As a self-processed sour beer freak, I was stoked when Blue Owl Brewing opened its doors in my home town of Austin, and recently had the opportunity to meet up with their head brewer and president, Jeff Young, to discuss their beers and brewing process.
Blue Owl is a new brewery located in East Austin, that solely brews sour mashed beers. The brewery is only 35 batches in, on a 30-barrel system, and expects to produce around 2,000 barrels per year, with room to expand up to 9,000 barrels. Their head brewer, Jeff, has developed a unique sour mashing technique to brew their beers, which naturally produces sourness in beer without having to wait months, which is typically the case for sour beers brewed with Lacto cultures in secondary fermentation.
So, what the heck is sour mashing. Many of us have only heard this term in relation to whiskey and bourbon production. Sour mashing in beer involves mixing fresh brewing grain (right out of the sack) with sugary wort liquid. Since brewing malt naturally has Lactobacillus living on the grains after malting, when you add fresh malt to beer wort (sweet liquid from heating crushed grains), at the right temperature, in the right conditions (low oxygen), the Lacto thrives and produces clean, natural sour flavors. The process is quite amazing, and Blue Owl is using it to produce some incredible beers.
The brewery also developed what they call Sour Units (similar to IBUs for bitterness) in their brewing process, to measure sourness levels, by monitoring acidity during the brewing process. Using Sour Unit measurements allows the brewery to produce consistent sour profiles in their beers, and to use them as a tool in new recipe development. Having purchased several six packs of their beer, from different batches, the consistent flavor and sourness in them has been very impressive.
Jeff got started in brewing, in 2003 when he received a homebrew in-a-box beer kit, which of course came out with some classic vinegar flavors. After becoming a bit more successful at home brewing, he moved on to become a brewer in training at Otter Creek in Vermont, then landed a brewing position at Black Star Co-op in Austin, where he stayed on from 2006 until 2014. Jeff’s interest for sour beers grew at Black Star, and he developed the recipe for one of their most popular beers, Waterloo, a sour peach Berliner-Weisse style wheat beer.
Jeff is a true pioneer of the brewing scene in Austin. Blue Owl is the only brewery in the area that focuses solely on sour beers, and quite possibly the only brewery in America which uses a sour mashing technique for all of their beers. Jeff has designed a unique sour mash process which uses proprietary equipment to pump pre-boil wort through a large canister containing crushed malt, to create sour flavors. The process eliminates oxygen and keeps a constant temperature to optimize sour flavor.
Blue Owl Beers
You won’t find many sour pale ales in the craft beer market, but Spirit Animal from Blue Owl makes a bold statement on a style that has been overlooked. The beer is crisp, with citrus and fresh fruit notes, and has a medium body with some light caramel sweetness. The star of the show though, is the clean sour flavors, which lead to a refreshing tart finish. Jeff uses Centennial and El Dorado hops in Spirit Animal, including a period of dry hopping. The beer is fermented with a German ale yeast.
Little Boss, is a light bodied sour wheat beer, similar to the Berliner Weisse style. At 3.3% ABV it makes a great hot weather beer. The beauty of using a sour mashing technique for this beer, means it is only 2 weeks from brew to pour for a fantastic beer.
The brewery just released their third beer in cans, Professor Black, a sour cherry stout. Spirit Animal and Little Boss have been on shelves in Austin for a few months.
At the brewery tasting room, you will also find their sour red ale (Van Dayum!) on tap, which has not been released in cans yet, along with other special release beers. A sour Double IPA was recently on tap, and there are whispers of a sour lager release sometime in the future.
Sour Mashing Homebrew Tips
For home brewers, Jeff offered some specific tips for brewing sour mashed beers:
1) He highly recommends using crushed Carapils Malt as the agent for creating sour flavors, at 8oz per 5 gallons.
2) Add the crushed Carapils to the wort after sparging, at a temperature cooled down to 113 fahrenheit. Try to keep the temperature constant for at least 12 hours to get sour flavors, and up to 24+ hours for more sourness.
3) If you want to brew a pale ale, similar to their Spirit Animal, expect to use quite a bit more hops in the boil. A sour mashed pale ale should be hopped at the level of an IPA.
The tasting room at Blue Owl is open Wed-Fri evenings, and on weekends. Fun tours of the brewery are also offered. If you’re a fan of sour beers the brewery is a must stop visit when in Austin. If you’ve yet to discover sour beers, you may just become a big fan after a visit to Blue Owl.