RateBeer talks to the James Dean of California brewing
November 14, 2002
Written by joet
Ed Edsten is a doctoral candidate at UC Davis, homebrew enthusiast
and former head of Edsten Brewing Company. His huge (average ABV of
the Double-Plus and Tripel Wit is 9.75%) Belgian style beers
were bright explosions of flavor, simultaneously authentic tasting
offering serious challenges and improvements to familiar profiles.
His beers appeared in the Bay Area briefly drawing rave reviews
from experienced tasters.
RateBeer: Tell us how you got started homebrewing and then what allowed
you to turn that into a commercial venture?
Ed Edsten: I started homebrewing in highschool. A friend and I tried to make beer in his closet. He insisted on an open fermenter and had an elaborate scheme to keep the beer hidden. A dirty shirt fell into the fermentation vat.
You can guess at the results. I added sugar until it wouldn’t ferment any more and then it still wasn’t worth drinking. Later, when I had discovered what good beer could taste like, I tried making my own again.
After a few years and many batches I could finally make what I wanted to. What allowed me to make make beer commercially was an unbounded sense of optimism and the support of those around me. After hearing, "You should sell this!" a hundred times I took it to heart. A little start-up capital, and I mean little!, didn’t hurt.
Most American craft brewers don’t mess with Belgian styles because
they are so difficult to brew well and keep consistent. How did you pull it
Did I pull it off?
I could tell the difference between my summer and winter beer...
I could tell they were both freakin’ amazing.
My climate control would vary a few degrees between seasons
and it would make a difference. All of that despite neurotic attention to
the details of brewing. It seemed to me that American brewers were always
scared by the Belgian yeasts rather than the styles themselves. They’re
always afraid that their sanitation procedures won’t take care of a
distinctive yeast. I used two very different strains and never had a
problem with contamination.
Belgian-style beers often require more aging than an American brewer is willing
to invest as well. Even if he can keep his pale ale pure, the Belgian-style ale
takes up too much space while it ages. Big beers take time and attention that
most breweries don’t seem willing to invest.
Yeah square footage is certainly an issue at more than few small breweries I’ve visited...
What were your greatest technical difficulties, Ed?
There were two major problems I faced; producing a beer that was very
consistent batch to batch and getting a high-gravity beer to finish and
mellow in a reasonable amount of time.
For the first problem, all I could
do was keep meticulous notes and keep to the details each time I made
beer. I blended beer as often as possible to even out any minor
differences between batches.
The second problem was somewhat
intractable. At higher alcohol levels yeast get temperamental.
Sufficient oxygen is key as well as very stable conditions. No matter
what you do at high alcohol levels, yeast need some time to chew out the
last point or two of gravity.
I’m sure at least a few hundred people are asking the question, ’Why the heck did Edsten stop brewing?!’
$$$$$. I simply wasn’t making enought money to keep going. I wasn’t losing
money, but I had started at too small a level. My production was too
small to make enough to keep me afloat in both food and rent. I learned a lot
about economies of scale. I got some wonderful advice from other brewers
after the fact. Starting too small can be a problem. Excess capacity is
not always a bad thing. I had taken a leave of absence from grad school
and decided to return to that instead of spending other people’s money to
Any chance Edsten TripleWit will ever return?
About the time I stopped brewing my designer (Jared Lindenberg) came up
with a new logo for the TripleWit and I regret never getting it into print
(it’s pretty amazing). I won’t say never, but I’m busy with other
interests (i.e. grad school) at the moment.
Ed, I won’t mind as long as you can send me your homebrew. What are your top five Belgian ales?
You’re kidding, right?
What have I had lately? It always changes, but
that’s the wonderful thing about Belgian ales, the variety. I’ve always
thought that Blanche de Bruges is the best white beer.
Me too... Yeah BdB and the old Celis White.
I could never make
something that subtle and complex. My white beer was big because I could
never compete with something so balanced. Westmalle Triple is amazing, of
course. St. Sabastiaan Double is very good as well. I’ll always have a
soft spot in my heart for Chimay Blue. Strong, yet complex. Bellvue’s
lambic is also fantastic, incredibly complex. The reason I became
interested in Belgian-style ales to begin with was the complexity of
flavor. The brewers of these beers aren’t afraid to make something
different. I get so tired of the typical American Pale Ale or IPA. Every
style has a stand-out beer, but the number of breweries that try to make
their own way in the world without comforming to some set ideal is small.
I don’t want to try a beer from a small brewery and know that I’m going to
get the closest to Sierra Nevada they can do. I’d much rather have a beer
that the brewer thought was awesome than a clone, even if I don’t really
like it. I keep trying microbrews hoping that I’ll find something unique
and most of the time I’m very disappointed.
I agree unfortunately. More engineers are brewing than artists although the
creative impulse is probably a huge factor for the best American brewers.
One more question... can you share any recipes with us?
Of course not! Make your own beer! I’ll give you my preferences,
though. Pils malt is best for a Belgian ale, flavor without excess body.
Don’t be afraid of sugar, it can give you strength and complexity without
a syrupy heaviness. I like Fuggles for for a bittering hop and either
Saaz or Fuggles for a finishing hop. Avoid high alpha acid hops; evil
harshness! Make sure your yeast is up for the alcohol level you want. My
preference is for a very low finishing gravity and a relatively low
bitterness. My double-plus finished at 1.007, with a 9.5% alc/vol. What
do you like? I can give all the sermons I want, but in the end you have
to drink the beer, so make what you like. Experiment enough to be able to
make what you want to make.
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