So what beers am I going to make? Well, allow me to explain. My love for American craft beer and good imported beer is beyond measure. I adore well crafted West Coast hoppy pale ales, Belgian gueuzes, Czech pilsners, English bitters, just about all styles. So very, very soon, I have to decide what beers I want to brew. This is a decision that obviously every brewer has to make and one that evolves over time. What I like today, I might not care for next year. Then there's the fact that you just can't please everyone in the world of craft beer (nor should you!). I have friends who only care for big, gnarly Dark Lord-type beers, others who only love German lagers, and yet other friends who only drink hop bombs. Inevitably, I just have to accept the fact that beers that I will have worked my ass off to formulate and consistently brew will not please all palates. As Vonnegut wrote, "So it goes."
Because my love is spread amongst so many types of ales and lagers, it's very difficult for me to say, "I only want to brew _______." I don't want to only brew a few types of beers, I want to brew everything.
Alas, getting a small brewery based in an expensive city to profitability will require, at least in my mind, a focus on what are called "flagship" beers. These are the beers that form the foundation of every brewery's pyramid of offerings . Think Goose Island 312 or Honkers Ale. I'm sure there are exceptions to that model–craft beer is nothing if not one giant exception to the rules–but that's the model I'm going with. So what will I brew? An American IPA? A brown, amber, or red ale? Or should I go for it and brew a cinnamon-licorice-peanut butter-black pepper infused imperial stout?
As of this moment in time, here are my criteria for my my launch beers. These could change tomorrow:
- Some sessionable, some not. In my mind, "sessionable" beers are those that are easy to drink, have low alcohol and low to medium body, and manageable bitterness. I love session beers. Sometimes some craft beers are so big I feel like I'm wrestling with them to get them down. I want to avoid that in my beers. Buuuuuut, I have a burning desire to brew a particular non-session beer that I feel is also easy to drink, maybe even a little too easy despite the relatively high alcohol content. Hmmmm.
- Dry. Related to sessionable, I prefer dry beers which have low body (think "mouth thickness", and get your minds out of the gutter!) with good carbonation. I find these beers to be cleansing to the palate which is a characteristic I generally like in beer. Again, I like big beers, dry beers, sweet beers, you name it, I've had them and enjoyed many, but at the end of the day, I always go for the dry ones.
- Low caramel/crystal malt content. Caramel/crystal malts are special brewing malts which contribute caramel/raisin/toffee flavors, sweetness and body to beer. The amber colors in IPA's are usually the result of these types of malts. I feel they can make a beer unnecessarily big in the mouthfeel and can fight with yeast or hop flavors. They seem to be overused in many styles that don't really need them. I'm not saying I don't like caramel malts and the beers made with them, quite the contrary. I'm just saying for my launch beers, I'll probably back away from them a bit.
- Not a standard IPA. I love many IPA's, I dislike most. I think it's safe to say that American IPA's are overrepresented in the market and I think I can compete more effectively by steering clear of this category. Notice I didn't say I wouldn't brew an imperial IPA, just a normal IPA.
- Unique yet palatable. Now this is a tough one. What I might think is unique and/or palatable might not be your idea of the same. Fair enough. By unique, I mean something that is just a bit different than other people's flagship beers. Does that mean using exotic ingredients? No, probably not. I'll be sticking to the four basic ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast. The trick is to come up with that magic combination of the four ingredients to make something new, and that's part of the fun of brewing!
- Not a particular style. I love beer styles but in this crowded market place, I think I'll try to avoid distinct, recognized beer styles. Make no mistake, my recipes will be well informed by styles, but they won't strictly adhere to any.
I have a recipe that I've been working on for several months. I've brewed seven versions of it thus far. The process has been very educational. I've learned a lot about certain hop/yeast combinations, how just a few percentage changes in the grist can completely change the beer, and much more. I started out with a very, very vague idea of what I wanted and here I am seven versions in and I have a much clearer idea of what it want this beer to be. I have the grist (barley and specialty grains) pretty much nailed down. I'll probably tweak percentages of grains as the recipe continues to evolve, but not by much. The two biggest questions now are what yeast and what hops. Initially, I was convinced that a particular yeast strain was THE one. Then I began to experiment some more, brewing 10 gallons at a time and splitting into 2-5 gallon fermenters with a different yeast in each. Now, the beer has taken off in a completely different direction than I had envisioned, and that's not a bad thing. I really, really like where this beer is going and I've had a lot of great feedback on it, but there is still much work to do.
Now, let's quickly talk about the non-flagship beers. Specialty/seasonal beers are where a brewer really gets to have some fun. I will be brewing seasonal/special/limited release beers on a regular basis. I am fairly certain some of these will become year around offerings. And I won't even go into barrel aged "sour" beers yet. That's a whole other post for another time. I do love them so. Stay tuned.