I was warned about Dennis Wehrmann prior to my visit. The native German Founder and Brewmaster at Franconia Brewing Company was variously described to me as “cantankerous”, “aggressive”, and “stand-offish.” But I was undeterred. You see, I have lived among the Germans. I understand and enjoy their no-nonsense directness, a character trait often perceived as rudeness in this country, perhaps especially in the über-hospitable south. I suspected that Wehrmann’s ominous reputation had more to do with nationality than with personality. Whatever the case, I was intrigued. I sped along the endless miles of Dallas/Fort Worth tollway toward the north-Texas town of McKinney anticipating challenging conversation and hopefully a taste of great beer.
Wehrmann has brewing in his blood. He hails from the southern German region of Franconia (Franken in German), an area that boasts highest number of breweries per square kilometer in the world. His great-grandfather became a brewer in 1800 (that’s him in the logo). His grandfather once owned the Franken Bräu Brewrey in Tanna, Germany. His mother is a brewery lab technician and three uncles work in the industry.
Wehrmann’s own path to becoming a brewer reflects the German emphasis on proper training and “doing things the right way.” In his words, “Would you buy a car made by someone who didn’t know anything about building cars? The same should be true for making beer.” At twelve years old, he started spending summer breaks working at a local brewery. After high school he interned at the Neumarkter Lammsbräu brewery while attending brewing school in Karlstadt. From there it was off to Nürnberg for a three-year stint as brewer and maltster at Hausbrauerei Altstadthof. This was followed by a period of study at Munich’s renowned Doemens Institute brewing school, where he earned his Masters Degree in brewing in 1999. He then spent several years as a consultant to the brewing industry and working in a number of breweries in Franconia.
Wehrmann moved to North Texas in 2003 when he was hired to oversee brewing operations at the TwoRow’s brewpub chain. But he was itching to do over here what his family had always done over there. In 2007 he began planning what was to become Franconia Brewing Company and broke ground on a new, ecologically-friendly brewery building in a McKinney industrial park. The first batch of beer was brewed in February of 2008.
At Franconia Brewing, beer is made according to German tradition. Werhmann focuses on German style ales and lagers crafted strictly according to the Reinheitsgebot or German purity law. All Franconia beers are cold conditioned for a minimum of six weeks, bucking the trend among brewers to shorten lagering times in the interest of getting beer out the door. Wehrmann’s German reserve cracks when he talks about the process of making beer. He waxes downright evangelical as he describes how four basic ingredients – malt, hops, water, and yeast – combine to make beer by natural processes that are intrinsic to those ingredients. He steadfastly resists the trend toward high alcohol beers, the over use of hops, and the addition of adjuncts like fruit, spices, or brewing sugars, aiming instead for balanced, sessionable beers that display the complexity of simple ingredients artfully combined.
This focus on German tradition extends to distribution. Franconia Brewing self-distributes and its spread is limited to the DFW metro area. Wehrmann cites the German model in which every small town has a brewery which the locals proudly support. He wants Franconia to be Dallas/Fort Worth’s neighborhood brewery. Local distribution also supports his emphasis on ecologically friendly brewing by reducing the brewery’s carbon footprint through shorter delivery runs.
Wehrmann’s training and tradition serve him well. I sampled several beers while at the brewery, all of them top-notch examples of their style. The best of these was the seasonal Oktoberfest. Darker than most beers of that style, the Franconia version explodes with rich caramel and melanoidin malt, under-girded by just the slightest hints of dark fruits. The malt is balanced by moderate bitterness and spicy hop flavors. The creamy texture makes it feel as good as it tastes. I could have downed a lot of this beer.
There is nothing like a fresh German hefeweizen, and it doesn’t come much fresher than when sampled at the brewery. Franconia Wheat is first rate. It is light and refreshing, but with mouth-filling bready malt. The characteristic citrus, banana, and clove flavors are present but subdued, as they should be in a great hefe.
I also sampled a schwarzbier and kölsch. The schwarzbier is a touch on the roasty side in my view, but still within the range of examples I have tried. It is highlighted by delicious dark chocolate notes. The Kölsch, pulled straight from the conditioning tank, had not yet been filtered. This gave it an overstated fruitiness that should diminish with removal of the yeast. Beneath that yeasty fruit is a nicely balanced and understated example of the style.
Hitting a nearby bar for lunch following the interview I was able to enjoy a pint of the Franconia Dunkel. Munich Dunkel is one of my favorite styles, and again Wehrmann is on the mark. This beer is easy to drink with pleasant bread-crust malt and balancing continental hops giving way to a crisp, dry finish.
At the end of the interview Wehrmann said that he hoped I hadn’t felt too intimidated. Far from it. While I suspect that Werhmann doesn’t suffer fools gladly, the early warnings about him were overstated. Far from feeling intimidated, I left the brewery jazzed; jazzed about beer, jazzed about brewing and a brewery’s place in community, and jazzed about the subtly complex German lagers that are among my favorite styles. Mostly I was jazzed to learn more about this new-ish small brewery that is bringing a little bit of German tradition to North Texas.