Photos by Jenny Oh/KQED
Tucked away in a small shopping complex on the outskirts of Redwood City, Freewheel Brewing Company serves up a local version of English “real ale.” This term refers to unpasteurized, naturally carbonated beer that’s been “cask-conditioned“: the brewer’s yeast hasn’t been filtered out and continues to ferment the beer as it awaits to be hand-pumped from its storage container; other beers obtain carbonation from carbon dioxide or nitrogen that’s been added into pressurized kegs. This process produces a smooth beer with a lower overall alcohol content that’s easy to drink on its own or paired up with pub fare.
Freewheel Brewing Company’s brewmaster and co-founder, Malcolm McGinnis, is featured in the above video I produced for KQED Science: “Science of Beer: Tapping the Power of Brewer’s Yeast.” He took a break from his brewing duties to discuss how and why he makes traditional-style beers for Bay Area beer connoisseurs.
How did you get involved with beer making?
Believe it or not, I brewed my first batch of beer with my best friend when we were about 16 years old. Of course, it was horrible and bottles exploded, but it was a fun start that still makes me smile. Years later, when I was finishing graduate school (Ph.D. in biochemistry), I started homebrewing more properly when a friend told me that he was brewing his own beer. That intrigued me — along with the fact that my graduate advisor had made a comment that, “Every biochemist worth his salt should brew his own beer at least once,” made me think this was something that I should try. Pretty quickly, I fell in love with the process, the smells and the final product. I stuck with it for many years until our second child was born and I just didn’t have time anymore. At that point, I took off a good 10 years or so from brewing and during that time I continued to work in my chosen scientific field of genetic matching for bone marrow transplantation. My friend Pete Krausa (who is one of the four partners in Freewheel) and I had started and built a company where we designed and manufactured test kits for use in transplantation matching which we eventually sold. After that, I took a little time off and eventually started thinking about brewing professionally. One thing led to another and eventually Larry Bucka and Gary Waymire came on board as partners and we started Freewheel Brewing.
Why do you produce English-style ale?
The short answer is because we all love that style. The longer answer is that this was actually the end result of a series of business decisions. When we were trying to decide what kind of beer we wanted to make, we approached it from a business perspective and asked, “How do you distinguish yourself as a new brewery?” There is no shortage of fantastic West Coast IPAs and other big, hoppy, high ABV [alcohol by volume] beers that are so popular these days. A couple of years ago, we had been hearing rumors of a resurgence of “session beers” which are easy-drinking, lower ABV beers and this seemed like an interesting direction to consider. Next, when you start to think of the most iconic session beers, you quickly get to an English Bitter and the best way to serve that beer is from a hand pump out of a cask. And that’s basically how we decided that we would commit to making cask-conditioned, English-style ales.
Who are your English partners and how did you forge a relationship with them?
Our collaborators are Green Jack Brewery in Suffolk and Ironbridge Brewery in Shropshire. In 2010, two of us took a great trip around England to meet with half a dozen small award-winning breweries that we had read about online and with whom we eventually made email contact. We realized that there was very little tradition of cask ales in this country so in order to do it properly, we decided to find some great English partners. As it turned out, these breweries were intrigued with the idea of a California partner and we were very fortunate to be able to establish good working relationships with them.
What makes English-style ale different than American ale?
There are several key differences between our English-style ales and many American ales. First is the grain that we use. The barley that we use is a very traditional English variety known as Maris Otter. It is imported from England and has a very distinctive characteristic that many would describe as “bready” or “biscuity.” It’s a little difficult to describe but when you taste a beer brewed with this barley, it is a real treat.
Another difference is the yeast. We use two yeast strains that are straight from English brewers which are very unique and that are perfectly suited to our brewery which was designed and built in England. They are known as “top-cropping” which means that they float on the surface of the fermenting beer and can be harvested or skimmed to be used in subsequent batches of beer. In the U.S., most yeast strains are “bottom croppers” and are harvested from the bottom of the fermenters which have a slightly different design geometry than we have. Many beer drinkers don’t realize the impact that a yeast strain can have on the final flavor and it turns out that our yeast can impart some interesting characteristics that can be described as floral or or even fruity in nature. These are subtle flavors and are important and more noticeable in some of our lighter beers such as our Pale Ale and Ordinary Bitter.
Our yeast is best cropped from the top of the fermented beer and this requires a fermenting container that allows access from the top. Since our equipment was fabricated by an English brewery designer (Vincent Johnson), he made sure to give us this option.
What are some distinguishing characteristics of cask-conditioned ale?
Cask conditioning is a centuries-old process that results in carbonation of the finished beer. In effect, the container from which the beer is served (the cask) is where the final, or secondary, stage of fermentation occurs. The majority of fermentation, the primary stage, takes place in large tanks (1000 liters in our brewery) and most of the sugar from the brewing process is converted into alcohol by the yeast. We stop the fermentation before all of the sugar is used up and transfer it to casks which in our case are either “firkins” (9 UK gallons = 10.8 US gallons) or “pins” (4.5 UK gallons = 5.4 US gallons). When the almost-finished beer is added to these casks, they are sealed and the final stage of fermentation is allowed to occur which results in a small amount of additional alcohol being produced, along with some carbon dioxide which has nowhere to go except into solution as carbonation. The final result is a lower level of carbonation relative to most non-cask beers, which are force-carbonated and tend to have a more “fizzy” character. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, they’re just different and typical of their respective styles.
Smoother carbonation can lead to more nuanced flavors because of the reduced carbonation “bite.” It should also be served in the 50-55 degree temperature range which allows the flavors to express themselves more fully than when served at 40 degrees or lower. Also, our styles are lower in alcohol so they are easier to drink without feeling the effects of the alcohol quite as much. (For additional facts, check out their FAQ on their website.)
Which ales do you always have on tap, if any?
We always have the Ordinary Bitter, Stout and English IPA. We once ran out of stout and there was a minor revolt at the bar. Apart from those three, we always have one of a couple of pale ales and a copper-colored beer such as our Amber or Special Bitter. We also try to have a “guest beer” or two as well which tend to be keg beers served with higher carbonation and at lower temperature. With these, we try to round out the options for beer drinkers that aren’t necessarily 100% dedicated to cask ales. We also have a selection of wines plus a hard cider on tap for those who don’t drink beer.
What’s the general reaction been from your customers?
Our fans who already knew about cask ale were thrilled to have a local pub brewing and serving this style of beer. We get an especially good reaction from people who have lived in England for any period of time because this style is so familiar and comforting to them. We’ve even had people come in who personally know our collaborators or their beers so that’s really nice. For people that were new to cask ales, we have generally had a good response as they’ve come to appreciate how unique this style is relative to most other craft beers. The combination of lower alcohol, smoother carbonation and easier drinking seems to hit the spot as a change of pace for some beer fans.
Are there many producers in the Bay Area and/or U.S.?
In the Bay Area, the first brewery to fully embrace and produce cask ales was Dave McLean’s Magnolia in San Francisco. He really set the standard for this style [here]. Other breweries that I’m aware of that also produce cask ales include Moonlight Brewery, Drake’s and Bear Republic, but I’m sure that there are others. There is also a brewery in Oakridge, Oregon called Brewers Union Local 180 that specializes in English-style cask ales. Across the country, there are many breweries that produce casks, but I’m not aware of any that are 100% committed to the style.
What is the scope of distribution of your beer?
Currently, we have our casks in about 10 bars and restaurants in the Bay Area. We have just started to promote our beer for sale outside our pub so we are just getting started, but we hope that will grow fairly quickly. We also have plans to look into packaging in cans or bottle down the road while trying to simulate the same qualities as out of a cask in the pub.
And Freewheel isn’t just about beer; there’s also a pretty tasty menu of food folks can choose from.
Our original head chef, Matt Hunter, who is now in the process of starting his own East Bay brewery, was instrumental in creating our food menu. We describe it as “English pub-inspired but with a California twist” because of the locally-sourced ingredients. Our most popular items are fish and chips, cheeseburgers, pulled pork sandwiches, soups, sausage sampler and homemade crisps (potato chips).