They aren’t as guarded as a secret society, but I think I could get away with calling Fetish Brewing Company the Freemasons of Fermentation or the Illuminati of IBUs.
And I know they will absolutely hate that introduction … but, they’ll laugh. Eventually.
Like many beer hounds before me, I strolled into the Fetish headquarters wondering if I was in the right place. I’d met the crew — Mike Simpson, Aaron Risser, and Brandon Stetser — back in 2014 at one of the beer CSA’s annual gatherings, Fetish on the Farm. The event assembles the CSA contingency and any other draft devotees for a fall celebration of beer, music and comradery on one of the most beautiful parcels of farmland in Lancaster County — and that’s saying a lot.
I was in a different place now. Ice Avenue in Lancaster city, for those unfamiliar, is a narrow alley tucked between East Liberty and East Ross streets, between the Amtrak lines and Rumplebrewskins. I knew I was in the right place when I saw Mike standing in the garage door entrance.
“You remember Brandon,” affirms Mike. I did. And I saw Aaron, the workhorse of the crew, finishing up with the regular Friday brew session. Fridays are brew days at Fetish. Today, they had been working on a single-hop saison, made with Galaxy hops.
I followed Mike and Brandon into the tasting room, a cozy former reception area now coated with gray blackboard paint. One wall is marked with a series of brewing notes, another with business plans.
“That’s more professional than we usually are,” says Mike, after I ask about the script on the wall. The Fetish style is beyond nonchalant.
When asked about their decision to go with 750 ml bottles, Mike and Brandon immediately chimed in, “because they look good” and “we like them.” But there is a seriousness about their product somewhere under that casual shell, or their beer wouldn’t taste as good as it does.
The Fetish guys offer two CSA groups, totaling approximately 70 members, plus retail bottle sales at select bottle shops in Lancaster and sales and samples at their tasting room. The tasting room opened in December 2015, and closed for some small renovations in April and May; usual hours are 2-6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
“The original model of the CSA was that we were going to do some beers annually and others occasionally. Our annual beers were Spelt, Ghost Pepper and others,” says Mike.
Seasonal beers include a Kolsch for summer, Bumble (a wheat beer brewed with locally-sourced honey) in the spring and a really good pumpkin beer in the fall.
“We are trying to grow a little bit every month,” says Mike. “We’re really grateful to be in a town that is a great beer town.”
Behind the tasting room’s bar, two simple shelves hold books on brewing, Ball jars to use as glassware and a nondescript growler. In the far corner stands a circa-1950s Philco refrigerator filled with bottles of Fetish beer. Mike opens it up and offers me my heart’s desire. Intrigued by what I can only imagine is an homage to great Scotch, I opt for Peat.
“Brandon and I used to be really big Scotch dorks,” says Mike, after he’s filled my jar. “We were founding members of a really exclusive Scotch tasting club,” Brandon chimes in with his usual, cryptic vibe.
He’s the guy you meet for the first time and struggle to decipher if his comments are jokes or just comments. He’s the straight man with an underlying comedic vein. He doesn’t laugh when I ask if this Scotch club was just the two of them. “I don’t really like that tone, being characterized like that,” he says, and hesitantly lifts a small smile. I’m laughing.
“So, we drank a lot of Scotch,” continues Mike. “Once we started brewing beer, we knew we wanted one to be influenced by Scotch. That’s where Peat comes from.”
Peat is a big beer, but it doesn’t carry an obtrusive alcohol bite. This Scottish-style Wee Heavy ale has a hefty malt flavor, rich with caramel — think butterscotch more than Rolo — but not overly sweet. It has a pleasant aroma, but a dark, cloudy, foreboding appearance. It pours a solid head and boasts a well-balanced mouthfeel.
Beyond the tasting room, there’s an LP collection in an adjacent room, which is also home to the upper section of a female mannequin. Beyond her room is an office. Off the other side of the tasting room is the brewing/bottling area.
“We built all this stuff,” says Aaron of the Fetish HQ, later getting a handful of kudos from Mike and Brandon for his fabrication skills.
“When we first started Fetish, one of the things we wanted to accomplish was to do everything by hand,” says Mike. “Everything we own, we own. It limits us for volume, but it’s been a great opportunity for us in terms of low overhead. It allows us to be an experimental brewery.”
The trio directs me to their hand-built, refrigerated, beer-aging area. Inside are wine barrels holding stocks of Fetish brews. Five of the six oak vessels hold a sour beer; with the last protecting what is left of a Belgian ale. (Later, I find a bottle in the Fetish fridge with a handwritten label: Tastes Like Failure. I’m still not sure if it was sarcasm or a truly bad beer.)
“What we do is 100 percent barrel fermentation,” says Brandon.
Fetish has released an 18-month aged version of their sour, but two of the kegs have been untapped for over three years. Back in the tasting room, I’m asked to weigh in on my favorite between the sours: Wild American Blonde and Wild American Dark.
The Blonde, my initial favorite, has been barrel-aging since March 10, 2013, and carries a 7.6 percent ABV. The Dark is something else — something almost alien. To this, these madmen have added 30 pounds of hand-picked, organic sour cherries to 100 gallons of barrel-resting sour beer (now clocking in at 7.74 percent ABV).
I had a hard time picking a favorite, because even though they are both the same base brew, the beers are completely different.
Eventually, I settled on the Blonde. Yet, it was not the highlight of my visit. Days later, I could not get Peat off my mind. Struggling with some kind of mental aftertaste, I couldn’t help reflecting on what just may be a world-class Scotch ale.