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John Stemler of Free Will on Sours, Coolships & Community

Pennsylvania breweries are popping up everywhere, so it’s a happy challenge to create a portfolio to secure a loyal following. With brewers experimenting by creating offbeat styles and using ancient techniques, there is more room for creativity than ever.

John Stemler of Free Will Brewing Company in Perkasie blends that creative freedom with his passion for science and explores a wide range of styles from subtle, crisp pilsners to carefully aged sours. He was also recently nominated for Philly Beer Scene’s Brewer of the Year Award.

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We talked to John about his personal love for brewing, the brewery’s growing sour program, being “equal opportunity brewers” and what is coming up for Free Will.

BOP: You went to Ursinus for biology and chemistry. How have you been able to apply what you learned in school? Also, what is something you learned from brewing that you couldn’t learn in school?

John Stemler: I fell in love with brewing because of the complexities of both straight and mixed fermentations. The more complex the science, the more I’m interested. To me, brewing is a harmony of both art and science, and my brain is already hard wired for science.

What I really learned in school is great laboratory technique and a fundamental respect and understanding for the small biological and chemical reactions that take place all around us. What cannot be learned in school is the art and understanding of recipe formulation and how a brewer and his/her equipment profile and process impact the resulting beer.

Free Will has a lot of varied offerings, from Chasing the Dragon Double IPA to coveted lambics and sours. Where does your personal interest in beer fall, and how does that shape the overall aesthetic and brand of Free Will?

We pride ourselves on being equal opportunity brewers and beer drinkers here at Free Will. I enjoy all aspects of beer brewing and tasting. Most “clean” beers can be produced in a short amount of time. For example, Kragle is brewed, fermented, dry-hopped and packaged in about 16 days, whereas Olly can take up to 3 or more years with blending of anything from 1-year-old to 4 to achieve the desired flavor followed by up to a year maturing in the bottle. Olly is our interpretation of a Flanders Oud Red/Bruin and involves long secondary fermentation in giant casks (foudres) and wine barrels. As much as I love the clean beers, they are in and out of the system so fast that you really can’t get the long relationship with a batch the way you can with sour/funky/wild/whatever beers.

The short answer would be my palate enjoys the seemingly more simple beers, like Kolsch, pilsner, pale ale, etc. For some, these beers “taste like nothing,” but I find immense depth in the more subtle beers. It was not always like that, as I used to seek out huge IPAs and stouts, but as my palate developed and became more sensitive to all the small details those big beers began hitting my taste buds like a freight train.

I literally get tired of drinking them after a few ounces. If I want to enjoy drinking a few beers, I keep it simple. My brain and heart, however, prefer the long time it takes to develop, age and blend a barrel-aged sour. It truly is a long love affair with good sour beer. I enjoy small meetings in the cellar with nothing but you and a bunch barrels to taste.

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You have so many foudres and storage for aging beer. What’s capacity looking like over there?

For clean beer, we can produce over 12,000 bbls per year without getting crazy. Sour, wild, etc. beer really depend on the beers themselves. They tell us when they are ready. Sometimes they mature on schedule and sometimes they take longer. Our current volume of beer in the sour/wild/whatever cellar is about 1200 bbls, or 37,200 gallons, and is rising every month.

One thing to note is that we are going to be transitioning over at least 50% of our current sour program to all spontaneous starting this fall with the installation of two 15 bbl coolships in a dedicated open inoculation room down in the cellar taking air from above the roof line and pushing it down and over the openly cooled wort. We have done several spontaneous beers over the years, but many are still just not ready. An entirely new line of beers will come out of the new direction.

Any plans to upgrade your current space in Perkasie, in terms of production or space, in the near future?

Currently we occupy about 35,000 square feet of the building at 410 E. Walnut in Perkasie, but unfortunately the rest of the building is occupied for now. We do still have space to take up and are planning on adding tanks, foudres, barrels, etc. as we have laid out our space for at least twice as much capacity. We also have plans to install a canner in 2017.

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It’ll be exciting to see your new spot at Peddler’s Village. Do you have any plans for other taprooms in the works?

We always have plans for future taprooms and even another brew plant elsewhere, but nothing has been signed for yet. Gonna have to stay tuned for more information there.

We see you’ve done a few collaborations with breweries on the international scale. How did these come about, and do you have other collaborations lined up at the moment?

My first international collab was with Hof ten Dormaal and was the result of winning the raffle to brew the official beer of Philly Beer Week 2015. Jef came over during beer week and we had the opportunity to brew another variant of the original recipe and then age it in sour barrels with blueberries. The friendship I have with the Janssens family extends far beyond brewing—I consider them as close as my family. Whenever I am in Europe I find my way to their farm.

Our other international collabs were the result of referrals by my friend at Shelton Brothers, Kevin Brooks, and through my wholesaler in SEPA, Stockertown Beverage. I am very selective when doing collaborations as I always want to brew something at both places to broaden both parties’ knowledge. We are still trying to schedule the other side of our collab with Jopen in the Netherlands. We brewed a tripel during CBC that is yet to be released here.

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Can you fill us in on Brew Crew Community Clean Up Day? How did it start and why?

As my brewing team has developed and our operations have become streamlined, I have found myself able to do more than just work at the brewery. I have turned some of my efforts toward outside ventures such as helping with Philly Beer Week and my community. I have lived in Perkasie most of my life and I appreciate my small town and what it has to offer.

We saw you post a photo with a ton of Sunny Brae Hops for an upcoming IPA. Can you tell us about that beer and your relationship with Sunny Brae and Deer Creek Malthouse?

Freshie has always been the name of our wet hopped beer, but we didn’t make it last year as we didn’t have enough wet hops and it was a very busy time for us here. Sunny Brae is a young hop farm in central PA that I knew would provide me with the best wet hops around. I also got to participate with the harvesting of our hops this year.

We have supported Deer Creek since the beginning. The milk stout we make with their malt was the first beer to be brewed on a commercial scale in PA with PA grown and malted barley since, well, probably before Prohibition. We look to transfer our sour program almost exclusively to Deer Creek malt by the close of 2017. For Freshie, what better way to showcase what PA has to offer other than local malt and hops? Freshie this year has a large percentage of malted oats, with pilsner malt to back it up.

As Free Will Brewing continues to showcase its diverse knowledge and artistry in brewing, be on the lookout for even more odd styles and new experiments. John’s background in science allows him to approach brewing from a unique perspective and create recipes with the foresight of how barrel aging may alter the composition of the beer.

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The Brewers of Pennsylvania is a nonprofit trade association that brings together leaders of Pennsylvania-based breweries in order to promote and protect the brewing industry in the state. Established in 2011, the Brewers of Pennsylvania serves the consuming public of Pennsylvania by encouraging brand diversity in the market. We believe in the nobility of brewing and hold dear the great traditions and history of Pennsylvania brewing. 

— Jay Breslin 

Photos by Hannah Kearsti of Free Will Brewing Company.