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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Beer with a Brewmaster: Dr. Laura Burns of Tennessee Brew Works

By Matt Kelsey


When approaching beer from an analytical perspective, Dr. Laura Burns has it down to a science.

As the Head Brewer of Tennessee Brew Works, Dr. Laura Burns has an accomplished background.  With a bachelor’s degree in Biology and a doctorate in Cell and Developmental Biology, she understands what it takes to create craft beer from the molecular level. She has enjoyed the opportunity to work at the brewery, bringing with her recipes of Kombucha and giving some of the beers on tap a slight spin. In my interview with her, we discuss the latest developments at the brewery, the barrel-aging program at Tennessee Brew Works, her appearance on an upcoming episode of Brew Dogs (viewing party on May 27th at the brewery) and her participation in the Nashville chapter of the Pink Boots Society.

Are you originally from Tennessee?
No. I’m originally from upstate New York. So, my background is drinking a lot of Northeastern beers. When I turned the drinking age, I was loving Saranac, Ommegang and Southern Tier was starting up. I spent a couple of summers in Maine doing research and I loved Allagash, Unibroue, Long Trail and Otter Creek. Those beers were in that market and I got to drink them early on. When I was growing up, I really did have a good exposure to some awesome craft beer before I came to Nashville. When I came to Nashville in 2007, I was drinking a ton of Yazoo, Blackstone, and Boscos, still keeping it craft and local. Finding good alternatives in the local scene is kind of where I like to go with it. I don’t necessarily want to drink a beer because everybody else says it’s awesome. I want to drink something local.

Please tell me how you got into the beer industry.
Actually, I started out pretty nontraditionally, but I don’t know what the traditional way is for anyone starting out, any more. I did a PhD at Vanderbilt. I worked in the yeast lab and I studied cellular stress responses, so anything the yeasts are exposed to in the environment during the brewing process: Any temperature changes, any stresses like alcohol, salt or pressure. I studied how yeasts respond to those stresses and change their metabolism and how they express their genetic material they have to adapt.

How did that lead you to becoming a brewer?
I’ve always been really interested in the molecular details of things, but the way to apply my Ph.D. was kind of new to me. Basically, I was very interested in continuing the research direction, keeping my skill set and applying it to some sort of big project. Really, I was hip to the opportunity to consult and advise Tennessee Brew Works on their yeast program. During that experience, I realized that my training and my academic background actually benefited me a lot on the brewing side. I brewed a lot at home, but I didn’t see the commercial aspects of it until I started here. So, coming in and realizing there were a ton of ways to apply that science got me really interested. There’s a lot of creative aspects. I was brought up in a family of artists and cooks. For me to apply it to something very creative, too, is super fun.

How did you get your start as a homebrewer?
Originally, I started homebrewing six or so years ago. It was actually when my husband and I first met. Every weekend that we would spend together, we would find something new and fun to do. We both like to drink beer, but being able to make beer was really fun for us. We shared that hobby for a while. When we got married, we brewed all the beer for our wedding. The beer was a very special thing for us to bring to the wedding. We loved being able to serve that to all of our family and friends.

Beyond that, I always like to experiment at home with anything fermented. One of the new products that I brought on at Tennessee Brew Works is the Kombucha. Before I started here, I was brewing Kombucha for five years. It was a passion and something that I like a lot, because it brings a lot of nutritional benefits. You’re not just drinking a sugar-packed soda, you’re drinking something that stimulates digestion and also has a lot of probiotics. It is a low-cal, very flavorful alternative. I change the recipes every season for a new Kombucha.

We love pairing all of our foods with our beer, now. We have an amazing chef, Jay Mitchell, who’s doing a fantastic job. We also work to pair the Kombucha with beer. One of our favorite things right now is to pair a Strawberry-Lime Kombucha with Walk the Lime. It’s kind of like bringing the Kombucha seasonal and the beer seasonal together, so that we have a very nice beer-bucha to offer. It’s kind of a super-fun version of a shandy. We love that.

How would you describe kombucha?
Kombucha is fermented sweet tea. It’s very tart, because of the production of vinegar and it has a nice effervescence like a sparkling drink.

What flavors of kombucha have you created?
We do Cranberry Spice, for the winter, Strawberry Lime for the spring, either Pineapple Ginger or Pineapple Mango for the summer and we have two seasonals we’re still working on for the Fall. I might blend the two of them together.

Did you ever incorporate any bizarre ingredients into your homebrewed beers?
I don’t know how bizarre they got, but we definitely used maple sugar for some of them. We used roasted pecans, that was really fun. We had a very nice Nut Brown that was based off hazelnut nectar. I think Tennessee Brew Works probably goes a little further on the adventure side than I did while homebrewing. Thai basil and sweet potatoes are probably things I wasn’t getting into at home, but they’re super fun here.

Please tell me about Tennessee Brew Works' flagship beers.
We kind of carry five beers as our flagships. That’s the Southern Wit, Extra Easy, Cutaway IPA, Basil Ryeman and Country Roots. We’re usually carrying all of those year round and promoting them equally. Anyone who comes to the brewery will get a flight of those five beers. Not all of them sell equally, but we promote them as our flagships.

What’s seasonals do you brew?
Our current seasonal is Walk the Lime. We carry that from late February to early May. We’re going to do two summer seasonals. Our summer seasonal, act one, is a very fun fusion. We’re calling it the Nashweizen IPA because it’s a wheat beer using Hefeweizen yeast, but a very hoppy IPA, using some very nice tropical hops to compliment the yeast profile and bring it together to make a really juicy, tropical fruit-forward IPA. That’s actually my first creation at Tennessee Brew Works. The rest of the beers we have are all the original recipes we started with.

Since I came on, I have put my knowledge into cleaning up our system and also maintaining our yeast strains very well, so they give the right esters and the right flavors to each beer style, making them taste amazing. Some of them I’ve been able to put my own little spin on. I get to redo the Farmer’s Beat a little bit for the next summer seasonal. We had a Beet Saison that we did last year for our major summer seasonal. We’re going to release that as our late-harvest summer saison. It’s still under development. I’ve done, like, five pilots of the Nashweizen, so I’m pretty comfortable saying what it’s going to turn out like, but the Farmer’s Beat is just going to have a little bit of a twist on the original recipe.

Do you have an approximate date when it’ll be released?
The Nashweizen will be available before the block party and that’ll go for six weeks. Then we’ll transition into the Farmer’s Beat.

For the rest of the seasonals, we’re definitely keeping the Natchez in the Fall. We love Walk the Lime. Just on hop availability, I made a couple of little changes to that seasonal, but it’s very similar to the original concept. And then we’re going to make a whole new Winter seasonal this year. That’ll be fun.

What kind of beer trends have you noticed lately?
IPAs are beyond a trend. People are interested in the hops. We feature a lot of American hops in our beers, but our beers are not overwhelmingly hoppy. We do not have a West Coast IPA, per say, but our balance in the Extra Easy is coming from the citrusy American hops. Some of the hops that we use in the Cutaway are experimental, some of them are a little bit different. They’ll give a garlic or an onion flavor. We’re rounding out the recipe of the Rye with the citrus to give it a little bit of a contrast, but we’re not going for an overwhelmingly citrus bomb. We’re going to experiment with the first recipe of the Nashweizen IPA. It’s something that I really enjoy and it’s kind of selfish because I’m going to be drinking a lot of it, but it’s going to have a super nice wheat mouth-feel. The backbone is going to be very creamy and smooth. Along with that, it’ll have the taste of banana that the Hefeweizen yeast throws in and a little bit of spiciness, a little bit of the clove, as well, to balance those tropical hops. That’ll be a nice IPA, but hopefully it’ll be something more than just the IPA drinkers will try.

Can you tell me a little about your barrel-aging program?
We’ve started up a really nice partnership and relationship with Prichard’s Distillery. It’s a famous Tennessee Distillery. Everybody around here knows about it. We pride ourselves in our relationship with them, especially the really awesome barrels that they have available. We’ve used a barrel from their Double Chocolate Bourbon several times for different beers. We’ve put our Southern Wit in that barrel and we pull a lot of really interesting characters from the Oak. It’ll offer a little bit of vanilla, but on a wheat beer, it comes across as coconut or tropical. And then if you throw the Country Roots in there, the balance will more or less be that whiskey flavor coming through, along with that vanilla Oak smooth character that balances out the coffee and chocolate.

We love the barrels we’re getting from Prichard’s. The rum barrels are actually what we age Walk the Lime in. We had four barrels they offered us: Two of them were from a private stock reserve which they aged their rum for 15 years. Those came really fresh, right after they packaged their rum. You get the rum and the coconut flavors… that’s funny because ‘The lime and the coconut’ was my original inspiration. We aged our Walk the Lime for about two months and because the barrel was still wet, we got a ton of flavor out of it real fast and then we used a little zesting of lime to bring back the brightness to it. We kegged from it with the krausen that we had from a freshly fermenting batch. That’s something cool we developed in the brewery. We use natural carbonation for all of our normal beers. As the beers are fermenting, the yeasts are releasing alcohol and CO2 as they metabolize the sugar. We use that natural CO2 that is produced to carbonate the beer. The same concept goes for our barrel-aged beer: We’re using actively fermenting wort that has enough sugar in it to reduce the carbonation needed. In the barrel, we have carbonation within two to three weeks.

As a homebrewer, when I was carbonating my beer, I knew there was a quick and easy way to do it and then letting the beer naturally carbonate a couple of weeks really rounded out the flavor and produced a balance that I appreciated. So, when I came here, I certainly saw the value in what we were doing. We also don’t filter or pasteurize any of our beer.

Will your barrel-aging program be seasonal or year-round?
As long as we can continue receiving these really nice barrels by Prichard’s, we’ll be barrel-aging our Country Roots, Extra Easy and Southern Wit. Out of our flagships, those do the best in the barrels. We’re really happy with how they turn out.

Have you barrel-aged all of your beers?
Yes, we have. Actually, we didn’t barrel-age the Cutaway because we felt that it would take away from the flavor. We didn’t want to prolong any of the aging. If you drink an IPA, the best time to drink it is as soon as it’s released. I like to get the refreshing, crisp hops that come through in the first month and a half. If you’re going to age it for two months, all of that character would be gone. Unless we develop a dry-hopping procedure for the barrels, we probably won’t do that.

What’s the latest development for the brewery?
One thing that’s amazing that’s happened in the last two months is the kitchen. That was a huge thing for our tap room. We have a full set-up: A beautiful commercial kitchen for our chef, Jay Mitchell. At our first beer dinner, we paired each of our beers with different dishes that he created to either increase intensity, contrast pairing or similarity-based pairing. He featured them very well. It’s really awesome for us to have that offering.

Not too far in the future, we’re looking into packaging options. We’re in the process of talking with vendors, getting quotes and making sure we’re keeping consistent with practices that we want to have in the brewery, as far as how our beer is processed before packaging. We’re developing what layout our packaging line will have in the extra space we have in the back. I think we have somewhere around 11,000 square feet of space left. We’ve occupied about half the space that we’re in right now, including the tap room. We have another area in the back which we can add on fermentors and bring on a packaging line. Probably by 2016, we’ll be up and going with that.

Are you thinking about bottles or cans or both?
Thinking about our branding, our logo and tap handles, we’ve always kind of been bottle-centric. Cans are kind of new and they’re awesome. They’re environmentally friendly, economical, they keep out oxygen and you can keep a quality product in a can, but I think we’re just nostalgic and interested in bottling, to start. Hopefully with the growth and how everything goes, maybe we’ll be able to do both, someday.

Are you aiming to bottle all five beers?
All five, eventually, but we’ll bring fermentors in to really support two of them, to start. Our bestsellers by quite a bit are the Southern Wit and Cutaway IPA. To start, we’ll perfect the process with those two beers and really making sure we’re comfortable with the new brew schedule, getting them out on the shelves and keeping them in stock. It’s kind of hard, once you hit the market to make sure you’re not overstretched and keep consistent product out there.

What do you attribute to Nashville’s booming craft-beer scene?
It probably has to do with the growth of the city and the young population that we have. When people come from all different areas, they bring their interests with them. People from the craft-beer Meccas of the Northwest or Northeast are in Nashville, too, and really appreciate local beer. So, we have to accommodate that. We have to also introduce everybody who had their domestic beers that they’ve stuck to for 20 years to something new. Maybe they haven’t been exposed to it. I feel like we’re just breaking through what was a little bit of a drought. It’s probably more or less relating back to the laws. I think we’re just accommodating a new market of people who are interested, so we might as well brew a quality craft beer for them.

Will Tennessee Brew Works have any sour beers the near future?
I like sour beers and they can be done very well. Our production, as is right now, really is focused on clean beer because of our time constraints and also it’s smart to have a separate facility for souring. That’s not to say we don’t use wild yeasts. We have wild yeasts in our barrels in the back, which we use to bring in more of a funk flavor to our flagships. We have released Wild Roots and Sour Wit. Those are two of our wild-aged flagships. We haven’t added any additional cultures. We’re just going for the natural microbial population that’s within the barrels. There’s a nice relationship between the wild yeast and the wood in the barrel. They will not be present in the first round of the aging of the barrel. But after that first round, when all the spirits have pulled out of the wood, the second round starts to cultivate the culture. You can get a funky, sour, tart flavor because wild yeasts will produce a little bit of lactic acid. You don’t have to add bacteria to get the lactic acid. We can pull a little bit of the sour note into it, but mostly we’re getting the wild funky yeast character coming out.

I would definitely be interested in doing some sours someday and with the Kombucha, we already have a nice, weird culture of stuff going. We keep it clean enough where we can use four yeast strains and we don’t have cross contamination in our fermentors. We’re not so worried about a massive overrunning of some sort of souring bacteria. It’s definitely scary to a brewer, thinking about bringing any of those organisms in.

Please tell me a little about the Pink Boots Society.
It’s an international organization to promote women, beer and education. Originally, the founder, who was a brewer for a long time, was leaving the brewery and took a spontaneous road trip around the country. Out of the trip, she started meeting a lot of brewers. But every brewer she met would tell her about another female brewer in the industry. Eventually, by just asking for a female brewer in a state, she could locate that person. It was pretty surprising and awesome that she was discovering all of these women who were never connected. It started as an organization just out of necessity to bring women together who were in the industry. Then they started working together into a bigger purpose to really unite all the women brewers and any woman in the industry who is making part of their income based on the sales or production of beer.

We have a local chapter that started up in November. Zoe Glassman really pioneered the local chapter. She works for A Head for Profits. Since then, we have pulled probably 30 members. We meet monthly every first Monday and we like to go to each other’s establishments. We really support each other, but also, some of us just don’t get out enough. We need to be able to go around and see what everybody else is doing, have a good time and get to meet them. We’ve just started up, but I feel like we’re one of the strongest chapters, nationally, already.

To our knowledge, we’re the first group to brew our own beer. Every year, there’s a national brew day for women and we all brew a beer called Unite. We have a common theme for the beer and we brewed over at Jackalope. Sally Cooper and Bailey Spaulding, Karen Lassiter and I all got together with Danielle Daniel and Nina Ritchie stopped by and joined in on the fun. We finished it just before the East Nashville Beer Fest and debuted it there. We had our own tent set up and everything. We got to really bring awareness. Half of the proceeds of our sales will go to Pink Boots Society and that will lead to scholarships for women in brewing. The other half will go to Stephanie’s Fight, which is a local nonprofit that raises money for lung-cancer research. It was in honor of Stephanie Weins, one of the original owners of Blackstone, who passed away of lung cancer. If you’ve had a chance to try Blackstone’s Stephanie’s Dubbel, half of the proceeds of that beer went to this organization, as well. That beer was really fantastic.

How would you describe Unite?
Well, it’s a red ale. Originally, we were told everybody would be making a red ale with Willamette hops. Obviously, they say you can put whatever spin you want on it. We came together and developed the concept of the beer and we wanted to do something with a great hop aroma, so we were initially looking for some mosaic hops. But the availability for spot buying of Mosaic hops, right now, is really limited. I think Bailey asked Linus if he had any in house that he’d be willing to sell or part with and Linus donated his supply to us.

Do you know what the percentage of brewers are female in the country?
Our national numbers are no more than 10 percent, for sure. But that’s kind of different for the Nashville scene. We have quite a few women brewers and really passionate girls who are interested in beer. Being that we’re a very new scene, we’re not taking on many of the old stereotypes. We’re offering a little more opportunity and less bias in bringing more girls in.

What does 2015 bring for Tennessee Brew Works?
The packaging line, that’ll be the big thing. We’re excited about a couple of events coming up within the next month or two. We opened our patio and honestly, our patio is one of the best places for me to drink beer in Nashville. I love being out there. It’s beautiful.

We’re doing a viewing party for the Brew Dogs episode that was filmed in Nashville on May 27th. Esquire is sponsoring the Brew Dogs viewing event by providing the episode in advance of the airing event and we’re going to invite other breweries to put their taps on and feature Nashville beer, just like in the episode. We’ll be donating proceeds to the Tennessee Brewers Guild. That money can support some of the events that we do, but also help support the brewing scene. We’re super excited to work with other brewers and bring awareness to the guild. Together, we’re a part of the craft-beer scene. We really want to support each other and the industry in Tennessee.

After that, we’re having a block party on June 6th. Last year, our vision was to block off the street, have a kick-ass party and have the best kind of summer beer, ever. We had 2,500 people show up. So, we’re ready and rearing to go again. We might have been new and had the 2,500 people, but we’re ready to welcome another crowd. We’re going to have amazing music, Lightning 100 is working together with us on it. We’re going to have hourly releases of small-batch Kombucha and beer for three or four hours. We’ll have entertainment and a doggie tent to cool the pets off.

We’re hoping to enter some of our beers into GABF. We’re excited about that. You enter in August, they’re judged and then at the end of September is when the whole festival takes place. We’re excited about that.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The opportunity to work at Tennessee Brew Works has been beyond amazing. I’m completely supported by Christian Spears every day. He’s an awesome partner and boss to have in this new industry.


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