'Gypsy Brewer' Spreads Craft Beer Gospel Like an old-world itinerant preacher, Brian Strumke travels from brewery to brewery — from Belgium to Baltimore — crafting his ales on the go. 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.

'Gypsy Brewer' Spreads Craft Beer Gospel

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129186290/129196398" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The term gypsy is freighted with meaning. It's often used to refer to the Romani people, though its purpose was originally derogatory. Gypsy has since come to refer to anyone or anything that wanders from place to place. And now, it's being used to refer to a new breed of beer brewers. NPR's Claire O'Neill met up with one of them, Brian Strumke, and their journey turned into a three-act drama and a five-course meal.

(Soundbite of car door slamming)

(Soundbite of beeping)

CLAIRE O'NEILL: Act One: Its 7 a.m. in Westminster, Maryland. But Brian Strumke, of Stillwater Artisanal Ales, has been awake for hours. The gypsy brewer is always on the go. In fact, as soon as I pull into the gravel parking lot of Dog Brewing Company, we hit the road.

Mr. BRIAN STRUMKE (Beer Brewer): I like traveling, I like being on the run. It's just a lot more freedom. And I guess freedom is what the whole concept's about - being able to pick different breweries that match up with the beer I want to make.

O'NEILL: Strumke is one of about three people in the world who can call himself a gypsy brewer. Like an Old World, itinerant preacher, he 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.

But one pitfall of this bohemian life is no permanent storage. Were in the car because Strumke had left his secret weapon at home in Baltimore: white sage.

Mr. STRUMKE: I'm always like, looking for weird - like, herbs, just exotic spices, things to make something different. And so I was just going around sniffing different things, and I came across the sage. And I was like, I like sage.

O'NEILL: Gypsy brewing is a new model in the beer-making world, but you cant really call it a trend. Julia Herz of the Brewers Association.

Ms. JULIA HERZ (Brewers Association): I have heard that term recently, from -Greg Engert, of Birch and Barley, has used it.

O'NEILL: Which brings us to Act Two, at Birch and Barley in Washington, D.C., a beer-centric restaurant with an upstairs bar. Thats where Engert is putting Strumkes gypsy brews on the map.

Mr. GREG ENGERT (Birch and Barley): Whats special is that, first of all, Brian is always trying to think about food when hes brewing. Also, just the idea that Brian doesnt have a brewery himself. Somebodys got to be a hell of a brewer to gain the trust and the admiration of the breweries so that they actually invite them in to brew.

O'NEILL: Engert carries Strumke's beers when he can on his menu of more than 500 bottled beers, and 50 on draft from around the world. He has a refrigeration system of three different temperatures, and a whole host of proper glassware.

Julia Herz, of the Brewers Association, says Engert is one of the most influential people in the beer world right now. And hes only 28.

Ms. HERZ: I love his spin on things. When I talk to him, I encourage him to consider the Cicerone program. And the Cicerone program's kind of the beer world's version of the wine sommelier program now.

O'NEILL: As if Engert even needs it. This year, he made it into Food & Wine magazines list of Americas top sommeliers or wine experts. Hes the first person ever to be included for beer. Megan Krigbaum edited the list.

Ms. MEGAN KRIGBAUM (Food & Wine Magazine): Every year, we have these totally obvious winners that come out with these incredible wine lists, and this year we kind of stumbled across Greg. And what he is doing is just so indicative of how big beer has become in the sort of American palate.

O'NEILL: Krigbaum had not heard the term gypsy brewing. But for her, the real trend to watch is the pairing of beer with food, which leads to a revolutionary thought.

Ms. KRIGBAUM: Maybe the answer isnt always wine when it comes to pairing - that finally, people are coming around to this idea that beer has a place on the dining table.

O'NEILL: And thats precisely Greg Engerts cause. I joined him and Strumke at Birch and Barley for our final act: a five-course dinner menu created around the gypsy beer, which Engert describes with the vocabulary of an academic.

Mr. ENGERT: The kind of gooseberry aroma, the bright citrus, the touch of herb and grass in the nose.

O'NEILL: The first course: yellow-garden gazpacho with blue crab, celery, apple and almond. Wash it down with Strumkes Cellar Door on cask: French oaked and dry-hopped.

Guys like Engert and Strumke are serious about beer and craft brews are a serious business. Just last year, they accounted for almost 7 percent of domestic beer sales in the land of Bud. Megan Krigbaum says everyones drinking beer.

Ms. KRIGBAUM: At the end of the day, all the sommeliers are drinking beer. And even wine makers, when they finish a day after harvest, theyre not reaching for a glass of cabernet or something. Theyre having beer. Theyre having a Pilsner, or something super refreshing and crisp.

(Soundbite of can opening)

O'NEILL: Cheers.

Claire O'Neill, NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.