by Kevin Smith
Earlier in July I had the opportunity to visit with Jim Wagner, the head brewery at B.C. Brewery in Hunt Valley, and his assistant brewer, Beth Vita. We discussed the brewery’s new barrel program, Vita’s gluten-free brews, their wine/beer hybrids, and how the pandemic has affected them.
Like other breweries around the state, B.C. had to deal with the shift from a tasting-room driven model that sold beer to-go, to a more package-oriented model. The restrictions due to the pandemic have led Wagner to cut back on overall production, however, B.C. is still finding itself in the enviable position of expansion.
“Pre-CoVid we were [filling the big fermenters], but right now we’re generally running half-batches,” said Wagner. Even though they’re running half batches, B.C. has been busy canning, rather than kegging, not that they did too much of that to begin with – their tasting room runs off of serving vessels, filled straight from the fermenting tanks. Last week Wagner expected to can 11 barrels of beer. “We had no desire to be a canning facility. When this hit, we were forced to pivot.”
B.C.’s pivot includes the increased volume on canning, as well as a robust barrel-aging program. “With all this slow-time, we were able to get, what I consider for our size, a lot of barrel aging going on,” Wagner explained. He added that they’re doing a lot of experimentation with the barrels. “We’re trying something crazy. We’re aging a house-made paw paw cider in a bourbon barrel – see what kind of flavors we get with apples and bourbon. [We’re aging a blended beer] in Weller barrels. It has a barleywine, a russian imperial, a high gravity breakfast stout, and a small amount of our Scotch ale. We’re going to see what it does. That’s been in there since June 24. We’re going to let that puppy sit for at least three months, probably longer. Come fall-winter, we’re going to be stocked up on our barrel offerings.If the virus keeps up, we may be forced to bottle [all of ] them. We might want to bottle them into 22’s.”
The first of the offerings will be a barrel-aged, bottle-conditioned saison. “As a saison should be, I wanted it relatively highly carbonated,” said Wagner. Before transferring the beer to the bottles, Wagner primed the bottles with some sugar, and “used the CBD yeast. We’re officially releasing it on August 7th. We only have 284 bottles. When it’s gone, it’s gone. [Many of] these beers will never be on tap, for obvious reasons.”
For many breweries, the recent heat has been an issue for their outside seating. For breweries like B.C., which has only indoor seating, CoVID has been the issue. “With 95, 100 degree heat…you think we might have an advantage when the heat kicks up [having the enclosed space], but we don’t for the people” still really worried about CoVID, said Wagner. “We built all these barriers, but it [feels like] more of a mental thing than anything else. It does provide some barrier between tables, and it does isolate you a little bit. It’s weird to look out there and see all those shower curtain barriers out there. It’s been kind of tough. Also, we’ll see if it’s a matter of time before they shut us down again.”
Vita noted that Baltimore closed down again at the tail end of July due to the recent spike in CoVID cases. Wagner added that he thought Baltimore County might be next. “It is what it is, not a whole lot we can do about it,” he added.
With one of the more robust gluten-free brewing programs, inspired by Vita, an avid craft beer consumer who is diagnosed with celiac disease, B.C. has become a go-to for the gluten intolerant. As such, their small, dedicated system no longer meets their needs. “We dedicated the one brewhouse to be completely gluten free,” explained Wagner. Brewing gluten-free “involves offset storage, its own mill – we’re upgrading that system. The GF demand has been so high – we’re brewing it now on a two-barrel system. We put in an order [in early July] for a seven. The two will leave us, we’ll put the [new] seven in next to [the non-gluten free] seven and have two [seven barrel] systems, one dedicated to GF. To keep the dedicated [gluten free system] gluten free and not gluten-reduced, it has its own heat exchanger, we don’t share the heat exchanger, and we don’t share the mill.”
Vita explained how B.C. ended up with one of the more robust gluten free programs anywhere. She was “Diagnosed [celiac in] January of 2018. I had a bunch of symptoms, and the doctor said ‘let’s do the tests.’ [As a beer lover] it was heartbreaking to know that something you like is something you can never have again. I love the camaraderie of beer culture – of everyone hanging out and grabbing a beer together, and I missed that a lot.”
Once she started working at B.C, she kept bringing in the gluten-free beers she was able to source on the market and making Wagner drink them. “And Jim would [say], ‘this is garbage, I hate it.’ And I would [tell] Jim this is what I can drink. When I go home, this is the only thing I can have. He said we can do better, we’ll fix that, and that’s where it started out.”
In order to address the flavor and body issues, Wagner and Vita started sampling a wide variety of gluten-free beer, finding what worked and what didn’t. They quickly found that one of the most common ingredients in GF-beers is the one that commonly didn’t work for them. “One of the primary ingredients most GF breweries use is sorghum,” said Wagner. “The majority of our beers are millet-based with rise, and occasionally a little maltodextrin for body, and sometimes a little buckwheat.”
The brewery is also “doing wine hybrids – taking wine bases, and then mixing them with GF based-beers. They have turned out really well, and people are really loving them,” explained Wagner. The wine-hybrids include both red- and white-blends which seem odd at first, but are surprisingly drinkable. B.C. has four taps dedicated to their gluten-free offerings, which rotate. At any given time, the brewery will have a range of gluten-free brews from an amber to a quad, providing the celiac craft beer fans options that are seldom available to them.