There is a beer here called Neologism, as if it were something freshly coined, but it might’ve been called Portmanteau—a combination of concepts into a unified thing that makes perfect sense.
Pale and lively in the glass, the aroma suggests pine needles, orange peels, and white wine—a heightened yet beautifully integrated expression of hops, Brettanomyces, and 16 months spent in second- and third-use gin barrels. On the palate, moderate acidity drives a lemon-lime juiciness, balanced by a soft, gentle bitterness, rolling into a dry finish—intense yet incredibly refreshing at 5.5 percent ABV, Neologism represents a successful mingling of cultures, oak, time, Cryo, and know-how.
Anyway, did you hear the one about how the Mad Fermentationist and the New IPA Guy became friends and started a brewery?
Sapwood Cellars opened in Columbia, Maryland, in September 2018. To the locals happy to have a brewery nearby, it may have been some neat trivia that the cofounders also were writers. To well-read brewers, however, the ongoing joint project of Scott Janish and Michael Tonsmeire is especially remarkable.
Janish wrote The New IPA: A Scientific Guide to Aroma and Flavor, which appeared in book form soon after the brewery opened; it gathers and clearly explains many recent studies relevant to brewing with hops and how to get the most out of them. Tonsmeire wrote American Sour Beers, published in 2014 and detailing a variety of ways in which American brewers tackle mixed fermentations—and a culmination of years of writing and research on his Mad Fermentationist blog.
Together, in a Baltimore suburb, they have combined years of homebrewing experience, research, and inquisitive habits into a unified thing that makes perfect sense.
Curiosity and Serendipity
Tonsmeire started brewing in 2005; his first blog post as the Mad Fermentationist was on February 1, 2007. Almost immediately, he dove into practical explorations of Brett and oak aging. His writing and experiments continued, and he gained a strong following. In 2012 and 2013, he even helped San Diego’s Modern Times get on its feet by advising on recipes and providing its first mixed culture.
Janish, meanwhile, came to D.C. from South Dakota to work in the Senate. He stayed to work as a lobbyist, homebrewing for fun in his spare time. In 2014 he joined the DC Homebrewers Club—where he met Tonsmeire—after winning the IPA category in the club’s annual Cherry Blossom Competition.
At club meetings, Tonsmeire says, “I didn’t recognize Scott, but I recognized the insulated growler he used to bring his beer in. ‘I like that growler! That’s the growler that always has the good hoppy beer.’”
Janish was constantly researching how to improve his IPAs and enhance their hop aroma and flavor. “For me, it was really accidental—Googling, trying to find answers to things, and you just come across a couple of studies,” Janish says. Those scientific studies, he says, were “eye-opening … because I relied on references like Mike’s blog, or people arguing on Homebrew Talk about how ‘this worked for me.’ It was amazing, actually, to see a lab-tested thing. They’re testing compounds, they have sensory panels, and it was just—I trusted it. Or, at least, I thought it was a great starting point for experiments. But then the more I got into it, the more I was amazed how much research there was out there—and how little people were paying attention to it.”
By late 2016 he had decided to write a book that would collect these findings. Yet even as Janish was asking Tonsmeire for advice on writing and getting published, the two of them were starting to lay the groundwork for another project. By that time, Janish had written a rough business plan for a brewery—but he still had his full-time job and was reluctant to commit, “until Mike brought it up one night.”
“I had too many IPAs, brewed by Scott,” Tonsmeire says. “We were sitting on our buddy Jake’s couch. ‘You know, if you ever want to open a brewery…’ And [Scott] was like, ‘Actually…’
“And then we got super-lucky with this space.”
Another brewery was preparing to open at an office park in Columbia—about 15 miles southwest of Baltimore, or 35 miles northeast of D.C.—but those plans fell through. Janish and Tonsmeire went to see the space and couldn’t believe their eyes—“Too good to be true,” Janish says—it was largely built out already, including a taproom with bar. They seized the opportunity and modified their plan.
Originally, that plan was for Sapwood Cellars to be a barrel house—they would buy wort and barrel age while keeping their day jobs, occasionally releasing special bottles. However, with a tasting room virtually in place, they pivoted, investing what capital they had in a brewhouse, tanks, and more. Before long, figuring out how to run a brewery and taproom became their day jobs; each was bringing his inquisitive approaches to work each morning like a normie packs a lunch.
Questions and Answers
Through a window, guests can see the 10-barrel brewhouse made by Forgeworks in Colorado, plus some fermentors and space for more. Next door, out of sight, there are about 60 barrels of different origins for mixed-culture beers. However, most of Sapwood Cellars beers are different kinds of IPAs and pale ales—and the bulk of that is sold on draft in the taproom. They don’t distribute much, but they hire a mobile canner to package several of their beers for takeaway, and they can fill crowlers at the bar.
Their annual production is about 1,000 barrels, but in fewer than four years they have brewed more than 500 different beers.
At many breweries, that kind of variety is often driven by customer demand. At Sapwood Cellars, it appears to be driven more by the curiosity and experiments of the brewers. They enjoy playing around at this scale.
“As a homebrewer,” Janish says, “I would put so much work into two five-gallon batch experiments, testing something out. And here it’s just, you steal 5, 10 gallons of wort as it’s going into a fermentor before you pitch yeast, and boom.” They might test a different yeast or different dry hops, try out an enzyme or something else, and then they record and compare the results.
Sapwood Cellars is a data-driven brewery. Tonsmeire was an economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and he frequently reminds Janish and brewer Ken Martin to record variations, measurements, and sensory results in shared spreadsheets. “It always seems like I don’t need one more thing right now to do,” Janish says. “But if we weren’t doing that, I don’t know where we’d be. … It’s just so useful.”
In those barrels, for example, there is not one Sapwood Cellars mixed culture—they are many and varied, depending on the barrels and what they decide to pitch. “Most of our cultures are just a re-pitch of a re-pitch of a re-pitch of something,” Tonsmeire says. If they like the results, they use the culture again—but they don’t necessarily like any one culture enough to use it for all the beers in the program. So they keep track in a spreadsheet. “Welcome to the brain of an economist,” he says.
From ideas to data and back again, the beers of Sapwood Cellars are products of a cycle: inspiration, testing, repeat. Essentially, this is an R&D brewery with a taproom.
“What I’m really happy about is that we have been able to retain that inquisitive angle,” Tonsmeire says. “We came at it from the perspective of, let’s make the best beer possible. And if that means the beer costs a little bit more money, that’s okay. If it means it takes a little bit more time, that’s okay. … The goal is to make the best beer possible, and then figure out how much of it it’s worth making or how we distribute it to make that all make sense.”
They apply the same testing approach to problem-solving—like last year, when they had attenuation issues. They tried everything they could think of, one tweak at a time—different yeasts and temperatures, monitoring oxygen, and more—until they finally switched the variety of pale malt … and all the problems vanished. In the end, they decided the likely culprit was some inconsistent enzymatic profiles in their base malt. Meanwhile they got more rigorous about fermentation, taking cell counts and checking for yeast viability. “Going through a series like that probably improved our process quite a bit,” Janish says, “because it made us question everything we were doing.”
The New IPA
A typical grist for a Sapwood Cellars pale ale or IPA includes about 5 percent chit malt, 10 to 15 percent each oat malt and wheat malt, with the bulk being a 50/50 mix of pilsner and two-row. Occasionally, to kick up the gravity or hit their target, they use brewer’s crystals—a mix of sugar solids that mimic malt’s fermentability, increasing the strength without thinning the beer. They’ve moved away from Golden Naked Oats and other ingredients that impart much “malty” flavor because they want the hops to shine.
“People want to be wowed,” Tonsmeire says. “I think when somebody comes into a tasting room at a small cool brewery, they want to have a few ‘Whoas!’ or ‘I never had anything like that!’ or ‘Wow, that’s intense!’”
Their own go-to beer is usually whatever pale ale happens to be fresh. They don’t often repeat beers, but an exception is Rings of Light, a hazy-juicy Citra showcase that usually clocks in around 5 percent ABV. “I think our IPAs and double IPAs are very good,” Tonsmeire says. “I just don’t think that they’re that much better or more unique than 50 or 100 other great hoppy-beer breweries. … But I think our pale ales are some of the better pale ales I’ve ever had. That’s partly because we’re not worried about margins on those beers because we’re selling [them] out of the tasting room.”
They mash-hop virtually all their beers. Janish says the benefits include lowering the wort’s metal content as well as reducing oxidation. They also experiment with different hop products but rarely settle on any of them—though recently they’ve taken a liking to Hopsteiner’s Salvo in the whirlpool, for a no-bitterness aroma burst. They work with different whirlpool temperatures, especially when brewing double batches—for example, the first might get hops at about 200°F (93°C) for some bitterness, while the second might get a charge at 162°F (72°C) to push aroma.
“If a pale ale tastes and smells good pre–dry hop, that’s impressive,” Janish says. “So that’s what we’re always after—it’s just making the best base beer you can, and then experimenting with temperatures, and different hop varieties, and [so on.]”
“It’s that saturated hop thing,” Tonsmeire says, “like that mid-palate juiciness, where it’s not just this big, beautiful aroma, and then it falls flat. You want hops that just connect through the whole thing.”
Another practice they embrace—a takeaway from Janish’s research—is dry hopping at cooler temperatures for a relatively short time after fermentation. Lately, that means dry hopping at 40–45°F (4–7°C) in two stages, usually for 36 to 48 hours each, for a big aroma boost without the astringency that can come from large hop loads.
Another trick they’ve adopted: changing the hop varieties between kettle, whirlpool, and dry hopping. For example, they love Idaho 7 in the kettle and whirlpool, while—in their view—it can be underwhelming as a dry hop. As they were learning what they liked, Yakima Chief Hops research into “survivable” compounds helped explain why certain varieties performed better in the kettle, while others are more expressive as dry hops.
“That’s one of those areas I love,” Janish says of the research. “It gives you a starting point on which hops might be worth experimenting with in the kettle, in the whirlpool, based off their findings. That’s where I love having an academic-type paper that points you in a direction. … You’re not just trying it—you’re trying it with a reason.”
American Sour Beers
While Tonsmeire shares Janish’s love of hop-forward beers, it would be a mistake to overlook the barrel program.
At times their specialties intersect—as they do in Neologism—and the results can be spectacular. “Cryo was a very purposeful move on that,” Janish says, since it gives an aroma boost with reduced hop mass. “Just trying to keep that aggressiveness down, especially in a dry beer.”
Tonsmeire describes the base as a “Belgian pale ale.” It got Lalvin 71B wine yeast in primary because it ferments aggressively without adding phenolics or other off-flavors. It also leaves behind some complex malt sugars, giving the mixed culture something to gnaw in the months to come. “Wine strains can also be high glycerol producers,” he says, “which benefits mouthfeel—especially valuable with how dry most mixed-ferm beers end up.”
Barrel to barrel, results vary (and it all goes into that spreadsheet). One factor in deciding what to do with an aged beer is its acidity. A more acidic wort might get dry hops, which raise the pH a bit, while a less acidic wort might be perfect for steeping in cherries or other fruits, which lower the pH. “We try to use whole, local fruit whenever possible,” Tonsmeire says.
While the American Sour Beers guy talks about his brewery’s “sour beers,” in reality, he is trying to avoid true sourness. “We’ve been trying to lower our acidity a little bit,” Tonsmeire says. “So, still ‘sour,’ but it’s approachable. It’s the kind of thing that hopefully somebody can drink a whole 16-ounce glass of.”
For now, there are not many places you can do that.
“I want people to come visit us here,” Tonsmeire says. “I think that’s where I always feel like I get the full expression of any brewery, … when we’re drinking their beer on tap at their location. … I think we’re really built around that taproom experience.”
“It’s a better experience, but it’s also probably a better product,” says Janish.
Both cofounders remain very involved in production and day-to-day operations, which tends to dampen the enthusiasm for writing about beer after work. Yet Janish says he hopes to write a second edition of The New IPA. Either way, the research continues.
“This morning, I was looking through all the new papers that have been released, sort of cataloging which might be worth writing about—or at least experimenting with some stuff in the brewery,” he says. “But for me, it’s just great for getting excited about beer again, too. Sometimes, completely new and weird ideas or methods get you back into it, instead of just making another IPA.”
Says Tonsmeire: “When you’re doing an IPA, a double IPA, and a pale ale every month, it’s great to have something to spur your imagination, or your experiments.”
“And hopefully,” Janish says, “you’re still always testing the little things that make the beer just a little bit better.”
Editor’s Note: Want to dive deeper into hops and mixed-culture brewing experimentation with Sapwood Cellars? Since we first published this article in our October–November 2022 issue, we recorded a podcast with them, named Neologism one of our Best 20 Beers in 2022 after it shined in blind tasting, and afterward filmed two video courses led by Janish and Tonsmeire. Those courses both will be available here and are included with an All Access subscription.