Breakout Brewer: Heirloom Rustic Ales | Craft Beer & Brewing

Breakout Brewer: Heirloom Rustic Ales

Tulsa, Oklahoma’s newcomer Heirloom Rustic Ales courts locals with open-fermented saisons and lagers, proving that good beer takes time and that as craft evolves and grows, having recipes for the uninitiated is great for business.

Kate Bernot 1 year, 2 months ago

Breakout Brewer: Heirloom Rustic Ales Primary Image

Photo by Brooke Allen

Heirloom Rustic Ales brews its beers in a manner best described as deliberate. Another word for deliberate might be slow, which is also true of most of the open-fermented lagers and saisons that are the focus at this four-month-old brewery in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
But slow isn’t the goal—it just happens to be what makes the beers taste so good. Cofounder Zach French’s reverence for the dry, green-bottle saisons of Belgium and Cofounder Jake Miller’s transformational time spent brewing at St. Somewhere Brewing Company in Tarpon Springs, Florida, convinced them of the absolute necessity of open fermentation at Heirloom—even when it required some last-minute tank reorders, and even when it means the beers demand patience.

“The way we brew it, to get something to attenuate, it’s not going to be a ten-day turn. Our saisons are twenty-five and thirty days minimum. But at the end of the day, it’s a wild, mixed-culture, open-fermented saison in a wine tank that’s bone dry and super effervescent,” Miller says. “That’s something we can stand behind.”

The process not only can produce unexpected hops aromas, esters, and barrel character, but it also has an Old World charm that pleases the team. (Their affection for traditional methods is evident in the name, Heirloom Rustic Ales.) Aside from saisons, open fermentation works magic on the brewery’s lagers, which have come to occupy a large chunk of the taproom’s twelve draft lines. Miller acknowledges all the great lagers already available in the world—with an especially passionate declaration of love for Heater Allen Brewing’s Pils—but says he wanted to do lagers his own way.

The brewery currently works with two lager strains and is in the process of adding a third.

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“I’m incredibly critical of everything that I brew, to a fault,” Miller says. “A lot of our lagers we’re putting on now, I don’t have a lot of criticism for. It’s a nice change of pace for me to have a beer on at a bar where I feel like I wouldn’t have done anything different to it.”

But brewing this way—mostly lagers and slow saisons—means a constant battle to keep enough beers on draft in the airy, wood- and greenery-accented taproom, which recently expanded its hours and is now open seven days a week. Since opening in November 2017, the team estimates they’ve brewed twenty-seven distinct beers with no plans to stop the pace of innovation.

“When you have these mostly slow beers and people are enjoying your beers, at any point we’re usually missing three of our twelve beers on tap,” Miller says. “When we’re on trips, we just keep getting texts about which [kegs are] blowing.”

It’s a good problem to have, though, when you’re scratching an itch you haven’t been able to indulge in some time. Before opening Heirloom with Zach and Melissa French, Miller worked at Tulsa’s Prairie Artisan Ales and was the head brewer at Newberg, Oregon’s Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery before spending six months brewing at St. Somewhere.

At Prairie, he brewed rotating IPAs and fruited sour beers that would eventually become blends for Chase Healey’s side project, American Solera; he calls Heirloom’s rustic saisons and delicate lagers, “a departure.”

And he wants to slow things down even more. The draft menu currently includes one line for IPAs or double IPAs, but Miller and French hope to gradually introduce more India pale lagers (IPLs) on tap soon.

“In our opinion, [IPLs are] a better platform for the hops anyway,” Miller says. “And ultimately, we’d like to get to a point where people come in and think, ‘Wow! They’re really focusing in on lager.’”

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Lagers currently make up about 40 percent of the brewery’s beers, despite the “Ales” in the brewery’s name. (Future brewery T-shirts may read: “Purveyors of fine saisons and lagers.”) But lager obviously occupies much of the brewers’ headspace and is a major piece of the type of come-one, come-all taproom Heirloom wants to be.

Miller acknowledges that the masses might not be banging down brewery doors demanding unfiltered lagers—yet—but he wants the taproom to spread the word about Heirloom as a community space, not just a place to post to Instagram a few fancy beers and leave. The brewery plans lots of events, but none so far have been beer releases. They have hosted everything from a graffiti and skateboarding night to animal adoptions to a presentation by two paleontologists, which filled the taproom to capacity.

“We want to brew the most elevated beers we possibly can, but if you’ve never had a craft beer before, you can feel at home in our taproom,” Miller explains. “If we try something weird, we do it to where it’s approachable and drinkable, complex and drinkable. If we hit one and not the other, then something needs to change.”

He says Tusla presents an interesting dynamic because while the city has its share of tickers and beer geeks, it also has a ton of drinkers who are still new to or unfamiliar with craft beer. While there are some customers who just want to try the next new beer and the next new beer, Miller recently had to gently break it to a middle-aged customer who has been in almost daily since the brewery opened that it might be a while before his favorite Pilsner was back on tap.

“He was like, ‘If you don’t make this again, I’m not coming back in.’”

Miller and French see Heirloom’s lagers as the great unifier, a broad umbrella with infinite iterations that could appeal to the most seasoned drinkers, newbies, and everyone in between. Their Black Cauldron schwarzbier is a restrained, bready, and impeccable version of the style, hewing close to traditional lines. On the other end of the spectrum, a taproom visitor might find Dream Theater, an autumn lager brewed with four types of Munich malt and dry-hopped with en vogue Loral hops.

Many beers on Heirloom’s taps clock in around 4 percent ABV, which is important under Oklahoma’s self-distribution laws. But even though those regulations will change in October, Miller says the brewery likes having most of its offerings fall around that mark. There are plenty of interesting styles to brew in that range; recent sub-4 percent brews include Cult Jam, a pale ale fermented with Brett Trois and dry hopped with Azacca and Citra; and Pocahaunted, an English mild brewed with local sweet potatoes. Whether it’s classic lagers, IPLs, saisons, or something else entirely, Heirloom aims to meet drinkers where they are.

“We have a lot of people [for whom] this is their first craft beer, and then we have a lot of people who have been traders for the past five years,” Miller says. “So we just learn where the person’s at, and we pour a shit ton of flights.”

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