with Chip McElroy
Live Oak Brewing Co.
When Live Oak opened in 1997, you specialized in beer styles that most craft brewers weren’t making. Why did you make that decision?
Our first beer was a pilsner. I don’t know if anybody was making any back then—Victory might have been. We started making Czech pilsner because they taste so good and we love them so much. You can’t hide behind any flavors in it—they’re all right up front. It’s a difficult beer to make, so I understand why people don’t make them that much.
Was the public ready to support a craft pilsner?
I won’t lie to you, in the beginning it was a little tough. The BudMillerCoors drinkers would try our beer and say “Yuck, that tastes like beer, or something.” As for craft beer guys, pale ales and IPAs getting very popular, so it was difficult. But when they tasted it, they realized, OK, this is the real deal: this is what a pilsner is supposed to taste like. It’s got plenty of flavor to satisfy a beer geek, such as myself.
Where did you develop this love for traditional lager styles?
Back in 1980, I got a big dose of European beer by being in Europe for 10 months. Then I came back to Austin and went to graduate school in molecular biology. It’ll come as no shock to anyone that in graduate school we used to have a lot of parties. We’d tell everyone to bring a six-pack of craft—no, it wasn’t “craft” back then—“import or domestic microbrew,” was the way we used to phrase it. You’d just empty your six-pack into the baby wading pool that was full of bottles. People stood around and sampled each other’s beers. We’d have maybe 80 different beers at a party—this was in the early or mid-80s.
I started homebrewing then, but I never got very good. Then I finished my degree, and I did a post-doc out in San Diego. I met another post-doc who was a very good brewer. I think he had been a member of the Maltose Falcons in California. He was brewing lagers and doing all-grain mashes. I really learned how to brew with him. I came back to Austin after three years and joined the homebrew club, kept brewing lagers, met Brian Peters in the homebrew club, and we got into brewing pilsner. He had been to the Czech Republic, I think, and I had been, and we were enamored with the Czech style of pilsner.
So that’s what you modeled the Live Oak pils on?
Yeah, although Michael Jackson likened it to a Northern German pils, like a Jever.
The first place I ever heard of you was his column in our magazine, where he raved about your pilsner.
That was good for us. We started buying malt from Lynn O’Connor at St. Patrick’s of Austin. She imported Czech malt for her homebrewing supply business: floor-malted, under-modified malt, made from heirloom variety barley. Then she got out of the ingredients business, and we took over importing the malt directly ourselves. We still use that malt, direct from the Czech Republic. We get under-modified malt, and we get a regular pils malt from there.
We do a decoction mash for the pils. You have to work that malt a little harder than you normally would have to, but the result is a nice, firm maltiness, without being sweet. A good backbone for the amount of hops we put in there.
And which hops do you use?
We use Saaz hops. We buy the hops through a broker, but the malt we import.
Can you explain the decoction method and its effect?
When metal vessels were difficult and expensive to make, you could take a smaller metal vessel and bring some of your mash up to a boil in that, and then add it back to the main mash. That would raise the temperature of the entire mash. It’s a different way of doing it than heating the mash like a bowl on the stove, and it’s different than adding boiling water to raise the temperature. I think it’s a remnant of needing a smaller vessel. Boiling the mash breaks open the malt and caramelizes some of the sugar. The result is sort of dry. It’s not sweet, but you can taste the malt in it.
If you didn’t use this method, what would be the difference?
The mouthfeel is slightly less, it’s not as firm: we taste them side-by-side. There are a lot of people who’d swear you could duplicate decoction by adding a couple of bags of Vienna malt or adding some Munich malt, and I guess you can. But this is a different way of doing it that gives a slightly different mouthfeel and malt character.
Do you use decoction on your other lagers, as well?
We have used it on many of our beers, not just the lagers. We don’t use it on our Big Bark, which is our Vienna. But we use it on our Oaktoberfest, and the weizenbock, and at one time we used it on the hefeweizen, but we don’t now. It’s a pain, especially with the equipment that we have, which is not well set-up to do a decoction. People who brew here, they curse it because a decoction is a pain, but then we have a tasting and we prefer it.
When did you take the revolutionary step into ales?
Well, our second beer was the hefeweizen, so that’s an ale. But I know what you mean. It was kind of hard to convince the beer aficionados that a pilsner was a perfectly reasonable craft beer. They were clamoring for pale ale, pale ale all the time, so we finally made a pale ale. Then, some of those same people who’d clamored for the pale ale were, like, Nah, I really kinda like the pils better. We’d won them over.
A couple of years later, we had a winter seasonal IPA, which we called Liberation Ale. We dry hopped it, and it became super popular. We eventually discontinued the pale ale, and we go with Liberation now.
In spite of that, even with the way people are with pale ales and IPAs these days, our biggest selling beers are the Big Bark, the hefeweizen and our pils. Everybody else’s biggest seller is their pale ale or IPA. With our beers, people don’t get confused. We’re not doing a light, medium and dark ale. We’re doing three very different beers.
So your year-rounds are the pilsner, the amber and the hefeweizen.
Big Bark is the name of our amber lager. I might even quit calling it an “amber lager.” People shorten that to “amber,” and I think, in general, when people describe their beer with color names, it has less to do with the flavor than other desciptors.
So “Vienna” is more appropriate?
I like that better.
Are other breweries waking up to craft pilsners?
There’re aisles of pilsners. Most of the time, it’s an ale brewery that wants to do something different, so they’ll throw one out there. But people who do pilsner all the time, and it’s their mainstay, I can only think of Victory.
The hefeweizen is another beer that’s taken off. Back in ‘97, it was hard to give them away. Nowadays, I believe it has officially taken over our top-selling spot.
And you’re using traditional Bavarian yeast?
Oh, yeah. It’s a hefeweizen, not an American wheat beer. I take exception to American wheat beers being called “hefeweizen.”
But you can order a hefeweizen and sometimes get a beer with no hefeweizen character—no banana, no clove…
If I had a restaurant and I put bratwurst and sauerkraut on the menu, but I brought out a hot dog and coleslaw, people might object. And I don’t think it’s adequate that my defense is “Well, that’s our version of sauerkraut, it’s just a different version.” Well, no, it’s not. It’s not sauerkraut. It may be 95 percent cabbage, but they way that it is made is entirely different.
The word is torturously difficult, no one can pronounce it or knows what it means, but hefeweizen describes a very particular style of beer. So you can’t call coleslaw “sauerkraut,” and you can’t call a wheat beer a hefeweizen. That’s what I think.