Hurry up and Wait: Blackbird Does Craft Fast and Slow

In a small but impactful brewery like theirs, it's all about bandwidth.

By Danielle Sommer

Oct 31, 2023

Releasing multiple beers a week is exciting, rewarding (and awarding), but breakneck. Trialing new strains, even when they help enable vision, or perfect finish or process, can also mean more changes downstream. That’s why Ian and Harmony of Blackbird tend to wait for their moment; but they’re used to patience, too.

You’ve got to take risks and try new things all the time. I rarely take a risk where there’s not some sort of a mistake followed by a learning experience. When you change one thing, something else changes.

Brewer and co-owner Ian VanGundy sat down with us to talk about it.

At the previous breweries I worked at, production and growth was always the main goal in order to try to beat the others to the shelf space. That was kind of the game in 2010 to 2018 or so; you don’t have a whole lot of time to do things the super-authentic way, the old way.

My forte as a brewer was making subtle flavored beers that are as drinkable as possible. Even as I now own my own brewery and am taking a craft-centric approach — meaning sometimes a less efficient, or more time-consuming or more labor intensive process, just to move the quality needle up a little bit higher — when I make a beer that’s so robustly flavored that I have a hard time finishing the glass, it kind of bums me out somehow, even if everyone likes it.

So, at Blackbird, a couple of the breweries that I modeled our lager process after were Weihenstephan and Bierstadt, both of which are fermenting cooler longer. They’re not doing temperature rises for diacetyl rest. If you don’t do a diacetyl rest, it’s a slower process. I have the automation package for my brewery which gives me the ability to step down temperatures as slowly as I want. So, we’ll ferment at 46 – 48°F, which gives us a ten-to-twelve-day attenuation. Then we’ll transfer it over to a horizontal tank and drop the temperature by 0.06 degrees (Fahrenheit) per hour. It takes close to two weeks to get down to lagering temperatures.

With this cold and slow process there is a bit of a risk of diacetyl if you’re impatient. We stop at 40°F, and give it a few days, then do a forced VDK test. Typically after two to three days at 40°F it still fails a little bit. Nothing super butterscotchy, but a note of a silkiness and that almost English-ale-yeast kind of character. Usually by day six or seven at 40°F, it passes with flying colors. Then we slowly cool down all the way to 31°F, and let it rest there for anywhere from four to eight weeks, depending on the beer.

I generally try not to tamper with lagers. I do things Reinheitsgebot, meaning as traditionally as possible. But, I started experimenting with ALDC because I was using it in my IPAs. It did help on that third day at 40°F. I would do the forced VDK and it would pass. Then I’d start cooling a few days ahead of schedule. That was awesome. 

Then I saw these DKO strains come out. I was initially pretty timid about it. I emailed Omega Yeast at one point to ask, basically, if these yeast have a gene that stops them from producing VDKs, and they’re not having to re-consume them, does that have an impact on how yeast are metabolizing during a slow and cold process? I have used some dry lager yeast — and all sorts of other yeast strains, like the Mexican strain — that flocc out pretty early. You hit 40°F and you wonder if there’s more yeast metabolism going on. With dry 34/70, I’ll use it cold-IPA style — it works pretty well for fermenting warm, but when I’m trying to make my classic German lagers with it, it has flocced out, and the flavor just doesn’t get that crispy clean German character.

When I eventually tried the DKO strains, I let them ferment out and I noticed immediately that I could really smell the Saphir hops in my pilsner. It was definitely more pronounced.

Then, I tasted a Munich Dunkel that I had gotten over to the horizontal and it was, again, wow. It had just hit lagering and it smelled and tasted like opening a bag of Munich malt, grabbing a handful and crunching on it. The yeast side of things was extremely neutral. 

These beers are both very different now. Usually when I get at them cold and I taste them, they’re fine, but they don’t really become special until they’ve lagered for a long time. That’s where you get those cool, rustic, man, I feel like I’m in Europe drinking this beer” characteristics. I think that is what is fascinating: how clean and vibrant these beers already are. Tasting these beers as they’re fermenting and crashing down, there’s such little VDK production even compared to adding the liquid ALDC at whatever the enzyme supplier’s recommended dose is. They’re clean the whole time. I could almost just be done with them now and package them, and they would be delicious. 

Where it gets beyond my scientific knowledge is how much diacetyl or VDK-reduction is playing into this process. It made more of a difference than I expected in a really positive way. Now I’m curious if there is an opportunity with the DKO strains to cut some time and get down to lagering temperatures a little faster. I’m thinking I could potentially do some less traditional styles with more flavor. Ones that are not just focused on lager nuance. And I could potentially make a really beautiful lager without extensive conditioning, while continuing to lager the more traditional lager styles.

What initially gave you pause when thinking about trying those new strains? Was it wanting to do things the traditional way?

I’m not really a man of principles. I’m joking — but I’m not an everything-has-got-to-be-organic guy. I think genetic engineering is pretty fascinating. And I’m not afraid to doctor up a flavored beer with an extract. So, it wasn’t just that it was something new. It’s more that I’ve just learned that when you change one thing, something else changes. And anytime I take a risk, it sends me down a rabbit hole of having to understand more about what’s going on to troubleshoot. So, when I make a change, like I did trying the DKO strains, I have to take a moment and ask myself, is my current stress level and emotional stability ready to tamper with something that could cause me to have more to figure out? I rarely take a risk where there’s not some sort of a mistake, followed by a great learning experience.

We know it well! You really do have to prepare yourself to pursue whatever comes up.

Yeah, I weigh if my canning line is working well right now, or my labeler. If they’re not, I’m less likely to take a risk with a recipe. I just don’t have time. Maybe that’s a small brewery thing. I have just a few people to share the load with me.

That’s so true. Small breweries are the most experimental in the end, they can move more nimbly, but, also, as you’re saying, you really have to consider when you can take that on.

Absolutely. And that’s what I have to remind myself, too. I have done flagship breweries, multiple times. We really don’t do that here. We might rebrew beers that we love, but we release anywhere from one to four new beers a week, every week. To do that, you’ve got to take risks and try new things all the time.

I saw that you just won a medal at the 2023 North Carolina Brewers’ Cup for a Thiolized hazy. Thiolized yeast might be something that if you change one thing, there’s an entire cascade of changes. Did you have that experience?

Yeah, I did three beers with Helio Gazer, and then three with Cosmic Punch. I preferred Helio Gazer, I think. The one thing I noticed with thiolized is that it really plays well with New Zealand hops. Having done six batches of thiolized IPA, the ones where we really laid in on the Riwaka and Motueka were definitely the ones that melded better in terms of thiols. American C‑hop character still made a great beer but just not as great as the New Zealand versions.

We’d heard that if you over dry hop, you can kill the thiols and miss the point of a thiolized beer. I said, well, I’m not going to believe that until I try it. We did one with a five-pound per barrel dry hop. Sure enough, it was kind of true. It definitely took down the thiols. But maybe that’s the profile I want in that particular recipe. 

The one that won was our favorite. It had Riwaka, Motueka and maybe some Nelson in. It was white-wine, funky, guava, tropical; it was a great beer. It won second place in the hazy category for the whole state of North Carolina. There was a lot of participation in that competition.

That’s awesome. There’s so much expertise in the state.

We’re in The Triangle, in the center. Charlotte and Asheville are more known for making some of the best beer in the state, currently. It was one of our motivations, too, to contribute to more of what’s great from this area. We’re in this anomaly of a new residential area. It’s this giant suburb and the people that commute have to drive to Raleigh and the traffic is awful. It’s an underserved community in terms of breweries. There’s not a lot of places to go out and drink. That’s given us a lot of opportunities.

Have you found a niche? What do your customers like?

They definitely like Kölsch. I helped get the other brewery in town started back in 2012, and we had a World Beer Cup gold medal Kölsch that we mass-produced in this area. So there’s a huge Kölsch following. That’s a big one. If you have a brewery here, you’ve got to make a good Kölsch. I joke that it’s little Köln. People that have never been here walk in and just order one without looking at the menu. They just think, there must be a Kölsch. That is a unique thing about this area. Without a doubt, if you don’t have a couple of low ABV, golf beers, that would be a mistake. We ran out of our Kölsch Thursday. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing all day today is getting that next batch carbonated up.

It’s a slightly older demographic, too, which is cool. I’m 38 and I feel younger than most of my customers. I like that because when I do something that’s new and cool, it’s more likely to be the first time they’ve ever experienced it. It’s neat to be able to wow people with these new evolutions of beer. Also, in larger metropolitan areas that are more high pressure on trends, I’ve heard of breweries having to discontinue their West Coast IPAs because everyone wants hazies, or a brewery that wanted to be a Belgian brewery that ends up just making IPAs because no one wanted their Belgian beer. I feel grateful that our customers are not forcing us into any one corner with styles. In fact, even the big malty beers do extremely well here. I made a smoked Doppelbock and I thought there’d be like four people that would actually be excited about that beer. And it’s selling great. People love it.

Any tips for low ABV beers?

One of our focuses is to pack as much flavor in as possible, but not necessarily by dumping cocoa nibs into them. It’s more with process.

As far as yeast forward beers: at the US Open beer competition, we almost got in the top 10, we barely missed it. We got two golds and a silver, I think. The golds were both Belgians. Those used a Belgian strain from Omega Yeast. I think it was the Belgian Ale W, the Westmalle strain. We have a Hefeweizen, it’s one of our most popular beers, and we serve it in the big Weizen glass. We serve it on a Lukr faucet, a side pull, as we do with our other low ABV beers and pilsners and stuff. A lot of our beers feature wheat malt, like our Belgian Wit, our Hef; we’ve got a Wiezenbock, and the Belgian beers. It’s a really flavorful red wheat that’s grown about four miles from here. And it’s malted about 30 minutes from here. With this wheat, we’ll do a double or triple decoction mash brewing process. 

We’ve got a Czech pils. And I’m doing a Czech pale lager soon that’s less than 4%. That’s going to be triple decocted.

We’re doing a lot of these yeast-driven beers and getting a lot of flavor from the red wheat by going through three to five temperature steps with boiling between. It gives us lower attenuation on an already low gravity beer. You’re left with body and flavor from the wheat. And you’ve got this nuance from the mashing process. We give the yeast 9 – 11°P wort. The yeast just loves it. It’s cranking out beers that are just abnormally big and satisfying for 4.5%.

Ian’s career began with a home brewed Czech Pilsner at 18, before he went on to earn a diploma from the Siebel Institute’s World Brewing Academy. He has contributed to the growth and success of three major breweries and now embarks on a fourth, his own. At Blackbird, Ian brings old-world European influence to the vanguard of American craft. His career awards include medals from GABF, World Beer Cup, and the US Open Beer Championship, among others. Ian opened Blackbird brewery in 2022 with his partner in brewery and in life, Harmony VanGundy. They are in Wake Forest, NC.

Cover: Ian, Harmony and brewer Mikey Bourqaurdez pose for the release of Court Shoes Only,” a hazy IPA for a cause.

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