Todd Stone is a young man with an old head on his shoulders. Trust me, that’s a huge compliment in my book. He and I sat down at Junk Ditch earlier this week to talk about his journey to become the head brewer at the Main Street brewpub, and – as it tuned out – our joint love of Saisons.
When three guys from Joseph Decuis kicked off their new adventure in the shape of the Affiné food truck in 2012, it quickly became apparent that there was an seriously under-served sector evolving in Fort Wayne. Of course, “craft” beer was already in overdrive in the USA by the time 2015 rolled around, but at that time Todd was not necessarily thinking about becoming a full-time brewer. A keen home brewer, the Northrup grad and Political Science major was doing no more than a little homebrewing with a friend. When that friend became the assistant brewer at Junk Ditch, Todd never really thought much more of it, and continued to work his position in retail. In 2016 things started to change, and quickly! Todd’s friend left Junk Ditch, Todd followed him as the assistant brewer, and by December of 2017 he had graduated to his current position. Quite the ascendance.
Todd explained how the majority of his brewing experience prior to arriving at JD had been with traditional beers such as Porters, IPAs and Stouts, with a few of ‘our’ beloved Saisons thrown into the mix. In short, he came from a pretty traditional brewing base. That fitted the original Junk Ditch philosophy quite well. JD’s first beer was their now well-established Batch ESB. Todd and I are in agreement that style parameters don’t necessarily represent rigid, non-negotiable constraints, but rather that they offer important, well-defined handles on what might reasonably work. However, they can also be tweaked, with some conservative know-how, into unique brews. This fits with Todd’s own philosophy, and still allows for a personal touch. Todd describes it this way.; “My philosophy when “brewing to style” is that I want my Vienna Lager (just as an example, but this applies to our other true to style beers) to be what it’s supposed to be, which is a showcase of Vienna Malt and a clean lager characteristic. I aim to have a finished product that is MY PERSONAL “platonic ideal” of what a Vienna Lager should be. I’m seeking to answer the question of what should the perfect Vienna Lager taste like to ME in particular? So “stylistically pure” is a way to describe it, but someone else might have a different idea of what the perfect Vienna Lager might look like. This is an particularly eloquent articulation of something that I hold dear, i.e., styles are sacred, yet still personal (my words, not Todd’s). In fact, in order to illustrate the point further, Junk Ditch’s best selling beer Andy Pants, is their take on a pretty simple (if generally under served) style, a Cream Ale. In my experience of drinking that particular beer, it ticks the necessary boxes stylistically and “does exactly what it says on the tin“. That’s a crucial attribute of any beer for me, and frankly that should also be the case for all beer drinkers.
Of course that’s not to say that Todd hasn’t branched out with some things that are a little different. Using hot peppers grown in his Dad’s garden, perhaps one of his most extravagant escapades has been with a spiked Kölsch. Originally called Honey Pepper Kompressor, Todd talks very fondly of a second version of the pepper infused beer, Pepper Kompressor. That version also included some home-grown basil.
Todd really lit up when he and I got a little technical. He’s been working with a particular strain of Kveik, an old Norwegian term used to describe several Scandinavian farmhouse yeasts. These yeasts are incredibly versatile in terms of their use. Lutra is a single strain of the larger collective, and has appeared in a number of Todd’s beers. It is temperature resistant, meaning it can be used in a number of situations where other yeasts would die from the high temperatures or the high alcohol content. Similarly, Lutra has an advantage over many American yeasts in as much as it can work at those elevated temperatures without producing solvent-like off-flavors. Instead it produces a taste profile more in line with tropical fruit esters, and because of its higher working temperature can do so in a fraction of the time. It can halve a typical ale fermentation time. As Todd says, “Obviously cutting down production time with no off flavors and delicious tropical flavors is a plus”. The cleanliness of the fermentation process with Lutra has other advantages too. Todd explains like this. “It’s also very clean fermenting, allowing brewers to use it to make ‘pseudo lagers’ or beer that has similar properties to lager beers, but does not take nearly as long”. One example of Todd’s use of Lutra is in a beer named Taket, that has a Pilsner base. It’s also found in Junk Ditch’s Raspberry Milk Stout, Titania. Todd also used the yeast strain in a beer that he collaborated on with 2 Toms. It seems as though Todd is really high on Kveik (Lutra) – in the metaphorical sense – and when he talks about it you can tell that he has a real eye for some technical aspects of brewing that might escape others. He genuinely seems excited by a yeast strain. I’ve seen this reaction before in brewers, and it’s only a good thing.
The conversation soon turns back to things that are a little more traditional. Todd’s pride at native Germans (from Munich no less) being present at JD and complimenting him on his Munich Dunkel; his appreciation of German styles in general, and with that the excited anticipation of the Viceroy Maibock coming back on in the fall; and his gratification at brewing Alps, Bro, his interpretation of a classic Vienna lager, that pays homage to a beer brewed in Fort Wayne in years past by the brewery that started life as The French Brewery back in the 1860’s. That original beer was called Alps Brau, and there’s a little more to read here and here. If you know your FW brewing history, Alps, Bro has deeper meaning.
Todd and I conclude our conversation by looking forward. We talk about the current level of beer knowledge and beer culture in the Fort, how they compare to towns like Grand Rapids, Traverse City, and even Asheville, and like many of the other brewers in town, he feels there’s still plenty of room for growth. Todd thinks maybe even up to ten more breweries, with greater specialization and narrower lanes of beer styles might be possible. I must admit, I don’t quite share his level of optimism, simply because I don’t know what the affluence of Fort Wayne as a city compares to some of those other places, but I certainly agree there’s room for growth. Whether we’ll see breweries that really dial in on a certain set of styles, or a certain country’s heritage seems doubtful to me too, but as always, I’m hopeful. Wouldn’t it be great to see a brewery in Fort Wayne that doesn’t feel the need to make a single American IPA or Kettle Sour or Pastry Stout, and is still successful?
I left the brewpub with a real sense that there’s a young head brewer in charge, who has a handle on, and healthy respect for, tradition. He seems to want to brew within those styles, but layering his own unique interpretations. I was also struck with his eye for the technical. Todd is clearly thinking about his beer a lot, and that’s something that the beer drinking public of Fort Wayne should be mighty thankful for.