Podcast Episode 155: Zebulon's Mike Karnowski Sees the Future in Beers of the Past

For Mike Karnowski of Zebulon Artisan Ales in Weaverville, North Carolina, innovation in the service of joyful beer starts with plumbing the depths of brewing history.

Jamie Bogner , Mike Karnowski Oct 6, 2020 - 6 min read

Podcast Episode 155: Zebulon's Mike Karnowski Sees the Future in Beers of the Past Primary Image

Photo: Ash Patino

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"I’ve become a traditionalist. I’m more interested in going backwards,” says Mike Karnowski, founder of Zebulon Artisan Ales. “As I see what craft beer is turning into, I’m turning around and running back to the 1800s.”

Karnowski loves exploring the rich history of brewing, working together with brewing historian Ron Pattinson to re-create recipes from the forgotten brew logs of the past three centuries. At a time when “innovation” tends to mean jumping on the latest trend, Zebulon instead looks backward, creating engaging beers that tell stories and shine light on periods in brewing history. It’s an unusual approach to “innovation,” but it's one that has found a growing audience, as a subset of beer fans pivot from the pop hits of today and seek connection to brewing’s past.

To realize that creative vision, Karnowski has kept Zebulon purposefully small—a seven-barrel brewhouse produces limited runs of each beer, and the brewery employs just Mike and his wife Gabe. Together, they do it all, from brewing to packaging to compliance to taxes, and even manning the bar for the limited taproom hours every week. They may be focused, but they’re not crazy; they understand that the key to being free to explore these pathways in brewing is to keep the overhead low.

In this episode, Karnowski talks about his experience brewing a number of historical beers, from imperial-strength 19th century “mild” that bears little resemblance to its current definition, to 1750s beers with smoked malt, an extremely low-ABV WWI-era beer that resembles beer-flavored seltzer, and post-war IPA that would be unrecognizable to IPA drinkers today.

Along the way, he discusses producing diastatic brown malt, how to create invert sugars necessary to brew historic English styles, using black malt without the associated off flavors, and more.

This episode is brought to you by:

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Jamie Bogner is the Cofounder and Editorial Director of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email him at [email protected].