Chase Medlin has been the head brewer at Twain's Brewpub & Billiards in Decatur since December 2012. Medlin developed his skills as a home brewer while living in the Pacific Northwest, an area that arguably put microbreweries on the map. After returning to Georgia, Chase honed his craft at Twain's during their transition from restaurant/billiard room to a functioning brewpub. Eater recently talked with Medlin about his life as a brewer, keeping up with demand for his beers, and the current state of craft beer in Georgia.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in beer.
I used to be a home brewer while I worked in advertising when living in the Pacific Northwest. I lived out there for four years, and there was a homebrew shop right near my house. I was spoiled being in hop country and in a place with such a great beer culture. I mean, Eugene, Ore., was probably 10 years beyond what we were seeing here at the time. Long story short, the economy tanked and I moved back to Georgia and took the job as assistant brewer here at Twain's under then brewmaster Jordan Fleetwood. Jordan built the brewery here when they made the transition from a restaurant/billiard hall to a brewpub. He moved on to pursue other endeavors, and I worked for about a year under David Stein, who is now at Creature Comforts in Athens. When he left, I took over as brewmaster and kind of wiped the slate clean. I wanted to start fresh; I wanted to create a whole new culture and portfolio of beers.
Are there any specific beers or breweries that have influenced your brewing style?
Ninkasi is an Oregon brewery that was a huge influence on me when I lived out there. They are currently the fastest growing craft brewery in the United States. They have a huge portfolio and make stellar beers across the board. Their hoppy beers are incredible, especially their Tricerahops double IPA.
What's the typical day like in the life of a brewer at a brewpub?
We brew three to four times per week, and it's governed by the ebbs and flows of our sales and tanks depletions. So it changes day to day for me. We have a lot less automation than other breweries. Pumps with variable frequency drives is about automated as we get. Everything is stirred by hand; we don't have a grist hydrator. We load our own mill and mill our own grains, but we don't have a silo, so everything is done by hand. All the bags are cut by hand. During brew days we often have 15- or 18-hour days. Since we don't brew around the clock there are lot of sanitation procedures and clean-in-place protocols that we have to follow everyday, which makes things a bit more time consuming depending on the time of the year.
How are things different for you brewing in a brewpub compared to a traditional brewery?
Well, one upside is that we don't need as much state and federal approval for label approval and things like that. If we want to quickly change things, or do a new one-off brew, there is a lot less red tape. We can be creative on the fly, all the time, if we want. If you are a brewery developing a brand with cans or bottles, you have to continue to build your brand by filling those cans and bottles, whether it's an IPA or a lager or whatever. If you want to do other offshoot beers or creative things, those have to be in addition to your main packaged brand. You become a lot more limited with what you can do and how frequently you can do a new or special beer. As far as challenges for us, it can be a challenge considering our beer is only available here and in very select places. It can be hard for us to reach craft beer drinkers since our beers aren't on shelves all over the place.
What's the current production at Twain's like?
We have four to five beers that we brew year round. Our Criminal Sin India Pale Ale is the big house favorite, and then our Four Count Pale Ale, River Sunset Amber, and Mississippi Nut Brown are our biggest sellers. We have a couple other beers that would fill in the fifth regular rotation; these are usually lighter session beers.
Is there a specific style to the beers you regularly produce at Twain's?
In general, I'd say our focus is American-style craft beer. Our India Pale Ales are really popular. We brew other IPAs to take pressure off of Our Criminal Sin India Pale Ale because it sells so fast and the style is so popular. Between the pale ales and IPAs and darker American styles, that's generally our focus. Our hoppy beers are probably the most highly consumed, but we do try to go in multiple directions to create interesting beers. We incorporate oats, and other interesting adjuncts that might add unique texture, body, or flavor characteristics to our other beers. For instance, we've done a rye porter, we've done an imperial oat milk porter, and we've done several one-offs that we occasionally bring back like the Blushing Ape, an oatmeal India red ale that is always popular.
What's the reason for the explosive growth in IPAs in the craft beer market?
There used to be a greater focus on the bitter quality in IPAs, with flavor and aroma taking the back seat. Now, many brewers are looking for that beautiful bouquet with more of the aromatic qualities and flavor qualities that showcase the true hops more than just the bitterness. You see that today in beers like Sculpin from Ballast Point, Tropicalia, Heady Topper, and Pliny the Elder. A lot of these really popular IPAs have that juicy hop aroma and hop flavor. The bitterness is still there, but it's not overshadowing the other qualities of the beer. Unfortunately, that early wave of big bitter IPAs, where people were getting off on how puckering the bitterness was, lead a lot of people to believe they didn't like IPAs as they didn't like that experience. I think these newer IPAs are slowly changing people's minds.
Can you talk a little bit about the collaborations you've done with other local breweries?
We've done several collaborations with local breweries like Terrapin, Three Taverns, SweetWater, and Second Self, and they've all been very well received. It's a lot of fun working with friends from other breweries, combining our brewing styles and methods, and getting creative together to come up with unique beer concepts. With Terrapin, we brewed Azaccattack Single-Hop Rye Session IPA hopped with only Azacca. With Three Taverns, we brewed Decatur Ryes'on, a dry 8 percent rye saison which celebrated Three Taverns opening and Decatur's continued growth of craft beer. With SweetWater, we brewed Hashbiscus IPA, which was brewed with whole hibiscus flowers and hopped exclusively with hop hash inclusive of Belma, Calypso, and Sorachi Ace. And with Second Self, we brewed the Summer Saison, a dry fizzy session saison brewed with grapefruit and basil. Our next collaboration is going to be pretty exciting. It's a three-way collaboration that we are brewing here at Twain's, and it is going to be a Japanese sake-beer hybrid, blending traditional sake brewing methods and modern craft beer brewing. We are collaborating with Paul Vaughn, owner and brewmaster of Nashville's newest brewery, Bearded Iris Brewing, and Horikoshi, the brewmaster of Japan's Ryujin Brewery and Yokidoke Sake. They will both be here to brew, and I'm really excited to have Horikoshi coming all the way from Japan.
Can fans of your beers ever find Twain's stuff around town at growler/beer shops?
It's governed by what we have in house. We do so much volume in house that we try to not let beer be available in the community if we have run out of it here. Though, we do occasionally let some select beer bars and growler shops have some when we meet the needs here. We try to keep nine beers on tap in the brewpub, and all of our tap lines are dedicated to our in-house beers. It is sometimes a challenge for us to reach craft beer drinkers outside of what we offer here on premises.
Tell us a bit about the struggles you face as a brewpub in Georgia in terms of the laws and regulations that limit your ability to get beer to your customers.
Well, we can't do things we would like to do, like sell growlers to our customers who might want to buy our beer from us. There was a time earlier this year when we thought we were going to able to do it; we even had plans written up and we were ready to go. So, we are supposed to be pleased that we can package and sell to a distributor, but we still can't sell on premises. In our case, being able to package and sell to a distributor does us no good as we don't have the space to package. The legal limitations continue to make it difficult for us to get our beer in the hands of customers who might want to buy our beer to take home. Being able to sell directly would greatly change what we are able to do in terms of the exposure our beer could get amongst craft beer fans in general.