South Carolina’s Birds Fly South is introducing new, more approachable beers while going from strength to strength on their mixed-fermentation and farmhouse-inspired ales. As it turns out, IPA and saison have a lot to learn from each other.
Kate Bernot Dec 17, 2021 - 9 min read
Photos: Courtesy Birds Fly South
Birds Fly South celebrated its fifth anniversary this summer, which—according to cofounder Shawn Johnson—makes it “35 in beer years.” An avian analogy might be more apt than a canine one: After half a decade, Birds Fly South appears ready to spread its wings and take flight.
Shawn and the brewery’s other cofounder—his wife, Lindsay—have built a reputation for exquisite wood-aged farmhouse and mixed-fermentation beers. (Part of the brewery’s origin story is that Jolly Pumpkin’s Ron Jeffries appeared to Shawn in a dream.) However, over the past year, Birds Fly South started brewing IPAs and lagers, canning most of its beers instead of packaging them in its previously favored 750 ml green bottles.
Identity crisis? Not at all. The Johnsons think of their expanded focus as an evolution—a way to further the brewery’s mission of building community and drawing in new drinkers. This summer, the brewery’s two best sellers were an IPA and a Kölsch, and they were selling twice as much beer in cans out of their taproom as they had been in bottles.
“The green bottle is my heart,” Shawn says. “It’s what I think our wild beer should be in. But at the end of the day, our beer is really good, and if it means more people [who] may not ever touch our beer because it’s in a big bottle are now actually going to try Birds Fly South because it’s in a can, then that’s what we need to do.”
The broader offerings have been paying off. Evan Fatula, manager of the Greenville Beer Exchange bottle shop in Birds Fly South’s hometown, says that he expects the brewery to continue excelling on the funkier side. However, it’s now able to satisfy drinkers who are looking for something cleaner. “When they started five years ago, customers were like, ‘What’s the lightest beer you have from them?’” Fatula says. “It didn’t exist then, but they’ve managed to evolve with the times.”
That’s all according to plan, Lindsay says. The pandemic confirmed what she and Shawn had long believed: The brewery should have a mission and core values, but it shouldn’t cling to beer styles or business practices just because those are the ways things have always been. Flexibility would be the key to survival.
“It’s thinking of ourselves as able to shift, to keep up with the times,” she says. “We’re not here to just do one thing and become a dinosaur.”
Shawn agrees, but adds one important point: “Saison isn’t dead. It still lives!”
The Johnsons haven’t erected any cognitive walls between their farmhouse beers, which they sometimes refer to as “slow beers,” and their clean beers. In fact, brewing the former has imparted lessons about brewing the latter, and vice versa.
Obsessed with yeast, Shawn is forever thinking about how to achieve perfect fermentation in all his beers. In that realm, slow beer taught him patience, which has turned out to be pretty useful when applied to clean beer, too.
“We allow our hazy IPAs to get a little more time under their belt before we put them out to the public because we’ve discovered those beers can be very, very green and aggressive at times,” he says. “If a beer’s already been in [the tank] two weeks, four extra days isn’t going to break the bank to make sure it’s exactly what we want to present. Our beers have become more well-rounded. Let it all get happy.”
The Johnsons’ trip to Europe two summers ago let them taste firsthand the benefits of slower fermentation—not only for lager styles such as pilsner, maibock, and rauchbier, but also for top-fermented ones such as grodziskie. (All of those styles, incidentally, were on draft in the brewery’s taproom at one point in June.) Aspects of traditional lager brewing also have informed the brewery’s IPAs and even its funkier offerings.
Exhibit A of that knowledge exchange might be the base beer that Birds Fly South uses to co-ferment with wine grapes for a series of mixed-fermentation farmhouse beers. For that base, Shawn brews a cold-fermented lager, then runs it through various foeders containing Brettanomyces cultures; this tends to create a very dry “lager” with noticeable tartness. He’s also tried the reverse: Warm fermenting with a Brett culture, then cold-pitching a lager yeast in secondary. It’s part of an ongoing quest to understand exactly how Brett interacts with other yeasts and processes.
Shawn’s advice to other brewers is to lock in on the variable or variables they’re most passionate about, whether it’s yeast or water or grains. Trying to focus on everything at once often leads to frustration.
“You’re going to make some really, really good beer if you can nail a couple things every time,” he says. “But you’ve really got to be patient.”
Shawn doesn’t hesitate when asked what he’s recently obsessed with: It’s wine. On a trip to Jester King Brewery in Austin last fall, he was captivated by that brewery’s wines, its co-fermentations of beer and wine, and its beers produced using wine grapes, vineyard yeast, and even grape vines. Birds Fly South had “messed with some of that” a few years ago, as Shawn puts it, but at the time, he wasn’t wowed by the results.
What he tasted at Jester King and elsewhere on that trip inspired him to give it another go. The Johnsons returned from Texas, and Shawn immediately began co-fermenting a wild lager base with a pét-nat–style syrah. (Pét-nat is a category of sparkling wine produced by bottling wine that hasn’t finished fermenting, resulting in carbon dioxide being reabsorbed into the wine after.) This summer, he brewed a rosé version.
These are complex, deeply geeky beers that might seem to require a grasp of fermentation and even agriculture to fully appreciate. But the Johnsons say that these beers are more approachable than the process suggests. Lindsay says that Rustic Sunday—a mixed-fermentation beer brewed with rye and Hallertau Blanc hops, then rested in sauvignon blanc puncheons—is always a hit with white-wine drinkers who visit the taproom. Likewise, Brand New Eyes—an open-fermented and blended ale aged in red-wine puncheons—is a favorite of red-wine drinkers.
At a glance, the co-fermented and solera-style beers aged in wine puncheons appear out of tune with Birds Fly South’s recent focus on more approachable styles. Again, the Johnsons say this doesn’t give drinkers enough credit—and it also discounts how good the taproom staff is at making these beers inviting and accessible.
“Our product should be approachable at all times,” Shawn says. “If we have to tell our people what our beer is in more than five words, then we’re trying too hard.”
So, how does one describe a solera-method, foeder-aged, mixed-culture saison co-fermented with wine grapes in a way that any drinker can understand—in five words or less?
“A wine-forward hybrid beer,” Shawn says, without hesitation.
That’s how Birds Fly South approaches its delicate balance of producing exceptionally interesting beers that push the boundaries of fermentation—while still offering beers for people who may not know what “IPA” stands for. It’s a balance that the Johnsons hope will send Birds Fly South’s flavorful beers far beyond their nest.
Birds Fly South’s Shawn Johnson loves the funky farmhouse ale tradition—so much so that he and wife Lindsay have dedicated their brewery to it. But that embrace of tradition doesn’t exclude exploring modern approaches to these rustic styles.
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