All it took was my reading a small blurb in The Celebrator about BLACK SHIRT BREWING CO. to be incredibly intrigued. A Denver-based brewer, focusing solely on red ales. I had to dial up their digits on the internet and learn more. I got to their site, and found references to a "beet saison" and every sort of red-colored ale imaginable, all with fantastic ingredients and malts that just begged for more information. If you don't believe me, come look at their Facebook page and pictures of their beer lineup here.
Having never tried their beer, I can't vouch for it – yet. But The Denver Post can. I'm absolutely dying to try these beers. In the meantime, we asked brewer Branden Miller, who founded Black Shirt with his brother Chad and Chad's wife Carissa, to answer a few questions about his brewery and their relatively unconventional approach.
BEER SAMIZDAT: The obvious first question is: why red ales, and what defines a red ale in your world, outside of the color?
Branden Miller: The short answer is that Chad and I's father always told us to do one thing and do it better than anyone else. He preached the importance of specialization early on, and it resonated deeply within us. So when we began brewing, we knew we needed to pick a style, something we could work on and perfect, and stick with it. If we were going to do one style and one only, it needed to be a dynamic style of beer that could satisfy in the middle a cold, Colorado winter and then be crisp and refreshing enough for the dog days of summer when the heat doesn't relent. To us, that meant Red Ale.
In our eyes, American Red Ale is the modern version of Amber Ale - leaner, hoppier, more aggressive. We grew up drinking Fat Tire, Avalanche Amber, and the like, and as our palettes have adjusted and we have experienced a wide array of beers, we tend to seek the more adventurous. That was sort of the original recipe's inspiration - an amber ale with a bit more cut; more bitterness, more hop aroma and flavor, bright and lively acidity. Then, we are taking that recipe and showing people how changing up one aspect can change the entire beer. For example, we take the recipe and leave out the darker specialty malts and increase the hop level for our Pale Red. We also have a really delicious Red Saison where nearly everything else in the recipe is the same, though we do add flaked corn and malted red wheat, and then we use a Saison yeast strain - in the glass, it's a completely different beer. We are taking this one original recipe that we worked so hard on and showing the end result of a little creativity and a minor or major tweak to our guests. It's pleasurable and also educational for them.
The Red Ale category also peaked our interest when we began learning about these different red ales found around the world, particularly Flanders Reds. We have been playing around with a Sour Mash Red Saison lately and we also have a small barrel program that we are experimenting with. We have a lot to learn but we also have some incredible, complex, and delicious beers under our belt.
BEER SAMIZDAT: For years the "amber ale" was quietly mocked by beers dorks as being a lighter, less-interesting beer on par with a golden ale, pale ale, wheat beer etc. I kept the faith all these years and it seems you did too. What's different about your beers than the maligned "amber"?
Branden Miller: We would agree with that 100%. I feel ours is an "updated" amber, more in line with what we and so many beer geeks tend to seek out. Complex, layered, dynamic with a firm malt backbone and complimented by a rush of acidity, bitterness, and hop flavor. But that is only the first recipe. There are a bunch of ideas in our heads and tricks up our sleeves!
BEER SAMIZDAT: How did Black Shirt Brewing come into being, and where are you all at in terms of your growth right now?
Branden Miller: The dream for Black Shirt originally started in 1999 with my brother Chad and I sitting on the back porch of his house envisioning a better life than the one we were living. Our careers back then were very stressful and demanding and were very negative in their nature. So we devised a sort of plan to end up doing something where our customers were happy and excited to come see us.
We made wine for a while before brewing beer and came really close to opening a winery before losing the passion and excitement for it. As we got more and more serious about wine, we found ourselves surrounded by pretension and snobbery and it took the fun out of it. So we rebelled in the best way we knew how, we started brewing. As artists, brewing became the muse that we had been searching for. What it gave to us in terms of creative freedom and reward was so unexpected and it shifted our focus and momentum forever.
Size wise, we are just starting out. We are only 3 months old and we have a long ways to go to be able to keep up with demand and satisfy the craving for great Red Ales here in the city. We have a 4 barrel brew house and 15 barrel fermenters and brites. Our goal in terms of barrels for 2013 is 700, which is laughably small in the beer world today. That is okay with me however, I prefer to be very hands-on and to control every aspect of the beer and the brewery. Maybe I'm insecure, maybe a control freak - I don't quite know yet!
BEER SAMIZDAT: The notion of a "beet saison" really intrigues me, and I'm sure a lot of others who'd die to try a glass. How did this beer come into being? From your blog it appears you love brewing with roots and vegetables - say a little more about that if you would.
Branden Miller: I have spent the last 10 years in the restaurant business and have had the opportunity to work with a lot of talented and inspired chefs, bartenders, farmers, ranchers, brewers, winemakers, etc. In doing so, I have developed a broad scope of inspirations from which we pull. The brewery is very much based on music - nearly everything we do is developed from a seed that was harvested from music. However, that isn't the only thing we draw from. We view beer as agriculture and it's relation to food much deeper than a simple "pairing." When thinking about flavor combinations, complimentary and contrasting, my mind tends to go to food. First is what is in season, then from that list what would work and what wouldn't. Then we set about to executing an idea.
The Red Beet Saison was a happy accident and then a collaborative effort. We brewed our first saison ever and it missed the mark in terms of color; not flavor or aroma, but color. So, I spoke with my assistant brewers and the talented group of chefs at duo Restaurant with which I worked at the time and we began to conspire on what fruit, vegetable, or spice we could use to sort of dye the beer. We talked about a lot of things but we kept coming back to beets. The flavor of a beet is so earthy, and in a very dusty, dirty way not like the rustic, barnyard qualities of earthiness (Brett, Pinot Noir, etc). We kept talking about the flavors of the Saison yeast strain we were using and how beets could compliment those flavors so well. As anyone who has ever roasted, or really even eaten a beet can tell you, they have the power to dye ANYTHING! It was the middle of the summer, beets were plentiful, and we went with it. What came of that accident was brilliant! A lot of creative and talented people put their skills to work and we had a hell of a beer to show for it. We will definitely continue to brew one-offs collaborating with passionate people in this very manner.
BEER SAMIZDAT: Where does Black Shirt Brewing fit in with Denver's overall beer scene right now? And how has that beer scene evolved over the past couple of years, knowing that it's long been one of the country's best places to find a great craft beer?
Branden Miller: We are a very small fish in a pretty damn big pond. Denver has the reputation as being the "Napa County of beer," and we are really starting to earn that reputation. For a long time, there weren't that many breweries here but just like so many places around the country, and the world for that matter, craft beer and breweries have literally exploded in Denver. We are one of a handful of new breweries in the city that started in 2012, and there are somewhere near 60 more in planning. It is a good time to be a beer drinker in Denver!
BEER SAMIZDAT: Are you steering clear of an "Imperial Red IPA", or is that something you've made as well?
Branden Miller: Let's be honest, the whole crew at BSB could be considered hop heads. We brewed an Imperial Red Rye IPA that had Colorado wildflower honey, Belgian candi sugar, and loads and loads of hops in it. The rye added that really nice, subtle spice note and filled in the mouthfeel and the honey and candi sugar softened and rounded out what would be an otherwise offensive hop bite. That beer has a reputation around Denver and we are brewing it again next!
BEER SAMIZDAT: What are some of the clever and unique things you've got planned for red ales in the future?
Branden Miller: We did a Fall harvest beer, which was a Smoked Red Hubbard Squash Saison spiced with Madagascar clove, Saigon cinnamon, and Jamaican allspice. This was our answer to a pumpkin beer and another example of seasonally-driven beers that round out our lineup. We are going to continue with these type beers and continue with talented collaboration. We have a Red Porter that is in its infancy right now, and will continue to get attention, but is tasting so good already! The sour mash beers we started a short while ago has been a lot of fun and will continue. I really think our barrel-aged beers are gonna be the next focus around BSB, and we have some high hopes for those! Really, a lot of things are in the works, but creating Biere de Terroir is our driving mantra, and will be for a long time; this means using locally grown and malted barley, locally-grown hops as much as possible, Denver water, and creating beer with a sense of place. This is the most important element of the brewery for us.
BEER SAMIZDAT: Are there plans to bottle, and/or expand operations outside of your own location?
Branden Miller: Yes, but on a very small-scale. I don't want to talk about those plans right now, because we have yet to roll them out and we don't want to give away any secrets too early. But yes, there are plans!
BEER SAMIZDAT: Finally, since we're talking about red beers, please let us know some of your non-Black Shirt Brewing favorites that have given you inspiration and set you on your path. What are the best red ales on the planet, in your informed opinion?
Branden Miller: Hmmm, West Coast reds like Arrogant Bastard and Heretic's Evil Twin. Flanders reds like Duchesse de Bourgogne, Rodenbach, and The Bruery's Oude Tart are fantastic. Colorado favorites would be Odell's seasonal Red Ale and Oskar Blues G'Knight. I would put all of these in a league of their own for one reason or another.