In Cahoots with Mikey and Niko

A behind-the-scenes look at the Fulton + Fair State collaboration beer

In Cahoots 5 FEAT

Fair State head brewer Niko Tonks (left) and Fulton head brewer Mikey Salo (right) are working together to create a collaboration beer for the second installment of In Cahoots! // Photos by Aaron Davidson and Joseph Alton

Episode 1: The Game Plan

It’s a warm Friday evening in June and the patio at Fulton Brewing is buzzing. Dogs walk circles around their owners’ feet, empty pint glasses stack up on the edges of tables, and a line for nachos, Mexican corn, and rice bowls from Get Sauced food truck grows and shrinks in sync with beers being consumed.

Among the doe-eyed couples, friend groups, and after-work drinkers are Mikey Salo and Niko Tonks, head brewers for Fulton and Fair State Brewing Cooperative, respectively. With them are Kale Anderson and Eric Paredes, of the soon-to-open Modist Brewing Company, and Fulton president Ryan Petz. It’s a meeting of the beer minds and, to the non-beer expert (that would be me), the conversation is nearly impossible to follow.

But the pints are cold, the weather is perfect, and the snippets of talk I can understand—about Modist’s massive 18,000-square-foot space, the towering buildings popping up around Fulton, the original idea for Fair State’s name (Grey Duck)—are engaging. It’s a great night in the North Loop.

After a half-hour or so, Mikey and Niko break from the group to get some business out of the way: They need to finalize plans for their In Cahoots! collaboration beer.

They grab another pint and Mikey’s laptop and head into the brewery. Mikey gives Niko a quick rundown of the room, explaining how they (barely) fit all the fermenters, tanks, kettles, and other equipment into the space before moving the bulk of their brewing operation to their new 51,000-square-foot production brewery in Northeast Minneapolis—which, Mikey says, is already filling up fast.

After the walkthrough, they sit down next at the picnic table tucked between the tanks and barrels and start talking shop about their chosen beer: a kettle-soured wheat beer dry-hopped with rhubarb and Nelson Sauvin hops.

Traditional barrel-aged sours, Niko tells me, take six to 12 months to incubate. This beer, however, won’t be aged in a barrel. It will be fast-soured via kettle boiling, speeding up the process to around 18 hours. The other thing helping move things along? Lactobacillus bacteria. Lots and lots of it, says Niko. “Like, powers of 10 of what you’d normally do with yeast.”

The sped-up sour base will be simpler than its barrel-aged cousin, but will still offer a bright acidity to the beer. “It’s a blank slate for what we want to do,” explains Mikey. And what, exactly, is it they want to do? Here’s the working plan laid out in brewer lingo, with a handful of layman’s-terms quotes thrown in for good measure.

  • Mash and lauter like normal, kettle the wort, chill, and pitch a lot of lactic-acid producing bacteria into it
  • Let it sit until the pH levels drop from 5.5 to 3.2–3.4
  • Boil/whirlpool with equinox hops (Niko: “I have a whole bag sitting in the brewery right now. We can use that.”)
  • Transfer it into the fermenter with wheat-beer yeast; the guys are leaning toward raw Red Fife wheat (Mikey: “I like red over white wheat.” Niko: “Yeah, white is pretty lame.”)
  • Dry-hop with Nelson Sauvin hops—about a pound per barrel—and rhubarb (Mikey: “My buddy’s grandpa said he has about 20 pounds if we want it. Should we shred and then freeze it?” Niko: “That’s probably the smart thing to do. Right?” Mikey: “I think so. Let’s flash freeze it.”)
Mikey Salo Fulton

Fulton head brewer Mikey Salo // Photo by Joseph Alton

Tentative brew date: July 8–9, which will give them just over three weeks to “figure everything else out.”

Challenge 1: Measuring for small-batch brewing. The beers created for this year’s In Cahoots! will be exclusively served at the event, unlike last year when the breweries could serve their creations in their taprooms, too, allowing for bigger outputs.

Challenge 2: Figuring out how the rhubarb will play into everything; neither brewer has used it in a beer before. “There should be an apparent tartness, but it shouldn’t be overwhelming,” Mikey says. “It should be refreshing. People should want to drink a couple pints.”

Niko Tonks Fair StateSquare

Fair State head brewer Niko Tonks // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Finishing touches: Regarding the beer’s appearance, Niko says people shouldn’t expect something that looks like a “crystal clear pilsner.” “This will be a hazy, sour, lacto beer,” Mikey says. “We’ve accepted that. We’re okay with it.”

A few more clicks on the computer and adjustments to the numbers—and a tulip of in-progress Fulton sour—and the guys call it a day. “I need to feed my bugs,” Mikey says, taking another sip of the beer then passing it to Niko to try. “Me, too,” says Niko, referring to his latest LÄCTOBÄC-series beer at Fair State.

In any other situation, this exchange would seem odd, disconcerting even. But here, swirling and sipping sour beer amid wooden barrels and gleaming fermenters, nothing could be more fitting.

For more on the Fulton + Fair State collaboration, see Episode Two.


More information about In Cahoots! and the brewery pairings here: In Cahoots! Returns for Year Two

About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.

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