Blue Owl Brewing brings sours to the masses
The loneliest man in Austin may very well be a Budweiser rep. Recently at an Eastside bar, patrons hell-bent on reaching optimal buzz ignored his offering of free beer to pay $5 or more a pint. Austinites know their brew. It's no wonder that so many entrepreneurs are leveraging Austin's thirst for a thriving craft beer culture.
After a combined 11,000 hours of labor, brainstorming, and sweat, business partners Jeff Young and Suzy Shaffer (both Black Star Co-op alums) along with mechanical engineer Davy Pasternak and Bitch Beer's Jessica Deahl (the designer of the beer labels and accompanying poster art) will open the first and only sour mash brewery in the country. With more hires expected in the coming months, Blue Owl Brewing aims to bring sour beer to the masses by creating approachable styles that are relatively affordable (a six-pack will retail for under 10 bucks).
While there are plenty of barrel-aged sours on the market, they're often expensive and infamously inconsistent. The inconsistency isn't necessarily a negative – making sours is a longstanding art form, after all, and there's a beauty in creating something a bit unruly and a bit disruptive. Blue Owl's objectives and operation, while equally imaginative, are quite simply different.
Instead of using a barrel process that takes months or years, Blue Owl utilizes a quicker method to achieve the sour flavor desired in the beer. "We use naturally occurring bacteria found on our barley on our brew-day and allow it to thrive in our wort until we achieve the desired level of acidity for the individual beer," explains Young. "This takes usually between 18 hours and 72 hours. After the inoculation of the wort is complete, we continue to boil, cool, and ferment very similar – but with differences – to typical beers."
Where the normal brewing process changes course is in the MIU (pronounced "mew" and designed by Young) or Modular Inoculation Unit. A proprietary and closely guarded secret, what happens in the MIU, stays in the MIU. After leaving the mash/lauter tun, the wort drains into the kettle/sour tun. The MIU, a subchamber of the sour tun, introduces lactobacilli into the wort. It's then held in the sour tun for 18-72 hours before being boiled and hopped. At that point, the wort moves into the fermenter, where it becomes alcohol. Then it's off to the bright tank to be carbonated and held for canning or kegging.
"The whole system is all just trying to get a clean sourness with some complexity so it's clean in that it doesn't have the gross ... like feet ... or putrid kinds of things that a lot of people get when they're trying to do sour mashes," Young says. "You can get some weird shit, and it's pretty easy to do that. You really have to go out of your way to make it not taste like feet, so all of this was designed in order to avoid those things, but since it is wild, there's still some complexity to it," he adds.
This complexity is palpable in the brewery's four flagship offerings, which include Little Boss, a sour session wheat not unlike a Berliner weisse; Van Dayum!, a sour red ale with notes of caramel and dark fruit; Spirit Animal, a citrusy and hoppy sour pale ale; and Professor Black, a sour cherry stout, both chocolatey and roasty and incredibly luscious. In addition, the brewery will produce a seasonal. Though still in the alpha stage, the deceptively high-ABV Dapper Devil – a sour raspberry Belgian strong ale – is on the road map for late summer or fall.
Intellect and wit is attached to the entire production. Every component, from the recipes and tasting room to the overall design and packaging, has an immense attention to detail. This ethos is exemplified by the Deahl-designed artwork. The cans are simple with consistent owl branding, but they're also modern and quirky. Each pattern and color is calculated, but it looks playful, not forced.
The screenprinted poster art, one for each beer, will be sold as merchandise at the brewery and offered to accounts. "With all of them, we're trying to personify obviously and also just make it something different from the can design," says Deahl. "Like if there were a gig poster for each beer, this is what it would be." For example, the poster for Little Boss presents a Marfa-inspired desert background with an intentionally ambiguous sunrise (or is it sunset?) with a mechanical desert owl in the foreground, an homage to Clash of the Titans. The imagery for Professor Black reflects Young's chemistry background and features a studious-looking gentleman with a magnifying glass, a mortar and pestle, and a book spine with a title that reads a formula Young created in number theory as an undergrad. A bro brewery this is not. Instead, it's a thoughtful and interesting collaboration of great beer and art that tells a story. And part of that story revolves around the brewery's location.
While most breweries are relegated to industrial parts of town, it was not the direction Blue Owl wanted to go. "We really wanted to be an urban brewery," says Young of the location at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Pedernales Street. "Austin is our biggest inspiration, and we needed to be part of it. Since we're not a huge facility, it's nice to fit into a dynamic part of town, become part of the neighborhood, and be accessible to folks all over Austin." Part of the accessibility is an educational component that Shaffer describes as vital to the success of the brewery. "We want everyone to feel unintimidated by our beers and beer culture in general," she says. "It's about creating a foundation." Indeed, self-guided tour sheets featuring the basics of sour beer, information about each of the brewery's offerings, and notes on how to taste a beer (look, swirl, sniff, sip) abound.
The tasting room itself is welcoming, with a retro vibe and decorated with upcycled materials and nostalgic touches throughout – a hand-built bar here, a repurposed vending machine there. It's less of a showroom than a living room, where patrons can comfortably congregate with beer in hand. Blue Owl plans to be open to the public Wednesday through Sunday with weekday evening hours and extended hours on the weekend. "There's a whole lotta love in here. A whole lotta sweat," says Shaffer. "We want people to feel welcome and charmed."