Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hanging with the Brewer: Redbrick Station's Mike McDonald

Late last week when my fiance Deana realized we had Monday off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day she mentioned that it might be a good time to finally get all of our Xmas decorations put away. I agreed and then promptly went about figuring a way to get out of participating. A few minutes later, I had an e-mail out to the fine folks of Redbrick Station inquiring about meeting with their brewer, Mike McDonald. They were kind enough to agree to a meetup. Needless to say, hanging out with Mike beat Deana's day of stuffing reindeer into plastic bins by a considerable amount.

Being that we recently turned the page on a new year I decided that one of things I want to bring to the blog is a lot more interaction with local breweries. I chose to start off with Redbrick Station for a variety of reasons. Out of all the brewpubs in the area, I've spent more time in their establishment than any other. I can walk there from work and I only live 10 minutes away making every day the perfect day to sit down with pint there. I also decided to start with Redbrick Station because I really love what they are doing there and yet I feel like they don't always get the attention from local beer connoisseurs that they should.

So I asked Mike, who has been brewing for 22 years (16 with Redbrick) just that. Did he ever consider what Redbrick's nitch was within the Maryland Beer scene? His answer was very refreshing. Most all of the beer he brews is sold within the walls of the brewpub and so he's making beer for the people that walk through their doors every day. He's not brewing for himself or spending time looking at the landscape of Maryland beer and trying to keep with the trends. At the end of the day, Mike's using his 14 barrel system to produce sessionable (more often that not) English style beers that guys like me can enjoy two or three of with dinner before we head home for the evening.

On that front, Mike's doing a damn fine job. A big thing in craft beer these days is pairing food with beer. In my experience, I find this to be a challenge because of craft beers tendency to go big on everything. Yeah, there are beers that pair easily but there are far too many I don't want anywhere near my pint glass when I'm eating. At Redbrick, their beers are well balanced and work well as a standalone beer or something to help wash down whatever food you have in front of you. In other words, the beers are flavorful but they aren't so over the top that you find your tastebuds hosting a battle royale between beer flavors and food flavors.

On a different note but along the same theme, the well balanced nature of Mike's beers make them perfect for carrying on conversations. As much as I love admiring a beer for it's color, aroma, taste, head retention, lacing, mouth feel....(you get the point)....there are times where I just want a beer that tastes good and isn't going to get in the way of a conversation. Better yet, I don't always want a beer that's going to be the conversation. After work, all I want to do is unwind with a good beer and relax for a little bit. There is a time for getting overly precious with my beer and then there are times when all I want is a good old fashioned beer delivered to me in a simple but delicious way. Creating unassuming but fantastic beers is a skill unto itself and something I wish more people took notice of. Mike nails these types of beers at Redbrick and given that they style themselves as an English Style Pub, the nature of Redbrick's beers are right in line with where they ought to be.

In addition to their staple beers that consist of Avenue Ale, Honeygo Lite, Spooners Stout, Something Red, and Daily Crisis IPA (their top seller) Mike usually has one or two seasonal's on tap. Yesterday, I enjoyed Winter Solstice on cask and it was delicious. It was nutty with a nice mix of caramel and toffee and would go perfectly as I work on this post while it's 20 degrees outside and we're 6 inches deep in snow. A few other favorite seasonals are a Blueberry Ale known as They Made Me Do It and a Watermelon Beer called Cerveza Sandia. Trust me when I say Cerveza Sandia is one of the most refreshing local beers going at the end of a hot summer. Neither of these beers (or any Redbrick beer for that matter) use extracts and remain true to their base beer while offering subtle hints of fruit. If you don't like fruit beers these are definitely a few to try.

Another thing they do really well is cask ale and I give Redbrick a lot of credit for turning me onto cask. When I first started getting into beer I didn't really know what cask beer was but it was at Redbrick where I learned just how different a beer can become simply by serving a beer through a cask instead of the traditional CO2 fed system I was used to. Mike prefers to throw Ave Ale in the cask and dry hop it, but all the beers minus Honegyo Lite are fair game for cask treatment. Personally, my two favorite cask offerings are Daily Crisis and Something Red. Something about the rounded soft flavors make these beers extra quaffable.

Something that make Redbrick's beers unique are the fact that they use open fermentation. I wasn't previously aware of this fact, and I won't pretend to tell you what flavors I can pick up on their beers that arise via open fermentation, but it's something not everyone does and I'm always a fan of the road less traveled. Mike also informed me that he doesn't mess with water chemistry. Once upon a time he might have tried to recreate Burton upon Trent water but found that White Marsh water worked just fine. Being that water is the main ingredient in beer, if you're a fan of drinking local you can drink easy knowing that the water, and hence the beer, is as local as local gets.

If you haven't had a chance to try Redbrick out recently be sure to stop back in and give them a taste. Yes, I know some of you won't want to make the trip out to of the city and into the suburbs, but don't let that stop you from getting some. The Wharf Rat almost always has something of Mike's on offer. And just as an FYI to any curious readers, I got to taste a Barleywine that was fermented in an Oak Barrel and it was out of this world good. It's more along the lines of an English Style Barleywine with hints of citrus, sweet malt, and a bit of spice throw in from the Oak. I loved it now and hope to get a taste in the future because it's only going to get better as it ages another couple months. Be on the lookout for that one down the line as it's going to be very limited.

Lastly, but most important I'd like to thank Mike and the people at Redbrick Station for allowing me to come in and take up some of their valuable time. It was a day well spent, full of great information, good beer, and a heck of conversation with Mike McDonald. See you next Tuesday for $1 beers!

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