By: Alex Hannagan - VA Brew Review
A conversation with Founder Russel Tinsley and Brewmaster Mike Donovan
After Oozlefinch opened in September 2016, founder Russ Tinsley was quickly forced to make a change. It wasn’t the clever name, with its origins surrounding the mythical bird sighted by a lubricated officer on Fort Monroe a century ago. Instead, what should have been a shining moment as their Lady in White Hefeweizen picked up a Silver Medal at the Virginia Craft Brewers Cup in May 2017 – just 8 months after the brewery opened – came right after Oozlefinch’s original head brewer handed in a 30-day resignation notice. The brewery needed a different kind of momentum. “In 2016 my focus was just getting the doors open…the vision was just to get beers to market,” he remarked. Lady in White won the big award, and others such as their Ox Cart Imperial Porter and Creekside Lager gained notoriety at local competitions. Russ cast a wide net when searching for his new brewer.
Mike Donovan was nearing the end of his time at 3 Stars Brewing Company in Washington, DC, when he saw the announcement for a new head brewer at Oozlefinch. Life in Tidewater wasn’t on his radar, though, as other parts of the country called out to his wife and him. “Mike was looking to go out to the Pacific Northwest, but just for [poops] and giggles, he threw his résumé over to me. I immediately knew this was the guy,” Russ said. It would not prove easy to lure the West bound brewer to Fort Monroe, though.
Just as Russ was looking to reinvent his brand behind the success of Lady in White, Mike was ready to apply the knowledge he had gained at 3 Stars as a recipe developer and their sour program steward. “It was really about getting to build a sour program from scratch,” he recalled, and that happened to be the beer style which had recently captivated Russ. Eventually, when Mike stood firm on his desire to migrate to the other coast, Russ offered him a one-year contract. That would allow them both to achieve their goals, and give Mike enough time to establish a process and train his eventual replacement. Thirteen months later, Mike is now in his second one-year contract. While it took a year to stand up the program, according to Mike’s original plan, they both agreed they needed one more year to transition and train up the staff.
In addition to the challenges of building out the space, acquiring the inventory, installing meticulous sanitation, and handling controls into every facet of Oozlefinch’s operations, Mike took the train to work. As in, the Amtrak from Washington, DC, down to Newport News on Mondays, and then back up home on Thursdays. Since that didn’t afford him time at the brewery on the weekends, he now has a home nearby. He swears this second year will be it, even as his wife will be joining him soon down in Hampton Roads. “We’re just starting to see the benefits,” Mike reasoned. “The barrel room wasn’t ready for four and a half months. If the first week we’d brewed the beer I wanted, then maybe I would have been comfortable leaving after the first year.”
Delays or not, something appears to be working as the very first sour beer Mike brewed for Russ, Dr. Rendezvous, just won a Gold Medal at the 2018 version of the Virginia Craft Brewers Cup. Mike sees more success on the horizon, and that success was part of both his entrance and his exit strategies.
“Dr. Rendezvous was my first chance to get fresh barrels,” he noted with a bit of a smile, “and the recipe was all mine. It’s reassuring to know the way we’ve set up the program is successful.” Apart from some favorite wine barre, Mike seems especially to enjoy Chardonnay from Central Virginia. He also wants to play with ingredients and acidity in unconventional ways. “All of our beers are not 3.6 pH,” he said, “where we’re just trying to suggest some sourness. The sour program is varied, and we also have several beers in the low 3’s that will pucker you up.” He also recently added pulverized cacao nibs to a new recipe for a Strawberry Chocolate Gose (?!) and mused over a few sips, “We like that play of ‘here’s something you’ve never really had before.’ That’s definitely the fun of blending for me.” That same blending, by the way, is the reason he can’t leave just yet.
“I feel a responsibility to see it through,” Mike repeats often if you talk to him long enough. Medals, accolades and pride don’t define success for him, because success is ensuring that Russ and Oozlefinch can survive – and thrive – without him. That includes a good blending stock, successful barrels that impart desired qualities, an educated staff that can easily identify appropriate and creative blends and house yeast and bacteria cultures that are both established and “banked” with the various boutique labs throughout Virginia. So far, Mike has helped Oozlefinch release more than 80 beers – nearly two per week since arriving. As the program matures, Mike will eventually turn things over to Rachel Edwards, his current Assistant Brewer and Quality Assurance Analyst.
In the meantime, Russ reports that thanks to Mike’s efforts, Oozlefinch’s month-over-month sales are up 30% from this time last year. Additionally, they’ve locked down several distributors, including one that is statewide, a remarkable feat that most of Virginia’s more than 200 breweries have yet to accomplish. Perhaps not coincidentally, Dr. Rendezvous was their first beer to get into the Richmond and Northern Virginia markets, and Mike and Russ both agreed they wouldn’t have had it any other way. Russ recently was in Northern Virginia, where their Sour Kolsch collaboration with Old Ox Brewery is starting to make the rounds. Even if sour beers aren’t your thing, but especially if they really aren’t your thing, the subtlety and innovation that Oozlefinch brings to the table could very well cause you to say, “well, maybe just one more sip…” Nothing would make Mike or Russ happier.
Visit http://www.vabrewreview.com for more on Oozlefinch’s and Old Ox’s New@Life special release!