Was this the third time, or the forth time I’d descended below ground to a cavern filled with fermenting beer? It doesn’t really matter because it was certainly my first time in Texas. But at just over 18 feet below the ground, I didn’t feel like Texas anymore. The caves were cool and quiet, with the light from a few uncovered bulbs creating eerie shadows shaped like jagged rock formations on the limestone walls. Its a more rustic take than the brick and stone caves in Pilsen, but I don’t think the beer stacked in wooden barrels minds at all.
A Family-Owned Farm Brewery
This is the site of Roughhouse’s new(ish) spontaneous beer program UNDERGROUND. The first beer from this program ‘Premiere’ was released in April 2021. But the idea to make the limestone cave on the family property part of the brewery had been around since 2018. And the idea of a Texas farmhouse brewery far longer.
“Being born and raised in Texas, we have always gravitated towards drier beer. We feel very strongly that saison (and lager beer) are exceptionally suited for the Texas climate,” says Davy Pasternak, cofounder and head brewer at Roughhouse.
This dry and refreshing impression is essential to the Roughhouse style, leaving behind the idea that farmhouse ales are sour or over-the-top.
“To us, farmhouse brewing does not mean “wild” and is more reflective of the relationship between the brewer and their yeast,” he says.
For its first two years of existence Roughhouse Brewing relied solely on those dry, farmhouse beers made with a house culture containing yeast harvested onsite at the ranch. That yeast is capable of producing a variety of styles that edged on funky, maybe interesting, but never sour or overwhelming. “Treeform,” a farmhouse IPA, is still one of the brewery’s flagships. I gravitated toward “Ona,” an amber Saison sporting a nose heaping with dark berries and spice. Witbier, Biere de Garde, Strong ales and more could all be fabricated using the flavor elements of this one-of-a-kind yeast and the addition of other ingredients whether from the ranch itself or a nearby supplier.
Davy has created dozens of beers with this yeast. He explains it’s flavor versatility: “With a blonde base beer, our yeast culture will be a balance of herbal spice, floral, and fruit (melon), with a darker base beer, our yeast culture gives off notes of blueberries.”
He says, “Our goal is to keep our yeast culture free from bacteria and dominated by saccharomyces, which, in our opinion, leads to more approachable beers.”
New Methods, New Farmhouse Brews
Recently, two new avenues for recipe development have opened up at Roughhouse, one via lager, and one via spontaneous fermentation.
“It’s the first time we had to purchase yeast,” says Alex Pasternak, cofounder and head of marketing and events, as she hands me a Roughhouse Pilsner. It was a German style Pilsner with a hefty bump of clean bitterness and a nose brimming with biscuit crumbs and dry, thirst-quenching finish. For a moment I think, this is as far from a farmhouse saison as you can get, but upon closer examination, not so much.
“We see Pilsner and Saison as being two sides of the same coin. These beers share so many things in common: nuance, approachability, traditionalism, etc. Even the brewdays and recipes are extremely similar,” says Davy, “We see this as a natural continuation of what we’ve founded our business on.’
The other avenue for Roughhouse’s creativity is also an extension of that farmhouse ethos, the aforementioned spontaneous program. Lambic- and Gueuze-style beers inspire the team at Roughhouse Brewing. The excavation of the limestone cave near the taproom was the perfect reason to kick off their own take on spontaneous beer.
“With no practical research done on fermenting in Texas caves, we had to navigate using our understanding of fermentation with the advice of some great friends in the industry,” says Davy of getting the program off the ground. “This is all very exciting for us, because it is not often in beer where you don’t have a heavily navigated path.”
Like all things spontaneous, the UNDERGROUND program at Roughhouse is continually in development. A second batch of beer is ready for the caves, but the brewery team is monitoring how “Premiere” develops inside the bottles. “It’s really young right now and had only been stored cool in the cave, or cold,” Davy said while we were below ground at the brewery, “it will be interesting to see how it changes over time, what the wild yeast on our property creates.”
Introducing a spontaneous bacteria and yeast culture to the brewery seems at odds with maintaining a “clean” commercial lager strain for the first time, but it all fits into the bigger philosophy at Roughhouse, “These two programs are perfect polar opposites – one of control and precision and one of art and expression over time. That dynamic allows us to exercise different creative inspirations.”
Giving The Land a Voice
Now with their signature farmhouse line, a lager program, and the UNDERGROUND beers, Roughhouse can move forward on their mission with more avenues for creation than ever.
“We love this state and we want to give it a voice through our beer,” says Davy. Ingredients harvested from the ranch like Thai basil, mint, calendulas, and dandelions, agarita flowers and berries make up part of that voice, while other harmonies are sung by local suppliers like TexMalt.
Davy says there are more expressions of the land in planning, “We also started our honey program this year with hopes to use the honey in Honeycrumb [the Roughhouse take on Kvass] by next year.
If You Visit Roughhouse Brewing as an IPA Fan
It may be obvious, but IPA drinkers will find a perfect inroad to the Roughhouse style through their Treeform Farmhouse IPA. Davy says this is the beer that inspired the whole brewery.
“When we’re introducing folks to our farmhouse ales, it’s more of a sensory description of what they can expect to taste… dry, crisp, and yeast-expressive.”