Billings, Montana’s Überbrew might be a new name for some—their dramatic performance at 2016’s Great American Beer Festival, which included 4 medals (including gold in the hotly contested Imperial IPA category) and “Small Brewer of the Year” honors, caught a lot of people by surprise—but winning medals is nothing new for Head Brewer and Cofounder Mark Hastings. He won his first gold for Sharptail Pale Ale back in 1998 while working for Montana Brewing Company, then scored a second gold for Tumbleweed IPA in 2001 while brewing for Sleeping Giant Brewing Company (both in Billings, Montana).
Hastings left the brewing world for a number of years, but when local Billings homebrewer Jason Shroyer found out that Hastings, then managing a pizza joint, was a multiple GABF medal winner, he started bringing him homebrew for feedback. “I went through a ten-year hiatus,” says Hastings. “A dark period where I wasn’t brewing beer.”
Eventually, a friendship was struck, plans were formed, funding was lined up, and five years ago Überbrew started making beer with Hastings manning the kettle and Shroyer managing the business.
Hastings has always loved to push the limits, no matter what he was brewing—Sharptail was one of the reasons the Brewers Association created the “strong pale ale” category—and his return to brewing sparked the same competitive fire that fueled those early days. However, the decade in between his brewing tenures had seen remarkable changes on the ingredient side of craft beer, with a brewer’s buffet of new hops offering a tremendous range of fresh flavors and aromas. Hastings had found his calling.
“When we decided to open Überbrew, we knew we were going to do hops-forward beers because that’s just what I’m best at. In my first stint at brewing, I was a Centennial and Cascade guy because that’s what we had,” says Hastings. “When I came back, I had to learn how to brew IPA all over again because in that ten years, it had changed so much.”
Whether the hops themselves changed or palates changed (altering modern drinkers’ perceptions of them) is subject for debate. But there’s no denying that priorities for hops growers have changed over the past ten years. Protecting fragile aromas and flavors is of utmost concern, where a decade ago alpha acids were still the priority. “There was a time there when the infrastructure of hops wasn’t keeping up with the hops that were going through, so I honestly believe some hops weren’t what they were back in the 90s. They spent too much time on the vine, or they spent too much time before they were processed.”
While hops are an obvious focus for any brewer making hops-forward beers, the real secret to the beers Überbrew makes is the ingredient many brewers pay less attention to—malt.
“Malt is just as important to IPA as hops are,” says Hastings. “There’s a trend toward lighter, crisper IPAs so that hops can shine, but I think a lot of brewers who are using domestic malts are using things like Munich malt to mimic heritage varieties from the U.K. We use a lot of German malt, a lot of English malt, Scottish malt, and even Irish malt for our IPAs. We try it all to see how we can get that malt-hop interaction and the candy-like flavors that help accentuate the hops. Rather than saying, ‘This is the cheapest malt we can get,’ we ask, ‘What interacts with hops in a way that gets what we’re looking for?’”
Low protein malts are the key, and Überbrew’s SMaSH beer program (brewing beers with identical recipes but with single malts and single hops) has helped them dial in the different characters that malts contribute to their beers. Their base malt was initially Maris Otter but shifted to an Irish malt from the Malting Company of Ireland, but as Hastings says, “I loved the performance but the flavor wasn’t there.” About a year ago, they began brewing with Golden Promise.
“That’s now our SMaSH base malt, and I love the interaction we’re getting between hops and Golden Promise. It’s more of a flavor interaction than aroma, but I think that’s important—you can’t just focus on bitterness, just like you can’t just focus on aroma. There has to be a bridge there if you’re trying to tell a story with a beer. A beginning, a middle, and an end. And I think the malt is what helps build that bridge.”
Specialty malts are kept low—generally 1 percent or less, but even in small quantities, they provide a touch of extra character. But they have yet to find domestic malts that give them the cotton-candy or PEZ-like notes that they look for. “We import everything. So it’s either Weyermann, Crisp, or it’s Simpsons Golden Promise despite the fact that we’re smack dab in the middle of barley- growing country.”
Überbrew’s default yeast strain might come as a surprise to those who associate it with more contemporary trends, but Hastings can lay claim to OG status. “I’ve been using London Ale III since 1996 and absolutely love that yeast,” says Hastings. “It’s really cool that it’s being discovered now. Chico ale or California ale are so popular, but I never figured that yeast out. We have very high calcium- carbonate water in Billings, and so I wanted a less attenuative yeast to counteract some of the harshness you get out of high calcium-carbonate water. It worked and we just kept playing with it.”
While the yeast is best known for its extensive use in hazy New England–style IPAs from Trillium and others, Hastings coaxes it into all sorts of uses that range from non-turbid IPAs to entirely unexpected styles.
“We just won a gold medal for our cream ale at the North American Beer Awards. We overpitch and ferment cool with London Ale III, and it gets very lager-like. So I like the yeast strain because of its versatility. But originally we used it because it attenuated a little less and has a nice, soft ester profile.”
The Importance of Tasting
One core tenet to Überbrew’s brewing philosophy is engaging with, learning from, and sharing with fellow brewers. Brewery environments can grow insular with staff and brewers drinking the brewery’s own beer, creating a brewing echo chamber that doesn’t necessarily reflect the more diverse palates of their customers. Hastings and team work to overcome that by brewing a lot of collaboration beers and by regularly tasting beer from outside their market.
“Every Monday we have customers, homebrewers, and staff who get together, and the only price of admission to the tasting is that you bring something. We taste as much as we can and are definitely influenced by what other people are doing. If we taste something from Trillium or Odd13 or WeldWerks and think, ‘Oh, that’s amazing,’ then the next step is to ask ‘How did they do that’ and ‘What can we find out about that?’ “Sometimes you pick up the phone and have that conversation because they’re people you know, but sometimes it’s reading publications such as Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® to see what we can glean from a recipe then make it our own. It’s all knowledge, and ultimately that knowledge comes from tasting everything you can. But it’s not just tasting—it’s tasting and talking about it.”
That strategy is clearly working, if the 2016 Great American Beer Festival is a respectable measure of success. The whirlwind of attention, festival invites, additional collaborations, and industry interest has been dizzying. But Hastings still has work to do and isn’t ready to rest on his laurels yet.
“Über is our mission, our quest to be a superlative example of its class or kind. We’re constantly trying to make the best IPA we can, so we have to try everything under the sun and learn from it.”