Santa Rosa native Steve Doty made a very specific decision when he opened Shady Oak Barrel House in 2014. His craft brewery is 100% committed to barrel aging and wild yeast.

That dedication to an all barrel program from day one almost always goes hand in hand with a super passionate brewer. A brewer who wants to push the flavor and complexity boundaries of what beer is –  and that is exactly the kind of person I met when Steve and I sat down to talk about Shady Oak Barrel House craft brewery.

The idea of opening a new brewery can be daunting. It is a very expensive initial capital investment and cash flow can be a problem as you are scaling up recipes, figuring out a new brew house and not selling any beer. A lot of small craft breweries around the country have figured out coping mechanisms such as putting in a small tap room to sell fresh beer and contract brewing with other small breweries to essentially rent their brewhouse equipment for a day and then brewing and shipping their own recipes back to their own facility where fermentation and everything else takes place. This practice is referred to as gypsy brewing.

Shady Oak has made a conscious decision to invest its money in barrels and gypsy brewing has allowed Steve to invest in barrels and a barrel aging program that would allow Shady Oak to fulfill Steve’s vision of an all wild yeast barrel house.

Most breweries that open nowadays will try to supplement their barrel habit by brewing a damn good IPA, selling a lot of that IPA and then slowly scaling up their barrel program. Not Steve. Steve has no brew system, no tap room, just his wort and his barrels. The beer in those bottles he sells need a minimum of 6 months in the barrel before Steve will start to blend them in a way that suits his vision and that particular brettanomyces strain and the bacteria that is being produced. This is about as inefficient a way to open a brewery that you could imagine, but it was the only way Steve felt it could be done correctly for him, and it seems to be paying off:

See impressive Rate Beer Review here.

Shady Oak Barrel House was founded on the idea of embracing wild yeast and barrels as the primary way of inoculating his beers. Most of the great craft beers that we have come to know and love have relied heavily on different varieties of hops in their recipes as the primary driver of flavor. The practice of adding lots of hops has certainly become an entry point for many beer drinkers to become craft beer drinkers.

But now young brewers raised on those beautifully hoppy beers are discovering the wonderful world of wild yeast and what an amazing array of flavors that can be achieved.

An all barrel program like Shady Oak indicates a few things to me. Primarily, it is going to take a deep commitment to time and mother nature to get this project off of the ground. The shortest period of time Steve has from brewing to release is six months. A lot of his beers are a year or longer and up to 2 years. So you have inventory that cannot be sold (keep in mind a lot of the beers you see on shelves have turnaround times of about three weeks from brew day to bottling day). Also, each barrel has to be meticulously cared for and thought about in terms of extracting flavors and keeping balance. This level of thoughtfulness will almost automatically insure that a beer released from a program like this will be good, or at the very least very interesting.

It also tells me that Steve is committed to wild yeast. It is a particular mind set that ferments beer with wild yeast. Usually a mind set that is very passionate about fermentation and the almost limitless array of flavors that can be achieved with wild yeast if used correctly. This is a time and care issue. It takes time to corral a yeast strain and balance it out to how you see fit. Then you have to figure out what kind of beer will work congruently with a particular wild yeast strain. The only thing above time in this equation is thoughtfulness, and it is the thoughtfulness that goes into each barrel, each blend and each beer that makes a brewery like Steve’s so special.

Wild yeast strains are around all of us at all times. Yeast attaches itself to things like fruit skins and sourdough starters and the syrup like teas that brewers call wort. Yeast is always looking for a source of sugar to feed upon and propagate itself and it finds a mutually beneficial relationship in the aforementioned wort, because when yeast eats those sugars in wort it turns them into alcohol and creates beer.

Almost all brewers use commercial yeast instead of relying on spontaneous fermentation (wild yeast) because the commercial yeast strains have been sorted in labs to ensure the upmost quality in providing the exact yeast strain that a brewer wants to use. This is an awesome thing because it allows brewers to produce consistent, predictable results and provides people with the same tasting beer every time it is ordered. Everybody wins. I, the consumer, can have confidence that what I am buying is in fact what I am expecting.

However, as craft brewing is exploding, brewers are looking for ways to distinguish themselves and stand out in a crowded market place. Embracing and learning how to use wild yeast is a way to do it. When considering beers available on the shelves, things like wild yeast and barrel programs will usually indicate that even if you’ve never heard of the brewery or style of beer, it is worth taking a chance on because you can be assured that the beer was made with passion and dedication. In other words, in all likeliness, it will be delicious.