Friday, January 9, 2015

Odd Future: Is Oddwood Ales Austin's next great beer?

[Note: This post was originally published by The Austin Chronicle on January 8, 2015]
Perhaps in a beer-keen city like Austin, one has already become accustomed to the bright, nerve-fiber electricity generated by wild ales – often colloquially referred to as "sour beer." To wit, there is Jester King Brewery, thriving out in the hills of far West Austin, now known the world over for their quality brand of fruited sour ales. Then there is the embryonic Blue Owl Brewery in East Austin, still placing the finishing touches on their new operation, but promising a full sour-mashed lineup.
Oddwood2.jpgBut if Austin is to grow from its current brewing toddlerhood into a fighty adolescence, more breweries doing experimental niche styles are necessary in order to wade past Austin's watery bock beginnings. Austin's newest wild ale brewery, Oddwood Ales, is helping to forge that gap.
Oddwood Ales head brewer and owner Taylor Ziebarth started out as a homebrewer, and traveled extensively as a post-graduate before eventually settling in Austin to begin a tech career. After several visits to Adelbert's – his neighborhood brewery – he took a wild leap. Ziebarth quit his Apple job to take on all of the contemptible duties of starting at the bottom of a successful brewery, that is, mopping floors and cleaning tanks. After successfully completing coursework at a brewing school in Vermont, Ziebarth took over production at the Adelbert's facility as their head brewer.
What started out as an unlikely vision "one or two years ago," Ziebarth recalls, eventually became his own brewing project, named for the rustic nature of his beer.   
"I wanted to make beer that was natural and alive," Ziebarth notes, "a beer that was full of wild character." So he began accumulating spent wine oak barrels from his employer, Adelbert's, and filled 18 of them with Adelbert's base beer, Belgian yeast, and brettanomyces (a type of bacteria that acts as a souring agent in wild ales). Over time, it would collectively impart all of the wild characteristics Ziebarth was envisioning. From that initial brewing session came his first beer: Saison.
There is an inarguably slim margin for error when it comes to small-batch beer making. The argument for a sampling beer only persuades people to give a brewery a chance, but not a promise to love it. What Oddwood's Saison accomplishes is a dry, woodsy, sweetly tart, and surprisingly confident beer. It articulates in precise ways: saccharine without cloying; tart but not biting; a clean and stylish finish that only encourages another sip.
oddwood4.jpgElite versions of this style, like Oddwood's, remind the drinker exactly how saisons should taste – especially in a market muddled by interpretations from breweries with production philosophies like, "Look, we know it isn't great, but there's lots of it," and "We were too tired to brew, here's an IPA."
Though Oddwood is following the traditional route of drip-feeding releases into the world to gauge reaction and build anticipation, Ziebarth hints that more beer styles from his brewery are in the works. He reveals that a Bière de Garde is in concept form, and that he would really like to brew a sour beer utilizing bourbon barrels, which he playfully refers to as a "country ale."
Still, one gets the sense that Ziebarth is not playing his full hand. Although he does not seem like the secretive sort, he does perhaps seem a little protective of what the beer world might do to someone who has his sights set so high.
"I like face-melting acidic beers," Ziebarth insists. "I have all the tools to do it, it's just a matter of time."