It’s a beautiful fall day and I’m driving southeast to visit one of Ohio’s up and coming breweries, Little Fish Brewing in Athens. Over the course of the ninety minute drive the flat landscape and urban sprawl of Ohio’s largest city give way to the rolling western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Downtown Athens has a vibrant small town feel to it, albeit a small town where the citizens are not averse to throwing back a few drinks and still vote for democrats. Today is homecoming and the streets are crawling with a mixture of Ohio University alumni, clad in green and white attire, and undergrads on their way to postgame parties, plastic cups in hand looking for the next keg of macro lager. The scene momentarily takes me back to memories of my own undergraduate days.
Resisting the urge to find the nearest place serving kamikazes and pitchers, I stay on task and head out to the west side of Athens where Little Fish Brewing Company is located. From a distance the brewery blends seamlessly into the surrounding community. The metal pole barn is at home in the working-class neighborhoods that you find once you leave downtown Athens. The location on a small hill near the Hocking River is picturesque, but then again so is much of southeast Ohio. It’s not until you step inside that you realize you’ve stumbled onto something out of the ordinary. My first instinct is to check out the tap list. There are some expected styles on offer including a pilsner, a porter, a milk stout, and a couple of IPAs, but there are also styles that hearken back to European brewing traditions from an earlier era—two different saisons, a biere de garde, a Flander’s red, and an English old ale. Despite the lack of a formal divide between the brewery and taproom the familiar stainless steel conical fermenters are barely visible, obscured by scores of oak barrels stacked almost to the ceiling. As I continue to scan the room my eyes fall upon a piece of equipment seen in very few Ohio breweries, a handsome 950 gallon (30 bbl) oak foeder. For a brewery still in its second year of operation the sheer quantity of oak available for fermenting and aging beer is impressive.
The long and winding road
Little Fish is the creation of Sean White and Jimmy Stockwell. The Athens natives, who have been friends since 6th grade, took different paths to their current life of long hours and modest earnings. Stockwell studied molecular biology at Ohio University before taking a job with a biotechnology company in Athens, where he worked on medical diagnostics for diseases like the flu. He still works with bugs, but now he’s trying to find ones that will ferment wort instead of identifying pathogens. White’s journey took him further afield. His first stop was the Big Apple, where he got into homebrewing in a big way, eventually becoming president of the New York City Homebrewer’s Guild. He then moved to Portland, Oregon, to try and land a job as a brewer. Once he got off the bus in the city he calls “Hollywood for Brewers” he had to start at the bottom and work his way up. He paid his dues by first interning at Upright Brewing, then working for a mobile bottling company, before finally landing a job as a brewer at Alameda Brewing. After about a year at Alameda he moved onto a position at Cascade Brewing, a brewery renowned for their barrel-aged fruited sours.
The story of how White ended up back in Athens is an interesting one. While living in New York, White became friends with beer writer and Ohio University grad Joshua Bernstein (author of The Complete Beer Course and Complete IPA: The Guide to Your Favorite Craft Beer). In 2009 Bernstein wrote a piece for Imbibe magazine entitled Vision Quest: Homebrewer’s Living the Dream that featured a picture of White, who happened to be wearing a t-shirt from the Athen’s restaurant Casa Nueva. White’s choice of attire caught the eye of Jackie O’s brewmaster Brad Clark as he scanned the January issue of Imbibe. The two connected virtually and kept in touch over the years. Eventually when the Jackie O’s production facility opened up, Clark recruited White to return home and head up brewing operations at Jackie O’s downtown brewpub.
Casa Nueva reappears several years later in the Little Fish story. It was at the Athen’s eatery in the spring of 2013 Stockwell first pitched the idea of teaming up to open a brewery to his old classmate White. The proposal hit a chord with Sean who had already been working on a business plan for starting his own brewery. Two years later after securing financing, overcoming countless bureaucratic hurdles, and converting a run down former auto garage into a working brewery, Little Fish opened their doors to the public in the summer of 2015.
A focus on farmhouse ales
What differentiates Little Fish from the sea of craft breweries that dot the Ohio landscape is a focus on farmhouse ales. The term farmhouse ale is a broad term that encompasses beer styles as diverse as Belgian saison, French biere de garde, and Finnish sahti. Traditionally these ales were brewed with locally grown ingredients that were on hand, so it was not unusual for the grain bill to include oats, rye, and/or spelt. With little to no control over fermentation temperatures, these beers tended to be full of yeast forward flavors like fruity esters and spicy phenols. Inevitably varying levels of wild yeast and bacteria would also get in on the action, resulting in an earthy tartness. Oft times other spices (coriander, ginger) were added to augment the yeast byproducts, or just to cover up off flavors that could arise from the primitive equipment used to make these beers.
Little Fish makes a variety of beers that can be classified as farmhouse ales, including no less than three saisons (Saison du Poisson, Sunfish, Poisson Grande) and a biere de garde (Woodthrush). In a nod to an older, less controlled approach to brewing all of the packaged beers spend some time aging in wood, either in the oak foeder, one of the used wine barrels, or both. While in the wood they are exposed to wild yeasts and varying levels of souring bacteria. They also make several beers that while not technically farmhouse ales, are historical styles involving mixed fermentation cultures and barrel aging. The Aecern (old English for acorn) is their take on an English old ale, the style from which Brettanomyces was initially isolated. Their Berliner Weisse Rhineheitsgewhat!? is a rare example of a craft beer made without hops, instead relying on citrus zest, chamomile and rose hips for character.
A commitment to local ingredients and sustainability
Earlier this year Little Fish made news when they released the first beer in over a century to be brewed exclusively with Ohio-grown ingredients, a hoppy blonde ale called No Frackin’ Way. It was brewed with barley grown and malted at Rustic Brew Farm, near Marysville, and hops from Ohio Valley Hops in southwest Ohio (for more details check out Brain Williams’ article in 614columbus.com). While No Frackin’ Way garnered quite a bit of attention, Sean and Jimmy are quick to point out that they’ve been using local ingredients from the beginning. In addition to their partnerships with Rustic Brew Farms, they use grains malted at Haus Malts in Cleveland when possible. Sunfish and Saison du Poisson both feature Ohio grown spelt, and Shagbark Pilsner uses organic corn grits from Shagbark seed mill in Athens. Like many breweries in Southeast Ohio they make a beer with locally harvested paw paws called Notes from the Understory.
Given their focus on local ingredients it’s not surprising to learn that Jimmy and Sean are keen to use ingredients grown on-site in small batch beers they call Estate Beers. Last year they made a small batch of Saison du Poisson blended with cider made from apples grown on the 2 acre property that surrounds the brewery. This spring they planted hops on a patch of land between the outdoor courtyard and the Hocking River. As expected the first year’s harvest was modest, but yielded 25 pounds of hops that went into a beer called Community Hop that is still aging on Brett. They have also planted various fruit trees on the property—plums, plumcots, peaches, and sour pie cherries—with an eye toward incorporating the harvest in future iterations of the Estate Beer line.
Then there is the Sunfish project. A portion of every bottle of Sunfish sold is being set away to purchase solar panels that will be installed on the roof of the brewery. When completed the 20 kW solar array will provide one-quarter to one-half of the electrical power needed to operate the brewery. Stockwell told me he expected the solar panels to be purchased and installed sometime next year.
Accolades and Tasting Notes
In the relatively short period of time that Little Fish Brewing has been in existence they have received several accolades. RateBeer.com named them the best new brewery in Ohio in 2015, an impressive feat given the rate at which new breweries are springing up around the Buckeye state. They were one of only five Ohio breweries to medal at the 2016 World Beer Cup, bringing home a gold medal in the Belgian and French ale category for their biere de garde, Barrel Aged Woodthrush.
Bottles of Little Fish beers can be found in better beer stores throughout much of Ohio. The beers that get packaged share several commonalities. You can be sure that each has spent months aging in wood, and has seen a mixed culture featuring Brettanomyces and/or souring bacteria at some point in the fermentation process. As a service to Ohio beer lovers I’ve done my best to sample every Little Fish beer that I can get my hands on. Here are my tasting notes:
Sunfish – Light golden and translucent with a dense, billowing white head that recedes slowly, leaving behind rocky chunks of foam, floating like islands of meringue on a golden sea of beer. The nose is a combination of bready pilsner malts and spicy black pepper phenolics. The taste starts off with the phenolic laced pilsner malt profile that follows the nose, but is quickly followed by a wave of mildly tart, fruit forward (pears, apricots, lemons) flavors. This bright, fruity saison may well be the most approachable of the packaged Little Fish beers.
Saison du Poisson – Just like waffles, pomme frites, and bureaucrats, the nose is 100% Belgian—very yeast forward with fruity esters and spicy phenolics on a sweet, grainy pilsner malt base, not so different from Sunfish. However, unlike Sunfish the taste takes a rather dramatic turn that cannot be anticipated from the nose. Saison du Poisson is dry, vinous and tart, faintly fruity with unmistakable woody notes from the oak barrels. It’s less fruity, more complex, and a shade tarter than Sunfish.
Woodthrush – The gold medal winner from the 2016 World Beer Cup, this biere de garde is notable for a lovely nose that expresses the funky, musty handiwork of Brettanomyces at its best. The taste is a complex array of flavors that include lightly caramelized amber malts, notes of red wine and wood character from the spent cabernet barrels used for aging, and spicy notes from the yeast. Although it has a darker malt base than the saisons it retains the dryness and effervescence of Sunfish and Saison du Poisson.
Aecern – This beer features a bready malt base and strong oak character from the time spent aging in the foeder. The rather assertive oakiness is part of the plan, because the Aecern was brewed in large part to condition the new oak foeder and soak up some of the harsh edges that come from a fresh oak vessel. The presence of Brettanomyces, a characteristic of the style, is somewhat overshadowed by the oak, so I cellared the other bottle I purchased to revisit in a year or so. As the foeder matures it’s likely this beer will be phased out of the core lineup.
Maker of Things – This Flander’s Red is Little Fish’s first foray into the world of truly sour beers. The brewing process behind this beer is notable. They began by creating an ale heavy on Vienna malts, fermented with standard ale yeast. Next the beer was transferred to red wine barrels and a mixed culture of Brett and bacteria was added. After the secondary fermentation was in full swing the beer was transferred once again, this time to the foeder where it was mixed in a 2:1 ratio with Aecern left behind in the foeder. Maker of Things is reddish brown and hazy, with big notes of dark fruit on the nose. Dry woody notes from oak barrel lurk in the background. The combination of a caramel from the malts, dark fruit esters from the yeast, and sharp acidity from the bacteria is spot on for the style. This is a complex beer that will appeal to anyone out there with a soft spot for Rodenbach or New Belgium La Folie.
I should finish by noting that there are many excellent choices of “clean beers” among the 21 taps on offer at the taproom.
The world of craft beer is a crowded place these days, but the use of local ingredients and a strong commitment to wood-aged farmhouse ales and sours has allowed Little Fish to differentiate themselves from the field. Making beers the old-fashioned way takes more time and money, but the end result is a more complex, unique product. So do yourself a favor and pick up one of their bottles from the local beer store. Better yet head down to the family friendly taproom to experience the full spectrum of what a skilled brewing team can do.
Jimmy and Sean told me the brewery name was chosen in part because they see themselves as a little fish in the big pond of craft beer, but with beer this good I suspect that over time they will grow to become a highly sought after little fish. Who knows, there are parallels with the early days of fellow Athenians Jackie O’s, so it’s not hard to imagine a day where they may aspire to swim in a bigger pond.
For more insight and details on everything Little Fish click here to access our podcast with Jimmy and Sean, recorded on-site in early October.