Smooth Edges, Nuance and the Second Glass

We recently caught up with Jonathan Moxey, head brewer at Rockwell Beer Co. to talk about his approach to beer, his penchant for nuance, and where it all shows up in his team’s diverse, thoughtful and unabating recipe development.

By Danielle Sommer

Dec 20, 2022

I was chatting with my colleague Bill, who you know really well, about one of your beers, Velour Tracksuit. He was telling me that you use a yeast blend in that beer. Do you talk openly about that or is that a craft secret?

Yeah, absolutely. We don’t really have any secrets. I’d say first that with a lot of our stuff, my approach is from a sort of culinary perspective, where I’m looking to coax different flavors and aromas out of all of the ingredients in a way where together they are greater than the sum of their parts. So that includes working with different yeast blends. 

With Velour Tracksuit, we were initially doing test batches before we opened in November of 2018, and most of our pale, hoppy beers used British V, a strain that a lot of people use for hazy or unfiltered IPA. We don’t really do New England style beers, but we used that. When we first opened we were getting a little bit of sluggishness with the first generation, and it just wasn’t attenuating quite as much as it had with test batches. And so, after talking with Lance, he suggested blending in the Double IPA strain.

We liked the ester profiles together so much more than either of the two yeast strains on their own

First and foremost, blending the strains fixed our attenuation issue, and there was no more sluggishness or stalled fermentations, but what we found was that we liked the ester profiles together so much more than either of the two yeast strains on their own. 

It was a great way to create some more unique flavors and aromas and also differentiate ourselves from every other pale ale, IPA, and double IPA out there that is just run on that British V strain. We ended up with a lot of peach ring, pineapple and other tropical fruit flavors, something we definitely didn’t get from just one of those strains individually.

How significant was the difference between using the one strain versus the blend of strains?

We actually just recently did a batch of the same beer with just the British V again and it was a totally different beer. We tried going back because one of the drawbacks with yeast blending is that one strain is eventually going to out-compete the other in subsequent generations. We’re not set up with a lab here, so I couldn’t tell you exactly what the drift is, but that’s going to happen. So we thought, let’s try and see how similar the beer is if we’re back to a single strain. We didn’t have attenuation issues with it on this round or anything, but ultimately, we decided that it just wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t a bad beer, but it just wasn’t the flavor and aroma profile we have gotten used to for Velour Tracksuit.

It’s so satisfying that you know exactly what that’s doing for the beer with an experiment like that. Is there any other experimentation where you’ve fine-tuned things one ingredient at a time?

We mess around a lot with our house saison Polymath. With that particularly, we’ve changed up what we pitch it in. All of our foeder beers are starting off in stainless for about a week generally for the ales, so we get past the messy high-krausen stage of fermentation before we move over to the foeder. We’ve been playing with yeast for that initial first fermentation. Maybe we’re just pitching a saison strain in there, like Belgian saison II. But we also have our house Brettanomyces strain that we banked with Omega. Typically we’re doing like an 80:20 blend of that saison and Brett. We’ve liked doing the stainless fermentation either with Saccharomyces, or just Sacch and Brett—or going ahead and adding in the house mixed culture with the Sacch and Brett, too. The goal is to see what sort of complexity we can achieve from the Brettanomyces depending on when we introduce it, as well as the level of acidity that we get when we add mixed cultures.

We want a bright, delicate, nuanced acidity in these kinds of beers, not something that’s going to scrape the enamel off of your teeth

What we land on for Polymath is never strictly codified because the mixed culture has got a number of different players in that blend, and, honestly, I know what we put in there, but I don’t know what it is exactly now, if that make sense, so we need to kind of taste the beer to see. 

Recently, we restarted our house culture because the level of acidity was getting much lower than what we were looking for. We want a bright, delicate, nuanced acidity in these kinds of beers, not something that’s going to scrape the enamel off of your teeth. We adjust hopping rates to get that, but because last time it was too low, we wanted to bump it up a little bit. After several successive batches of that beer, we stopped adding a lot of our mixed culture slurry, relying only on what was left behind in the oak.


All photos courtesy of @rockwellbeer / @rockwellbeercompany

Nice. I’ve had it over a few years and it’s always delicious. I didn’t realize it was such an organic thing.

Yeah, so with that type of beer we’re definitely looking for something that when you taste it, you know that it’s Polymaths style but we’re not trying to get the kind of consistency that we’re looking for, say, in Stand By or Passing Clouds, where we’re doing just one straight fermentation and looking for it to taste the same batch after batch. Polymath is more like you said, organic and evolving. We actually call it Polymath because it’s the type of beer that just gets a bunch of different things. Stainless fermentation or oak by itself, or we could do it in oak and pull it off and dry hop it; it’s just a good foundation for a bunch of different related brews.

For our fourth anniversary recently we did a Polymath beer called And So it Goes, a biere de coupage that we made with two different batches of Polymath. We took a mature batch that had been in the foeder for about two months and we blended it with a fresh batch that had just been in stainless. The older batch had the Belgian saison II and the house Brett, as well as our house culture and has been in the foeder. The fresh batch which was only in stainless for about a month prior to blending was an 80:20 blend of the Belgian saison II and the house Brett. We dry hopped it, I want to say at 1 or 1.5 lb per bbl with some of the hops that would normally be added in the kettle and whirlpool. We blended those together and keg and can conditioned them. What we got was some of the depth and complexity from that aged beer, but then also this brightness from the young beer, a little more phenolic from that young Brett. They can get a lot of citrus and fresh herbs from the dry hopping. 

It’s kind of a Polymath supreme. It’s fun to see the different evolutions or additions of Polymath on draft. People are responding really well to these delicately acidic, funky beers.

Your lineup is often not the typical set. Can you talk a little bit about how you choose the beers you’re brewing? What on your list are you serving for everyone, and what are you doing for yourselves?

The recipe development that we do here as a team, we’re usually starting off by looking backwards. Like, this is how we want to feel drinking this beer, or this is what we want the experience to be like. For something like a mixed ferm beer, we’re trying to come up with an experience or sensation to emulate, as opposed to, like with our wit, Passing Clouds, having a style in mind and wanting to follow certain characteristics of the style that we’re trying to nail. 

With all of our beers, there’s things that we don’t like about certain styles and so we’ll adjust for that. Like a lot of wit beers are too heavily spiced. You end up being clobbered with orange peel or coriander or whatever other spice you’re putting in there and that’s dominating. Really what we’re trying to do is take a more nuanced approach. With Passing Clouds, you taste and smell those things, but you can’t necessarily put your finger on what the individual elements are.

With beers like Polymath, Brett is thought of sometimes as inaccessible to a lot of people, but your crowd is so accepting of it that it seems to be sort of a triumph that they trust that they can jump around within whatever you’re putting out there and like it. What do you think it is?

The goal with all of our beers whether it’s something small and delicate or a big, strong boozy beer is that we want it to be something that somebody wants seconds of, not something they taste once and never really want to do again. So it’s been really important to us with the Brett beers to make that be something that is soft, and to lean more on like the fruitier side of things as opposed to the big, more medicinal, phenolic Brett notes that you can sometimes get. And especially with dry hopped beers, giving it a very smooth edge so you don’t really know where the yeast character ends and the hop character begins. Those beers do well on draft here. It’s still a challenge whenever you put the word foeder’ on a label. Not everybody knows what it means. But that’s a very integral part of what we do, too. It is our responsibility to educate people in a non-preachy way, to put them on to something new, something that we think is worth talking about and worth drinking. That’s definitely gotten better for us.

We want it to be something that somebody wants seconds of, not something they taste once and never really want to do again

Our number one seller though is still Passing Clouds, which has been almost from the get-go. When we started with it, that was the first recipe that I wrote for Rockwell, and I wrote it because we don’t have Allagash White in Missouri. There was no year-round wit beer available in the market, and I was like, I know how much of that people drink everywhere else. We need to have this. It’s worked out very well for us.

When you bring your artistry to a classic style like a wit, is it about bringing it forward into the current context, or something else?

Sure, with a lot of these styles, we are bringing something back in. For us, if it wasn’t the purpose of the project to be a historical recreation, we’re not going to do it the exact same way that they did originally. We’re also going to consider what we’ve learned since then, doing styles with techniques to modernize it in a way that ultimately is delicious. It doesn’t matter at the end of the day if it’s faithful to the original. What we’re trying to do is make the best-tasting beer possible.

You mentioned you don’t really do New England style beer. A lot of brewers feel pressure to get something on their menu by what’s on trend. To not have an NEIPA right now can be kind of a declaration. Is it conspicuously absent or just happens to not be there?

That’s actually something I’ve been really preoccupied with. I just talked about it on the Drink Beer, Think Beer podcast with John Holl, about making draft lists less monochromatic. 

There are so many different styles of beer. Right now the big trendy things are NEIPAs, pastry stouts, and fruited sours, and that’s great. More power to you. But as a small brewery that sells most of our beer out of our two locations, we’ve got an opportunity to explore all of these other things that beer has been and can be, like not trying to make the exact same beer that every other brewery in the country is making. 

I know we’re not alone in that. There are a lot of small breweries out there doing unique stuff. Unlike a large regional brewery or a national brewery that has to have the same thing in all of their markets, where it makes more sense for them to do something that’s dialed in and a sure-shot, we’re not beholden to that, so we’ve got more room to explore.

Moxey Llama

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Moxey

I really love what you said about smooth edges, flavor and aroma, and nuance in your work, and how that it’s something that makes people come back for a second beer. I’d love your take on Thiolized®️ yeast. Do you use any of the Thiolized strains, and can you achieve the kind of nuance that’s your signature with them?

We did a beer recently called A Friend of Science. It was a really straightforward golden ale. We mash hopped at like 2 lb per bbl with Michigan-grown Cascade and Zuper Saazer hops from Hop Head Farms (those hops figure prominently in a lot of our beers) and we used various methods aimed at really trying to unlock more of those bound thiols. We used a very, very simple grist, mostly just American pale malt acidulated for pH. We knew from that, and just adding those two hops, exactly where the flavors and aromas are coming from. And what we ended up with was something that was very different from what we’d normally expect out of those hops had they been fermented with a different yeast strain. We got these flavors that we weren’t able to achieve any other way. There was all this overripe passion fruit and guava coming out of what we normally expect to be like this herbal and grapefruit profile. It was really lush. So, that was really cool.

A lot of people are trying to push it over the edge with the mentality that if a little bit is good, then a lot is better

I think in some ways what Thiolized strains are going through is similar to when kveik strains came to professional brewing and homebrewing; a lot of people were trying to push it over the edge with the mentality that if a little bit is good, then a lot is better. Dry hopping and tossing in Phantasm and everything like that for thiols, in our experience, you can end up with something that tastes a little muddy because you put so much stuff in there. Essentially you’ve trampled over what could have been something delicate and distinct, and it can all end up tasting the same. 

With kveik it was more like: let’s ramp it up, ferment it as hot as we can, and you end up with a bunch of very similar tasting beer, instead of taking a more restrained approach to it.

So now I’m thinking about that particular set of flavors and aromas and what I can plug that into next

I think about introducing those thiol flavors and aromas] to pale ales or ambers. It’s one of those things where it’s going to be great for certain beers, but it’s not going to be in all of our beers because then you end up with just a different type of monochromatic draft list.

When I was walking around the trade show floor at CBC, there were a lot of people who were trying these things out, too. And just like with any other innovation that comes out, and ingredients that come out, our first instinct is often to just push it as far as it can go, but it’s the same thing as eating a bunch of sour candy or chili peppers, or something like that, you can get palate fatigue.

You mention kveik. Kveik has fallen out of the central limelight since its meteoric rise, but it’s still there just sort of silently working away for a lot of brewers. Do you still see kveik as an important part of what you do in terms of flavor profiles and fermentation performance?

Definitely. They definitely have a place in our toolbox. We still use them a lot for our Berliner and Goses. Using the Lutra strain has allowed us to do a really clean fermentation, and what we’re able to do is send uninoculated wort into the fermentor and let it acidify with the Lacto blend overnight, like you would with a kettle sour, but at the end, you’re not having to send it back and boil it. So it’s live Lacto in the beer throughout. 

Because the Lacto blend really thrives in that same high 80s to mid-90s temperature range that the kveik likes, we can oxygenate and pitch right there. By not sending it back to the kettle, we’re saving energy and a day in the brewhouse. We’re also not getting the kind of cooked taste that you can get whenever you reboil and kill the Lacto in your wort. We’re just pitching that Lutra and letting it go. It ends up with a very beautiful profile that is really more of a showcase for the Lacto blend at that point. Then we can add whatever we want to compliment that, whether that’s fruit — or flowers, which we’ve done.

We also just serve it as a straight Berliner Weisse. That’s where Lutras neutral fermentation profile really comes through. Without anything there to mask imperfections, it’s like pilsner in the sense that you can tell exactly what has been done because there’s nothing to hide behind. With our Goses, we use Voss because you get another layer of citrus complexity there from the esters that the Voss strain gives off.

Favoring huge and bold rather than nuance has been a big part of what made craft beer stand apart. Do you think space for nuance represents maturity? 

When I first started — I was a craft beer drinker, then a homebrewer — my initial go-to was that I wanted the furthest thing from American light lager; give me the biggest, the darkest, the highest ABV. We went for bitterness, we went for ABV, acidity, and stuff like that. And all these things come back and you know, it’s this very American inclination to push it as hard as we can. But eventually, I wanted to drink something subtle, that is well made and unique.

For our type of brewery, our goal is to be in people’s regular rotation, not just one beer that they had then it’s on to the next thing. So we’re continuing to innovate and create new beers. We have different beers coming out every month, but at the same time, we have our core that we want people to come back to, and even the beers that we’re bringing in with special occasions, we want people to want to drink more than one.

Do you find it difficult to continue to come up with new beers every month?

No. Honestly, that’s just the way my mind works. Also, I’ve been very fortunate that we have a very talented team. We all have shared perspectives, plus individuals have their own style that they’re bringing to the table. 

Like our brewer, Kyle; two of his recipes were some of the best beers we put out in the last year, and it’s really awesome to see him develop and grow professionally and then be able to add his own unique perspective to our collective voice as a brewery. One of those was last year’s anniversary beer, our Italian-style pilsner Salute!. It’s very vibrant. He came up with something that I wouldn’t have thought of. The hop character in there is very bright and strong. There are herbal, citrus, with floral notes in there.

Featured photo courtesy of Lauren DuBro. All other photos, unless credited otherwise, are courtesy of @rockwellbeer / @rockwellbeercompany

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