That's a Wrap!

Guess what? That blog post title is a pun! Yup, when I'm not planning my brewery, I spend all my free time ignoring my family and just working on really, really clever puns. Here's where the pun is explained: So the big news right now is that I've hired Wrap Architecture (pun revealed!!!) to do all my design and drawings required for permits/construction.

Here's Wrap Architecture's first pass at creating a schematic drawing of the space. These folks are leaving no stone unturned!

Wrap are a husband and wife team of Cheryl Noel and Ravi Ricker. In the brewing world, they are probably best known as the architects behind both Revolution Brewing's brew pub and production brewery.

They came highly recommended from numerous people in the business and after meeting with them, I could immediately see why. Very knowledgeable and just damn nice people.

So now, we wait while Wrap and their consultants do their thing. We're talking general layout, mechanical, plumbing, and electrical plans and building code research (always fun in Chicago). This is going to take a few weeks.

After all the plans are completed, we'll be submitting drawings to contractors for bids and submitting for building permits. The building permit process in Chicago is a complete nightmare, but we'll get through it.

Since my last post I've also taken care of my general liability insurance for the business, got my surety bond for my TTB application (which is 99% ready to submit), and have firmed up what hops I can get from a variety of suppliers. I'll FINALLY have my hop contracts in place before the year is over. Slim pickings, but we'll deal with it. I've also done more detailed research on steam boilers and glycol chillers.

As usual, many wheels in motion. Lots of cogs in this machine, but we're getting there!

Enough Not Fun News, Let's Talk Beer!

Ever since I started this amazing and sometimes maddening adventure of opening a brewery I've been agonizing over what beers I want to brew. I've covered this subject in a few previous posts, so I will try very hard not to repeat myself or say the same thing again (see what I did there?). Well, I'm happy to say I have a much, much clearer vision of what I think will be Panic's (now named Alarmist) two flagship beers at launch. First, I'm not going to divulge exactly what they will be because the marketplace is getting more and more competitive and I'd rather wait until the brewery is almost ready to begin operations. Once I'm ready to roll, I'll go into great detail about the beers and supply enough info that homebrewers will be able to get very close to the final recipes.

How hard can it possibly be to sell another APA in the market place?

The first beer is an American style pale ale. Now that doesn't sound very interesting, does it? You can't go outside without tripping over an American craft pale ale (at least at my house, since I just throw all the bottles onto the front porch or into the yard). Who in their right mind would brew one of the most popular styles of craft beer in their start up brewery?  IPA is actually the most popular craft beer style I believe, but APA is up there somewhere. This APA is hopefully going to be quite a bit different than just about any other APA in the Chicago market. I have a very specific hop profile I'm going for and I'm getting close enough now that I'm moving from small prototype batches to regular 5 gallon and soon 10 gallon batches. I'll cover my prototype process in a later post.

I've really mulled over this recipe and brewed it multiple times. Each iteration has gotten a little bit better but I've recently learned a few things which will help me to get it exactly where I want it. I should point out that Nate was extremely helpful in formulating and iterating this recipe and brewed a tasty 10 gallon version of it back in March.

The first thing I've learned is how to calculate late hop IBU contributions. I didn't know what the exact theoretical IBU contributions should be and my beers kept coming out more bitter than I wanted. I finally finished reading Stan Hieronymus' "For the Love of Hops" and about fell out of my chair when I got to the late hopping/whirlpool hopping section. There is lots of good data from Stone and Firestone Walker and others regarding hop utilization at lower temperatures in the book. Then I started an email thread with the creator of the brewing software I use, BeerAlchemy 2 on both Mac and iOS (the syncing feature between Mac and iOS is absolute killer). I asked him about how to calculate IBU's from late hopping and he kindly pointed to the feature built right into the software (it's the "Hot Steep/Whirlpool" parameters, which I had never noticed for some damn reason). Since I had never filled in the two fields for whirlpool time and temperature, the software never calculated the IBUs from those hop additions. Duh. These very recent discoveries have been extremely helpful in providing at least some kind of guidance on how much bitterness I can expect in my beers. Remember these numbers are all theoretical, but that's better than nothing.

The other beer is going to be Englishy. I love English bitters. This beer is not an English bitter. It is absolutely informed by English beer styles and there are other craft breweries doing something like this, but I'm going to make it my own. It will be very low hopped, very low in alcohol, and easy quaffed by the gallon. I'm really excited about this beer.

Oh, almost forgot to mention. My local homebrew club, Square Kegs, has an entry in this year's Beerfly Alleyfight which will be taking place at Haymarket Brewpub. All competitors will be brewing a porter. I created the recipe with fellow homebrewer Jordan von Kluck based on the ingredients provided and some tweaks to help us bring home the gold or whatever it is. I brewed it a couple of weekends ago, which turned into quite a fun Square Kegs party in my back yard. This is a big, fun competition that's hard to explain, so go Google it and try to make it if you can. I'll be there for sure.

As usual, I have lots more to share covering everything from SBA loans to licensing. I'll blog all this stuff as we continue.



Back To The Beers

I've recently hired these wonderful ladies as recipe consultants. At first I was resistant to using newts in my beers, but somehow they convinced me otherwise. Highly recommend! As much time as I spend thinking about the business part of the brewery, I spend at least as much time thinking about the brewing part of the brewery. That's what this is all about, right? I'm thinking about recipes to the point that it's actually become a stress point in my life. I really, really want to make phenomenal beers but my recipes are just not there yet. To add context to "not there yet", I should cautiously note that I've had many craft beers over the years, both production and brew pub sourced, that I would also describe as "not there yet". I think we all have and I don't want to be one of those breweries making those kinds of beers. That's my biggest fear of this whole business.

Almost all of my brewing starting from the last few months of 2011 through the present has been about recipe formulation and experimentation. Lots of experimentation. Up until the end of 2011, most of my brewing involved making mostly classic styles (usually based on recipes from "Brewing Classic Styles") and honing my processes. Then in late 2011 I began to brew using only my own recipes, no training wheels. It's been incredibly freeing, but equally frustrating. Now here we are in January of 2013 and what have I learned? Well, a lot actually. I've learned a lot about what doesn't work and a few things that do work.

2012 was definitely the most prolific brewing year I've ever had but it also represented the year of more dumped beer than any other. That's one thing I've learned: don't be afraid to dump beer. I only have so much space, so many kegs, and I learned that holding onto a substandard beer just delays the inevitable. So I got VERY comfortable dumping corny kegs of beer that just weren't up to my expectations.

I've learned that yeast doesn't like to be messed with. Once you make a starter, use it, don't store it for a couple of weeks, remember to build it up again, delay more, build again. I brewed a bock/doppelbock at the end of September, 2012. The poor yeast used in that beer (Wyeast Bavarian Lager) was abused as described and then just to add insult to injury, I damn near froze one of the starters which most certainly damaged some of the yeast cells. Did I dump the yeast and start over? No, I had to find out if the yeast would produce good beer. Despite all my usual careful fermentation process, that bock was easily the worst beer I made in 2012. It was fermented precisely at 50 degrees, it was lagered for several weeks, it was kegged, it was tasted, it was given a chance, then it was dumped. Lesson learned.

I learned that dry hopping with U.K. Fuggle hops requires a delicate hand. I dry hopped an English bitter with far too much. Combined with the over bittering of the kettle additions created a completely out of balance ale.

I learned that my hop bittering formulas in my brewing software (BeerAlchemy/BeerAlchemy2) were set incorrectly in preferences. Specifically, first wort hopping was set to below 1.0 x kettle hopping. It should've been set to at least 1.0. I'm now using 1.1 as a multiplier. The consequence of this was what should've been a beautifully balanced, hoppy pale ale became an overly bitter, hop cloying mess. My single biggest disappointment of the year, for sure. As a side note, I'm will be brewing this beer again this coming weekend and it WILL be much improved, come hell or high water.

That brings up another lesson. It's one thing to follow formulas and recipes, it's quite another to use....artistry? Yes, that's it. Artistry. We brewers are artists, are we not? Or at least artisans. It's very easy for me, with my engineering and computer programming background, to look at things very analytically and to not stop, take a step back and ask myself, "does this make sense as a brewer and not a technician?". This, I feel, is my biggest weakness as a brewer, and one I've been working on for months to improve.

I learned that using high alpha hops, like Warrior, has no place in pale Belgian beers. Even if precisely calculated to the correct IBU's. I made a Belgian rye ale that would've been really nice, dry, and tasty, but the bittering just killed it. Why did I use Warrior? Because I had to try it. I was thinking on the pro scale and wondering if using high alpha hops for bittering would work, thus saving lots of money on hops, as opposed to using lower alpha hops classically used by Belgian breweries such as Saaz or Styrian Goldings. Not so deep down, I knew this was a bad idea, but I had to try. Better to do it with 5 or 10 gallons rather than 15 bbl batches, right?

I learned that trying to fix the aforementioned beer by blending with a 2.5 gallon batch with no bittering hop additions doesn't work. Again, I didn't think it would, but I HAD to try. Dumped.

One thing I've very recently started doing is keeping an eye on the BU:GU ratio. I've known about this number for a very long time (first brought to the mainstream by our local Chicagoan, Ray Daniels) but never paid much attention to it. It's not a perfect representation of the perceived bitterness of a beer, but it's a great data point. Again, artistry will trump analytics, but I feel this number helps improve both. If nothing else, it's a sanity check, and one that had I paid attention to more last year, I would've learned a lot about where bitterness should live in a given beer. (Update 1/8/2013: I forgot to include a link to this website I just discovered in the past week. Great chart representation of BU:GU ratios for all recognized BJCP styles. Great resource for sanity checking bitterness. But wait, there's more! The author has expanded on the BU:GU concept with something he calls "Relative Bitterness Ratio" (RBR) which includes apparent attenuation in the formula. There's also a chart for that too!)

I could go on and on but that's the gist of things. Lots of experiments, lots of failures.

But wait, there were successes too! Version V of my Belgian Wit was fantastic. I split a 10 gallon batch into two 5 gallon fermenters and used different wit strains. One was noticeably better in my opinion which just happens to be the same yeast strain that I've always preferred for wits. I brewed my first Russian Imperial Stout and am about to enter it in a large competition here in Chicago. Again, my own recipe, but I did a lot of research first to get an idea of percentages of specialty malts to add. It turned out great (just brewed it in November and will be kegging/bottling today!) and I'll definitely be tweaking it along the way for a debut at Panic Alarmist some day. Some day.

That's all from the beer front. Lot's going on on the business front. More updates coming.



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.



There Are Four Main Ingredients In Beer, And Only One Of Them Is Hops.

Still not enough hops! Let's talk IPA's. My friends are giving me shit on my personal Facebook page about the little blurb in the Red Eye about Panic Alarmist Brewing today which says, "There will be no IPA". I had some coworkers also comment on it this morning as well. Well, that is correct, no IPAs for Panic (now named Alarmist Brewing). Allow me to explain.

As I mentioned in a previous post , I love almost every beer style. Seriously. I LOVE them. Even the ones I don't like I love, if that makes sense. Which it doesn't. I've brewed many styles of beer including Czech pilsners, Belgian tripels, English bitters, English mild, English barley wine, Berliner weisse, German hefeweizen, American stout, American brown ale, mead, German kolsch, German maibock, Belgian golden strong ale, Orval type clone, Scottish ale, the list goes on. I've also brewed lots of beers that don't fit into any style, beers that are my own recipes, including the ones I'm working on for Panic (now named Alarmist Brewing).

I've also brewed many IPA's and imperial IPA's. One of my favorite beers on Earth is Russian River's "Pliny the Elder". I love many IPA's. I dislike most. The ones I love most have a few things in common: very dry, very little carmel malt in the grist, blond in color due to lack of carmel malt, and assertive/unique hops in the flavor and aroma such as Simcoe, Amarillo, and Citra. That's not to say I HAVE to have those hops in my IPA to enjoy it, but if I have to choose, I'll take those hops over cascade or centennial every time.

Now there are three reasons why Panic Alarmist Brewing is not going to brew an IPA, at least not initially.

  1. There are too many on the market and the market is getting increasingly crowded.
  2. I think there are far more interesting beers that haven't been made yet.
  3. Unless you have already signed hop contracts, you can NOT get Simcoe, Amarillo, Citra, Australian Galaxy, and some other highly desired IPA hops for 1 to 2 years, maybe more. Citra is not available until the 2014 brewing year, and that's if you sign a contract today! By the time Panic (now named Alarmist Brewing) is ready to brew, who knows what hops will be available? Oh, and of course these highly sought after hops are very, very expensive. Then there's the fact that even if you do have a contract, if the hop harvest comes up short, you still won't get those hops and you'll have to use substitutes and those particular hops just can't be substituted IMHO.

I have a whole post coming up on the current hop market and what I learned from Hopunion last week. It isn't pretty and it's going to directly affect one of my flagship beers (which isn't an IPA ;-) ).

The final thing I'll say about this is that if you consider yourself a "hop head" or you only like highly hopped, bitter beers, do yourself a huge "flavor favor" and explore. The American craft beer movement isn't about any particular type of beer. It's about choice over those shitty yellow watery beverages with bikini girl commercials. Remember that yeast and malt contribute to beer flavor as well. In many styles, their flavors and aromas are easily as powerful and visceral as those that hops contribute, just in a very different way. Go try a Jolly Pumpkin "Bam Biere" if you want to know how delicious yeast derived flavors and aromas can be. Grab yourself a New Glarus "Uff-da" Bock if you want to enjoy the supreme complexities of a malt centric beer. There's room for all of these flavors and aromas on their own and combined together in glorious ways. Rejoice in the choice!

Oh, and if anyone on the West coast wants to ship me some "Pliny the Elder", well, I won't complain.