The Wood Shop: A Decade of Wood Aged Sours at Upland Brewing with Pete Batule
Interviewed February 15, 2017
AT Upland Brewing Wood Shop - BLoomington, Indiana
Ask any craft drinker to name some of the oldest craft breweries in the country, and chances are–unless they're from the Hoosier State–Upland Brewing Co. will be left off the list. But with nearly two decades of experience in their back pocket, the Bloomington, Indiana brewery continues to grow and innovate. This is no more evident with their new sour-only brewery, The Wood Shop. Started as a side project with a few barrels from a local winery over a decade ago, Upland's sour program is ready to share their labors of love with sour beer fanatics across the country.
On a recent trip to southern Indiana, we caught up with Pete Batule, Vice President of Brewery Operations, to learn more about one of the most seasoned sour beer producers in the US. And how they evolved from a handful of barrels to a brewery full of foeders, with their eyes set on providing their spoils with rest of the country. This is The Wood Shop.
How did you get started at Upland?
I've been with Upland for almost five years. I came in right when we started up the new production facility in 2012. I was a part of getting that brewery started up and at the same time we started expanding the capacity of our sour program.
What's your background prior to brewing?
Engineering, studied at Purdue. I've been working in food and beverage my whole career, all in production and quality control. Worked in quality at Pepsi, working with Gatorade — so I've been around the beverage business a long time.
That's quite a different beverage industry.
Exactly, very different from the craft beer industry. I was a huge homebrewer, like many of the guys that join a brewery. I really loved making my own beers and loved Uplands beers. Our owner, Doug Dayhoff, through some networking connected and it's been a great fit for me, helping develop our team. We actually have five or six different brewers involved in recipe development and R&D. It is a super fun team to work with.
Were sour beers always part of the fabric at Upland?
Well, we were founded in 1998...
That's old school in the craft industry.
It is old school. Our 20th anniversary is next year, which is hard for everyone to believe. This is a fun part of our story. There's very few people, actually I don't know if there's anybody, that was here when we started. Doug came in in 2005 and saw the potential for the brewery and things really started to change for us. 2006 is when the sour program started. At that time it was a project, not a program.
Caleb, our original brewer, it was his project. He pulled a couple barrels off and let them sit in the grain room. Eight months later we had some beer that tasted pretty good and thought we might be onto something here. The wine barrels were from Oliver Winery right here in Bloomington. We literally traded a couple cases of beer for them.
That doesn't seem like an even trade.
Well it was nearly 12 years ago. The market for breweries to buy barrels was not the same as it is now. They're a great friend though. Doug and Bill Oliver are close friends and have always worked great with us and partnered with us. When we started out, Wheat Ale was by far our biggest selling beer. Nearly 80% of what we did was our Belgian style wit beer.
What did the sour program look like back then?
It was very tiny — less than 100 barrels, maybe 50. It was only a couple batches a year up until 2012 when we split the brewery and dedicated it. Then we grew to 150-200 barrels a year, and we dedicated Caleb and two other people full-time just to work on the program. In 2015, we started construction here at the end of the year, and we started packaging in July last year. This building is coming up on its one year anniversary.
When you say you started packaging, you meant out of this facility? Because Upland sours were available before 2016, correct?
Right, right. Out of that tiny little brewhouse at the brew pub, we did everything in there. We fruited, we bottled, and we brewed in there. It was tough because we couldn't brew and bottle at the same time. It was really a challenge. We had a gravity filler with a hand cork and cager and a little hand labeler. We wrote on the label the date and batch number. We have come a long, long, long way.
When you started in 2006 with the sour program, where there a lot of other US craft brewers doing sours?
If you look back at that time there may have been a handful of breweries dabbling in these types of beers. You definitely have to give credit to Caleb. He at least had the idea to give it a shot and see. We were a young brewery from a staff standpoint, and it was an adventure that we didn't know where it was going to go. But we really loved what came out.
How has your process evolved?
The way we make the beer has certainly changed in ten years. How we were preparing the yeast, what we were doing for our bottle conditioning... we've made improvements on all of those things. The one thing that has remained has been using the whole fruit, locally sourced, long aging, always wood aged. Everything we've ever done has been in barrels. We slowly added some new beers such as the Oud Bruin. Basis was the first beer, then the Oud Bruin and Flanders Red came after that. Those are the three base beers that we use and blend to make 30 odd different beers a year.
Is there anyone you take inspiration from, whether in the US or the classic sour regions?
Yeah, we were definitely inspired by the traditional lambic brewers and really trying to achieve a very dry finish with an intense layer of complexity of flavors and higher fruiting rates. Those are all inspired by Belgian traditions. The Flanders Red and Oud Bruin, while inspired by those traditional styles, are very different. The spice profile that we add to our Oud Bruin really makes it special, and our Flanders Red is 10% ABV, aged in bourbon barrels.
Anyone closer to home?
I would definitely say we're Belgian inspired out of the gate and over the last couple of years the American sour movement is inspiring everyone around the world. We're friends and talk with many other sour producers around the country. I have to say New Belgium has been a huge help to us. We had Peter Bouckaert [Brewmaster of New Belgium] here and he was climbing all over our foeders, inspecting, and giving us pointers. He's been a great mentor for me with any question about beer making. Lauren Salazar is certainly a great educator and taught a lot of us. A lot of what we do, we learned from them. We have a mix of breweries from the US that are doing really fantastic things that we look to and then traditional Belgian brewers is where the initial inspiration came from.
Do you now have young breweries coming to you and looking for help? Has it come full circle?
Yeah, it's been pretty humbling. We've been able to participate in some panels at conventions and things like that. Recently we were up at the Festival of Wood & Barrel Aged Beers and participated in a brewer's panel with New Belgium and Avery. We all talked about our programs as well as trials and tribulations.
What are your thoughts on wood aged sours versus kettle sours?
New Belgium has done a good job taking the lead, but we are aligned with them. If it's not a wood aged sour, we want to make it clear, and we are not going to treat it like it is one of these beers from the Wood Shop. We are not against kettle sours. We dabble in it, but don't do much of it. If someone is doing a kettle sour and trying to sell it for $20 a bottle, that's misrepresenting what's going on, you can make those beers in two or three weeks. That's totally different than what we're doing and it cost us a lot more money to make these. Twelve months in a tank? We have to pay the utilities for a full year to make that beer.
How much do you think this evolution of the American sour palate is driven by the consumer compared to the brewer experimenting in old brewing traditions?
That's a really good question. For our program, we've definitely started out brewing what we liked and trying to emulate some of the practices and techniques of the Belgian brewers. We really want to make a solid representation of those styles as consistently as we can.
Revive is a perfect example. It ties into what we really like, but also what the consumer likes. We actually pulled in some of our staff and got more feedback on different fruit and spice combinations. We did about 20 different blends and got feedback from our own staff, not necessarily trained on sensory, but servers and friends of the brewery, asking which ones they liked. That helped us develop some of our beers.
I think it's a very important question to bring up. Who is really driving the flavor profiles? I still feel the brewer is driving a lot of it, but I think it's fun to engage the folks drinking your beer. We have our Secret Barrel Society which is a membership program. They're wonderful to talk to about beer. Every brewer has an opinion and every consumer has an opinion, but it is fun to get some feedback. Some of our beers, Paw Paw is another good example, came from one of our staff.
I didn't realize Paw Paw was a fruit, let alone from Indiana. It sounds like this exotic tropical fruit.
There's a lot of romance in what we do, but there's also a lot of thought, process, and planning in what we do. There's also this element of complete experimentation and we have no idea what's going to happen. So Paw Paw was one where one of our staff knew a guy who asked if we ever wanted to put paw paw in a beer. We gave it a shot.
For someone who has never had Paw Paw, what does it taste like?
It's very tropical. They call it the "Indiana Banana." It has some really interesting, soft tropical notes to it. I even get some mango with it, some papaya. So we initially did two cases, a tiny little batch, and did an event up in Chicago where we sampled it out. People were going bonkers. Of all the stuff we did, we thought it was a really nice beer, we liked it, but we were not expecting that reception. So we decided we needed to make more of it. Now, internally, it's one of our favorite beers and consumer wise they really like it. That's an example of one where we got great feedback, so we decided to keep making it. I still think it's in our hands of what we do. We are presenting options and for us trying to make something consistently, with high quality, that we're proud of. While we do some experiments, we have a very methodical way of developing our beer.
With added distribution from the Wood Shop and new markets getting this beer, what should they expect from the Upland sour program?
I will say what is different about our program. We are now creating a broader portfolio of sour beers. We have beers that are a little lower in acidity that have a wonderful level of complexity and fruit and spice character, like Revive and Iridescent. We also have beers that we have aged for one to two years with completely different complexity and a different flavor profile. What you can expect from Upland is a wide range of flavors in sour beers that are all beautiful in itself. They're very different but all fantastic, and we really shoot for a layered complexity through all the blending and aging processes. We're proud of the fact that we're patient enough to wait for two or three years. That's not easy to do. We've been doing it for ten years, we're a brewery that's been around for 20 years, so we know what we're doing and have a really strong program in place. Regardless of the market, when you get a shipment from us, you know it's going to be great stuff.
What are you most excited about for the Wood Shop and Upland sours in 2017?
This is going to sound cheesy, but I'm really excited for the beers that are coming out this year. Some are brand new, like Iridescent, which we've been working on for a year and a half now. It's really rewarding to see these kickass labels and this kickass beer that people get to try now. It's something we're really proud of. We're sticking to our traditions, but coming up with new stuff that keeps all of us at the brewery excited.