Brandon Jones repairs leaky barrels and blends craft beer at Yazoo Brewing Company, but he does so much more for the Nashville beer scene. He’s helped introduce the area to the first true souring program in the state with his Embrace the Funk program at the Nashville brewery and on May 14, Yazoo will host the fourth-annual Funk Fest, which he oversees, offering attendees a behind-the-scenes look at the craft-beer industry through a variety of guest speakers, as well as exclusive festival-only wild, sour and funky beers that he created.
Mr. Jones began working at Yazoo in 2012 and quickly became a trailblazer within the craft-beer scene. Yazoo released the first commercially brewed sour beer in Tennessee which was his creation and was awarded a medal for one of his beers the very first year it was submitted to the Great American Beer Festival. In our Beer with a Brewmaster interview, Brandon details the origins of Embrace the Funk, defines what truly creates a sour beer and gives hints about Yazoo’s mysterious new barrel and bottling sour house.
How were you introduced to sour beers?
– “I’d been brewing beer at home for a long time. It goes back to when I first started. My wife, who was my fiance at the time, bought me a Mr. Beer kit around 2001. I had brewed a couple of batches and my young palate, at the time, thought they were pretty good. I brewed a raspberry wheat and not knowing anything about sanitation, I guess I did something wrong. I opened up the first bottle and it spewed up to the ceiling. It tasted like a Sour Patch Kid and I hadn’t heard anything about sour beers, at the time. I didn’t know the style existed. I kind of gave up on brewing, at that time. I was still in television, working at Bristol Motor Speedway, doing some coverage for CBS and ESPN. I thought I’d buy some beer for some friends and I saw this beer that was labeled: “World’s Finest Provisional Ale.” It was Liefmans’ Goudenband. I only bought it because of the packaging. It was a beer, wrapped in paper, that wasn’t a brown paper bag. I opened it up, tasted it and thought, ‘Holy crap! That’s those tastes I had with my beer, that I thought I was going to poison myself with. It was actually a style!'”
“I started reading the label and realized it was a Oud Bruin Flanders Brown and that’s when I started to get back into brewing, back in the fall of 2002. I learned all-grain brewing and really started dabbling in mixed and wild cultures, but information was so scarce, at the time. There weren’t pages upon pages of information on the Internet, at the time. I learned a lot by trial and error and talking to people, when I got the chance. Vinnie Cilurzo at Russian River was extremely helpful to me, back in 2005. He, actually, was kind enough to send me a barrel, from the first batch of Consecration, to start aging, as a gift. It was the very first barrel I started working with.”
How did Embrace the Funk become a part of Yazoo?
– “Fast forward a couple of years and I’d done a couple of batches in that barrel with a couple of people from a homebrew club. I was talking to Linus Hall — Linus and I had brewed a batch, together, back in 2009 at Marathon and it was called Brandon’s Hot Blaster. It was a hoppy Amber Ale. It was a charity beer that was used to help raise money for the family of a brewer, who was killed in an accident in Knoxville. That was the first time Linus and I had brewed together. We’d known each other for a while and I was still learning a lot, at the time, and I told him I really liked sours and wilds.”
“Another year or so passed and we were at the first or second year of East Nashville Beer Festival and we had a nice line of people waiting for the sour beers I was serving. Linus came over to visit and we discussed brewing together again. We had done an interview for my website about Fortuitous getting released and it kind of spawned from there. I brought a barrel over and we brewed Wild Child. It was a pretty big hit for us. Lyla and Linus had visited Belgium on a trip and when they returned, they were determined to start the first full-scale souring program in the state. He asked me to run it for Yazoo and when I read the e-mail, I literally jumped up in the garage and screamed, “Yes!” because it was something I had always wanted to happen in Tennessee and in Nashville, and we were on the right track to be able to buy sour and wild beer, produced locally at a good price, to be able to find it on tap and in bottles. There’s special styles that are more difficult to make and take a little longer, but you still deserve to be able to buy them without paying $26 to get a 12 oz. bottle shipped from California. That was always my goal: To try to make local sour beer in Nashville. I didn’t realize that we were going to end up going across the state with the beers. I guess I’d always hoped it. It came true.”
How did you begin your souring program?
– “The website helped me out. I’d been doing interviews, for quite a while. It started out, basically, being a log for all my sour and homebrew recipes and my blending experiences. Then I got to talking with some of the people who had helped me out. Around 2010, the best brewers in the world weren’t getting the front cover of craft-beer articles. I wanted to put those guys in the spotlight and speak to an audience that appreciated those styles or wanted to learn more about them. I didn’t have a page limit or advertisers on the site. The only thing to gain, for me, was knowledge and I was hoping to pass that on. Thankfully, the brewers saw it that way, too.”
“The interview that I did with Russian River, when Vinnie revealed for the first time that they had bought what they called the “horny tank” as their coolship device, no other outlet had reported it. I posted it, like I did anything else. At the time, I was getting 20 hits a day, but the day after I posted it, all these outlets picked it up and I started getting 1,000 to 1,200 hits a day. So, the website started getting really popular at that time and I kept posting more interviews with people who had been helping me out, throughout the years and it led me here. I was always able to ask direct questions and they were always open. I think they realized I was trying to pull back that veil of mystery and really help people understand sour and wild beers, because it can be intimidating. If you don’t set somebody up correctly for that first sip, you can definitely turn them off, for life, and they probably would’ve liked it. My hope was that the education on the website would help drive people to enjoy sours, wherever they were — hopefully a lot of them were in Nashville and visiting Yazoo.”
How did you come up with Embrace the Funk, as a name?
– “I, actually, didn’t come up with it. My wife and I were sitting on the couch and we had about 10 or 15 minutes before Breaking Bad came on. I was kind of antsy, waiting, because I’m a huge fan of that show. She had written a tea blog for a long time and she kept saying it would be an easy way to put your thoughts down, to chronicle what you found out. I didn’t know anything about blogging. I didn’t know what I wanted to call it. She asked, ‘What do you want people to know?’ I just want people to like sour beers and to like these funky styles. I want them to embrace the funk.”
“She said, ‘There’s your website. Go register that,’ and so, I did. The next day, I put up the first blog post. I didn’t miss a minute of Breaking Bad.”
Were people hesitant at first, to try your sour beers?
– “Yeah. A lot of people were hesitant and I know a lot of brewers were hesitant, worried that the clean side of Yazoo beers would have issues. We — Ken (who runs the QC Lab here), Linus, Quinn (the head brewer) and myself — had met to set standards on how we were going to do things. We’re not even in this building, anymore. We’d started the program here, but we’ve got a separate facility, now. The entire time we were here, I don’t think there were any issues directly related to Embrace the Funk. Our QC steps worked and we took great pride in that. We produced barrel-aged beers and sour beers with all sorts of mixed culture and still produce nice, clean hefe.”
When did Yazoo begin attending beer festivals with Embrace the Funk beer?
– “The first festival that we attended with sour beer was Winter Warmer in December of 2012. That’s when we released Wild Child and a dark Bret IPA. We had both of those beers, that day. I had a lot of good response to them. We had a nice line and I think people enjoyed it. We were able to talk to everybody; we weren’t just leaving the tap open, slamming their glass down and moving on to the next person. Those were some pretty complex beers, so we wanted to let people know what they were drinking and why we designed them that way.”
What was the first big festival for Embrace the Funk, outside of the home market?
– “I guess it was the very first What the Funk!? event, started by Crooked Stave in Denver. There was a year when brewers were busy brewing beer and were not able to register to attend GABF on the day when tickets went live. There was a void for these great breweries that were producing all these awesome sour and barrel-aged beers that were aged in oak. Chad Yakobson decided to start a festival, called me up and asked if we’d be interested in participating. We already had plane tickets and needed something to do while we were out there, so we decided to attend. We had a ball that first year. The beers were all well received: We had our first-year Berliner Weisse and Tropical Stranger (a lychee sour blonde, dry-hopped with Citra). We got a lot of good feedback and started to build up our stock of sours, at that time. Deux Rouges had been brewed, at that point, so it was three months away from being released.”
What was the next development for Embrace the Funk?
– “January of 2014 is when we released Batch 1 of Deux Rouges, here in the taproom. We made 600 bottles available and that sold out in two-and-a-half hours. I think it took about two and a half hours to call out the numbers. I don’t think we’ll have a lottery, like that, again. That set the Deux Rouges program into motion. For the second year of Funk Fest, we released Cherry Deux Rouges and Deux Rouges Grand Cru. Cherry Deux Rouges went on to win bronze, that same year, at the Great American Beer Festival, the first year back. We walked across the stage and won in the Barrel-Aged and Sour category in our first year entering. That took us into last year, when we expanded outside the brewery and purchased a 7,000 square-foot dedicated barrel and bottling sour house.”
Will the facility ever be open to the public?
– “That’s the golden question. Right now, we’re kind of keeping it a secret where it is and keeping it off the radar. A lot of people would like us to start up some sort of Funkatorium-esque place, but at this point, it’s not the right time to do something like that. As hard as we’ve worked to make a really respectable program in Nashville and make great sours, concentrating on something like that would pull myself and Linus away from what we’re trying to do, which is making great quality beer for people. They can enjoy it at quality places around town and there’s always two taps available here, at the brewery.”
One of your beers is called Brett… Not Sour. What’s the story behind that one?
– “That’s my not-so-subtle way of trying to educate people and also other brewers that Brettanomyces does not sour beer. That’s one of the big myths that has just gotten knocked around, for years and years. It simply does not. Bacteria is what sours beer. Bret can make it extremely dry and what gives you a perception of tart and certainly funky, with certain strains, but Bret will consume complex and simple sugars. So, that extreme dryness and that lack of body also makes it tart. Brett… Not Sour is our Brettanomyces IPA and its IBUs are right around 50-60. In our library, we’ve got three super tropical and fruit-forward, citrus-forward wild Brettanomyces yeasts to ferment with that beer. We use a lot of American hops that give a real big citrus character to it. That’s my subtle, not-so-subtle way of saying, ‘Look, this beer has a lot of IBUs to it and if I didn’t tell you it had Bret in it, you probably wouldn’t know.'”
How many Embrace the Funk beers are generally released throughout the year?
– “Well, it’s grown every year. As we get bigger, with it, we’re starting to see more releases of 12 oz. bottles going out into distribution. The half-barrel and sixtel kegs are available around town. A lot of places have dedicated ETF taps, now. Basically, the finer craft places will have them. We don’t really do crowlers, here, of any of them. We bottle them and sell them in the taproom. I’d rather people purchase bottles instead of crowlers, because we’re dealing with lactic acid and wild bacteria. We take great pride in being able to keep our dissolved oxygen levels down in the bottles and give the bottles a long shelf life and they’re packaged properly, whereas crowlers have a very limited shelf life, especially in the sour world.”