There are some things in life you can control and some things you can’t. With beer, you often have a choice of letting go or guiding your brew all the way to the end. Eric and Lisa Rough — the co-owners of Seattle’s Tin Dog Brewing — choose the former. Their Belgian-inspired beers embrace the spontaneity that can come with brewing a line of blended sours, a style Eric first encountered as an exchange student in Europe.
“I lived in Germany back in the early ‘80s and there was hardly anything available [here] like I was drinking over there,” he says. So he started brewing his own at home.
European Influences Brought to South Park
In 2012 Eric was laid off from his IT job and started to revisit the idea of opening a brewery, a dream that he’d had since he was much younger. With the help of his wife, Lisa, the Roughs secured a warehouse in a small development in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood.
“This space was half this space,” Lisa says of the space they are in now. “It was just blank, there was nothing here. There was just a warehouse with no drains, nothing.”
They spent the majority of 2013 turning the warehouse into a working brewery and acquiring the necessary permits. The Roughs did much of the work themselves, which is reflective of the company today as a whole with only three other part-time employees.
“The fact that we’re older, a couple and have no investors, we’ve done it on our own, I don’t think that exists in [the] Seattle brewery world,” Lisa adds.
Before opening the doors of Tin Dog in 2014, the couple visited breweries around the city to better understand the scene, seeing what Eric calls a “cookie cutter lineup” of the basic IPA, stout, pale and porter. Today, it’s not that guests to the taproom won’t find an IPA or pale ale, the beers will just look and taste different than what the average drinker might be used to.
Between the use of different strains of yeast plus their decision to forego temperature control in the style of European farmhouse brewers in the past, Tin Dog produces a selection of beers that are unique in the process they’re made and the flavor they carry, like in the session white IPA or lemongrass saison.
A minute, two-barrel system makes each limited releases extra-special for the Roughs. Coupled with their fondness to avoid producing “clean beers” — brews that are meant to be made over and over again and taste the same — Tin Dog focuses on distinctive measures like its blended sours program.
The Difference in the Blending
Though the more typical approach to souring beer is producing in a sanitized metal kettle, Tin Dog opens the ferments up to wild bacteria and yeast by fermenting in barrels. From there, they blend — pulling samples from various, matured beers and mixing together.
“The whole point is with this type of beer there’s no controlling,” Eric says of their blending program. “If you’re brewing clean beers you’re controlling every aspect of it. You know what it’s going to end up being. With this type of beer there are so many variables you are just a minor part of guiding it to the end.”
Lisa describes their approach to their blended sours like cooking: mix all the ingredients together and let the chemistry happen. Whether they’ve added souring Brettanomyces yeast to a batch, left it open to wild yeast, barrel aged the beer or all three, the actual blending process is the part where Lisa and Eric can affect the final product.
“It’s a cross between an art and science,” Lisa adds. “We have test tubes, we have beakers for the very specific portions of each kind and we try different percentages of each kind.”
While the Roughs never wanted to blend into the Seattle beer scene — preferring to produce beers they felt were ignored by the mainstream Seattle beer scene — they’ve found a niche and beauty in the blending of the beer itself.
“You can’t really be a brewmaster when you’re doing this,” Lisa says of their process. “You follow the beer where it goes instead of directing the beer where you want it to go.”