One of the toughest jobs for any craft brewery is maintaining the delicate balance of new and exciting beers for your diehard fans, collectors, and craft fanatics—and also a more profitable, easier to sell stable of staples that people have come to know and love. Not every beer can become part of the permanent lineup, and not every triple-smoked imperial stout is meant for wide release. For those regular visitors to your taproom, you need to be constantly innovating, showing off something new and exciting. For first-timers and those with a more casual attitude toward beer, you need something nice and easy.
You can’t please everyone, but if you want to be successful, you try to please most.
For Wolf’s Ridge Head Brewer Chris Davison, part of that balance is a series of one-off, often one-keg, infusion experiments. By using beers from the regular lineup—like the lightly hopped, smooth sailing Clear Sky cream ale—as a canvas upon which brushstrokes of spices, fruits, and other unique flavors can be added, Davison has created a constantly rotating and evolving draft list with onse just the right balance of experimental sitting alongside the beers that even the most casual fans can appreciate.
Creating an imperial stout that is suitably complex but refreshing enough to drink on a patio in the summer seems like an impossible feat, but that is just what Davison has done.
From behind the bar in his expansive taproom, Davison poured a couple samples of some of the more recent experiments, starting with a version of the Clear Sky cream ale called Day Break, infused with vanilla and Colombia el Progreso coffee. The cream ale is crisp and refreshing at first, but the mid-palate gains a bit of complexity and roasted flavors, while the finish lingers with a slight vanilla sweetness that is neither overpowering nor hidden. Surprisingly, the infused retains its pale yellow color thanks to the use of whole beans that do not impart color or haziness to the beer in the infusion process. As we sip, I glance over to a table behind us covered in an assortment of bags labeled North Market’s Spices Ltd. and One Line Coffee.
“One Line has taught me so much about coffee,” he says as he pours the next offering, a 10 percent ABV Dire Wolf imperial stout infused with the same medium-roast coffee, as well as cacao nibs, chili, and cinnamon. This experiment, called Canis Mexicanis, was bottled for the first of their one-day bottle sales, during which limited runs of less than 1,000 bottles sell out within hours. It is immediately recognizable as a strong and bold stout, but the heat from the chilis hits the back of your throat and almost makes it refreshing, clearing the palate of the lingering malt and chocolate flavors that would otherwise stick around a bit too long. Creating an imperial stout that is suitably complex but refreshing enough to drink on a patio in the summer seems like an impossible feat, but that is just what Davison has done with Dire Wolf Canis Mexicanis.
Shedding some light on his next projects—the Albis Mexicanis, a one-off edition of the Clear Sky infused with spices similar to the Canis Mexicanis, and the Creamsicle Cream Ale, a beer infused with vanilla bean and orange peel that’s being prepared for an upcoming North Market beer dinner—Davison stressed the importance of working with the chefs in the Wolf’s Ridge kitchen to choose the proper flavor combinations and prepare the ingredients correctly. Davison gestures to a group of plastic containers filled with fresh orange peels destined for a keg of cream ale.
Even without a wide release, these infusion experiments are well worth a trip to the taproom or a long line at a bottle release.
“They taught me to use the rind, but not the pith, and to heat up the chilis a bit to release the flavor,” he says, referring to the bags of dried arbol and chipotle peppers on the table. “It’s helped me produce a better product, to be able to bounce ideas off of them.”
The infusion process and length varies with each keg or cask he dreams up, so Davison makes sure to taste each batch regularly to check on the progress. Infusing small batches in a keg as opposed to a large vat speeds up the process because the keg is pressurized with carbon dioxide and that pressure forces interaction between the beer and the spices. Carbonation and acidity aid the extraction process, pulling out flavors from the fresh ingredients that Davison insists on. He has experimented with extracts, but for him it’s all about fresh ingredients, as he found the extract experiments overpowering and synthetic—or as he so eloquently put it: “gross.”
For now, these infusion experiments are limited offerings intended to be served in the taproom or at special events, but they also serve as a springboard for new, more permanent possibilities, which excites Davison. He mentions Day Break, which started as a one-off but was so popular he later brewed a whole batch. Even without a wide release, these infusion experiments are well worth a trip to the taproom or a long line at a bottle release. They reinforce the idea that there are still thousands if not millions of possibilities to be discovered in the world of craft beer, and a group of eager young brewers are ready to explore them, which is worth celebrating. •