Some consider sour beers to be weird. Derrick Langeneckert brew master and co-owner of Alpha Brewing company acknowledges that they “kind of” are. Derrick isn’t shy about declaring his love for his job and for producing sour beer. Most brew masters would probably tell you they have a passion for their craft, but Derrick takes it to another level. You can taste it in his beer, and you can hear it when you speak to him. I’ve personally had very few sour beers in my life, the reason is, that I’ve never liked them. After visiting Alpha Brewing company and trying their sour beer, I realized that that the reason I’ve never liked sour beer is that previously I’d never had a good one. Alpha Brewing Company’s beers are better than good, they are amazing. That isn’t an exaggeration; it’s quite impressive.
“I started homebrewing in 2011,” says Derrick. “I was in master’s school for biology. Browsing the internet one day, an ad popped up asking, do you know how to brew beer? No, I thought to myself, but it seems like something I should know how to do. I was bored – I guess, as if studying for a master’s degree wasn’t enough, so I went down to the home brew store and bought a keg. My first brew was an extract kit batch of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale clone. It turned out like garbage.” Determined to improve, Derrick started going to the homebrew store often to talk about beer and brewing with them. “I don’t know man, it consumed my life,” Derrick explained. “Our whole second bedroom in our apartment turned into a brewery. I had like 20 batches going all the time. I was investing lots and lots of money and going to grad school.” As I listened to Derrick and enjoyed a sour beer for the first time in my life, I wondered how much of a role his advanced biology degree played in his brewing method, design, and output.
Eventually, Derrick got a job at Square One Brewery, just down the street from Alpha Brewing’s current tap room. “They opened in 2005, I was the assistant brewer- which means I washed kegs all day; I did almost no brewing. After about a year I was always pushing to do something weird or different and they just weren’t too keen on it, so I decided I was just going to make my own brewery. I raised some money and rented a space on Halloween of 2012. Finally, on April 10th of 2013 we opened the first location of Alpha Brewing Company. It was a small 2500 sq. foot space with a capacity of 2.5 barrels, which means we could make 77.5 gallons of beer at a time. Just last year, in March, we moved here which is just a little more than 1400 sq. feet. We have a 15-barrel system – we brew a lot. We closed the initial location because the lease was over. We were sharing the location with a bank. The bank wasn’t too keen on all these weird beer smells,” he says with some laughter. “Here we bought the building outright, so we aren’t going to get kicked out.”
Alpha Brewing Company wasn’t always a sour beer focused establishment. “The name Alpha Brewing Company comes from Alpha Acids, which are the things that make hops taste bitter. We initially planned to be an IPA heavy brewery. Remember, this was 2012, it was right in the middle of the IPA craze; beer couldn’t be more dry hopped, beer couldn’t be more bitter; 120 IBUs. Dogfish head came out with their 90 minute and 120 minute IPAs at the time. Every brewery was suddenly all about IPAs, and we had these terrible hops. Cascade is not an IPA hop, or nugget, or Sorachi Ace, I mean they’re ok hops, but they’re not good IPA hops. So, everyone was making all these mediocre IPAs and then all these other hops started coming out Citra and Mosaic, and then Galaxy from New Zealand. Man, these hops are IPA hops. They’re so smelly, they’re delicious. So, suddenly, these other hops dropped off the map and no one wanted to drink beers made with them anymore.”
“I was always interested in sour beers and barrel aged things, but I also thought they were really hard to make, so at first, I didn’t even try, I just figured they were too hard, and I didn’t know what I was doing. Eventually, after talking to a few people, I bought a couple barrels and made a couple sour beers over the course of the first year we were open. It turned out pretty good, so I was really excited. I then bought more barrels and made more of them. Sour beers have become my passion; about half of what we have on tap are sours. The thing with sour beers is that they are a blend of a bunch of different beers from different barrels and different ages. The oldest stuff in our current releases is from 2017.”
I asked Derrick what makes a good beer, through his response I learned more about what role his biology degree might play in his beer crafting. “I’ll tell you what makes a bad beer,” Derrick counters. “First, I love the craft beer industry in this country. There are now around 7000 breweries here. When we opened in 2013, there were 3000ish. A lot of people who open breweries either have worked at a brewery for a period of time or came from home brewing like I did, and many of them didn’t or don’t have the right amount of money to buy the required equipment to make things correctly. There is a lot to be said about having the right equipment. If you don’t, you can get a whole bunch of interesting off flavors, and they’ll be persistent in most of your beers. For instance, one is called DMS, Dimethyl Sulfide, it’s a product of not having a good boil in the kettle, so if your equipment doesn’t allow your beer to get a good rolling boil the DMS will stay in your beer and your beer will all taste like creamed corn. If you don’t have proper conditioning of your tanks you’ll have issues; if you can’t keep them a constant temperature and they get really hot, the yeast isn’t happy and then it produces Acetaldehyde and a green apple flavor- almost like a green apple jolly rancher – you don’t want that. If you pull your beer and package it too fast, you get Diacetyl-it tastes like popcorn, it tastes terrible in beer.” “So,” he continues, “If you don’t taste the bad flavor in beer, then its good beer. There are a bunch of different inventive styles with different spices.”
“I like trying just about anything you can put in front of me, as long as it’s proper. I really hate however when someone has a beer that’s bad and then they try to fix it. You can’t get DMS out, because it’s a boil issue, you can’t get that out even after the beer is fermented. Some people try to dry hop it and cover it up, but it never really works out. If you get black drops of paint in your white paint, you don’t just mix in more white paint; it will just be a lighter shade of grey. So that annoys me as a beer maker, to go somewhere and pay good money for a beer, and have to think, do you not know this is messed up? They have to know right? If you make a popcorn flavored stout, do you just put a ton of five spice in it?”
“When brewing you have to be present and aware of what is happening and what should be happening at given points of the process. Brewing is kind of like baking, sometimes you have to fix things mid-stream. For instance, if you have a full kettle and it’s just not boiling for some reason. You don’t just set your watch and say “well, the recipe said one hour, and it’s been kind of boiling, so it’s time to pull it.” You stop and fix the problem; you get it up to a full boil. It might mean the wort is in the kettle for 3 hours. You must do it right all the way. A half-done process is no different than a half recipe. If you ran out of hops you can’t just throw in some random other ingredient or use half what the recipe requires.” You need to taste your beer during the aging process too. “The worst is when you get a weird bacteria growing in a barrel and it makes some really bad flavors. There is one called Butyric acid. There are some bad bacteria that live in your socks and will grow in beer too. It makes the beer taste like vomit. It’s so sad because you sit on the beer for 18 months. You will taste it at 6 months and it’s fine, then 12 months and it’s fine, then 18 months and suddenly it tastes like vomit. After 18 months you have to dump it. It really sucks. It’s terrible.”
“Brewing sour beer is way more fun than other styles.” says Derrick. “Halfway through the aging process you start tasting more flavors.” Walking through the lines of barrels in the brewery, I notice hundreds of barrels full of aging beer. Some were used to age Chardonnay at one point in their lives, others were for aging Bourbon, others were used to age various red wine varietals. “After the beer has been sitting in a barrel, over time, I start to taste flavors that remind me of something else. With everybarrel I think, oh man there is some cherry flavor in here or cinnamon flavor in there, and I get the idea to add some cinnamon sticks to bring the flavor out more. On our Blueberry Cuvee I had no general plan. I made a blueberry beer, but I wanted some woodiness in it, so we blended in some oak barrels that we had aging. The three barrels we blended into it weren’t previously reserved for anything. It’s kind of nice to have a collection of different beers aging in port wine barrels. That’s 2 Port wine barrels and a Chardonnay barrel that are blended into our Blueberry Cuvee. So, we picked those three barrels out of probably 20 different barrels that I had tasted that day. The process is to mix some things and make judgement calls. The barrel and the fruit really make the beer. Do these barrels work in the mix? Do those work? Then I settle on the final product. We have 120 barrels aging. Probably about 60 of them are blending barrels that we can blend into something else. We have some straight barrel lines that are stock piled for specific beers and then others that we check randomly to see what’s going on in them. Recently we got a call from our blueberry supplier, they said that they had an over stock of blueberry’s and offered a 55-gallon barrel for free if we paid shipping. I couldn’t pass that up. It’s nice to have some reserve barrels available to blend with when things like that come up. Several of the beers we have aging start with something intentional in mind, then when we taste it, we realize it needs something, so we blend something else in.”
“Some of our recipes have evolved over time. The oatmeal stout we have on tap now took us four years to get the recipe right. We used several different renditions of caramel malts and adjustments to the amount of oatmeal. When experimenting, or sometimes by accident, it sometimes happens that you make a stout and it turns out too light, so you call it a brown; if it turns out lighter yet, it’s a red, still lighter it’s an amber. It’s always fun when you use the wrong ingredients. It happened one time that I accidently put a sack of smoke malt in a blonde ale. It turned out pretty well. The style is called a Rauchbier; a smoked blonde. It tasted good; we weren’t going to do dump it out; it was a nice smoky blonde ale.”
The brewing scene in St. Louis is unique in that the many microbreweries in the city share a common benefit. “The water in St. Louis makes the beer scene unique. The water in St. Louis city is regulated by Anheuser Busch. They make sure the water is the best in the country for making beer – and it is. It might not be beneficial for your teeth, but Chlorine and Fluoride are anti microbials that will kill yeast so we don’t have a lot of that in St. Louis water. The water is not very hard- there is not much iron content, it does have a whole bunch of salts that are friendly toward yeast like calcium. There are several large breweries in town that take advantage of this. Urban Chestnut and Schlafly in particular, they have multiple locations just a couple miles apart as they want to be in city limits to take advantage of the water.”
Many people who come into Alpha, might not be familiar with the sour style of beer, or have had a previously bad experience with sour beers. I asked Derrick what he would recommend to a new customer to Alpha Brewing Company. “A buddy from another brewery in town called Modern was in here one day drinking beer with me. He said, “I love drinking all these beers, but they are all 8 or 9% ABV.” He pointed out that I should have at least 2 or 3 beers around 5% ABV on tap so people could drink more than 1 beer per visit. He was right, so I retooled a bit. In this business, you brew the beers you have to brew so you can brew the beers you want to brew. Less experienced customers, I’d introduce to our “Swindle” a lime blonde ale. It’s crushable, easy drinking, and our bestselling summertime beer. If a customer is the adventurous type, I’d introduce them to our fruited sour program. We keep turning our list of these over; we have 3 on tap right now. Blueberry Cuvee, our Rouge Beer – a raspberry sour, and our Gooseberry Brett. They are really good.”
While Derrick brews, manages. and directs the brewery operations, he has tried to distance himself from the tap room design and the kitchen. “My focus is on making good beer. I can brew lots of beer, but design work is not my forte. We outsourced the design of our tap room to an interior designer; she presented the plan and I thought it was great. I’m glad we did, I love the black and white aesthetic of it, it’s clean and modern. It’s different than your typical brewery or brew pub style.” When it comes to the kitchen, over the past year we had leased it out to a different party; unfortunately, it didn’t work out. Two weeks ago, we finalized the hiring of a new chef and the creation of a new menu. We have relaunched our kitchen and every week between now and the first of June we will be adding several items to the new menu. Additionally, starting June 1 we will open at noon every week for lunch.”
Soon Alpha will be hosting an event where you can try different sour beers from around the Mid-west. “Every year we do a sour beer fest called tart in the heartland. We invite breweries from Missouri and the 8 surrounding states that touch It. Last year was the inaugural year, we had 10 breweries. This year’s event will be on August 26th. We will be adding 10 additional breweries. It’s a great time. It’s really fun to see what creative things other people are doing to get your wheels spinning. The event consists of all sour beers, I love things like that; it’s the only event of its kind in the Midwest. I have a couple of collaboration brews that I hope to have on tap for the event. We collaborated with a brewery from Norman Oklahoma called 405. The base is a funky stout aged in bourbon barrels; we are aging 3 iterations of it. Six barrels are aging, two on vanilla beans, two on cocoa nibs, and two on coffee. Vanilla, cocoa, and coffee are all also fermented products, so it’s fun to add those into a funky stout.”
Alpha Brewing is located at 4310 Fyler Ave, St Louis, Mo
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