Region’s oldest brewery, Sudwerk Brewing Co., makes craft lagers for sipping, not chugging
Sudwerk Brewing Co.’s head brewer, Thomas Stull, wears a harness containing his 5-month-old son, Nathan, while industrial beer-making machines drone behind him and adults get responsibly day drunk outside. Specializing in lagers, Sudwerk is 29 years old, the oldest brewery in the region. They pour fresh pints out of their headquarters (2001 Second Street) in Davis, which has that comfortably industrial look, popular among local craft breweries and taprooms where bringing a baby won’t bat an eye.
“It’s really awesome that the craft movement has been able to take the bar to the family,” Stull said. “We’re not hiding away drinking. We’re not afraid to have a beer. We’re out in the open. We’re with our family, we’re with our friends. And it kind of changes the whole dynamic of our relationship with beer.”
Sudwerk’s trying to change local residents’ relationship with beer in another way: by focusing solely on lagers: crisp, clear and nuanced in their flavoring as opposed to a trend toward boozy, hazy and flavor-packed modern beers.
Lagers are some of the oldest beer styles around. There’s all sorts: dunkels, bocks, helles—and other varieties that don’t ring a bell for beer to most Americans. Though casual beer-drinkers have probably heard of pilsners, which Stull said have caught on a bit recently. Sudwerk’s “People’s Pilsner” is a tasty example of the style as it balances gentle citrus and sweet malt flavors in an easy-drinking, yet well-rounded beer.
But within this rich and varied tradition of lagers, Sudwerk has innovated. Its flagship, the California Dry Hop Lager, was fairly unprecedented when it came out about five years ago. On top of a bready German malt, they add hops during the fermenting process, thereby only extracting grapefruit-like aromas and flavors, as opposed to the bitter tastes that happen when hops are added during the boil.
The result smells like a pale ale, but bubbles with high carbonation and tastes crisp with a hop flavor that builds as you drink the beer—as opposed to walloping you on your first sip. To make it, Sudwerk reimagined an old lager recipe they had—a helles to be exact, a word which means “bright” in German, a fitting adjective.
Lagers are a style mostly dominated by macro breweries like Coors or Budweiser. And while lots of craft breweries will have at least one—such as New Helvetia Brewing Co.’s tasty Buffalo Craft Lager—none specialize in the style quite like Sudwerk, which dabbles in all sorts of different varieties while doing neat stuff like barrel-aging and adding probiotic yogurt to a kettle sour for a tangy accent.
But there’s a few reasons why breweries don’t go for the style. UC Davis Distinguished Professor and the “pope of foam” Charlie Bamforth explained it’s partly because breweries haven’t realized the time-consuming 100-year-old way of brewing the style has been compressed a bit by modern science. Brewers do need top-of-the-line equipment to make lagers as they require temperature control to ferment at about 45 degrees Fahrenheit. But the style also requires a higher level of precision than a bombastic IPA.
“If you make a mistake, you’ll spot it, where you might sort of cover it up [with a more flavorful beer],” Bamforth said. “To make a gently flavored beer is very, very hard.”
According to co-owner Ryan Fry, a Sudwerk brewer spends about “80 percent” of their time in fairly unglamorous fashion. Noting that they clean the brewery spotless roughly twice a day, he said brewers sometimes joke about being little more than “glorified janitors.” But if they don’t maintain this surgical level of cleanliness, yeast or bacteria or some other microbe will get into a batch and spoil it. And if that happens, technique, equipment and quality of ingredients don’t count for jack.
The first sip of a quality lager is jarring in a subtle way as most people know the style through the compromised, mass produced versions that aren’t exactly purchased for their taste. In comparison, Sudwerk tastes like fresh-baked bread after a lifetime of store-bought.
“I grew up in this brewery pretty much,” Stull said. “There’s a big love for [this style]. And it is a bit of a chip on our shoulder because we do have this identity. Our tanks don’t turn over as fast because we do it slower. We use a little more energy because we have more cold storage. But we love what we do and we take a lot of pride in the way we do it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”