Brew & A: Michael "The Mad Fermentationist" Tonsmeire

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What is your obsession when it comes to beer? We all have that one little thing that we all find enticing. Some of us nerd out on yeast. Getting to know every little nuance of our little buddies we strive for an uncommon understanding of those awesome fungi. Some of us seek an intense knowledge of hops, going so far as to grow them in our own backyards adding to an already fantastic sense of accomplishment when we brew.
Michael "The Mad Fermentationist" Tonsmeire is obsessed with sours.
In our second foray out of the community (kind of, Mike is a member!) and into the great big brewing world, we get to meet one of the most influential brewers in modern brewing today.
Michael has transformed a style of beer into a lifestyle. We all know at least one brewer who's obsessed with sours. All brew with a bevy of yeast yielding in a sour beer, but not many are published authors on the subject. When not writing, he can be found in his blog, The Mad Fermentationist, and he will be speaking this year at the NHC.
Michael "The Mad Femrentationist" Tonsmeire joins us as the latest brewer to be profiled in our series, Brew & A.
Austin: How did you start brewing?
Mike: I took a student-taught class titled Beer Brewing and Appreciation during my final semester at Carnegie Mellon University. For the mid-term my friend Nicole and I brewed a solid brown ale, for the final a poorly-conceptualized vanilla cream ale. After graduation, homebrewing quickly spiraled into an obsession while brewing with a couple friends from elementary school, Jason and Eric.
Austin: What did you study in college? Are you able to talk beer full time yet? If so, where do you work?
Mike: I double majored in Economics and Psychology. My fulltime job is as an Economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics working on the Consumer Price Index. Over the last 10 years homebrewing has gone from a hobby, to a revenue-neutral obsession, to a nice side business. I don't have plans to make it a fulltime occupation anytime soon though. I always worry about turning something I enjoy into something I need to do to earn a living. I like having the freedom to write about what interests me, rather than worry about how many hits it will generate.
Austin: What's your favorite beer?
Mike: For favorite beer I'll ignore those that I've only had once, too difficult to know how much a one-off from five years ago would hold up if I tried it again. 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze and Alpine Hoppy Birthday are both up near the top. I really enjoy both because they managed to stuff huge flavor into a moderate alcohol package.
Austin: What's one piece of your brew setup you can't live without?
Mike: Has to be an auto-siphon. I can't imagine going back to filling up a tube with water to start a siphon.
Austin: What's the worst product you've ever used?
Mike: I've found White Labs Lactobacillus delbrueckii (WLP677) to be deeply disappointing. It didn't produce much lactic acid, even without competition. My friend Matt Humbard is running a test comparing various Lacto strains for an article we're co-authoring for BYO. I'm interested to find out which commercial Lactobacillus produces lactic acid most rapidly.
Austin: Why do you homebrew?
Mike: I love the brewing process itself. The smell of the malt while mashing-in, the smell of hops going into the boil, the look of clear chilled wort running into the fermentor, that first taste of a beer that previously only existed in my mind. I love walking down to my cellar and retrieving a bottle of sour beer I brewed years previously.

Austin: What's your homebrewing style - extract, partial mash, all-grain, biab, or ? What's your dream brew rig, and how would you assemble it?
Mike: I've recently upgraded to a new brewing system (replacing my original cooler mash tun and kettle from 2005). It's a BIAB-inspired no-sparge rig. Essentially I heat all of the water in the mash tun, dough in, recirculate with a pump, rest, and then send to the kettle. For stronger beers I add a small cold water sparge to boost efficiency a little. I value a reduction in time physical labor over improved efficiency

Austin: Did you build it all yourself? How long did it take and did you have any issues?

Mike: There really wasn't much to build for my new brewing setup. There is no stand, just the two kettles sitting on burners. I pieced together the fittings to make it work the way I wanted, but in the end I doubt I spent more than 10 hours total designing, sourcing, and assembling. It took a few batches to dial in my new process, and identify a few missing pieces (like pick-up tubes to reduce dead-space losses). I did repurpose a pump I mounted inside a plastic toolbox. That project was based on this article by Ryan Lockard. In my opinion homebrewers often put excessive emphasis on wort production technique/equipment, when ingredient quality, fermentation, and handling of the fermented beer account for so much of the results. Heck, I still brew malt extract batches once or twice a year!
Austin: Tell us about one of your most memorable homebrewing experiences.
Mike: Drinking the beers I'd helped develop for Modern Times at Toronado San Diego. Hard to beat enjoying beers on tap at one of the world's best beer bars that I'd been drinking from the kegerator in my dining room.

Austin: How did you start developing recipes?
Mike: Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels was a big early influence and confidence booster. It walks you through the recipe creation process and gives you the why in addition to the what. From there it has been researching and learning by doing, often trying to replicate flavors I enjoy in commercial beers and homebrews. It took time to learn what ingredients work for my palate. To speed that along, I brewed experimental split batches to evaluate hops, sugars, and Brett strains among others. I still vacillate between brewing beers I think will be delicious, and those designed to help me learn about a new ingredient.
Austin: How did you get noticed, submit them, etc. to breweries?
Mike: Jacob McKean had contacted me through The Mad Fermentationist and swapped some rad commercial beers for a six-pack of my homebrew. Apparently he was impressed because he gave me a call a couple years later when he was leaving Stone to begin raising money to open Modern Times. We collaboratively developed the concepts and recipes for the four core beers. I brewed test batches (recipes) and shipped him bottles to evaluate and share with supporters. The actual brewers took them from there, tweaking some slightly, while radically overhauling others.
Austin: Describe the perfect beer - style, aroma, flavor, etc. This doesn't have to be a real beer. Just what you think the perfect beer might be.
Mike: It is hard to beat a perfect gueuze. That blend of fruity and funky aromatics and balanced acidity. Lemon, minerals, hay, dried flowers, a hint of tropical fruit, tartness without vinegar. Add citrusy American dry hops to that and I'm in heaven.
Austin: What started your love of sours?
Mike: Sour beers are something I had to work to enjoy. They weren't love at first sip. My first 375 ml bottle of Cantillon Kriek took about two hours to choke down. With more exposure my palate adjusted and I could eventually taste more than just acidity. With both food and beer I tend to seek out new experiences, and sour beers are more variable and dynamic than other categories. The responsible microbes produce unique flavors not found in ales and lagers. In general I love brewing beers that are difficult to buy. Despite the recent increase in production, it seems that people are buying sours at an even more accelerated pace. Not to mention the high price when you are lucky enough to find them.

Austin: Can you share some of your journey through sours?
Mike: Sour beers are about patience. Producing the best examples requires a different rhythm and mindset than clean beers. I've learned to maintain a pipeline, brewing a new batch soon after packaging a previous one. This keeps my cellar stocked, and allows me to look forward a couple months to the next batch that will be ready, rather than a year or two for the one I just brewed. With ales and lagers usually you've made all of the important decisions by the time you pitch. That isn't the case for sour beers. I try not to lock them into schedules or plans. Maybe a beer will call out for fruit, dry hops, blending, spiking with wine or spirits etc. I try to let the flavors that develop guide those decisions. Sour beers age beautifully as well, so I'm able to spread the enjoyment of a batch over several years.

Austin: What is your favorite Brett? What did you produce with it?
Mike: I've got a strain of Brettanomyces that Jason Rodriguez isolated from Cantillon Blbr that he calls CB2. It does a wonderful job producing a balance of fruit and funk quickly and without over-attenuating. We've got it privately banked at White Labs for use at Modern Times as well. It really shined in a Belgian single I inoculated at bottling. I also use it in my house saison culture. Sadly the strain isn't available commercially. Otherwise, I'm a big advocate of bottle dregs or blends rather than individual isolates. My goal usually isn't predictability or control, I want survival of the fittest! For blending it is also nice to have a variety of characters available to select from, rather than using a single house culture for every beer.

Austin: When did you publish your book? Can you tell us about the process and where we can find it?
Mike: I started writing American Sour Beers in early 2011 with the intent of self-publishing, but after a year of work I decided to see if a publisher was interested. Luckily for me, my first and only pitch was accepted by Brewers Publications! More than three years went into the research, writing, editing, and formatting. Lots of lunch breaks spent interviewing brewers, and weekends sitting on the couch poring over brewing research. Brewers Publications hired a variety of editors to make the book better than I ever could have on my own. Although we also butted heads a few times when they wanted to cut sections I'd written (usually they find an author and work with them from the start). ASB was finally published in June 2014. It can be purchased at many homebrewing shops, bookstores (assuming they still exist), and of course the Internet. The response has been terrific so far between the emails, forums, book signings, and reviews, really humbling.
Austin: What is the one piece of advice you wish someone would've giving you when you first started?
Mike: Don't add the whole 5 oz packet of priming sugar that comes with beer kits. Add a weighed amount of sugar based on a calculator that takes into account the actual volume of beer in the bottling bucket, peak temperature, and target carbonation volumes.
Austin: Did you have bottle bombs when you first started?
Mike: I've had maybe a half dozen bottle bombs over roughly 150 bottled batches. Not bad, and most of those have been anomalous bottles from batches that were not highly carbonated. However, I did have some very carbonated early batches until I started using a priming sugar calculator. That is one of the 11 common mistakes included on my list of suggestions for new brewers.
I really appreciate Michael taking the time to join us for our series. If you to love sours, or just want to know more, I highly encourage you get a copy of American Sour Beers.
Please join me in raising a glass, preferably a sour, to this weeks Brew & A, Michael "The Mad Fermentationist" Tonsmeire .

I'd be interested to see some photos of your cellar. Also, what is the commercial lacto strain you've seen the most success with so far?
This should be a "Brewing Legends" article! Great read on a great brewer and contributor to the brewing community. Cheers Michael!
Brilliant, I follow the blog regularly even if I don't brew sours. The info about sugars is great. Didn't know we both did economic statistics.
Michael, I'm using a similar brew set up. When you're recirculating, do you have any kind of device on the end of the recirc hose in the mash kettle? or just let it pour in?
I've been trying to find a good solution for not disrupting the grain bed. Just begining my foray into sours and look forward to using your book.
@finsfan Honestly, I debated that. I think Brew & A, doesn't serve him or Marshall Schott justice in terms of their accomplishments.
My cellar is a mess at the moment (I need more shelves), but here's a picture from a few years ago:
The White Labs and Wyeast L. brevis strains are promising. I've also heard good things about the Omega Lacto Blend (I have a pack I'll be using soon).
I've been going back and forth between just curling the return hose at the top, and using an "Imperial Sparge" from Northern Brewer. Both seem to work alright, given the depth of the grain bed.
Everybody interested in American sour beer should buy his book. Now. A triumph in research and good writing. Also, definitely browse his site extensively. An credible source of information, and he will respond to questions you post! Nice interview!
Very impressive article. Sounds like you're going farther than just about anyone with American sours, One guy even said the kottbusser some of us are brewing was a sour. I think it's a combination of the very dry finish it was said to have combined with a hint of sweetness it also had/has. What say you?
@unionrdr - that kottbusser was traditionally a sour beer, or the one that you brewed tasted sour? I'm sure many if not most pre-1860s eventually went sour if stored long enough (wood fermentors, no pure culturing techniques, no knowledge of sanitation, low hopping rates etc.). However, much of it was likely consumed quickly. There was an interesting study suggesting repeatedly repitching cultures results in surprisingly clean fermentation at traditional Norwegian farmhouse breweries (
Molasses can certainly add a hint of tartness, maybe that's what he was tasting? For a beer to be "sour" you need additional acid from somewhere above what a non-sour beer contains.
My thoughts as well. I believe it was the combination of ingredients & process that gave that sensation by slightly sweet/tart very dry all coming together. Since no other surviving descriptions mention this, I think my theory the most likely?
Amazing book! Just finished it a couple weeks ago. Thanks Michael! My favorite brewing book to date! I'll be racking a Belgian Single into a barrel containing our 3rd Flanders Red in a couple weeks, all based on your recipe. Cheers!