A funny thing happens when you taste 115 double/imperial India pale ales. Sometimes, against all probability, you anoint a relatively unknown gypsy brewer as one of the best hoppy beer breweries in the country. Sometimes, you even pick them for two spots in the top five. That’s what happened last week when we revealed the results of our 115 DIPA blind-tasting and ranking. Brooklyn’s Grimm Artisanal Ales came in like a wrecking ball of flavor, and both their Tesseract and Lambo Door DIPAs left us speechless. There were so many great beers in the course of that tasting, but both Grimm offerings were something special.
How funny, then, that when we first contacted co-owner Joe Grimm inquiring about DIPA samples back in July, he sent the following as part of his reply, referring to our earlier 116 single IPA ranking: “P.S. Two Maine Beer Co. IPA’s among your finalists—someone at Paste has good taste.”
When the DIPA list went up on Friday, I had some good news for Joe Grimm—his fledgling nomad brewery WAS the Maine Beer Co. of this tasting. Wanting to learn more about this project, which is hopefully headed for its own dedicated brewery space in Brooklyn, I caught up with husband and wife owners/brewers Joe and Lauren Grimm, Brooklyn’s new IPA laureates. They join a crop that includes other buzzy projects, including Other Half Brewing (which we couldn’t acquire for the tasting!) in making Brooklyn a new hoppy/sour beer hotspot.
Paste: So, what did you think when you got the email saying you had the best DIPA of 115 we tasted?
Lauren: That was pretty damn cool.
Joe: Yeah, our inbox has been flooded.
Lauren: We had our distributor’s email address on our website but we had to take it off because they were complaining about the emails they were getting from people wanting 4-packs of Lambo Door. (Grimm hasn’t packaged any of their IPAs)
Joe: It’s great thing for us though, because we’re releasing our first packaged DIPA called Afterimage, in 16 oz. cans, only in New York State. We’re hand-labeling the cans ourselves. We bought blank cans and had labels printed and are using a manual labeling machine. Every can is touched by Lauren, guaranteed.
Lauren: And boxed by Joe.
Paste: What first got you interested in fermentation science?
Lauren: Well, we both have backgrounds in art and music; that’s how we first met in 2005. We quickly got excited about fermentation in general. We weren’t necessarily making beer at the time, we were making all kinds of fermented beverages and products like mead and kvass and kimchee and sauerkraut.
Joe: Most of the beer we’d had a chance to taste didn’t have a lot of complexity. But then I passed through Belgium for about a week, and it really opened up my idea of what beer could be. When I got home I talked to Lauren about it and said “We have to seek this stuff out.”
Lauren: And so, when we first started brewing beer at home it was exclusively those Belgian-style ales.
Paste: The craft beer landscape was quite a lot different then, in 2005 or so. What stands out to you as having changed?
Lauren: Obviously there’s more availability of quality beer from the US. now. When Joe and I first started brewing beer, everything we wanted to drink were imports. There wasn’t a lot of exciting craft beer happening locally. Now, American brewers are creating new styles and there’s so much beautiful experimentation.
Joe: I think homebrew culture is largely responsible for that. It’s where you get your hands dirty and learn how to taste what’s really going on in beer. The pace of the internet has also informed that pace of beer development.
Paste: How long were you brewing as a hobby before thinking you should be doing it professionally?
Joe: There was sort of an in-between point 5-6 years ago, when we were living in Chicago and studying at the Art Institute. The in-between moment was when we had a lot of friends who were doing art gallery or punk rock shows and we started to bring our homebrew and do pop-up bars at these things. We would just sell whatever homebrews we made—it was totally legal and stuff. (You can practically hear him shifting his eyes nervously over the phone as he says this)
Lauren: When we were setting up these little pop-up bars, people just loved our beer. And yeah, everyone says nice thing about your homebrew, but there were people coming to these gallery openings, telling us that they just came to taste our beer. So when we came to New York, we basically said “Hey, what if we did this legally?”
Joe: We’ve always seen it as a creative project. We just said we would do one batch of beer a month, with new labels, new recipes, each time and let our creativity take us where we wanted to go. We’ve only had to bring them back a couple times—once because Double Negative (an imperial stout) won a medal at the Great American Beer Fest. (GABF Silver medal, 2014)
Paste: Can you concisely sum up your brewing philosophy?
Joe: Complexity through simplicity. I think what we’re after is a complexity of flavors you can really dive into, but not through adding a lot of different ingredients. That’s almost like cheating. If you want a grapefruit flavor in your beer and put actual grapefruit in, that’s not as great as if you can get that flavor to come out through fermentation or something. Imperial stouts already taste like chocolate and espresso when done well; why do you need to put in actual chocolate? But in terms of what we’re making, we have two directions we’re focused on right now: a dry-hopped sour program and double IPA program, doing one of each every month.
Lauren: Joe and I are constantly experimenting. I think we’re both really excited about novelty for our own sake. We’re making the beer we want to drink, and that changes all the time.
Paste: How did you get breweries to let you come in and contract brew/gypsy brew for the first time?
Lauren: Every one of them is different. When we started brewing in Virginia, talking to Beltway Brewing Co. in Sterling, Virginia, they weren’t even open yet.
Joe: There are three that we’ve worked with a lot. Of course at this point, we have breweries reaching out to us, saying that they have extra capacity. When we were first starting out, we called everyone up and no one really wanted to talk to us. No one knew us.
Lauren: We’re also very picky about where we’re brewing. Joe and I put a lot of work into beers that we’re brewing, and we attend all of our brew days. The batches so far have been 30, 60 or 90 barrels at the largest for a few of the recent sours.
Paste: How do your sours work, exactly? Where are you aging them, and in what kind of containers? How are you avoiding introducing bugs at other breweries?
Joe: We brew the same styles in certain places if we can for the sake of nailing down our process and repeatability. One of the perks of gypsy brewing is that we get to use different equipment and different water sources in each place. With the sours, they’ve all been done so far at the Virginia brewery. At this point we have a lot of sour beer in oak barrels there, but we also do some kettle sour stuff, depends on the beer.
Paste: Did they already have sour program there?
Lauren: No, we definitely talked to them a lot about what they were willing to let us do in their space. We had to convince them that making sour beer would not infect their clean beers, of course. I think they’re pretty comfortable with it now. We just purchased a few mobile stainless steel fermenters to do some more experimentation in our sour program.
Paste: In the Facebook comments on our DIPA ranking, there was someone saying you didn’t originally want to make IPAs. Is that true?
Lauren: Well, when Joe and I first started our company in Brooklyn we were excited to bring styles to NYC that were not currently produced by any breweries here. We were just thinking that a lot of people made IPAs, and as a gypsy brewery you’re not trying to pump out as much liquid as you can. Plus, we’d tasted a lot of IPAs that didn’t really interest us.
Joe: You know honestly, our idea of what you can achieve with the IPA style has definitely evolved since 3-4 years ago. It was then that we went on a camping trip to Vermont and tried some of those beers for the first time. After we had an opp to drink some Vermont IPAs, we had an “aha” moment about what we liked in that style. But it was still a couple years of experimentation before we felt ready to produce our own IPAs commercially.
Paste: I know that you’re hoping to open your own brewery building. How’s that process going?
Lauren: I wish we were further along. We’re still looking for spaces right now, but it’s not so easy in NYC. We want to open in Brooklyn, but the property market is absurd.
J: I think we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve generated enough excitement that we can make it a reality, though.
Paste: When it’s complete, how will having that space change what you’re producing?
Joe: The thing I’m very excited about on the IPA front is being able to sell directly to the customer. The thing that is making say, Tree House’s IPAs so good is that they can sell it directly to customer the day after it’s packaged. Fresh as can be, and that’s the secret. It’s tough when you can’t sell direct to the customer because you can never get it in peoples’ hands at its freshest.
Another one of the things we’re really passionate about is spontaneous fermentation, and having our own brewery would also allow us to do more blending.
Lauren: Right now, we only have two brew days a month. When we have our own brewery, we’d be brewing a lot more styles at once. It’s just going to be even more experimentation.
Paste: What’s your current distribution arrangement? Does New York allow self-distribution?
Lauren: New York does have self-distribution, but that doesn’t work for us because we don’t have our own brewing space. We’ve always gone through distributors. We sell some of our beer to import company Shelton Brothers, which ships small amounts of our beer to different states, but that’s only the sours.
Joe: Basically, our strategy is that for anything really perishable we produce a small amount and sell it locally. Products with higher shelf lives get distributed.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. He’s trying to convince the Grimms to install a beer pipeline that runs from Brooklyn straight to the Paste offices in Atlanta. He is not having much success. You can follow him on Twitter.