Let's Talk About Beer, Baby

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.

An ingredient whose time has come!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
  6. 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.

Fear Factor

Franklin Roosevelt My mom grew up in poverty: outhouses (when most people had indoor plumbing), old clothes, old cars, just enough food, few luxuries. As I grew up, my mom made sure I understood that growing up poor is not fun. There was never a push to own things or to live lavishly, we didn't. The gist was that if you are poor, life is miserable and opportunities are the exception rather than the rule. She was able to raise herself from poverty by taking a good paying factory job in the automobile industry. Now she lives a comfortable retirement. So, fear of poverty has always been a part of my psyche. I couldn't get away from that fear anymore than I could get away from my nose (if you see my nose, you'll want to get away from it. Lucky.). It's completely understandable and it's served me well many times. Buuuuuut...this fear can also be paralyzing, very paralyzing. Paralysis has kept me chained to corporate America for 21 years.

But this past Summer (2011), a couple of things happened that finally made me tell my fear to go fuck itself.

  1. My wife, Bridget, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
  2. I lost my job just a few weeks before her surgery...and my employer was completely aware of her situation.

I don't want to go into great detail about my wife, suffice to say we caught the cancer early, chemo is complete, radiation will be complete before Christmas, and all tests and statistics suggest that we should never have to deal with it again. For more info on Bridget's journey, check out Bridget's Boob Blog. Everything turned out fine. We had health insurance coverage through the end of the month and I found a new job at the very last second which prevented me from having to pay COBRA to continue health coverage. So it all worked out.

Now that we're almost through this ordeal two things are readily apparent:

  1. Life is precious and unpredictable.
  2. I'm tired of letting others control my destiny.

This has been a life changing year for me and my family. I hope we never go through it again, but coming out the other side has placed me firmly in the path of the watershed.

Bridget is a much more spiritual person than I am when it comes to fate and the universe. I've always been a pragmatic man who throws his lot with science. But maybe, just maybe, she's onto something, because I'm taking the Great Shit Storm of 2011 and turning into something great.

Stay tuned. Failure is not an option.


Teaching An Old Homebrewer New Tricks

One of the key components in my master plan to open a brewery has always been to graduate from a professional brewing school. I feel very strongly that a formal education in brewing is crucial for success if you haven't worked in a brewery for many years. It's important to not only know how to brew but to know how to brew on a commercial scale and understanding the processes that are a part of that. This includes understanding beer spoiling microbiology, quality control and assurance, laboratory procedures, wort making, fermentation/cellaring (including filtration), mashing and malting biochemistry, cleaning and sanitizing (absolutely crucial), packaging, and many, many other aspects of professional brewing. Most of these things are simply not a part of homebrewing and unless you are aware of them, you're going to have a difficult time making good, consistent, shelf stable beer on a commercial scale. Enter the American Brewers Guild. ABG is a distance learning program consisting of lectures on DVD, lecture notes, online forums, online quizzes, open book exams at home (harder than you think), textbooks, all crescendoing with a final week of residency at a brewery where all the students and faculty gather together. The strength of this program versus Siebel – which is located about 3 miles from my house – and UC Davis, is that it is a great option for those of us with families to support. I simply could not afford to attend the other schools as a working father and the sole income for our family. The tuition at ABG is also a fraction of what the other schools charge too, and no lost wages for taking off work for 4 months. It was a no brainer for me.

Now don't let the thought of taking a "correspondence" course in brewing fool you: it's an extremely in depth program which has been in operation for many years. Famous alumni include the founders of Surly Brewing and Terrapin Beer Company with many, many alumni working at breweries all over the world. Instructors include Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker, David Logsdon – founder and owner of Wyeast, and Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewing. Steve Parkes, who along with his wife Christine own the school, is a graduate of the brewing and distilling program from the famous Heriot-Watt University in Scotland with years and years of professional brewing experience both in the U.S. and the U.K.

Well, as of last week, I've completed the program! Well, almost. I'll explain momentarily. Last week found me in Windsor, VT at the Harpoon Brewery for an intense week of onsite learning. I finally met all my fellow classmates and faculty who, until last week, I've only communicated with via the school's online forums or email. It was a truly amazing week and I learned too many things to list here and made some new lifelong friends.

The final requirement of the school is to work for 5 weeks at a craft brewery. I will be working at one of our local breweries, Metropolitan Brewing. I've known the owners, Doug and Tracy Hurst, for a couple of years now and they've been kind enough to take part in the ABG program. I'll be working there from the last two weeks of December through most of January, 2012. At that time, I will have completed the entire ABG course and will be ready to begin the next phase...opening a brewery.

So, if you're one of the many homebrewers out there considering brewing school, I cannot recommend ABG enough. I feel I have all the tools I need to get started in my own brewery. Check out their website but be aware that classes are full through 2013. So get your application in now and be ready for 2014! Do it.

Once upon a time...

...there was a homebrewer and he loved to brew beer.  He started brewing beer in 1991 using extract and pitching old dried yeast directly into a bleach sanitized bucket.  The beer was terrible but he didn't know it.  All he knew was something amazing was afoot.  He could make something few others could. After a few years of sporadic brewing and sporadic daydreaming about becoming a professional brewer, our homebrewer's focus moved away from beer .  Perhaps it was the fact that he was an undisciplined twenty-something with little ability to focus on anything but drinking, chasing women (usually unsuccessfully), and peeing in alleys (usually successfully).  Perhaps he just needed to mature a bit. Age like a pungent cheese. Fast forward to Fall, 2008.  Having lived in his house with a basement for several years, the homebrewer finally decided that it was time to brew again.  Something was different this time.  There was focus.  Excitement.  A thirst for knowledge – and good beer.  Passion.  Extract quickly gave way to all grain.  Bottling gave way to kegging.  Yeast was placed in starter wort in an Erlenmeyer flask and placed on a stir plate.  Meads were fermenting.  Saccharomyces cerevisiae gave way to lactobacillus and brettanomyces. Within a few months, the basement was filled with glass carboys, grains, mash tuns, temperature controllers, pipettes, flasks, chest freezers and much more.  The beer was excellent ... usually.

Outside of homebrewing, "microbrews" became "craft beer" and craft beer was everywhere.  New bars were dedicated to serving it.  New festivals focused on regional craft beer offerings.  And Chicago, which for many years languished behind many major cities in craft beer culture, finally embraced it.  Metropolitan and Half Acre re-blazed a trail that had been previously traveled by Goose Island, Chicago Brewing Company, and Golden Prairie (remember that one?).

It's now October 4, 2011 and boy have things changed for our intrepid homebrewer.   This blog is about those changes.  If you've ever dreamed of opening your own brewery or perhaps any kind of small business to pursue your dreams, follow along.  This is going to be a hell of a ride.

And just so we're clear here:  Failure is not an option.