort of psychic connection, perhaps?

As stated above I will say yes. I grew up in what is now called the Brewers Hill neighborhood of Baltimore. On my street is the old National Brewery and also Gunther's (which at one point both my Grandfathers had worked). I was never a fan of industrial beer for obvious reasons, and did not find my love for suds until venturing into the Brewers Art and experiencing their unique take on Belgian styles. I remember trying to share some of my new finds with my father and grandfather... they didn't even want to get their heads around them. They looked, smelled, and tasted radically different than what they knew a “beer” to be, so I figured, why not just make a fucking beer? Then working in a deconstructionist fashion I set out to create something that resembled classic, post prohibition style American “beer,” plain and simple. I too am a fan of dry, low ABV beers with great refreshing flavor... and of course naughtiness of using corn and rice had to be debunked as both grains are highly delicious and a large part of the human diet. I just attempted to ‘fix’ the process a bit. This is why I am intending Classique kind of a movement, so I am labeling it as just “Postmodern Beer”... no concern with ale, lager, or style for that matter. It's just a good fucking “beer” that everyone can recognize as beer. It's intended to be the most accessible beer in the Stillwater portfolio while still maintaining an uncompromised uniqueness.

The language used here I find interesting. You've taken post prohibition style American 'beer' and broken it down to its essential components. Premium was phrased as a "reconstruction." Are these beers, Premium and Classique, yin and yang? Or, to use more postmodern terminology, are they mutually constitutive, in that one cannot exist independent of the other? I don't mean that physically, but these beers strike me as two sides of the same coin.

I would say they are kind of mutually constitutive... perhaps Classique should have came first, but I suppose it was created out of necessity... so I would have to say that Classique would not exist without Premium.

Another heady question: I wonder if you're familiar with the term "simulacrum," which I'm using to tie the macro lager question and answer to the postmodern one. Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher, uses simulacrum to describe an alternate presentation or representation that can challenge the current, hegemonic, dominant order, which in this case would be macro lager, while Classique is the upstart. Is that a fair analysis?

Sure, although I was thinking more on the lines of Jacques Derrida's approach to Deconstruction, that is associated “with the attempt to expose and undermine the oppositions, hierarchies, and paradoxes on which particular texts, philosophical and otherwise, are founded.”

Of course neither Classique nor Premium would exist without American-style adjunct lagers. It’s an fascinating relationship. Your thoughts on why Bud/Miller/Coors can't also "fix" this process?

Macro lagers are now a style, and one that appeals and is targeted to a mass market. They were created to emulate pilsners and have now grown to be the American standard for “beer.” While I cheekily joke about “fixing” the process, I am actually just taking a different approach and using the building blocks within that style to make something new, but with a familiar foundation, hence the “deconstruction” aspect of the project.

Overall, which beers are you planning on selling in multi-packs, and what are the advantages of doing so?

The majority of the core Stillwater beers will be coming out in four-packs and also in cork and caged 750ml bottles. Stateside, Cellar Door, Existent, and As Follows are the first to come, with seasonals Autumnal, Folklore, & Debutante to follow, along with new mainstays Why Can't I.B.U. and of course Classique in canned 12oz six-packs. The advantages are the cost to the consumer is lower and also the 12oz format is more approachable, especially on-premise accounts. Many restaurants with no draft system want to carry my beers, and 750ml formats can be a hard sell at dinner tables.

You mentioned on twitter that someone pooped themselves while drinking your beers. Which beer? Context?

Haha. Yeah, I met this dude a few weeks ago and he said “Man, I got in trouble with your beer.” The story followed into him going out with a co-worker for drinks after work and then stopping by a liquor store where he saw 750ml bottles of Of Love And Regret [the beer, not the restaurant]. He proceeded to tell me that he polished off 2 quite quickly and then passed out in his co-worker’s bathroom on the toilet (for like 4-5 hours!). His girlfriend was calling him and his cell phone had died, she then started posting on Facebook regarding his whereabouts and the homeowner / co-worker had to make entry to said bathroom to extinguish the situation. That said, i rather not have that story relate to any Stillwater products, but rather bad judgement on his end... but it's still pretty damn funny!

Does this mean I can't use this story in the article?

Sure... it is pretty funny ;7

Also, any collaborations with musicians coming up? Something mind-blowing with Dan Deacon, soothing with Beach House?

Indeed. The second installment in the series in coming out in late May with the Brooklyn band Small Black who are signed to the Jagjaguwar label..The song is called “Breathless” and it's set to be a summer anthem. The release will correlate with their new album. Another band later this year will be Tennis from Colorado.

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