Friday, October 21, 2011

Have Sorghum—Will Travel

I don't know anything about sorghum beers. In fact, I've never even had one. I've always seen them like a medication I didn't need to take. I don't have Celiac disease—a condition which causes a person to not be able properly digest nutrients, due to a reaction from eating gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, and barley—I can drink beer just fine, trust me on that. However, three guys from Albany—Jeremy Hosier, Mark Crisafulli and Drew Blanchet—look at it from a different perspective. According to Mark Crisafulli, the current sorghum beers on the market, like Anheuser-Busch's Redbridge, are "Almost undrinkable—like Coors Light without the taste and without carbonation." He continued, "If I had celiac disease, and I'm used to drinking good beer, there's nothing out there for you."

The boys in the band.
L to R. Crisafulli, Blanchet and Hoiser
These guys saw a hole in the market and decided to do something about it. That something is Steadfast Beer Company, and they brewed their first batch of sorghum-based, craft-beer on October 20th—and I was there to see it. The interesting part about this project is, none of the fellas have celiac, or even a wheat allergy. As a matter of fact they don't even have a brewery. They are, for the time being, contract brewing through Holyoke, Massachusetts based, Paper City Brewing Company —an hour-and-a half-drive from Albany—and that's where I caught up with the three entrepreneurs.

The whole sorghum beer brewing idea came, initially, from Jeremy who approached Mark with the idea. Crisafulli is the owner of Oliver's and Westmere Beverage Centers in Albany, and Hosier is the manager at Westmere—so between both of them, they have more than 25 years of experience in the beer world. Mark liked the idea, but first and foremost, both guys knew that they need a great recipe. Jeremy, a homebrewer, went to work, researching and tasting whatever gluten-free beer he could get his hands on.

"The word sorghum was everywhere—sorghum this, sorghum that. I gathered that was probably the primary fermentable..." Jeremy said. Looking into it further, he discovered that sorghum, used in brewing, is an extract from indigenous African grasses, that has been modified with enzymes and amino acids, and can be used exactly like malt syrup—no mash, just one big boil. Even though he was familiar with extract brewing, it wasn't always smooth sailing.

55 gallons of
sorghumy goodness.
"The first one was, kinda funny." Jeremy noted, as Mark and Drew listened on with shit-eating-grins on their faces, remembering the groups home brewed trials. "We bottled it in growlers, so the carbonation never really took off. It was overly bitter and a mustardish yellow color—but it tasted good!" One of the issues with sorghum, is that it's not super-fermentable, which means beer that is made only from the extract, ends up with a low gravity. The other issue is color. Sorghum syrup looks brown in large quantities, but produces pale yellow beer. Toasted and roasted grains are out of the question, so something else needs to off-set both gravity and color.

I know you want to, but
don't jump in fellas.
"I thought of two things—molasses and candi sugar." Noted Jeremy. "So we decided to make a beer that uses both, and it turns out that our second recipe, even after multiple batches—the second beer we ever brewed—was still the best. We stuck to it and that's the beer that's going on in there right now." So, if the majority of gluten-free beer available is pale, weak and blah, what can we expect from Steadfast? "It's an assertively hoppy, medium-bodied, pale ale/IPA. It's somewhere between the two. It has characteristics of both." Jeremy said of his 6.8% ABV concoction. Now that strength and color could be checked off with an "Okay", the next hurdle for the boys was, where to make it?

"This all came about a-year-and-a half, almost two years, ago" said Mark, "Since that time, we've been jumping through legal hurdles and working on the recipe—and interviewing breweries." He continued. "We've been to a bunch of breweries on the east coast, trying to find the right niche, and we felt that this place [Paper City Brewing] was just perfect for us." I was curious as to what Steadfast's host, Paper City—a traditional barley beer brewer—thought of all of this. John Hebert, Paper City's brewery manager and brother to brewery owner Jay Hebert, said this:

"I think it's pretty exciting to make a gluten free beer... and it's actually all new to my brother and myself. It's kind of an interesting project. I know that there are a lot of gluten-free beers that aren't to interesting and I'm hoping this one's going to be more on the interesting side!"

Look for this label at your local
beer store—then buy me some.
Along with what to make and where to make it, the name of the company has gone through some changes, as well. Initially created as the d.b.a. Jeremy's Brewing Company, The TTB (The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) was kind enough to inform the guys—24 hours prior to filing their paperwork—since they didn't own an operating brewery, the phrase "Brewing Company" can't be used. A few hours later, Steadfast Beer Company was born.

Why Steadfast? I asked—and was told that they wanted a strong sounding name that implied dedication. During those few hours of frantic name searching Jeremy eventually came across the word steadfast, and liked the sound of it. "People who can't consume gluten, their lives become a chore... They have to read every label they encounter... it's work to be celiac." Continuing, he said "Basically, the whole thing is work—but we're on your side." When he teamed up with his graphic designer, he again got the opportunity to reinforce that theme, on his label. "She came up with the compass, which I think is brilliant. Ya' know it's a sense of direction; you hold to your course, you're steadfast."

Whether all of this is being done for the greater good, or to fill a niche in the market place, what impressed me the most about these guys, was their relatability. I spent two-and-a-half hours with them as they made calculations and adjustments to their boil, added hops and oversaw what was essentially the most important batch of beer in their company's, albeit short, history—and they were nothing but accomodating. During that time I had one of the best beer conversations I've ever had—just three guys and myself, shooting the shit about beer. Three guys, who obviously love beer, getting the chance to do what they love. If any of that dedication and "steadfastness" gets translated into Steadfast's beer—and I'm confident it will—look out, Northeast, there's going to be a new game in town. A game that everyone can enjoy.

Keep your eyes open and on the look out for Steadfast Beer Company's Sorghum Pale Ale, due out at the begining of December. If you see it before then, let me know!

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