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Interview with Travis Hixon, Brew Master from Blackberry Farm

If you told a Belgian farmhouse brewer 150 years ago that in 2018 a brewery in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee would be brewing saisons, and brewing them well, I’m sure he would have no idea what you were talking about.  But alas, here we are.  If you enjoy saisons, have the desire to enjoy saisons, or don’t know what a saison is, you must drink beer from Blackberry Farm.  Travis Hixon and his team are doing a wonderful job of both continuing the saison tradition and innovating within it. 

A couple months back, I had the pleasure of exchanging a couple emails with Travis.  My intention was to publish that interview on this blog.  However, this blog only came to be last week.  So, better late than never, here we are.  Below is that email exchange.

Where did you get your start brewing?

I started home brewing in 1993 and went to Siebel Institute of Technology in 1997. Immediately after completing that program, I started working at Blackstone (Restaurant & Brewery, at the time, now Brewing Co./production brewery).  I got back from Chicago on a Saturday after celebrating another Bulls championship with the people of Chicago on the Friday of graduation, and started work there on Monday.

I’m from Chicago and remember celebrating that Steve Kerr game-winner as a 12 year-old.  One of my uncles was at the game.  The glory years.

Yes, the only time I have been in a city when it won a championship.  It was great.  I actually got to go to Game 2 of the Finals while I was there. 

What or who was you initial inspiration to make beer?

I had an older fellow that I worked with at the time who had been home brewing for a decade or two, but hadn’t in years.  He offered to give me his very basic home brew setup, after I expressed interest.  We were just starting to see some craft beer in my home market (Nashville, TN), more or less limited to Samuel Adams, Anchor and a few others, along with imports.  After a few years of home brewing, I had begun to entertain the idea of going to Siebel.  I won Best of Show at a competition, and part of the award was brewing a batch of beer with the guys at Blackstone. That sealed my fate.

When did you start with Blackberry Farm?

In August of 2017

I love your saisons: Dry, flavorful, and always perfectly bottle conditioned.  What is your method and inspiration for your Classic Saison and the rest of the line-up?

Our methods are fairly similar on anything with our Saison yeast.  It’s pretty particular, so we work within a couple of key factors, trying to keep it happy.  It is so expressive under the right conditions, so we have a foundation that we think works well, and we work from that foundation.  The inspiration for the rest varies. Generally we want to impress with good balance, subtlety, and nuance instead of a club over the head.  It feels like that has gone out of fashion a bit, but we believe it is timeless.

Where did you all learn these methods?

A lot of trial and error.

What role does the Farm play in your ingredients and inspiration for these beers?

We think about food, and compatibility with food, a lot, and that is due to the culinary tradition and wine program at the Farm.  The farm’s culinary focus is on what we call Foothills Cuisine, and we are looking to that as well when sourcing local and regional ingredients.  We have several Master Gardeners and foragers, and I am working with them to see what sustainable ingredients we can incorporate, as well as unique things that we may only be able to find enough of or grow enough of for one batch.  The other role the Farm plays is their elevation of artisans.  Be it the aforementioned, our chefs, preservationist, cheese makers, artists-in-residence program and the like; we just have a ton of really talented craftspeople to inspire us.

What kind of balance between innovation and tradition do you try to achieve in your Belgian-inspired beers?

We want to innovate in a way that feels right to us.  As a company we tend to take the long view, so we think in slower terms.  Some traditions are traditions because they are almost superstitions.  And some traditions are there because they have been proven over time, through decades, centuries of trial and error and improving on a process.  We want to discard the former, but we also embrace the latter.  For example, in the realm of hops: we love a lot of the new varieties that are on the market, but as we use them, we still want to look at their place in a balanced whole in that beer.  Another example concerning malt: we use some floor-malted varieties because we know they give us a depth of flavor in that particular malt, in that particular beer.  But we don’t believe every floor-malted offering is superior just on that fact alone.  I guess the main focus of our innovation right now, if you want to call it that, is in how we can express our sense of place through incorporating Blackberry Farm-grown or foraged, local or regional ingredients.  I would probably choose another word for that, though.  Stay tuned.

What role does terroir play in your brewing process and final product?

As I mentioned, it is something that we are thinking about more all the time. We started a few years ago by culturing wild yeast around the Farm property and running trials.  One of the results is the “Native Series” beers and the Wild Classic you are featuring, which use our native yeast.  It was cultured from honeysuckle blossoms on the Farm.  So we are working to create some things that truly express this area and are unique to our little corner of the world, as part of that effort.  But on the other side of that, if we decide we want to brew a classic German black lager, for example, we feel completely within our skin to try to replicate that terroir with some great German malt, hops and yeast.

Thanks to Travis for taking the time.  ‘Tis the season for saisons.  

-Tim Jerding

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