Reading Time: 10 minutes read
God made yeast, as well as dough, and loves fermentation just as dearly as he loves vegetation.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Turnagain Brewing makes beers that are, “soured upon a polymicrobial house culture derived from wild microflora residing on local alder wood.” That’s not the only thing they brew; far from it. Depending on when you visit, you’ll find IPAs, porter, Belgian dubbel, trippel, or saison, Flanders red, and even Mexican lager available on tap and to-go. They brew vinegar, and also grapefruit soda — their best-selling item. But what made me want to visit and write about ‘em, is definitely the various sours.
It’s the Saturday afternoon before Thanksgiving, which, in Anchorage, Alaska, means it’s winter. There’s snow on the ground, but it’s not yet the put-on-your-pac-boots-and-plug-in-your-engine-block-heater that we’ll be seeing in about a week. The beginning of the big-beer season, basically.
Stepping into the small, warmly lit tasting room slightly before 4 p.m., it’s easy to spot Ian and PJ. They’re sitting at the table closest to the bar, and the room isn’t crowded anyway. My usual partner in crime is out of the country, so I’ve asked a couple of photographer friends (Ian and PJ) along for this excursion. We’re all a little early for our meetup with Ted, so I grab a pint of something brewed with highbush cranberries (viburnum) while I wait.
We don’t have long to wait, and soon we’ve all introduced ourselves and we’re heading back into the production brewery. First is the “Clean side”. When King Street Brewing were scaling up to a larger brewhouse, Turnagain took over their previous space. This was great for Turnagain, because the space already had glycol pipes set up (for chilling) and the right kinds of floor drainage, and so on.
Next is the “Tart side”. The two sides of the brewhouse are kept strictly separate, with totally different vessels and equipment, and even different kegs for clean vs. sour beers. Once the microorganisms that make sour beers sour get into wood, plastic or rubber, they are there for good. There’s almost no way to get them out. Stainless steel and glass can be sanitized but stainless steel kegs still have rubber o-rings.
Ted and Mary (the owners) are both biologists and Ted is also a surgeon. That both are scientists shows in the care they take with their brewhouse and the high quality of their beers. They’re obviously well-versed in the biology and chemistry of brewing (especially with polymicrobial cultures), and the precautions necessary to turn out safe-to-drink sour beers.
The tart side is what I’m most excited to see. On the left side of the space, barrels are stacked floor to nearly-ceiling. To the right of the barrels, is a unique feature that I’ve been curious about. The stainless steel secondary fermentation and aging vessel, the “solera” has an unusual addition; two tubes standing off from the side, one labeled “Alder” and the other labeled “Oak”.
When I met Ted last spring at a Great Northern Brewers club meeting, he told me a bit about, “souring using the wild microflora residing upon” alder from his yard, and I’ve wanted to see this ever since. That’s what’s in the “Alder” pipe. The “Oak” is a cut up wine barrel. Ted explains that, “this tank was filled on day one, four and a half years ago. It’s never been emptied, and never will be.”
When they want the house sour culture to inoculate a batch, they pull it from the bottom of the tank, and when they want something with an aged character, they pull it from the racking arm. As Ted explains, “Only a small fraction is ever pulled from the tank, and the space made by using beer is backfilled with a freshly fermented brown beer.” This is why they call their secondary fermentation tank a solera — the method is inspired by the solera method of aging spirits. The base sour wort comes from a second tank, which “is used for primary co-fermentation using brewer’s yeast and the house polymicrobial culture. The base sour takes about six weeks to fully ferment and sour.”
This is the perfect time to taste some Duke of Spenard, Ted’s take on a Flanders red ale. I’ve known one brewer in the U.S. who could pull off this style, and he’s a home brewer. Don’t talk to me about other local examples; they’re not yet ready to stand up to a Duchesse or Rodenbach. Duke, on the other hand, might call for a side-by-side comparison.
Duke contains the elements I expect to find in a Flanders red; tartness, certainly, and an almost-vinegary (acetic) character; wood, residual sweetness, and no (I’ll say it again) no buttery character. For anyone who may wonder, Flanders red and Irish red are not even slightly similar styles, and if you taste a Flanders red that has buttery notes, something is not right. While we sip, Ted explains that Flanders red is a blend of old, dark beer that’s soured and younger, pale sour beer. Gueuze, on the other hand, are a blend of pale, aged sour beer, and less-aged pale sour beer.
Ted himself is a fairly slight man with gray hair, an open expression, and calm-yet-cheery voice. His excitement about the beers they produce and his deep knowledge of the craft come through clearly. Though he belongs to a relatively small group of pro brewers in the U.S. who skillfully produce beers using a polymicrobial house culture, he’s not arrogant and none of his explanations give me the impression that we’re being talked down to. Rather, he seems delighted to discuss what is obviously a labor of love.
“What’s it like being a brewer in Anchorage, Alaska?” Ian asks. “There are benefits and challenges,” Ted replies. “The benefits are that we have four seasons. So, breweries on Maui aren’t going to get away with pouring a stout. No 13% beers taste good on the island…there’s a season for everything, for every kind of beer imaginable…we haven’t even rolled out our big beers yet.” — They will be releasing a barleywine and an imperial stout this winter — Ted continues, “Some of the challenges are costs of getting materials into the state. We source everything we can locally; unmalted wheat, which is difficult to use. Some fruits. Highbush cranberries, which are foraged. Apples…berries…seaweed…” But the hops and malts need to come into the state from elsewhere.
And yet, Turnagain Brewing doesn’t charge especially high prices for their beers. Rather than operating on a very thin margin, their business model is more high-margin, low-volume. It works for them.
Ted gives us a sample right out of the primary tank. Each year (in March, I think), Turnagain Brewing shares out one-gallon portions of this wort, for the Great Northern Brewers Club pro-am competition, Tartside Challenge. Participants get a gallon of base sour wort from Turnagain, and then they have a couple of months to add fruits, spices, seaweed…whatever to the batch, to make it unique. The entries are judged in May, and then Turnagain brews and releases the winning recipe.
Water? I always have to ask, “Do you do anything to your water? Is it straight city water?” The water is city water. “We have great water. We do filter it, but it’s unadulterated.” Their filter takes out particulates, and that’s it. I haven’t noticed any off-favors in their beers that indicate a water problem, so it must be working out well.
We return our attention to the stack of barrels. “Every one of them has a nail, pounded through the head,” Ted notes. “That’s the way that we can sample every barrel. It was invented by Russian River Brewing; Vinnie Cilurzo started doing that, so that’s now called the Vinnie Nail. It’s a stainless steel nail. I drill a hole and pound the nail in. If you guys want, we can sample one; we’ll pull the nail out.”
Yes, we do want. What are we sampling? Beet beer. The blend that Turnagain released for Halloween had less of the beet in it; what’s in the barrel is about “about five times” more beet-y.
Raspberry red, tart (of course), with a deeply earthy nose that’s carried into the flavor, this is quite a unique brew.
Presently, we’re joined by a couple of other friends, Jon and Katie (also a photographer), and the fun continues. Ted shows us the loft where the malt is stored (mostly 2-row, Pilsner malt, and some Marris Otter), and he mentions that their Güz — a blend of lambics, the oldest of which is four years old — just won an award for the best sour beer in the state. They’ll be entering it in the World Beer Cup this May. “It’s the official competition of the Craft Brewers Conference. It happens annually, it’s always in the States…” and is one of the two biggest beer competitions in the world.
What’s next? A most generous host, Ted starts bringing out bottles to share. There’s a bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout, with an illustration of a kingfisher on the label. “Mmm…this smells so good,” PJ exclaims. And from Katie, “That is good, oh my god.” It’s like hot chocolate, marshmallows, and everything good about winter. That one’s releasing in January.
Up next, White Christmas — a white stout with vanilla bean, cacao, and Caffe D’arte coffee. PJ declares that she wants a case of it (at the time of writing, White Christmas has been released in both nitro and non-nitro versions).
Turnagain also creates beers for local businesses. They’ve done, “…three for Serrano’s, three for Brown Jug, three for La Bodega, one for Burger and Brew…” I ask, is it difficult to supply a house beer for a restaurant or bar, given Turnagain’s fairly low production volume?
“This is our jam,” Ted explains. “…we are scientists, so if somebody comes to us and says, we want a beer that tastes like Swedish Fish candy, we can figure that out.” Which they did; Fiskbrau may still be available at Brown Jug.
We sample Good Times, an oak barrel-aged beer, brewed for La Bodega. And we get a sneak preview of Brambler — a blackberry and spruce tip sour with brettanomyces — which is Seth Ayotte’s winning recipe from this year’s Tartside Challenge. “Oh, holy hell…I think this one’s my favorite,” exclaims Katie. It’s bottle-conditioned, perfectly-carbonated, complex, delicious, and due to be released in December.
More science — Ted explains that their small lab is for measuring acid, to determine how sour the beers are. “Weak acids are not reflected well in pH…” so they have a lab to “…measure how sour things are.” When you’re brewing sour beers, that’s kind of important.
Eventually, our tour and tasting session wraps up, and we’re all gathered at the register, because our respective cellars (er, garage shelves) and fridges need more good beer. On my way out, I notice the folks from Arctic Brewing Supply settled at the table where we’d started, enjoying tulip glasses and chatting with Mary. I’ll be seeing them again soon; the next time I need supplies for a homebrew project.
This has been my first brewery tour — not first visit, but first tour — in over two years, and I couldn’t have picked a better place to get back in the game, so to speak. Ted and Mary are welcoming and kind humans, Turnagain Brewing turns out excellent beers, and the taproom is a cozy, inviting space that I will happily visit again.
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