'Gypsy Brewer' Spreads Craft Beer Gospel

  • Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal Ales brews a batch of beer at DOG Brewing Company in Westminster, Md.
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    Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal Ales brews a batch of beer at DOG Brewing Company in Westminster, Md.
    Claire O'Neill/NPR
  • The beers brewed here in Maryland are called "stateside" ales. But before this, Strumke was brewing in Belgium. He is one of the few people in the world who can market both a domestic and imported beer under the same craft label.
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    The beers brewed here in Maryland are called "stateside" ales. But before this, Strumke was brewing in Belgium. He is one of the few people in the world who can market both a domestic and imported beer under the same craft label.
    Claire O'Neill/NPR
  • Strumke, a guest at Westminster's DOG Brewing Company, consults with the brewmaster.
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    Strumke, a guest at Westminster's DOG Brewing Company, consults with the brewmaster.
    Claire O'Neill/NPR
  • Bright green citra hops give Strumke's beer a citrus flavor.
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    Bright green citra hops give Strumke's beer a citrus flavor.
    Claire O'Neill/NPR
  • To mitigate the bitterness, Strumke adds agave to fermenting beer.
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    To mitigate the bitterness, Strumke adds agave to fermenting beer.
    Claire O'Neill/NPR
  • Kegs of Strumke's beer, marketed as Stillwater Artisanal Ales, are ready to roll out. By the end of this year, he expects his beers to be found in 17 cities.
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    Kegs of Strumke's beer, marketed as Stillwater Artisanal Ales, are ready to roll out. By the end of this year, he expects his beers to be found in 17 cities.
    Claire O'Neill/NPR
  • At Birch & Barley, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., the head chef plates the first of five courses in a tasting menu with Strumke's beers.
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    At Birch & Barley, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., the head chef plates the first of five courses in a tasting menu with Strumke's beers.
    Claire O'Neill/NPR
  • The drafts are readied with Strumke's beer.
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    The drafts are readied with Strumke's beer.
    Claire O'Neill/NPR
  • Engert and Strumke (left) chat as diners dig in to their collaborative menu.
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    Engert and Strumke (left) chat as diners dig in to their collaborative menu.
    Claire O'Neill/NPR
  • A dish of yellow gazpacho with blue crab is paired with Strumke's "Cellar Door."
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    A dish of yellow gazpacho with blue crab is paired with Strumke's "Cellar Door."
    Claire O'Neill/NPR

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At 7 on a recent summer morning, I pulled into a gravel parking lot in Westminster, Md. Despite the godforsaken hour, I was late. Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal Ales had been awake for hours, his daylong brewing process well under way. The self-proclaimed "gypsy brewer" is always on the go, and this morning was no exception. As soon as I arrived at DOG Brewing Co., we hopped in his car and headed to Baltimore. He had left his secret weapon at home: white sage.

On the road we discussed how new things are afoot, literally, in beer land. "Gypsy brewing," although by no means a trend, has been added to the lexicon. In oversimplified terms, it's brewing on the go, a supersubculture of the craft beer industry. Strumke is one of about three people in the world who do it, Denmark's Mikkeller brewers being another example.

Like an old-world itinerant preacher, Strumke travels from brewery to brewery — from Belgium to Baltimore — spreading the craft beer gospel. He finds breweries that jibe with his thinking; rents out their excess capacity; and uses his own recipes to create limited edition batches and a brand.

It's a win-win model. As a craftsman, Strumke can experiment without the burden of roots. And the breweries benefit from his business. While he does have the advantage of a distributor's financial backing, he also has the support of some key figures in the beer industry, who are excited about his concoctions. Like his latest, "Of Love And Regret" — a saison brewed in Beerzel, Belgium, seasoned with "botanicals" and grassy hops, and inspired by, well, a personal experience.

Greg Engert of D.C.'s Birch & Barley, a beer-centric restaurant with an upstairs bar, is one of Strumke's most vocal advocates, and quite possibly the person to have dubbed him a gypsy brewer. "What’s special," Engert explains, "is that ... Brian is always trying to think about food when he's brewing." In one recent instance, Strumke was sniffing around the exotic spices at a local Hispanic market and, struck by the scent of white sage, decided to create a beer for it. It actually makes sense. Almost like baking, brewing beer is much more akin to cooking than is winemaking — which explains a real trend that has recently swept the beer world: the pairing of beer with food.

Restaurants around the country are hosting an increasing number of "beer dinners." As Megan Krigbaum, an associate editor at Food and Wine put it, "finally people are coming around to this idea that beer has a place on the dining table." This year, Krigbaum edited Food and Wine's list of America's top sommeliers — or wine experts. And Greg Engert, only 28, was on that list — the first person ever, in fact, to be included for beer.

Engert's bar above Birch & Barley boasts a menu of more than 500 bottled beers, with 50 on draft from around the world. He has a refrigeration system of three different temperatures, and a whole host of proper glassware. Needless to say, he takes beer seriously — and wants the rest of the food world to take it seriously, too.

A few days after shadowing Strumke at DOG Brewing Co., I joined him and Engert at Birch & Barley for a grand finale: a five-course meal that had been crafted to complement the flavors of Strumke's beers. The first course: yellow garden gazpacho with blue crab, washed down with Strumke's "Cellar Door" on cask: French-oaked and dry-hopped. It was the perfect way to end — to witness Strumke's wanderlust journey from tank to table.

By the end of this year, Strumke expects his output to quadruple, a microcosmic example of the booming American craft beer industry. In the land of Bud, according to the Brewers Association, craft brews accounted for almost 7 percent of beer sales last year. Even Congress recognized microbrews with an American Craft Beer Week this year. According to Food and Wine's Krigbaum, everyone is drinking beer.

"At the end of the day," she says, "all the sommeliers are drinking beer. Even winemakers, when they finish a day after harvest, they’re not reaching for a glass of cabernet — they're having beer." And that's coming from a wine editor. Bacchus would roll in his cloud grave.

Cheers to that!

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