Brewery Spotlight: Blue Pants Brewery in Madison, Alabama
In was a pleasure to sit down with Blue Pants Brewery Head Brewer Derek “Weedy” Weidenthal in what is the most informative Brewery Spotlight interview to date. Weedy walks readers through the mad-science of his brewing philosophy in a way that is easy to understand for craft beer newcomers and yet still captivating for veterans in the space.
Prominently adorned on the wall of Blue Pants Brewery in Madison, Alabama is a quote by Dave Miller. “Brewers make wort. Yeast makes beer.”
The fact that the quote is painted and not merely a wall hanging lends to its permanency as a philosophy and not just a gimmicky thought. These guys take brewing seriously as was evidence during my interview with Head Brewer Derek “Weedy” Weidenthal.
“I never stop thinking about brewing beer,” said Weedy. “When I’m done working, I go home and spend the evening reading about beer. It’s not necessarily a healthy thing.”
Mike and Allison Spratley opened Blue Pants Brewery in 2010.
In typical Huntsville area fashion, Mike was an army engineer before taking the entrepreneurial leap of opening Blue Pants. The brewery started as 1.5-barrel brewhouse built out of stainless 55-gallon drums he acquired from a Mississippi winery. Brewing took place in 400 square feet. For those familiar with their current facility, that’s a third the size of their taproom.
The brewery moved into their current 10,000 square foot facility in 2012. As predicted, capacity went up. The brewery is on pace to brew an estimated 7,500 barrels a year of the German, English, and American influenced beers that Blue Pants has become known for.
Customers can sample those beers in the 1,200 square foot taproom or on the massive 4,000 square foot patio. The brewery distributes throughout Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi.
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While Mike spearheads the direction of Blue Pants Brewery, Weedy oversees brewing with the same eye for science and engineering.
Weedy began his “unhealthy obsession” as a homebrewer back in college. He drew his inspiration from a New Glarus Brewing Spotted Cow someone snuck him during summer high school band in Wisconsin. He went to college thinking the nectar of Spotted Cow was what all beer tasted like. That is until his first beer in college, which just happened to be during a keg stand.
“I only lasted for like two seconds because it tasted so bad,” said Weedy. “I realized if I was going to have craft beer in Alabama, I was going to have to make it myself.”
Weedy researched how to brew beer, and, more specifically, how to brew Spotted Cow. Before even brewing his first batch, he emailed New Glarus’s owner with what he thought the recipe might be and received a response.
“I was pretty close,” says Weedy. “I was using caramel 10 instead of caramel 20. He also adjusted a few of the quantities.”
Weedy’s adjusted version of the infamous cream ale won a gold medal in the 2015 Beverage Tasting Institute’s English Style Ales competition.
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With that same zest for research, Weedy also helped Blue Pants Brewery win a silver medal at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival for ancient ales.
The beer was Dortmunder Adambier – a German style that was made illegal when Reinheitsgebot was passed due to its use of unmalted black barely. The style thus disappeared. Recreating the beer wasn’t easy as recipes in the sense that we keep them today were not maintained.
“All I had was an ingredients list to work from with a list of names we don’t use today,” says Weedy.
For example, while he knew the beer was a smoked sour, he also knew that brettanomyces was not intestinally added during the brewing process. Instead, it contaminated the barrels once they were buried underground for aging. Thus, Blue Pants used a split fermentation with an old German ale yeast strain and brettanomyces.
To add the smoke flavor also found in the ancient style, Blue Pants looked to Weyermann in Bamberg for beech-smoked malts. After fermentation, the beer is then barrel aged for a year as the original style would have been.
The result is a flavorful beer that would appeal to the current trends in craft beer drinkers’ palates. The flavor profile combines smoke, caramel, and the tartness of a cherry pie over a smooth oaty texture.
The GABF medal was the first medal to go to the state of Alabama in five years. In fact, in 2015, Blue Pants won nine medals in various competitions. When I asked Weedy if he was proud of that accomplishment, he shrugged off the question, “We’re all proud of that. It’s a team effort.”
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Understanding the science of brewing only continues at Blue Pants Brewery.
Weedy’s eyes lit up when he began to describe what he’s working on next. “We’re working on a couple of double IPA recipes and evolving yeast strains.”
As Citra hops are becoming more difficult for breweries to acquire, smaller breweries like Blue Pants are altering their recipes by substituting different hops. It’s an option Weedy didn’t want to consider as in his opinion, no other hop quite matches the flavor of Citra.
Thus, he’s manipulating hops through a process called biotransformation. He stumbled open the idea after listening to an interview with Alchemist Brewery’s head brewer about New England IPAs and why they’re cloudy. Weedy then began looking for yeast strains that would stay in suspension, allowing the hop resins to cling to them to both alter and maintain flavor.
The same science and research is also going into an upcoming hefeweizen the brewery is developing. “Since I’ve been back from Germany, I haven’t had a good hefeweizen,” said Weedy. “I think that’s because American brewers don’t have the equipment to brew great wheat beers. I found a way around that by using various malts.”
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As Blue Pants Brewery was my first brewery stop in the Huntsville / Madison area, I was given a nice glimpse as to what was to come of the rest of my brewery tour.
I began my walk through their portfolio with the recipe that launched Weedy’s homebrewing career – the Cream Ale. Admittedly, cream ale is not an ale I typically drink. While Weedy’s first beer may have been a cream ale from New Glarus, one of my first beers was a cream ale from Genesee Brewery that my grandpa let me try. I’m still tainted on the style. Yet, I found Blue Pants Cream Ale to be delightfully refreshing with nice, juicy orange notes accentuated with a dry, creamy finish.
Next – and I realize I sampled these slightly out of order as I picked up the wrong glass – was the IPA. Blue Pants IPA is brewed slightly different than most. All 17 varieties of hops are added either at the end of the boil – the last 20 minutes – or during the dry hopping stage. This is a trend that was just covered by All About Beer last month, yet Blue Pants has been utilizing for quite some time. The result is an American-style IPA with lots of dank bitterness. The low malt profile helps create a very hop-forward IPA.
I followed the IPA with the Pilsner, which Beer Advocate listed as the highest rated Alabama beer at the time. The pilsner was true to form in its German authenticity – bright, quenching hops with light caramel notes and a clean finish.
The final beer I sampled was the Bourbon Wee Heavy Strong Scottish Ale. This is a big beer coming in at 13% ABV. It’s aged for 8 months in fresh Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. You can definitely taste the bourbon, but it wasn’t overpowering. Instead, the barrel provided a sweet backdrop for the caramel and dried fruit notes.
The Dortmunder Adambier I sipped on once I was back home from a bottle Weedy gifted to me to take home. It’s currently not available but a batch is aging for future release.