Despite being named one of the world’s best and most influential brewers by such outlets as Rate Beer and the Huffington Post over the last five years, Brian Strumke’s Stillwater Artisanal has somehow seemed to remain just under the radar. It’s certainly not for want of exposure: Strumke has collaborated with Mikkeller, Evil Twin, Against the Grain, Alvinne, and many, many more. Perhaps most notably, a series of cooperative brews with Polish upstarts Dugges churned out three of 2015’s most intriguing beers: Forgas, a smoked gose; Tropic Punch Ale, a sour mash pale ale with mango and passion fruit; and Syrligt, a Berliner weisse-style ale with lingonberries and rhubarb, featuring a C&D-baiting Swedish Fishy label to match.
So Stillwater has remained a stalwart presence, hovering just outside the Venn diagram of Brown Paper tickets and nerd rage. Perhaps that invisibility-by-way-of-ubiquity has something to do with Strumke’s initial portfolio: offerings like Cellar Door, Debauched, and Stateside Saison are all immaculately crafted entries into the modern farmhouse canon, but saisons and wits—unless they’re masquerading as American-style sours—don’t tend to stir the mash tun much. Get it? Because it’s beer.
In the last two years or so, though, Strumke has quietly and gradually diversified his core branding. First there was the launch of his Contemporary Works series, featuring the still-criminally overlooked Mono (a Galaxy-hopped lager), Surround (a smoked rye imperial stout), and Yacht (another hoppy lager). On Fleek, a canned imperial stout that hits me in all my Expedition Stout-feels, soon followed.
And then the hops…oh my god, the hops. Which brings us, finally and mercifully, to the point: Nu Tropic Pale Ale. On the surface, it smacks somewhat of pandering: an IPA brewed with mango and passion fruit, it ticks the hazy IPA and fruit variant boxes that we seem to covet so much in these times. But good lord, is it hard to argue with that execution: pouring a deep, opaque gold, the beer yields a soapy white head that leaves perfect lacing as it recedes. The nose is not an absolute riot, no Tree House or Trillium-esque lupulin overload, but remarkably even-keeled. The crackery, almost Pilsner-ish malt shines through, with bright tropical hop character complemented—not overwhelmed—by the fruit additions. The palate is just short of saison-dry, clean and faintly mineral-like, with a lightness that encourages gulping. There is a slight, welcome tartness from the mango and passion fruit, underlining and unifying every component of the beer.
It would be easy to call Stillwater late to the game, but Strumke is playing his own game. He brews what suits him, trusting us to have similar taste. Strumke is also a DJ by trade, so it only seems fitting to cap this ramble off with a music-related metaphor: when Ryan Adams recorded Love is Hell in 2003, his label, Lost Highway, refused to release it. In response, he cranked out Rock n Roll in roughly two weeks, which the label happily jumped on, releasing it to mixed reviews but wide commercial success. The following year, Love is Hell was finally released, first as a pair of EPs, then finally as a full album when critics and fans alike decided that, yes, this was a brilliant f***ing record.
Cellar Door is Love is Hell. Nu Tropic is Rock n Roll. We are all The Walrus. Glug glug glug.
Brewery: Stillwater Artisanal Ales
City: Baltimore, Maryland
Style: Fruit IPA
Availability: Limited, 12-ounce cans