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The science of wild ales

Toolbox brewer Ehren Schmidt crafts beer in a lab

The modern craft brewer's tools
The modern craft brewer's tools

Vista barrel-aged and wild ale specialist Toolbox Brewing Company has enjoyed a year of recognition and growth since bringing on head brewer Ehren Schmidt last summer. The four barrel brewhouse expanded into an adjacent industrial park suite around that time, and has eyes on adding a third as its barrel count nears 200, consuming most of the added space.

Thanks to the extra cooperage, distribution of Toolbox beer — which was limited even within San Diego in 2015 — went state wide this spring. While most of the two year old brewery's bottle releases have been variants of quicker-turnaround German tart beers — goses and berlinner weisses — 2016 seen an uptick in the beer company's barrel aged products.

Toolbox head brewer Ehren Schmidt plays mad scientist crafting the brewery's wild and barrel aged ales.

That includes the January release of Bramble On Rose, Schmidt's wild ale aged with locally grown blackberries that won a gold medal in this year's San Diego International Beer Competition, and bronze in the prestigious World Beer Cup.

Toolbox also began producing a line of tart saisons called Chêne Rustique last fall, each batch developing over months in small foeder inhabited by the beer's unique blend of microflora. "All those microbes that I added to make this foeder will always stay in there," Schmidt says, "and will always be what's coming out of it."

Schmidt considers developing that right mix of yeast and bacteria a key focus in producing wild ales. "I don't make beer," he says, "the brewers don't make beer. We just make the wort. All the stuff we grow in the lab and add to it — the yeast and bacteria — they're the ones that do all the real work. It's the nice mix of art and science that really got me interested."

Between microbiology skills he picked up as a undergrad and lab experience working at previous brewing jobs, Schmidt applies his science in a tiny office in the front of the Toolbox tasting room. "Something I do here that's unusual for breweries like this," he explains, "is I keep all of our microbes deconstructed, and I grow them up individually in the lab. The bacteria and the wild yeast — even the saccharomyces. I blend those yeast and bacteria to fit the style of beer we're brewing that particular day."

Thus far his yeast library is up to more than two dozen strains of Brettanomyces, which he mixes in different proportions to produce relatively unpredictable flavors from batch to batch. "It's the same base beer, but I might have given half the barrels a whole different cocktail. What happens is down the road I have a lot of really different and interesting things to blend in, and the possibilities are endless."

Some strains he may have cultivated from a favorite bottle of lambic, some he's acquired from other labs. Going forward, Schmidt says he's hoping to include more distinctly local strains. "I'm working on trying to find our own microbes here in San Diego that are favorable for brewing," he says. Since yeast exists everywhere in nature, he's isolating strains from fruit, vegetables — and even plucking them from air itself.

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The modern craft brewer's tools
The modern craft brewer's tools

Vista barrel-aged and wild ale specialist Toolbox Brewing Company has enjoyed a year of recognition and growth since bringing on head brewer Ehren Schmidt last summer. The four barrel brewhouse expanded into an adjacent industrial park suite around that time, and has eyes on adding a third as its barrel count nears 200, consuming most of the added space.

Thanks to the extra cooperage, distribution of Toolbox beer — which was limited even within San Diego in 2015 — went state wide this spring. While most of the two year old brewery's bottle releases have been variants of quicker-turnaround German tart beers — goses and berlinner weisses — 2016 seen an uptick in the beer company's barrel aged products.

Toolbox head brewer Ehren Schmidt plays mad scientist crafting the brewery's wild and barrel aged ales.

That includes the January release of Bramble On Rose, Schmidt's wild ale aged with locally grown blackberries that won a gold medal in this year's San Diego International Beer Competition, and bronze in the prestigious World Beer Cup.

Toolbox also began producing a line of tart saisons called Chêne Rustique last fall, each batch developing over months in small foeder inhabited by the beer's unique blend of microflora. "All those microbes that I added to make this foeder will always stay in there," Schmidt says, "and will always be what's coming out of it."

Schmidt considers developing that right mix of yeast and bacteria a key focus in producing wild ales. "I don't make beer," he says, "the brewers don't make beer. We just make the wort. All the stuff we grow in the lab and add to it — the yeast and bacteria — they're the ones that do all the real work. It's the nice mix of art and science that really got me interested."

Between microbiology skills he picked up as a undergrad and lab experience working at previous brewing jobs, Schmidt applies his science in a tiny office in the front of the Toolbox tasting room. "Something I do here that's unusual for breweries like this," he explains, "is I keep all of our microbes deconstructed, and I grow them up individually in the lab. The bacteria and the wild yeast — even the saccharomyces. I blend those yeast and bacteria to fit the style of beer we're brewing that particular day."

Thus far his yeast library is up to more than two dozen strains of Brettanomyces, which he mixes in different proportions to produce relatively unpredictable flavors from batch to batch. "It's the same base beer, but I might have given half the barrels a whole different cocktail. What happens is down the road I have a lot of really different and interesting things to blend in, and the possibilities are endless."

Some strains he may have cultivated from a favorite bottle of lambic, some he's acquired from other labs. Going forward, Schmidt says he's hoping to include more distinctly local strains. "I'm working on trying to find our own microbes here in San Diego that are favorable for brewing," he says. Since yeast exists everywhere in nature, he's isolating strains from fruit, vegetables — and even plucking them from air itself.

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