Mix doom metal, a vague predilection for the occult and a shared love of funky saisons, and what do you get? The newest entrant into America’s farmhouse ale elite, alongside California’s Sante Adairius, Vermont’s Hill Farmstead and Colorado’s Casey Brewing.
But there is something that sets Holy Mountain apart from their equally acclaimed brethren, a sense of mystery and affected religious devotion that encompasses everything from their avant-garde design sensibility to their haunting, rustic ales.
The project is the creation of Mike Murphy and Colin Lenfesty, two Seattle homebrewers that hit it off over a shared love of heavy metal while working at Schooner Exact Brewing. (A third partner, Adam Paysse, amicably split from the brewery in December.) The focus from the get-go was on mixed-fermentation ales, primarily saisons and wild ales brewed with a mix of Brettanomyces and local microflora.
“Those were the beers we really loved to drink,” says Murphy, a good-natured North Carolina native whose appearance—dark-framed glasses, black T-shirts—nods, ever so subtly, at his musical proclivities. “But no one was making them locally.”
In late 2014, Holy Mountain filled the void with their own farmhouse ales, based on recipes that Lenfesty had been working on in his and Paysse’s shared homebrew space. They also took inspiration from classics like Saison Dupont, the prototypical Belgian saison that constitutes many beer lovers’ first introduction to the style.
“All three of us had started on that beer, which, at the time, was the gold standard,” says Murphy. “Even before we met each other, that was a really special beer to each of us. And it quickly became a focus for Holy Mountain.”
The burly, bushy-bearded Lenfesty takes care of most of the brewing. At first sip, his beers can come across as simple, if highly crushable, saisons. But underneath the easy magnetism, there’s a heady mix of crisscrossing flavors that build, swirl and expand before retreating and eventually vanishing from the palate entirely. His way of co-mingling fruity Belgian esters with citrusy hops, layered over a crisp but frothy body, is at times nothing short of fermentation alchemy.
Many of Holy Mountain’s beers are first fermented in 500-liter oak puncheons, which promote a gentler, more complex fermentation than stainless steel, resulting in tart, peachy flavors. Then, they’re conditioned in tall oak foudres with a blend of mixed cultures, which may include one of several strains of Brettanomyces as well as lactic acid bacteria like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus. This second phase is more drawn out than the first, on the order of months or years rather than weeks, and it’s where the beer develops enormous, if subtle, complexity.
While the liquid inside the bottle nods to Belgian tradition, the design on the outside reflects Murphy and Lenfesty’s musical influences. Plenty of breweries carry a metal aesthetic—Three Floyds, Solemn Oath, TRVE—but Holy Mountain takes a cultish, almost ascetic approach. It comes from an honest place. Murphy and Lenfesty both grew up playing music in hardcore punk scenes—Murphy in North Carolina and Lenfesty in his hometown outside of Tacoma—and their shared love of the music and its aesthetic is evident in everything from the brewery’s packaging to the esoteric ales that they produce.
“Music was just a natural place where we instantly found common ground,” says Murphy. “So when it came to naming the brewery, we landed on Holy Mountain,” a reference to the doom metal band Sleep’s second album. “It completely fit into the overall feel we wanted.”
Many of the beers are named for songs or bands, usually based solely on what’s blaring from the Holy Mountain stereo when a particular beer is being transferred from, say, a foudre to a barrel. “Most of the time when that happens, a certain song is playing and we’ll be like, ‘Hey, that would be a pretty fucking cool name for a beer!’” Such beers include Witchfinder (a reference to the late ’70s New Wave of British Heavy Metal band) and The Seer (a reference to the title of a High on Fire song).
The occult references continue onto Holy Mountain’s label design, which is minimalist and spare—simple fonts, clean lines and symbolic imagery. Murphy and Lenfesty do much of the creative work in-house. But they also outsource to artists like Atlanta’s Brian Steely (for the symbol-like line drawings that appear on bottles like The Goat and The Seer) and Seattle’s Ryan Williams (for label layout and T-shirt designs, which look more like metal band constructs than brewery threads).
“We knew we wanted to have the musical focus but to also keep the aesthetic clean and straightforward,” says Murphy. “And somehow it quickly turned super occult-y and esoteric. It’s become so much a thing now that people will submit a drawing or doodle to us and be like, ‘This just really feels like Holy Mountain, and I wanted you to see it.’”
That feel permeates Holy Mountain’s taproom, too. The facade is painted slate gray, with “Holy Mountain Brewing Company” imprinted in an unadorned, almost brooding white font above a roll-up garage door. Inside, the space is austere and clean, with white walls, dangling light bulbs and dark mahogany stools. There are no precious tasting flights or brewery tours. Just full and half-pours of nine or ten different draft beers (and sometimes a guest cider) served against a background of blistering punk and metal. On the side, bartenders fill growlers and sell bottles to-go.
“When we were working on the design for the taproom, it was funny discussion of, ‘What’s more metal than black?’” says Murphy. “And the answer, of course, was ‘White!’”
The draft selection includes everything from the wild, mixed-fermentation saisons to a range of Lenfesty’s clean beers. Some of the best are simple beers that the guys like to drink after a long day of brewing, like Kiln & Cone, a rotating hoppy pale ale (the closest Murphy says they’ll ever come to making an IPA) and Three Fates, an unfiltered Czech-style pilsner. And once a week, bartenders drop a special cellar reserve list of rare and aged bottles of mixed fermentation beer for on-premise consumption.
“We wanted this place to be more of a neighborhood bar, a spot for our friends and fellow beer enthusiasts to just hang out,” says Murphy. “And so far I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”
Five Holy Mountain Mixed-Fermentation Ales to Try
Many of Holy Mountain’s beer are extremely limited, and some are often brewed just once with no intention of repeat releases. That said, the following beers will be released or re-released sometime over the next year in Seattle, New York City and Washington, D.C.
The Goat – Rustic Brett Saison | 5 percent ABV
This hoppy farmhouse ale is deceptively complex for a saison that seems at first quite gentle and quaffable. It’s fermented with a blend of yeast strains and foudre-aged for three months. After a few sips, the floral hoppy notes fade and an earthy Brett character takes over, drying out the finish with an underripe tangerine-esque tartness.
Witchfinder – Brett Saison | 6.1 percent ABV
Yet another understated pale saison brewed with light pilsner malt that’s full of pear and lemon flavors. It’s dry-hopped with aromatic Saaz (earth, spice) and Amarillo (grapefruit) and bottle-conditioned with Brett (funk, dryness).
Misére au Borinage – Foudre-Aged Grisette | 5.3 percent ABV
Grisette is a historic sub-genre of saison once popular with Belgian miners. Holy Mountain’s take incorporates a huge quantity of wheat and is foudre-aged for several months with Brett and Lactobacillus for loads of tart, funky flavors. The name? It’s ripped from a 1934 pro-socialist documentary that follows the plight of Borinage coal miners.
The Gray Tower – Oak-Aged Farmhouse Ale | 5.3 percent ABV
A light and crisp farmhouse ale blend from a couple of foudre- and oak-aged beers. Lots of lemon and oak with a mellow, grassy funk.
Phosphene – American Wild Ale | 5 percent ABV
This tasting room-only American wild ale is aged in oak with native Washington State microflora and re-fermented with apricots and Brett. In the glass it’s vibrant but opaque, with soft stone fruit aromas and a cool tangy yogurt bite.