Beers To Surprise and Delight

Old, new, who cares? It's good at any age! As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about my flagship recipes. I don't recall mulling over any other major decisions in my life as much as this one. Seriously. I've gone back and forth in my mind about which style-esqe beers to launch with and as soon as I think I've come to a final decision, I brew them, re-brew, take notes, let people taste them, get feedback, discuss, mull some more, wash, rinse repeat. My feeling at this point is that my initial desire to brew a Belgian monk table beer/saison/rye blonde, whatever it is, has been quashed. I think all the versions I've made with various grist changes, yeast strains, and hopping schedules have been tasty beers, but I just don't find them inspiring. They don't surprise or delight and at the end of the day, that's my ultimate goal. Disregard what I wrote previously about wanting to create award winning beers, I do, but a more articulate way to put it is I want to "surprise and delight". Hats off to Steve Jobs for that term.

I wrote very early on in this blog that I am not attached to any particular style of beer. There are very few styles or non-styles that I don't like (except American wheat beers, not a fan, boring IMHO), so unlike how I perceive other breweries deciding what beers to launch with, I'm not married to any particular styles that I just HAVE to brew. I have a feeling that I'm the exception rather than the rule in this regard, which is the story of my life and causes me much stress in a variety of situations (like trying to fit into corporate culture for instance).

The reason this subject has come up again for a post is that I've been focusing on my temporarily named "Panic Pale Ale" recipe. This is an American style pale ale, very pale in color (no caramel malts), lots of late hopping, and no Citra/Simcoe/Amarillo due to the shortages of these hops that I've mentioned a million times. In a related note, Founders Brewing announced this week that they won't be able to brew their "All Day IPA" year around due to shortages of Simcoe and Amarillo, which just happens to be my favorite beer at the moment (see? I DO like IPAs!). Seriously, go find that beer if you haven't. It's amazing. Exactly what an IPA should be, again IMHO.

I brewed 10 gallons of my pale ale a few weeks ago, split into two 5-gallon fermenters, and used different yeast strains. I really enjoyed how they both came out, really nice hop aroma and flavor, lovely color, yum! But, the lack of C/S/A hops really holds this beer back from what it could be, at least in my mind. I entered one keg this weekend in a very fun event sponsored by one of my homebrew clubs, HOPS. The event was the first ever Bubbly Creek Barrel Brawl and it was a keg only homebrew competition/mini beer festival. You just go ahead and mark your calendars for next year for this. It was awesome. There were two competitions involved for the event. The first was a standard BJCP sanctioned homebrew competition, limited to the 23 beers that were entered. The beers were divided into groups of 6, and one with 5, with two judges per group. The groups were not organized by style, in fact each group purposely didn't have duplicate styles in it. Very interesting concept. Each pair of judges picked the top two beers from their group and pushed them on to the Best of Show round. The second competition was the People's Choice awards. Every attendee was provided with a ballot and voted for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place.

So at this point you're probably saying, "Man Gary, you went to pro brewing school, you're opening a brewery, you must have just KILLED everyone!" Um, no. Didn't even get past the first round in the BJCP portions. And didn't place in the People's Choice. Nada. Nothing. And the first place for the BJCP portion went to ..... an American pale ale, brewed by my good friend Nate. Both of our beers were very pale in color, both late hopped. Nate used some Citra but I have no idea what the rest of his recipe was. My scoresheets from the judges made no mentions of fermentation flaws, so that's good! Their only real complaint was that my beer didn't have enough malt flavor for the style, just lots of hop flavor and a bit too much bitterness perhaps. Now understand that BJCP competitions are based completely on a) how well your beer fits the style guidelines and b) how good it tastes. That's a bit of an over simplification, but it's close enough. You could have the best beer in the world, but if it's not brewed to the style you entered it as, then tough titties, you get a shitty score. My beer was definitely too bitter for the style, it had more of an IPA bitterness which isn't what I was going for. I also completely agree with the judges comments on the lack of malt flavor. The beer is very dry and comes across as one dimensional. FYI, the beer scored a 31.5, which isn't too bad, Nate's Best of Show beer scored a 39.

I have no issue with not winning a BJCP competition. I don't brew for competition, I brew for me and Panic , and whenever I enter a competition, I usually have to guess what category to enter my beer in and it's never quite right. I rarely get any scoresheets pointing out off flavors from fermentation problems, which is something I'm very proud of. I pay a lot of attention to my process and really focus on cleanliness, sanitation, and fermentation process (yeast pitch rates, yeast health, temperature control, etc). So I'm all good with this.

What I was disappointed with however, was that I got nothing in the people's choice part of the competition. How do I expect to make a living selling beer that I've created if I can't even place in the top 3 out of 23 beers? Well, the answer to that is to take the lemons and make lemonade.

A big motivator for me to enter this competition, in addition to just having fun and hanging out with my friends, was the eye on the prize of opening a brewery. This event created an almost perfect market experiment for me in my endeavor. I went into this wanting to learn a few things. How will people respond to my beer? Which beers will be requested the most? Which beers will win the people's choice and why?

Here's how the people's choice went down: 1st: Saison, 2nd: Saison, 3rd: Tie with Double wheat IPA (I think?) and pineapple pale ale (which I really liked). So, the top two beers were saisons. Interesting. Does that mean I should proceed with my saison? Well, one event is just one data point, but I'm really fascinated that the top two most liked beers were saisons, the only two saisons at the entire event. I had them both and liked them. In fact, they were both some of the few beers I went back to for seconds, and thirds.

I had a few people tell me they really liked my beer but I didn't get the overwhelming positive response I had hoped for. My friend Matt, who got third in the BJCP comp, really liked it and came back multiple times, so that made me feel good, but I didn't get anywhere near the response I wanted. I made it a point to work at all four beer stations so I could see which beers people were ordering the most. Keep in mind that event goers were only allowed one sample of each beer, so they couldn't come back for seconds, but most people didn't get through all 23 beers, so the ones they did order were probably the ones that seemed most appealing to them. There was no real correlation between which beers won and the number of times I poured them. So that simply means that the winning beers weren't particularly sought out more than other beers, but it does mean that the people who ordered them really liked them.

I have no idea why people chose the beers they did for the winners, so that question goes unanswered. I don't mean that the beers were undeserving at all, I simply mean I didn't go around and ask, and I wish I had. Did the warm weather drive people to something lighter and more refreshing? We're those saisons just really good (they were, BTW)? Did that particular sample of people on that day just prefer saisons? Were the other beers simply not as good?

My beer was particularly hoppy. The style with the most growth in the first six months of this year in craft beer is IPA. People love hoppy beers right now. Was my beer too hoppy, too dry, bland? I don't know but I found the whole experience really eye opening, in a good way. These people are my future customers. How do I get them to drink my beer in such a crowded marketplace which is just going to get more crowded? Do I try to cater to people's tastes or do I just brew what I want to brew? Kinda like "Beer of Dreams", if I brew it they will come? These are the questions I'm asking myself right now and I think it's a very wise thing to do. Despite the fact that I've made the decision long ago that nothing's going to stop me from opening this brewery, I wouldn't call myself much of a risk taker. I'm a firm believer in risk mitigation and contingency plans. I'll be putting my family's livelihood on the line not to mentions tens of thousands of dollars from investors who believe in me. I'm not going to brew a bland, middle of the road American wheat beer, but I'm not going to brew a strawberry and gingko infused Czech pilsner either.

One very interesting thing I noticed was that the only Belgian wit at the competition was requested about twice as much as every other beer at the station where it was on tap, at least when I was pouring. When I first hatched this idea in my head to open my brewery, I was convinced that a Belgian wit was a definite launch beer. Since then, however, no less than two other breweries in the Chicago area have Belgians wits in their flagship lineup. Is there room for yet another? I don't know, but did I ever mention what my favorite beer style is? ;-)

Somewhere in the middle of this quigmire of questions lie the answers to my flagship beer questions. Quite honestly, I can't think of anything much more fun or interesting than getting to brew a lot more beer to find those answers. At the end of this endeavor I truly hope I have some beers that surprise and delight. That would be the greatest award of all.