Strange Land Brewery expands with help of easy-drinking pilsner

When Strange Land Brewery’s Austinite Pilz debuted in a bright red can just in time for summer this year, the reaction was immediate — make more of it. Make lots more.

But anyone familiar with Strange Land, a Westlake-area brewery that launched in late 2014, might find the 5 percent ABV pilsner an odd addition to the portfolio, which also includes more esoteric styles like the dry Ploughshare Saison and the full-flavored Alemannia Alt. From the start, Strange Land intended to stay away from the more common hop-forward beers that many breweries prefer to make.

“It’s the beer we’ve been missing,” co-founder Tim Klatt said. “We thought the Ploughshare and the alt would be our flagships, but what did we know?”

He and co-founder Adam Blumenshein decided to “listen to the market,” which was clamoring for a beer like the pilsner that could lead new Strange Land fans into the brewery’s more unusual beers, still the favorites of the founding duo. But they’re doing it their way — the pilsner isn’t exactly typical.

Normally, pilsners, as lagers, are made with bottom-fermenting yeast that make the style one of the trickiest and most diverse in the beer world. The Austinite, however, is technically a style that doesn’t exist, Klatt said.

All pilsners began to ferment with lager yeast starting in 1842 thanks to the ground-breaking introduction of Pilsner Urquell, an Old World beer still made today. Before that, pilsners came about a little differently.

“In 1842, there was a big shift toward lager yeast and cold-temperature fermentation,” he said. “Our approach takes a hybrid ale-lager yeast and ferments it in the middle of ale temperatures, 70 degrees, and lager temperatures, 55 degrees. We’ve gotten a tremendous response in the taproom where people come in and say, ‘Oh, I hate pilsners, but I love this.’”

Neither Klatt nor Blumenshein are big fans of pilsners, either, which was partly why they struggled for so long with the idea of making one: “How can we make a beer that we think the market needs, but still have a beer that we can stand behind?”

Strange Land’s new beer comes at a good time for the brewery, which recently installed six new tanks — “We’re just collecting steel,” Klatt joked — that will significantly increase production to 10,000 barrels. That’s a far cry from the starting number of just under 2,000 barrels.

The brewery also released newly designed cans, with the Ploughshare, Alemannia and the Entire Porter joining the Austinite in their own striking colors. And Strange Land has a new set of investors “to help the business mirror the growth we now have with the tanks,” Klatt said.

One of the core values of Strange Land, despite all this change, remains steadfast.

The brewery first released all its beers on draft, letting each one become naturally conditioned in the keg rather than force-carbonated in a tank, a process most breweries choose for introducing carbon dioxide into their beers. Strange Land’s move into cans, after several bomber releases, didn’t change Klatt and Blumenshein’s stance on natural conditioning: It had to be done.

Never mind that hardly anyone else is doing can-conditioning, a process with shaky, sometimes even dangerous, results.

“What you’re seeing right now is that they’re packaging a still product,” Klatt said, motioning toward Armadillo Mobile Canning’s temporary set-up in the middle of the brewery. “We dose it with sugar and a little yeast, and it comes alive in the can over the next couple of weeks, creating all the carbonation inside the can. Of course there are no manuals on how to do that. There’s a high likelihood these things are going to blow up.”

And blow up they did — Klatt said Strange Land had a number of product recalls and emails from consumers about cans exploding on them. But he, Blumenshein and their two employees, Brandon Vernon and Brandon Williams, figured out the can-conditioning process (soothing ruffled feathers with care packages of beer in the meantime) and decided it was time to release redesigned cans.

“We fully stood by everything we were doing, even though it might have seemed insane,” he said. “What happens when you condition a beer is it changes the flavor of the beer, makes it so much more flavorful, than if you strip out the yeast and add bubbles to it. That doesn’t condition a beer; that just carbonates it.”

In addition to the four cans, Strange Land Brewery has a handful of bottle-conditioned bombers out on bar and store shelves, as well as at the brewery taproom that is open on weekends.

One of the newest ones is the Apothecary Saison Gruit, a beer without hops that Strange Land originally made on a much smaller scale last summer. Instead of hops, it’s got wild rosemary, sweet gale, yarrow and mesquite honey, all of which contribute a lovely floral backbone to this old-fangled beer. Strange Land is also gearing up to produce the Headless Gentleman Imperial Bourbon Pumpkin Porter again for the fall.

These more experimental brews are all possible because of the Austinite Pilz, which Strange Land can’t make enough of at the moment. “It’s been really well-received,” Klatt said.

But don’t expect a Strange Land IPA anytime soon — that’s still not a direction that oddball Strange Land wants to go.

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