Thoughtful lagers and sours at Wild Air Beerworks in Asbury Park

“These are two very hard styles to make, to control and to balance, but the results are just so impressive. It's essentially the same ingredients that go into any beer, but they're so different.”

Nick Jiorle rolls up his sleeve and there’s Bilbo Baggins’ house tattooed on his arm. He’s talking about why the beers at Wild Air Beerworks—his new brewery with Bert and Dani Roling (husband and wife)—are named after lines from literature, why the brewery’s name is pulled from a line in an Emerson poem, why there’s a dramatic, dark bookcase on the far wall of the tasting room, why there are no TVs in there, why there will be no trivia nights.

“It’s always about doing something different,” Jiorle says. “The tasting room kind of felt like this… not dream world, but this world where you enter where it feels like you’ve walked into somewhere different; a little more fantasy than reality. And that’s always the way I’ve felt about books: when you open ’em up, you’re somewhere else. As George R.R. Martin said, it’s the best way to take a trip, you can go anywhere by picking up a book. So it’s kind of that idea of transporting people, you know, out of their everyday.” 

Jiorle imagines book nights in Wild Air, where folks come in and… just read quietly. It’s kind of radical. That’s the point: to unaffectedly prod folks, even for just a few moments, to consider not only craft beer, but the world at large, whether that’s in a book, or in the person with whom they’re speaking.

“There are people out there that like having some sort of discourse that’s not politically motivated, just talking about things that they’re passionate about,” Jiorle says. “That’s what we do when we’re here making beer; we’re talking about music or books or surfing. Inspiring people to be more creative in their own lives, I think is a good thing. We need more of that.”

This is the second brewery venture for Jiorle and the Rolings, who opened Last Wave Brewing in Point Pleasant about five years ago. They pulled from their love of and background in surfing for that brewery, which is massively popular and pours a variety of beer styles. There’s some of that vibe in Wild Air—notably, a bartop made of surfboard materials, by a local surfboard maker, and an old van turned into a seating area—but this is a foray distinctly different from both Last Wave and craft breweries in general: Wild Air Beerworks brews, almost exclusively, lagers and sours. 

The effect, altogether, is “just another layer of who we are as people,” Jiorle says. Theming it around literature, “ties the beer together, and we kind of thought what we’re doing does require a little more imagination.”

It’s a fitting theme because while literature, in general, holds myriad worlds within myriad book covers, Wild Air encompasses a world of beer in just two styles.

Courtesy Wild Air Beerworks

“[Lagers and sours] are essentially the two oldest ways of making beer,” Jiorle says. “You look at the Belgians, who were just open-top fermenting with whatever yeast was in the air. And then the Germans essentially were doing the same thing originally, but then they basically started controlling and harvesting specific yeast. … It was kind of just like using these two traditional methods that are so far apart that eventually they almost come back around.”

Indeed, lagers and sours seem an odd pair, mostly because of our conceptions of the two styles—lagers available in the U.S. (largely by commercial behemoth brewers) tend to be crisp, light and refreshing; sours (which have taken off in recent years among craft brewers) are tart, fruity and, of course, sour. 

The means of brewing these beers differ, too. Lagers take anywhere from 2-3 weeks to many months to brew, and require much more precision in the brewing process, which is partly why we haven’t seen many craft brewers (with plenty of exceptions) regularly offer lagers—the lack of necessary equipment to produce top-notch lagers, which the new space has afforded Wild Air, is also an impediment. Sours can take a while too (some are aged for years), but get their distinctive taste either through the process of allowing wild yeast and bacteria to glom onto the beer, and/or adding the Lactobacillus bacteria or the fungus Brettanomyces (among other additives). 

But what binds the styles is the precision required to make great versions of them both, and the simplicity of the ingredients with which they’re made.

“These are two very hard styles to make, to control and to balance, but the results are just so impressive,” Jiorle says. “It’s essentially the same ingredients that go into any beer, but they’re so different. Like I said, we have people come in and they’re not beer drinkers and we give ’em something like the Splendid Silent Sun that was aged in gin barrels; it’s like a wine, it really is. And it’s really good, but it’s so different than the lagers. So it’s really cool for people to see that in the same place. Not a lot of places are giving you both of these.”

By virtue of having these two styles of beer side by side, and with an emphasis on lagers, in particular, which haven’t been explored in the craft beer realm as extensively as other styles, educating consumers on the depth, complexity and range of these styles is a focus at Wild Air.

“We want this to be educational to people, because some people don’t know that pilsner is a lager. It’s just a style of lager, or that, you know, Maibock is a lager, [as is] helles, Dortmunder export, you know, and that’s just Germany. You can go to Poland, you can go to Italy, which obviously now has this style that’s kind of blossomed. Japanese-style lagers. I adamantly believe that Caribbean-style lagers are better than Mexican-style lagers. That’s from being a surfer on the East Coast, and going to Barbados and Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and all these different areas. Down there, there was a lot more English influence, so you still have lagering, but using more character malt I think is what separates it from Mexican lagers. Most Mexican beers are heavily influenced by German and Swiss brewers.”

Courtesy Wild Air Beerworks

Wild Air—which is in the building that formerly housed Dark City Brewing, and from which Jiorle and the Rolings bought equipment—also runs a barrel aging program and has a foeder, essentially a large barrel that ages beer more slowly, reduces oxidation (an enemy of good beer) and builds its own flavor character over time. 

The dividends of that barrel aging will be paid out over time, but already you can see the benefits in a few beers on tap at Wild Air. For instance, the Island of Fay is a 3.8% ABV foeder-aged blended saison, with gin barrel fermentation mixed in. The result is an eminently drinkable grassy and citrusy beer with abundant oak and a nip of gin on the back end. 

You can taste the presence of the barrel back to back in two versions of Splendid Silent Sun—a mixed-ferm saison. The base Splendid Silent Season pops with an indefinable aroma, something like fresh, cracked-open plum on an orchard floor that happened to plant lemongrass underneath its trees. Jiorle offers “horse blanket,” an unbelievably awesome descriptor, and there’s certainly a pleasant funkiness on the nose and the palate that matches it. In the second version, which is aged in gin barrels and with cranberry, you get much more tartness, much more fruitiness and pronounced oak. They’re both remarkable, and sure it’s educational to taste them side by side; it’s also just fun to do so and see what your tongue picks up.

On the lager side, which we tasted first, there is a broad variety of styles to try. The Inherent Vice is Wild Air’s house lager and is a beer that “tastes like beer,” to borrow some annoying contemporary parlance. It is a solid slugger, and a feat to pull off—a straight-forward, crisp lager is not easy do well. 

The Czech dark lager, The Power (it’s sister beer, The Glory, is a lighter version), was the star of the whole lineup, in my mind at least. It’s imbued with toffee, without being sweet. In fact, a lesser beer would turn sweet but a stunning transition into roastiness evens out each sip. 

Courtesy Wild Air Beerworks

There are plenty of beers to go try and experience for yourself, so I won’t ruin them by prattling on about them (but I can’t help but suggest you also try The Dreaming, a grisette with noticeable black pepper, bergamot and clove). But the beers on tap now are the foundation for what might become at Wild Air—beers that are aged longer, sours aged in a coolship (a shallow container where beer interacts with natural microbiota and where ambient air temperature cools the wort), lagers with lactose in them, or beer with unique additives like toasted hickory bark, which Jiorle gathered from Northwest Jersey and toasted himself (they smell exactly like s’mores!)

While opening a brewery that specializes in beer that’s not an IPA (by far craft beer’s largest cash cow) bucks conventional wisdom, Jiorle and the Rolings are betting that the recent trend among consumers to seek out more variety, more lager and lower ABV beers will continue.

“We’d rather be ahead of the curve,” Jiorle says. “We’re just starting to see some brewers have success with the craft lager thing, and I think that’s only gonna keep going. It just takes time. You need a couple cool people to do it and then, once everyone else sees it—that’s one of those things about Asbury is it’s aspirational, people see it happening here—they’re gonna be more inclined to give it a chance wherever they’re at.”

And Asbury Park is, indeed, an ideal place to launch this concept. Jiorle lives within “skateboarding distance” of the Wild Air building, and has worked with local nonprofits and other charitable organizations to support the community, both with Last Wave and Wild Air. Jiorle first moved to Asbury Park a decade ago because it was one of the few places in the area he could afford rent, but the last 10 years have changed the landscape of the city, and he thinks it’s important to retain the essence of what makes it unique.

“I love this town. Everyone complains about, ‘Oh, it’s not the same.’ And it’s like, well, this was a way for us to kind of influence what happens here. We’re gonna try to do some more weird stuff here,” Jiorle says. “Just keeping that weird ,offbeat element. A lot of the stuff coming in now is very fancy. It’s very upscale, which is fine. I mean, there’s a lot of people spending money, but we do need places where those artists and creative people that made this an interesting place to come can hang out. There’s very few of those left in town, so that’s kind of what we’re hoping to do here.”

Support the community, expand minds and palates, create a creative space in a city that needs to retain them—those are the aspirations of Wild Air. So much of the vibe and experience of visiting Wild Air goes beyond the joy of drinking their beer. And yet, the humble brew, made in two age-old styles, is the catalyst for all of it.