Wooden Hill's Award Winning Kolsch
On October 8, 2022, Wooden Hill's flagship Kolsch, Kold Shoulder, took home silver in the German-Style Kolsch category at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, CO. Owner, head brewer and mastermind behind the award-winning brew James Ewen writes on Kold Shoulder's home brew inception, scaling to production level, and what the award means to him.
I’ve been asked by our brilliant marketing team to do a little write up about our recent Great American Beer Festival (GABF) silver medal. That’s a lot of pressure. Here it goes!
I mean, what is there to say about a humble brew that most often gets named as the answer to the question “what’s your lightest beer?” A beer that I tend to stress about during fermentation much more than the others. A beer that has the shortest grain bill of anything we brew, a single hop variety, and makes for a fairly unfussy brew day. A beer, that when I brewed it for the first time seven years ago in a suburban garage, spurred me on to believe I could brew professionally. A beer that became a tipping point and remains, batch by batch, my own gauge of success.
All those things, for me, result in one truth: For this humble, light, and simple beer to be the best version of itself, there is no room for error. The story of Kold Shoulder, as it stands here in late 2022, is the story of taking on challenges and believing in the long game.
Believe it or not, when I brewed the first batch of our now flagship Kolsch, I had never tasted a Kolsch. I was inspired to brew the style—and invested in some fermentation temperature controlling equipment—to surprise a German relative that would be visiting soon. This is the first challenge: brew a beer style you’ve never tried and don’t screw it up. A dubious task for sure, but something worth not just the risk but the experience I would gain. I did a little research and decided on a tactic that would become a mantra when designing future recipes: keep it simple.
And I did. An even simpler grain bill than the one we brew today at Wooden Hill, two hop additions during the boil, and a solid Kolsch yeast strain. After a four-hour brew day in the garage, I transferred the wort into a 5-gallon carboy, pitched the yeast, and waited patiently for the results. Just kidding—about the last part of that sentence at least—I checked on that carboy about forty times in the next ten days, taking samples, obsessing about gravity and temperature (and clarity), and hoping that awful wet corn aroma would go away (it did!).Within no time I had a crystal clear, sudsy, light and refreshing Kolsch on tap in the basement. And my German relative wasn’t the only one who was thrilled by it, something just tasted different about that beer. It gave me confidence to start believing that these homebrew experiments were more than just a hobby.
Okay, now the second challenge. Let’s fast forward a couple years. I’ve just gotten home from another day of construction at the future Wooden Hill taproom. It’s late fall 2017 and we’re almost ready to get brewing. I’m creating what will become my main brewing spreadsheet going forward, pricing out recipes and deciding on grain, hops, and yeast to order.
When you’re homebrewing, the world is small. Basically any combination of malt, hops, and yeast strains are at your fingertips—and it’s only gotten better since that time if you need any more motivation to pursue that great hobby. The world of homebrewing is small because the quantities that those ingredients are needed in is small. For me, scaling up to 10 barrels from 5 gallons, the world grew to about 60 times its previous size. The pain point here was not the grain and it was not the hops (okay, a little bit the hops—but that’s a little more complicated than this essay is meant to be, and if anyone really wants me to go there I have a bit of a dissertation for you on Edina water—you know, that other kinda (very) important beer ingredient): it was the yeast. My beloved Kolsch yeast strain was not going to be an option, at least not for the first batch.
Over the course of many years being a brewery-in-planning, when asked the question “what beers will you brew?” my go-to answer was always Kold Shoulder. I thought we’d definitely have an IPA, a stout, and maybe a Saison or session IPA, but I knew we would have Kold Shoulder. That beer with that name in that style. I did not shy away from telling anyone that it was the best homebrew beer I’d ever made. And now I was going to have to change a major part of the recipe.
For some beer styles, yeast selection is almost an afterthought. For a Kolsch, it is pertinent to get right. So, with great trepidation, I ordered a dry yeast strain that I had never used before and planned on implementing it in Kold Shoulder’s first turn as a commercially available beer. And I haven’t looked back since. Another challenge complete.
And there will be more challenges. Each batch over the years, each brew day, is never like clockwork. Beer needs to be cared for and monitored and is always at the front of a brewer’s mind. Fortunately, that keeps things interesting.
So what about the long game, you may think to yourself? I always joked that Kold Shoulder isn’t the most inspiring, exciting, or game-changing beer, but it keeps the lights on. It’s consistently been our most popular beer after Code 3. I don’t see a future where it isn’t a staple on our menu and that’s enough of a win for me. But yeah, a silver medal at the GABF is an incredible honor and put a hell of a smile on my face. Prost!