Blue Owl Brewing finally taking flight as sour mashed-focused brewery

12:00 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015 Austin360

At Black Star Co-op, Jeff Young approached brewing with mathematical precision and care, even imbuing the beer program with his love of numbers and logic by naming it after math terminology.

He left the cooperative brewpub last year, however, to pursue another brewery project on the other side of town. He’d done some sour mashing during his time at Black Star — an efficient process that gives beer sour qualities without the usual long aging period most brewers use today to achieve the requisite tartness — and he’d discovered that it was a pretty special way of making various beer styles sour yet still accessible.

Now, Blue Owl Brewing is opening on East Cesar Chavez Street as the only brewery in the world focusing exclusively on sour mashed beers. That’s only possible, of course, because of Young’s thorough scientific approach.

“The funny thing is, we’re starting out with a pale ale, a red ale and a wheat just like everyone else because those are the beers that everyone is interested in,” Young says. “But sour mashing is unique. It’s a recipe for success.”

It’s also a recipe he’s largely had to write himself. Although many people before him have done it (especially homebrewers who might not have the space for barrel-aging in their garages), Young has had to find a way to make it viable commercially so that his brewery can produce consistent and affordable sour beers each time. That was difficult, he says; in the planning stages of Blue Owl, he and his business partner, Suzy Shaffer, weren’t even sure “if we could do this or not.”

“It came down to two critical points,” he says. “We had to figure out how to design the brewery around this process, which hadn’t been done before. In particular, we also had to get through some fermentation issues.”

Although Young won’t specify what those issues were — he considers the solutions trade secrets that would reveal too much about Blue Owl’s particular twist on sour mashing — he does note that he found the key to consistency with the help of a Danish brewmaster with “a unique perspective. … It made sense to him to do it that way.”

Take a brewery tour with Young while you’re visiting the homey taproom and he’ll get one fact quickly out of the way: Blue Owl’s process doesn’t involve kettle souring. That’s become a popular way for breweries to get rapidly produced sour beers, just like sour mashing, but there’s a distinct difference. Whereas kettle souring involves introducing a pure culture of Lactobacillus bacteria straight into the mix, pre-boil, sour mashing relies on the Lactobacillus — and other microscopic creatures — that are found naturally on malted grains.

“The heart of what we do is in this little feller over here,” Young says, pointing to a smaller stainless steel contraption in front of the tanks that he’s dubbed the MIU, for modular inoculation unit. “This was developed by us to consistently and efficiently inoculate all this wort with naturally occurring bacteria, mold, wild yeast, which all goes into the wort over 18 to 72 hours’ time.”

The goal, he says, is to to isolate the bacteria that will produce the lactic acid, giving each of the beers their sour essence. When sour mashing, it’s easy to get beers that can taste like stinky feet and other undesirable flavors, but Young’s MIU is designed to produce clean sours every time. (The MIU is run before fermentation, a step that largely stays the same.)

“Each beer, we’ve been able to control the amount of lactic acid that we want produced in that particular style,” he says. “If it’s a small beer like Little Boss (Blue Owl’s upcoming sour session wheat), you want a lower level of lactic acid. To get the right levels, we take these measurements we call sourness units. These are made up, but they’re very real.”

In other words, Young is essentially writing the rule book on a process that’s sure to become more mainstream in the next few years. His innovation has already attracted the attention of many beer-loving Austinites, including people like Tre Miner, a certified cicerone who helped to solidify Craft Pride’s Texas-focused beer program and is now at Blue Owl for a variety of different jobs around the brewery. (Eventually, he’ll help teach flavor analysis and other classes there.)

Austinites got their first tastes of Blue Owl beers — including Spirit Animal, a sour pale ale; Van Dayum!, a sour red ale; and Professor Black, a sour cherry stout — at the Texas Craft Brewers Festival last month and marveled over their easy-drinking complexity. On draft, this trio is also available at bars like Craft Pride and Wright Bros. Brew & Brew. Little Boss will soon join them. And with any luck, these will all go into Blue Owl’s colorful cans by the end of the month.

Shaffer, Young’s business-savvy partner, is just relieved they’ve finally reached this point, the cusp of being opened regularly. Blue Owl has taken months to officially take flight, and she’s ready to introduce beer drinkers to their offerings.

“A lot of people who don’t like sours like these; a lot of people who don’t like beers like these,” she says. “We’re trying to do something very approachable, very fun, that you can enjoy in a comfortable setting.”

Or, as Young puts it: “We’re not redeveloping the wheel here, but we are trying to figure out how to make the wheel better and tastier.”

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