Cigar City Brewing, Tampa
I recently gave a presentation at the National Homebrewers Conference in San Diego on aging beer on exotic wood, which covered Spanish cedar—they use it to construct the humidor boxes to age cigars and they also use it in the construction of cigar inserts. I also discussed lemon and grapefruit wood aging in the Dos Costas Oeste project we’re doing in collaboration with The Bruery out of Placentia, CA. [“Two West Coasts,” since both breweries are on the west coasts of their respective states.]
Do the woods have some of the character of their respective fruits?
They do, but they’re muted. One of the things I like about them is that they can add tart and sour flavors to the beer without actually having to use wild yeast like Brettanomyces or Lactobacillus bacteria, so you don’t have to worry about infections in the brewhouse, or having to isolate things. And the pick-up time is much shorter. It just gives you a few more options without having to get stressed and pull your hair out.
I know that cedar is traditional in sake aging. Apart from Dogfish Head using palo santo wood, I haven’t heard of anyone experimenting with other woods besides oak. Are you a lone pioneer?
I’m pretty sure there are other people that are using this wood. The Hitachino classic ale is not the same wood—that’s actually cedar. What we use is called Spanish cedar, scientific name Cedrela, but it’s actually a type of mahogany. I don’t know of anyone else using it on a commercial level. But last year’s NHC [National Homebrewing Competition] winner came down here to our brewery and we gave him wood spirals and he ended up winning for his Spanish cedar-aged IPA.
What does Spanish cedar add to a beer?
You get white grapefruit, cedar wood, white pepper, a slight clove note and more nuances. You have to taste it for yourself. Those four are the main flavors.
Are you actually using vessels made from these woods?
No, the problem with vessel construction is, first, it’s very expensive to have cooperage for barrels like this. Second, the chemical compounds in the wood will diminish over time. And you risk infection every time you re-use the barrel. Third, and one of the most important things, these woods may not have the porosity of oak; it might just leak liquid and not be able to hold it. So we conduct our process in stainless steel.
The main beer we use in this process is our IPA; since it is an IPA, we don’t want any excessive oxidation. The hops work really well with the white grapefruit that the wood provides. I used it in the Humidor IPA, and entered it at the GABF [Great American Beer Festival] in 2009, and it won a gold for Wood- and Barrel-aged beer.
Any extra legal hurdles with U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau?
They wanted label approval for any type of wood contact with the beer. So we do have to submit a statement of process.
You seem to have a food lover’s approach to beer.
I agree with that. I was trying to teach myself gourmet cooking when I stumbled across craft beer thanks to a friend and I thought it was really cool. This was back in the early ’90s. At the time I was working in restaurants as a cook, bartender or waiter—always in contact with the food industry. For Christmas one year, I was given a copy of Charlie Papazian’s book. I started reading through it and just fell in love because it was so similar to what I was learning about cooking.
You join a small number of brewers who come into brewing via the culinary route. That’s a different approach to brewing and recipe design.
Even when I was homebrewing, I tried to implement different ideas that tied cuisine and zymurgy together. It’s a really cool way to look at it. When you look at all the grains, all the hops and all the yeast strains as different raw materials, and consider all the processes you can use to change those things, to me, it’s similar to the raw materials used in cooking. Another thing is that you can have a theme or idea. One of my concepts was to research Mayan chocolate production and learn how to implement that in our imperial stout, so it’s harmonious. We ended up developing it, and it’s turned out to be sort of like our Dark Lord that we release once a year.
What’s special about the chocolate?
Historically, Mayan chocolate came from cacao beans and took a great deal of processing. They had to grind the cacao beans on a stone mill, like you would mill corn. It would take hours. It was a drink that was only for royalty, so there’s a lot of romance around it. They’d put chili peppers into it for a little heat and character. They felt it was invigorating and a gift from the gods. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, What if molé wasn’t quite as savory? What if it was more like dessert? So it was a combination of ancient Mayan chocolate production and a dessert molé, and I sort of laid it into our imperial stout. It worked out pretty well.
Do you still have a strong interest in cooking?
I do, but I live in a condo, so I don’t get to do it as much as I like. I really like grilling, too. I have a 5-month-old son; between my girlfriend and me working full time and taking care of him, there’s not that much time to cook.
You worked at Foothills Brewery here in NC?
I’ve been here since March 2008, so that was 2007. We still stay in touch. That was the only job apart from my original apprenticeship where I worked as assistant and not head brewer.
Could you please shatter any prejudices our readers or I may still have about Florida and craft beer?
Things are definitely changing down here. I don’t know if we were partially responsible and I don’t really care, as long as it happens. We continue to see people who are planning to open new breweries, and they discuss their concepts with us. You’ve got small breweries down in southeast Florida, like Funky Buddha—they’re making, like, maple bacon porter and peanut butter and jelly sandwich beer; all kinds of interesting things.
A close friend who used to work here now works for a larger brewery that’s been around the state of Florida for a long time. He said that they have hired a young brewing staff and they’re designing a new product line that is more modern. That alone says a great deal about how things are changing in the state of Florida.
You have Bold City Brewery in Jacksonville and Intuition Ale Works; there’s a small start-up that’s going to be taking place before the end of the year in Tallahassee. Even the large distributors—the Anheuser-Busch distributor in the state of Florida is building a remarkable portfolio. They’re bringing in Green Flash and Firestone Walker, so it’s getting better and better here.
It’s funny. The state is cursed with a reputation for bland beer, which often goes with a hot climate, but you’ve got a really rich culinary culture. Floridians aren’t afraid of big flavors!
I think it’s been the same old model, the same old assumptions. Then people saw how well we were doing with something they didn’t think would work down here. If you look at craft beer here, the industry is growing so fast that it’s impossible to find used equipment. Even in this economy, we’re doing really well as an industry. That’s phenomenal.
If people like characterful food, there’s no reason they wouldn’t like beer with character, too.
There’s a mishmash of cultures here. Sometimes tourists don’t get to experience it, because they’ll come down here and they’ll hit Disney, and that’s not what the real Florida’s like.
Have you taken inspiration from Latin culture?
We make a guava saison. The Cubans make a guava tart, so we decided on a saison. And we do a brown ale that has Ivory Coast cacao nibs in it, a small amount of Madagascar vanilla bean and Cuban espresso roast. The Cubans were in poverty when they arrived in Florida. Part of the history of Cuban espresso is the fact that they make really concentrated coffee. They usually use the lower grade bean, and they’ll roast the heck out of it. Then they use it to make café con leche, which is espresso mixed with a little heavy cream that has been steamed. The smaller beans have a higher concentration of caffeine, so for very little money they could get this hefty dose of caffeine and a full-flavored espresso. So that’s what we’re trying to reflect as well. It’s not only culinary background; it’s history as well.
Cigar City makes deliberate connections with brewing history in Florida.
Not just brewing. We’ve referenced gambling rings, prominent characters from the Tampa area, Native American tribes—whenever we can, we try to grasp onto something from our history.
What are you working on right now?
We’re doing a French oak-aged American porter that will be going to a Michael Jackson’s Rare Beer Club.
We’ve got the first beer in the three beer series for the Dos Costas Oeste project with The Bruery in Placentia. It’s high gravity Belgian ale that’s golden in color, with secondary on sweet orange peel, coriander and threshold levels of ginger, and aged on Spanish cedar. Then the second and third beers in that series will be the same base beer but one aged on grapefruit wood and one aged on lemon wood. Once we tie up the three threads that will be the end of that project. The idea is to let consumers taste the same beer with three different woods, and see what each wood does.
The whole project started in 2009 when we did our first collaboration with The Bruery, our first collaboration anywhere with anyone. Our first beer was Marrón Acidifié, which is a high gravity oud bruin that was aged in barrels for a really long time. It was brewed in 2009, and it wasn’t released until April of this year.
We’ve also got a beer we’re going to call Big Dummy. One of our senior brew staff members, every time he makes a mistake—I don’t know if you’ve seen Sanford and Son—but I tell him “You big dummy,” like Fred Sanford would tell Lamont. It’s basically a Belgo-American amber ale with Citra and Simcoe, fermented with 3711 saison yeast. It has three different types of Munich malt, a ton of melanoidin malt and pilsner malt as base.
Then we have another project coming up after that—it’s called Black Whole. It’s a tribute to an indie band out of Alabama; the front man is a guy I used to play with. We’re trying to tie indie music and craft beer, because we feel they share the same amounts of their respective markets and they challenge the consumer. That beer will be a hybrid between an English porter and a Belgian double. We’re going to ferment that with saison yeast as well.