A Story of Stingo and Collaboration with Boulevard

The Story of Collaboration Number 3. Stingo.

When entering a Boston-area beer bar the night before one of BeerAdvocate.com‘s festivals, you’re bound to spot some of the great brewers of the world.  Just as I did when I entered Lord Hobo in Cambridge last fall the night before the Belgian Beer Festival.  Pushing aside the great red velvet curtain I was stopped in my tracks by a mass of beer drinkers, filling every conceivable space between me and the bar.  Through the gloom, the first person I saw was brewer Jeremy Danner of Boulevard Brewing Company from Kansas City, Missouri.  Jeremy was the first Boulevard guy I met and he’s really a great one…  Jeremy introduced me to the guy standing next to him, the famed Boulevard brewmaster Steven Pauwels.  “Great to meet you Dann,” he said, and without missing a beat, “I hear we’re brewing a collaboration together.”

The first I heard of Steven Pauwels and the Boulevard collaboration beers was actually from a Trappist monk, our dear friend Brother Brian.  Boulevard’s “Collaboration No. 1″ was with Jean-Marie Rock, Brewmaster for the Trappist brewery Orval, which is easily one of the most revered breweries in the world.  This beer, an “imperial pilsner”, sent shockwaves through the monastic brewing community and the old world met the new world in Kansas City.  Collaboration number two was with Deschutes Brewery of Oregon. Together, Boulevard and Deschutes pretty much created a brand new type of beer: white IPA.  So just so we get this straight: the first collaboration was with one of the revered breweries on the planet, the next one was with a brewery literally one-hundred times our size, and now I’m hearing, “Great to meet you Dann, I hear we’re brewing a collaboration together.”  I’m fishing for a little sympathy here people. For us it was a little like having the Rolling Stones come to your gig at the VFW hall and Mick Jagger inviting you to open for them at Wembley.  Yes it was.

Anyway, you can’t open for the Stones playing Stones covers – which is pretty much like what it would be proposing a Belgian beer style to a Belgian brewmaster.  So if we were going to come up with a great idea for a collaboration beer it would have to come from somewhere else.  Since Martha is from Yorkshire and because I’ve been dreaming about this old beer style I read about in the book “In Praise of Yorkshire Ale”  written by George Meriton in the late 1600′s called “stingo”, Martha and I wondered if they would go for it.
The idea of a sour English style that goes back this far really ignited excitement for me.  A sour English beer seems strange to us today, but if you’ve been following our Once Upon A Time series of historical brewing then you know almost anything is possible in England’s glorious brewing past.  Then you look over at an article on Rodenbach, written by Peter Bouckaert, former Rodenbach brewer and present Head Brewer at New Belgium brewery in Colorado.  Rodenbach is a venerable old brewery that still produces magical, dark sour beers in Belgium that were dubbed”Flanders Reds” by Michael Jackson.  Peter wrote this about Eugene Rodenbach in a piece on the history of the beer:

“Eugene learned the job of brewer around 1860 in Northern England. Returning to Rodenbach he copied two things he had seen: the kiln construction, but still more important is the way of making beer. During the time he was in England, a pub could buy fresh beer in a brewery. But there were traders who kept the beer for some years stored, and sold it for the double of the price. “

Is Stingo the original Flanders Red?  I’ve been all around the Rodenbach brewery and I’ve seen photos of plenty of wooden fermenters in old English breweries.  There are a lot of similarities between breweries in this period anyway.  De Dolle Brouwerij in Esen, Belgium is like a close cousin to the T & R Theakston brewery in Masham, Yorkshire.  Green King still uses “rounds”, wooden vessels similar to the classic Belgian “foeder” to make its Olde Suffolk ale.  I don’t claim to be making an academic study, just observations.  But I’d love for someone to look into it further.

It’s a fascinating question and the folks at Boulevard liked it as well.  So with many emails back and forth we and Steven came up with a recipe that featured 100% Yorkshire malts from Thomas Fawcett & Sons, a Yorkshire ale yeast and a couple English hop varieties that Steven admitted he once threw out of his brewery for smelling too weird!  So we really pushed out the boat and tried to marry our two influences: English beer ingredients and brewing history, with current fantastic Belgian beer styles.

On April 25th and 26th our crazy rinky dink brewery group: Me, Martha, Anya and Bocky stand-in, radio personality John Funke drove to Boulevard’s Kansas City brewery and spent two days brewing our beer. We milled in, blended the preliminary batches, tweaked the ageing and ingredients, and most importantly ate more barbecue than any four people should ever eat. Steve Mills, Chief Operating Officer of Boulevard knows all the great places to eat and drink in the area and made certain we got to them.  I can’t tell you how much fun we had eating and drinking Boulevard beers in Kansas City!

The one thing I should say is that prior to our visit Boulevard did not have any foeders to speak of (although I believe they have a few now).  So we endeavored to recreate this beer with the “sting” coming from a bacterial fermentation in the brewhouse.  This was achieved by adding lots of dry ice to the brew kettle, bringing the temperature down so the bacteria could flourish and pitching a known lactic acid-producing strain.  Steven called it a “cold boil” as it literally boiled and steam went everywhere. Over a period of hours the lactic acid was produced and the wort was cooled and fermented with the traditional Yorkshire yeast and with wooden cubes to give it a subtle flavour.

Three times in the intervening months we were shipped large boxes containing various champagne bottles of unblended and test-blended versions of the Stingo.  They were all flat beer and we played around with different ways to get the final blend and then called Steven.  One of these shipments happened while we were spending a week at UC Davis taking an intensive brewing course.  So we were pleased that our host let us use many of her wine glasses and a measuring cup to help make these blends happen.  Our overall goal was to make a believable facsimile of what this beer would have tasted like in the best of situations.  A little too much sourness and the big malty nose goes away, too little and the sting is gone.  The same with the fermentations that took place with large amounts of wood in the tanks.  We needed an almost neutral wood character, but one which would be detectable in the beer.  Easy to imagine but difficult to achieve.  I think we did a pretty good job.  Even better was the fact that Steven was always on the same page, or we were always on the same page as Steven.  Either way we made a beer that we all contributed too and were pleased with.
We were insanely impressed by the folks at Boulevard.  They’re such a friendly, capable and impressive group of people.  The brewery itself is a spectacular German-designed facility that ingeniously fits into Boulevard’s urban footprint.  The level of automation slightly surpassed my imagination.  One night I saw Jeremy Danner checking out a current brewing session from his iphone.  We were in a beer bar across town and he told me if he needed to he could brew from his phone.  I convinced him to email me a screenshot of his brewery-control panel on his phone and set it as my lock screen.  Later on I noticed Steven Pauwels nervously following my right hand as I gestured wildly in the middle of a story, he thought I was messing with his brewery!

For me this was a fantastic experience and the beer not only tastes great, it has achieved every goal we set for it.  I’m also proud that my name is not only next to Steven’s but to Martha’s.  She’s always been around my brewing career but a couple of years ago she began forging her own, quitting her job as scientist (it’s actually Dr. Martha you know) and jumping into brewing like she was born for it.  Back in Yorkshire we went to my brewery on the weekends together to top-crop yeast from the open fermenters. Now she’s the one more likely to try to solve issues in the brewery with a microscope.

Here’s to our first ever collaboration!