Friday, August 21, 2015

Better Know Your Brewers: Division Brewing

We posted last month about a great tasting party that the folks at Division Brewing invited us to. We were blown away by the great beers that owner/brewers Wade Wadlington and Sean Cooley had produced, so we sat down with them to learn a little more about Arlington’s first locally-owned craft brewery, opening this fall.

How did you first become involved with brewing?

Wade: I began appreciating import beers in the early nineties. There were not many craft breweries around or readily available, so the decision to brew my own was pretty natural. My first Texas craft beers were Celis White & Grand Cru, which became available around 1994 or so.  I continued to enjoy and search for new imports and craft beer until I had tried every single one available. Then in 1999, I went to Homebrew Headquarters (which was in Arlington at the time) and brewed with the owner right out on the sidewalk.  It was your basic kit beer, but the experience of brewing a beer for the first time was magic to me.  That first batch was not that great, so I brewed again and again…and again.  Always asking myself, “What can I do right this time that I did wrong before?”   This was before the home brewing explosion, so reference material was basically the Papazian book, which is still a viable resource today.  It’s so much easier these days to just pop on the internet and google information.

Sean: Early on, it was country wines, odd and often foraged ingredients for the beer. I was pretty biased against liquid malt extract, maybe unfairly, so I used dry malt extract for the base and added things like dandelions and wild herbs to the beer in mainly 2 gallon batches. I slowly took on the intimidating task of learning all-grain. A lot of it came down to distribution issues. You hear about a lot of great beers out there but you can’t get them, or you don’t want to pay for them. Also that do-it-yourself spirit that both Wade and I have and a lot of homebrewers have. 

W: It’s much more satisfying to provide the solution than to buy it.

Did you brew many different styles, or did you repeat a few recipes to “tune them in?” 

W: I tried a few different things early on, and it was just craziness, like my third batch of beer was an imperial cherry stout. But then after that I was pretty focused on brewing beer that I like to drink. At that time I was moving from European hoppy pilsners to IPAs that were starting to show up here. So it was finding something in between that I was challenging myself to do. As the craft beer scene started growing, and more choices became available, it pushed me to make better IPAs and questioning is this right, is this what I want it to taste like? What it comes down to is you just have to brew your ass off. Once you get the process down, the freshness itself becomes a dominant factor.

S: Before opening up a brewery became possible, I didn’t really brew anything twice. Pretty much the same styles that I brew now, I’ve always been brewing. I can’t say my tastes have changed very much: IPA’s, Saisons, sours. And I’ve always done a few dark styles like porters and stouts. But I would change up the recipe each time. I would do different things with each brew. One thing about brewing: recipe formulation is important, but knowing your process is more important. I think I learned more about brewing not by brewing the same recipe over and over and over again, but just dialing my process in each time.

What was the most significant improvement to your homebrew setup?

W: Whirlpool was one of the things that for me was a game changer. I brew a lot of IPA’s and hoppy beers, and I discovered the importance of it with stirring. I’d get distracted with other people here during the brew session, and notice that something was lacking in the hop character, and it was not stirring enough to get more hops utilization. I bought our new equipment (Stout Tanks & Kettles) so that it had the whirlpool feature, and it’s awesome. It leaves a cone in the center once the wort is drained off that’s just huge. Whirlpooling I think is a missed opportunity with a lot of homebrewers. They get in the habit of set it and forget it, and I think they’re missing out, especially with late hop additions.

S: Yeast management was one of the biggest ones for me. Temperature control has been good, but knowing your yeast and having an idea for what expression you want to get out of it is important. Not just pitching a yeast because it’s what the recipe says to do, but what do you want out of that yeast and what can you do with it in order to get that expression out of it, whether it’s a clean profile or fruity or funky.

What was your favorite homebrewing experience (competition, party, brewday, etc.)?

S: We’re in them, I think.

W: Livin’ the dream of it. I think most of ours have been the sharing of the finished product. I’ve gotten to where the brew day for me, I like it to be peaceful with nobody around. And then I like to open the doors once everything’s done and then let people try it.

S: Yeah, these tasting events with people have been great.

What made you decide to consider professional brewing?

W: Seeing 300 or 400 people drinking locally made beer at the breweries. I really enjoy the beer making process but I think the decision to go ahead and do it professionally had a lot to do with the success of the new local breweries and the large amount of people that were honestly enjoying craft beer. I have a product that I’m proud of and I just want to share it with a larger group of people. Being a craft beer lover for a long time in DFW area, there were places like Copper Tank, Yegua Creek, Rock Bottom, and 2-Row Brewery. They were places where you’d go in and have a beer or sit down at the brewpub and enjoy a meal.  Those places have come and gone and I never saw the enthusiasm or numbers of people coming out to enjoy craft beer until recently.  It’s fantastic!

S: Wade had this in the back of his mind before I even met him, and it may not have been very long once I knew you, but you seemed like a determined person, and this seemed like something you wanted to do. I decided it doesn’t matter what it is, I want to be a part of that. If it was cleaning kegs or whatever, I wanted to do it.

W: A lot of good brewers are good cooks, and they really enjoy all the little preparations, all the little facets. We were both cooking a long time before we started brewing. It’s just the handling the raw product and turning it into something special. It’s a good feeling.

Were there any other commercial breweries that inspired you to start your own?

W: The ones that have inspired me are the west coast places. After reading for years about Pliny the Elder, and going out there and seeing it first hand, you’re looking at what they’re doing behind the scenes.  There’s a passion and attention to detail that really makes Russian River Brewing and a few others out there stand out.  Also in Europe, Ayinger Brewery was a big inspiration. I’ve always respected them. Their Celebrator Doppelbock and wheat beers are awesome, some of the best available. And if you research their past, they have their own farms and used to grow everything on their estate. Not many people do that, or can do that. Certainly Rogue is getting there with Rogue Farms, but it’s rare the way Ayinger has done it.

S: He came back from California with Russian River’s Sanctification, and I just so happened to have 2 gallons of a saison that I split into 1 gallon each, so I pitched the dregs, and it kinda became our first sour. I mean I had no idea what I was doing, I was just tipping some bugs into a beer, you know. Jester King has been an inspiration for me, and also a frustration for me because they’ve done so many things with their beer. I’ll have an idea and want to do this with my beer, and I’ll look up if anyone has done it, and of course Jester King has. Like beets. I thought has anyone done beets in beer, and sure enough Hibernal Dichotomous is this great seller. They’ve just done it all, and they’re great. They really inspire me.

What is your idea of a hypothetical “perfect beer?”

W: It depends on the setting, but 90% of the time it’s going to be a 9.0 (ABV) double IPA that is well balanced. I can appreciate every other style of beer just about, but that’s my go-to. I do love a good European, maybe British style ale too. I love stuff on cask, and I want to get something on cask at JR Bentley’s, the newly re-opened British pub in downtown Arlington. We’d love to do something with those guys.

S: It really depends. I have a lot of favorite beers. You can ask me again in the middle of winter, but especially now drinkability is really high on the priority list. I find myself dropping my kegerator down like 10 degrees in the summer because I want something that’s cold and refreshing. I love saisons, but I really do love hoppy beers, and I prefer something that’s pretty dry, personally. 

To keep the interview going, we cracked a Flanders Red, just the base style without any finishing fruit. Delicious, crisp, not overwhelmingly sour, approachable, great malt presence with some leathery, brett character that will continue to develop in the bottle.

You will have a dedicated sour program at Division. Will there be any particular sour style that you focus on, or will you have a variety?

S: We’ll be brewing dark, golden, amber, but as far as what we do with them like fruits, as long as we have a decent supply of fresh ingredients it’s wide open. Sours are becoming a real big deal in America lately, and there’s been a lot of bleed over from the culinary world. I really like that, but then deep down what I really enjoy is simplicity and expression of ingredients at their best. If you look at a recipe and there’s a hundred ingredients, you can get lost in that. Sometimes, the best things can be simple. If it’s brewing with fruit in a sour beer, it’s using fresh fruit that’s in season.

W: As much as I like a really good peach, just ripe and ready to eat, I know it’s going to be that good or better in the beer. I wouldn’t mind if we just keep throwing out new ones all the time. We know people will want some standards or go-to’s like Franken Froth, RosaLee, Xmas Morning or Ben Stout. But when we’re playing with the freshest ingredients we can get a hold of, it’s going to be great. Like wholesale hops, too, not just fruit. We’d like to get some great rare or experimental hops like we did with some very fresh Galaxy we just received. The orders flew in, and we bought as much as we could, and they were sold out in like 15 minutes. So we’re going to brew with these hops in a few weeks and it’ll be as fresh as possible.

Sean’s bio on the Division website says he likes to preserve and/or ferment foods. What was the best aged food you’ve ever made? Weirdest?

S: Cheese is one of those things we take for granted how weird it is. When you see a whole wheel of cheese and the rind and everything, it’s… just weird man. It tastes great and everything, but it just weirds me out a little. Whenever it was cool outside we’d stick sausages on our back porch and dry them out, and that was pretty crazy, but it was fun to do and it turned out good. I’m pretty lucky I didn’t get botulism or anything. We cured some pork loins too. The one thing I do on a regular basis is sourdough bread baking. That’s something that I really take time aside to do. Starting a brewery is pretty all-encompassing, but I think I’ll always make time to bake sourdough. That was the first thing my wife and I did the first week after our honeymoon. It became our daily bread, and it symbolized more than just food on the table.

What advice would you give the average beer drinker in order to convince them to try sour beer for the first time?

S: The one thing I’ve used that I heard from Jay Goodwin at the Rare Barrel was the three sip rule. The first sip is going to shock your palate because it’s quite different, and the second sip kind of lets your palate acclimate. Hopefully by the third, you’re good to go. You’ve made up your mind. Some say they’re not for everyone, but I think they are. 

W: For a lot of people, the name sour kind of hurts the genre. You say sour, and they think it’s gone bad or something. There’s some negative connotation implied by the sour label. That’s not the case at all. I find them refreshing and complex…the kind of beer that is contemplative; you pour, sit and think about it.

S: A lot of times people are basing the credentials on pH or how sour is it. I’m definitely proud of the sour beers that I brew and the complexities in them like brett character. Yeah, I want it to be drinkable and thirst quenching for the Texan drinker, but you let them warm up a little bit and there are some complexities for the contemplative drinker. There’s something for everyone I think.

Do you see Division growing into a large operation like Stone or Dog Fish Head, or would you rather stay local?

W: We really like the idea of being small and creating an atmosphere that draws people to the brewery. I sometimes feel that the larger production facilities that churn out large amounts of beer, good beer mind you, somehow lessens the human aspect of brewing. For me, it’s always been about the people – the brewers, the servers, the customers, everyone should feel connected to the brewery through the beer. It would be fun to have a large vibrant company with lots of employees making great beer on a larger scale, but we’re going to let the beer speak for itself and let any expansion happen naturally.

Where will craft beer fans be able to find your beer? 

W: The main idea has always been to get people to come to the brewery. We will have a tasting room onsite with hours TBD, but initially we want folks coming out to the tours on Saturday afternoons 2-6pm to learn about us and try our beers. We will eventually have tasting room hours, likely Thursday and Friday evenings. We will also have to-go sales, so folks can grab bottles, growlers and even whole kegs to take home. We want to be able to sell the beer we send out, too. If something isn’t selling, then we’ll pull it once the freshness isn’t there anymore. If and when we go outside of Arlington, it’ll be places that respect the beer. But first and foremost, it’s Arlington. It’s our beer.

Downtown Arlington is a great place to have fun and a good beer or two. Between craft beer bars, music venues, events hosted by the City of Arlington, and great restaurants, do you see Division becoming a community presence in Downtown Arlington? 

W: Absolutely. The City of Arlington does a tremendous job with all of its great year round events and festivals, especially the concert series at the Levitt Pavilion. The City has been great throughout the whole approval and building process, and the support they are showing us is very encouraging. Throughout the process of opening the brewery, we’ve gotten to know a lot of the businesses downtown, and it’s very much a community that we are excited to join, and I think they’re excited to see us coming onto the scene. Groups like the Rotary Club and the Maverick Rugby Club have reached out to us, and we’re very fortunate to be joining that great atmosphere. We’ve lived in Arlington for a long, long time, and we feel that a lot of people in the Metroplex and especially Arlington have been waiting for a small, locally-owned, hometown brewery to open mid-cities for a while. We can’t wait.

Neither can we! You can check out Division Brewing's website, facebook, and twitter @DivisionBrewing for the latest on this great new craft brewery. Make sure to give them some love, and get on the mailing list for Division news and events.

A sincere thank you to Wade, Sean, Tammy, and everyone at Division for allowing us beer nerds to come into your home and talk about brewing. You guys are rockstars!

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