Breakout Brewer: Black Tooth Brewing | Craft Beer & Brewing

Breakout Brewer: Black Tooth Brewing

Chef-turned-brewer Travis Zeilstra has turned his culinary background and understanding of flavor into a succession of medal-winning beers, putting his small-town Wyoming brewery on the map.

Emily Hutto 4 years ago

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Travis Zeilstra at Black Tooth Brewing in Sheridan, Wyoming, is a formally trained chef who believes that beer is food. He uses that culinary background not to explore the limits of brewing, but to brew award-winning expressions of styles that appeal to his somewhat conservative local market.

Zeilstra attended the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon, and then hopped back and forth from his hometown in Montana and Oregon, working as a chef and brewer at Enzo restaurant in Billings, Montana, Montana Brewing Company, and Pelican Pub & Brewery in Pacific City, Oregon. Once he finally accepted his workaholic tendencies, he decided to put those hours into a company he owned himself. He finally settled in Sheridan, Wyoming, where he opened Black Tooth Brewing Company with his business partner Tim Barnes in 2010.

Their initial intent was to locate the brewery in Montana, but the red tape and political climate toward brewing was too intense, so the partners headed to Wyoming where opening the brewery would take six weeks instead of nine months. “I looked for a location that was close to Billings and Miles City, Montana, that needed a brewer,” he says, and he settled on Sheridan, where the water is good and the locals (and local taverns) would be receptive to craft beer. He named the company after the Black Tooth Peak in the nearby Bighorn Mountains and branded his beers in reference to Sheridan landmarks (such as the notorious Bomber Mountain) and Wyoming symbols such as the state flower, Indian Paintbrush.

Unlike other chef-brewers in metropolitan and culinary centers, Zeilstra has customers who are more interested in well-brewed classics than cutting-edge combinations, but he’s taken the challenge in typical chef style, focusing on perfecting his recipes and highest quality, consistent execution. “We’re in a conservative market so most of our beers are conservative styles of beer,” he explains. Black Tooth brews the Wagon Box American Wheat, the Bomber Mountain Amber Ale (an Irish Red or Scottish Export-style ale), the malty Saddle Bronc English-style brown ale, and the subtly hopped Indian Paintbrush Ale IPA.

While the Black Tooth offerings might be conventional, they’re also some of the best-done classics in the country. Since opening, Black Tooth Brewing Company has taken home medals from the Great American Beer Festival every year, as well as two gold World Beer Cup medals in 2012 and 2014.

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“Wyoming was, and still is, a virgin market when it comes to craft beer,” explains Zeilstra. “In this market I just can’t do a sweet-potato beer or a peanut-butter beer,” he says, “so I push the envelope with spice profiles.”

In addition to Black Tooth’s flagship beers, Black Tooth has a Belgian-style beer on tap at all times. In it Zeilstra has used a variety of spices in rotating batches. The Shanghai Moon Saison is brewed with pink and Sichuan peppercorns as well as ginger, for example, and Zeilstra has also experimented with black pepper, white pepper, coriander, and the most recent ingredient, yuzu juice.

“One of the things I’m working on right now is brewing with yuzu, the Japanese citrus fruit. It’s a really dry, tart fruit,” he says. “I use it to add a little nuance. I tried it in a saison and in a wheat beer, and a little goes a long way. It’s very floral and has similar botanicals to a sweet gin.”

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To brew a good beer requires “pure yeast, good water, quality ingredients, and patience,” says Zeilstra. But he’s proof that brewing a “culinary” beer doesn’t necessarily require exotic ingredients in the mash tun or styles of beer that can’t be pronounced on the beer list—it’s the creation of approachable, balanced flavor that can pair well with any number of foods.

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Black Tooth Quick Pairing Primer

Zeilstra keeps food in mind as he develops his beer recipes, and the result is a number of award-winning beers that pair beautifully with a variety of creative dishes. Here are some of his favorite food pairings for his beers.

Wagon Box Wheat Ale

American Wheat
ABV: 5.9%
IBUs: 15
Pairs well with: Grilled shrimp and mangoes marinated in a wheat-orange vinaigrette

This American-style wheat ale is Black Tooth’s most award-winning beer. With its tropical fruit notes, toasted malt flavor, and crisp finish, it won a GABF bronze medal in 2011 (for American-Style Wheat Ale), then followed up with gold medals from the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup in 2012. Zeilstra cooks with it in a vinaigrette perfect for dressing shellfish.

Bomber Mountain Amber Ale

Irish-Style Red
ABV: 4.6%
IBUs: 20
Pairs well with: Steamed fresh mussels and frites with a roasted garlic aioli

The biscuit, caramel, and cotton-candy flavors present in this medium-bodied Irish Red Ale provide a hearty backbone for the steamed mussels and frites. Estery Belgian-style beers aren't the only ones that pair well with steamed mussels!

Saddle Bronc Brown Ale

English Brown
ABV: 4.8%
IBUs: 16
Pairs well with: Smoked babyback ribs with a Saddle Bronc Brown BBQ sauce

Light in body and mouthfeel for an English-style brown ale, this beer is dark in color with hints of caramel, roasted nuts, and cocoa. The brown ale balances the sweetness of the BBQ and adds depth without getting overpowered by the intensity of the sauce.

Indian Paintbrush Ale

American IPA
ABV: 7%
IBUs: 75
Pairs well with: Grilled romaine heart Caesar salad with parmesan cheese cookie

The American hops in this IPA impart herbal and citrus flavors that balance the beer’s bitterness. The sharp flavor of the Caesar dressing overpowers more subtle beers, but the strong notes of this IPA hold up.

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Black Eagle Baltic Porter

Dark Lager
ABV: 8%
IBUs: 25
Pairs well with: Fig bread pudding and crème anglaise

The clean lager fermentation of this 2014 GABF silver medal winner lends it an extra smoothness that lets the flavors of cocoa, caramelized sugars, licorice, berries, grapes, and subtle smokiness shine through. When paired with the fig bread pudding, it provides a deep counterpoint to the sweet dessert without overpowering it.

Stumpy Ridge Stout

American-Style Stout
ABV: 6%
IBUs: 50
Pairs well with: Peppermint chocolate brownies

Caramel, chocolate, and coffee flavors characterize this bold American stout, and it finishes with roasted bitterness balanced with a touch of citrus and pine-forward hops flavors. Explore the sweeter side of pairing with a complementary dessert such as peppermint chocolate brownies.

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