Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Is The Age of the Flagship Beer Over?



This here marks the second entry in a loosely connected series exploring the development and evolution of a new brewery's beer lineup, and how a brewery goes about refining such a thing. Part one went into the background of what we decided we should brew at Kent Falls, while a third future installment will eventually expand on the evolution of a particular beer, our Field Beer farmhouse ale. Field Beer was, from the start, intended to be sort of a 'conceptual' flagship ale, embodying an ethos that represented the whole brewery, if not necessarily leading the brewery in sales or release volumes.

Everyone knows that craft beer has dramatically shifted the way that the whole of the adult beverage market works. Before I even jumped into the process of helping to launch a new brewery, and planning and brainstorming and stressing and speculating what beers that I wanted to make would also be practical and sellable to the public, I had noticed something interesting about the way that breweries present themselves to their consumers. For years, maybe ever since the craft beer movement first began, its trajectory has been that of slowly and silently killing the model of flagship beer offerings. It has been one long history of flipping the way in which a brewery works.

For years, a brewery was a brand. Not a place or destination or personality or cult or whatever breweries are to the public now. The clarity and message of the brand was the product; the brewery as a personality was only really relevant so far as it was part of the brand. You didn't expect them to change what they were doing or switch things up on a regular basis. You were either on board with their brand, or you weren't. And while most of these brands did offer several products, they were usually slight variations on that initial core brand. Rather than releasing a distinct new brand with a separate identity, for example, you marketed a "light" version of your existing flagship brand.

Until recently, and even probably still now, this had a huge impact on how the average person would think about and discuss beer. For decades, the focus had been on a brewery as a brand. So that when you would talk to people about beer, most people would say things like "I had that Dogfish Head beer last night," or "You know what you would like? This one beer from back home, Troegs... you'd like it." And so on. The previous model of brewery-as-brand still greatly affects how the average person sees a brewery-as-a-business, even though it hasn't been that way for most breweries in decades. How many breweries today focus almost all their efforts on one single beer brand?

I mentioned that I view this as a slow trajectory, and I think there is an evolution in brewery identity that has been going on since the 70's. Those people that talk about a brewery as if they only make one beer would be wrong in almost every case, but you can understand why, if they don't really have much interest in the nerdy details of the beer industry, they might see a brewery like Sierra Nevada as a singular brand largely embodied by Pale Ale. That type of consumer would only rarely notice that there are other offerings from the brewery, and if so, probably understands that seasonals and special releases are a thing, and don't detract from the core identity of the brewery/brand. In the first wave of craft beer, this view would still basically be perceiving things accurately. Sierra Nevada was built by Pale Ale. That is still the core of their identity, though they happen to make many other products, too. And to the public, Sam Adams is just... Sam Adams. That's the beer. That's the brewery. That's the brand. But because they're a craft brand, sure, they also do sometimes have a seasonal release on tap as well. In the majority of bars, ordering a Sam Adams would create zero confusion. Only the pedantic beer nerd would protest: "But they make like 300 beers! Which one do you mean???"

The founders of the craft beer revolution largely stuck close to the existing model, focusing on flagship brands, but generally expanding this concept into having a group of "core" offerings, plus seasonals. This became the basic template for almost every brewery of the next several decades. Gradually, though, the obviousness of the flagship offering (and its singularity as the brewery's identifying brand) eroded. A flagship became merely the most prominent beer in a broader lineup of core offerings. Is 60 Minute the most popular and common product made by Dogfish Head? Sure, but they're a brand built on experimentation, and thus variety; it would be hard to miss that bigger picture.

One or two flagships bolstered by seasonals and special releases soon became half a dozen core lineup beers bolstered by seasonals and special releases. Much of this shift was likely tied to the resurgence of the brewpub, which, for most casual beer consumers, would start to define their image of what a brewery was. At a brewpub, having a clear and obvious single flagship isn't necessary, and from a branding perspective, doesn't even really make sense. As more and more began to define this new wave of breweries by their Friday-night-dinner experiences at a brewpub, the expectation that a brewery would offer a lineup of six, up to maybe ten core offerings, with a few side experiments that change every now and then, worked its way into our consciousness. And I'd say that's maybe where we've been for the last twenty years or so.

In that sense, the flagship beer is kind of already dead. Most breweries now don't expect to have one huge mega-hit that accounts for 90% of sales. In the rare cases where that does happen, it looks shockingly anomalous. How weird was it that The Alchemist, one of the most talked about and sought-after craft breweries in the world for a good part of this decade, only made and sold a single beer for a long chunk of that time? That Heady Topper stood as the sole offering of an immensely popular and beloved brewery was highly unusual for the time, probably because it wasn't even the brewery's intention for this to happen, but the whim's of fate and the wrath of mother nature.

Starting a new farmhouse brewery in a demographically-oddball rural area, we knew that a tart saison (or any kind of saison) was going to be a hard sale as Kent Fall's primary brand. You'd be surprised at how hard it is to sell large volumes of saison in the current beer market. Yes, I know, that probably sounds like a personal problem. "Have you considered that you only think that because you are terrible and no one likes you or your beer?" is probably your response, and while you are right, don't take my word for it. Ask any brewery that's producing a lot (or a majority) of farmhouse ale — unless their product is sour or barrel-aged. It may seem like saisons are super hot right now, but I think beer nerds talk about saison more than the general drinking public actually buys them in large quantities. In other words, it's a style that may do really well in special release formats (especially, again, if it's barrel-aged or has fruit or some other specialty situation), but saison is not dominating volume the way that, say, IPAs are, or session IPAs for example, or fruited IPAs, or to pick another random example, fruited session IPAs, or fruited session IPAs with citrus zest, or hard root beer. Saison is one of those styles that's beloved, but puts you in a weird spot if you want to make a lot of it.

Anyway, we anticipated this when thinking about our core lineup of beers, and came up with several concepts for "core" beers, though being that most of them were still in the farmhouse vein, we still ended up brewing for variety much more than we had anticipated. I'm guessing this is a common experience for many new breweries these days, unless you're focusing on hoppy beers for your flagships. Hoppy beers are probably the category that remains very easily (very easily) sellable as flagships or core brands, but in order to start off pushing hoppy beers as your primary offering, you either need to have put in the planning years in advance to procure awesome hop contracts from the start, or else be so small that you can still round up the hops you need from spot and trading. In other words, I don't think there are many styles remaining that are particularly easy to push as your flagship offering. And that may be a symptom of how drastically the entire brewing industry has changed. Variety, for now, is king. The real interesting question for me, is: just how sustainable is a model of "variety, always" actually is for every type of brewery, big and small?

If you enjoy my writing or reading about fermentation in general, please consider pre-ordering my book, The Fermented Man, on Amazon, and follow me on Twitter and Instagram for more regular updates.



Tuesday, June 7, 2016

My Experiences Developing the Beer Lineup for a New Brewery



Some breweries start out from the beginning with carefully engineered marketing strategies, while others take a more free-form, off-the-cuff approach to their products, based on whatever the brewer wants to do next. Most, of course, probably begin with a fuzzy mixture of both strategies. Before finally producing our first beer in February 2015, Barry and I spent about 9 months brewing up a storm of trial batches for only a mere handful of the initial offerings of Kent Falls Brewing Co. It's hilarious how much time — months and months — was spent trialing just a couple beers, compared to the staggering number of beers we've released since then, most of them with minimal test batch experimentation.

For most of the planning phase, we only knew that we would be making one or two particular beers for certain. Being a farmhouse brewery, our first beer was obviously going to be a saison. At the time, the concept of a seasonally rotating farmhouse ale called Field Beer was kind of our intended flagship beer — although we weren't entirely sure what that even meant, for a brewery like ours. Before I became involved, Barry had the artwork, name, and general concept in place. It would be a farmhouse ale that used all local ingredients, including raw grains (oat, spelt, wheat, and rye) that would change with each season. Once I started on with the company, we got to work developing a recipe, deciding on the structure of the beer (clean, funky, sour, wood-aged, etc) and refining the house saison culture that would ferment it. Farmhouse ales can go in a lot of different directions, and at that point we figured we'd only be making one or two saisons (excluding limited barrel-aged stuff) over the course of our first year. After all, with only three tanks and two yeast strains, how many different beers could you possibly make?

The amount of time spent developing those few initial beer concepts was severely disproportionate, in retrospect. Shortly after starting to sort out Field Beer, we settled on our second "core" beer. I had been spending much of my own homebrewing energy, over the several years previous, perfecting my ideal hiking beer, a Brett IPA, and I thought it would be badass to open up with a tart saison and a Brett IPA as flagship beers. As we still drifted through a dozen saison culture variations, we started refining my existing Brett IPA recipe with new yeast strains. Due to the nature of the types of beers I wanted to make, most of the R&D efforts were actually yeast related. Homebrewing gives you the opportunity to very casually and without any real pressure test out different yeast profiles in similar foundational beers over... well, all the time you want. Opening up a brewery, all of a sudden you're in this mad crunch to make sure you found the best possible combination of saison yeast out there. The best, most consistent, must management, most reliable Brett culture. How can you possibly test out all the thousands of different variations and combinations in time before you need to have a recipe locked in?

But then there's the other strange challenges of developing your brewery lineup. When thinking of how to name and label my Bear Flavored beers, ideas came easy. I had a stockpile of images and endless ideas for names, but they all pretty directly channeled my own personal weirdnesses and aesthetic inclinations, and I wasn't bouncing them off of anyone else. Branding, for a brewery that isn't just your own, is a far greater challenge. Everything had to funnel together the different visions of everyone involved, while representing the amalgamation of the brewery identity as a whole — whatever that was. We were still figuring it out, after all, in how we chose to name and label the beers.

Finding a name for our Brett IPA was, oddly enough, possibly the most difficult single thing in the whole long process — as far as creative spontaneity, failed solutions, and time spent before coming up with something that finally worked. We bounced ideas around for at least a month. At my birthday party that year, I passed around a notepad and had friends write down ideas, then vote on favorites. For the longest time, we couldn't quite nail it. But once one idea clicks, it's weird how immediately and easily other ideas click, and the whole trajectory of what you're doing inexorably shifts. Finally, possibly by accident, someone came up with"Waymaker" as the name, and at last, a name actually stuck. I remember thinking about adding coffee to the Brett IPA. Suddenly it hit me: Coffeemaker! The name came with zero effort, because it just made sense, and was kind of dumb and tongue-in-cheek, which is very much Kent Fall's. What about adding fruit to the Brett IPA? Juicemaker! Et cetera. It can take a month to lock-in one concept, and then only hours to establish a quarter dozen more.

You'll hear, from new breweries, that you can never fully anticipate what your first few years will be like. Business plans are just a nice idea you create to show to investors and the bank. Reality will dictate the real flow of the business, and it will almost never resemble the plan. But usually these reflections on the insane momentum of running a brewery are in relation to production growth and sales and whatnot. I suppose, for better or worse, we had a far more flexible vision of what our brewery identity would even be than most do. Or maybe not, even. I don't know. We had a very good idea of the types of beers we would make at Kent Falls. We were going to focus on farmhouse ales and sours and Northeast-style IPAs and a couple stouts here and there with the other varied oddball experiments on the side. In other words, I was going to continue to brew basically the same beers I would have been brewing as a homebrewer anyway.

But amidst all the things we wanted to make, we assumed we would have to start out making only a few of them. Produce a lineup of half a dozen or so core beers that would see relatively frequent distribution, and fill in the edges with some other stuff, some more limited adventures. That's how breweries work, right? I made charts and graphs and notebook scribblings about flagships and brew frequency and hop usages. We assumed that, as brewers, you just sort of establish those things, and the market drinks them up, mostly, and you see what does better and what's weak and go from there. Scale up on some things and scale down others.

One of the main factors determining these initial beers, the focus of a "core" lineup, is yeast. As a homebrewer, this is something you're aware of, but it doesn't dictate your brewing the way it will professionally. And in plotting out your brewery, you will realize just how limiting this sort of planning can be. Especially if you to want to do some oddball things with unique yeast cultures, or if you want to use certain yeast cultures, but only sporadically. Now, you either have to have an in-house yeast propagation system of some sort (which could be costly, eat up the floor space of your tiny brewery, and would demand more man-hours that you don't have), or you have to stick to using the same yeast for at least several batches in a row. Ordering a fresh pitch of yeast for each batch would be a significant cost; money that could be better spent more efficiently. So your schedule is, to a large extent, dictated by how many yeast strains you're able to bring into the brewery, how long you can / plan to keep them going for, and how affordable it is for you to order yeast cultures here and there that you only plan to use for a few batches. There's a reason that most breweries brew 95% of their beers with one house strain, and there's a reason it's usually a nice versatile American or British strain.

In practical terms, if you want one of your core beers to be a 100% Brett IPA with a unique yeast culture that the market still barely understands, that means you have to either brew that beer essentially all the time (hoping it will work as a true year-round flagship), or alternate it with a few other beers (using that same unusual yeast culture) to space out batches and not flood the market. Or finally, you could brew the one beer a couple times for one period of the year, then dump the yeast and switch to a new culture for that tank. Here was a new challenge: how many different beers could I come up with to be fermented with a 100% Brett culture that regular bars and restaurants would be willing to repeatedly buy? Coming up with these ideas in a homebrew setting is one thing, but now, as a production brewery in an area without a ton of craft beer-centric bars, you have to convince numerous bars and restaurants and beer halls to take in kegs of your wacky ideas. As much as I really wanted to brew a 100% Brett IPA as a core beer, could I really sustain the culture as a year-round thing?

Originally, due to the nature of the beers, some practical yeast management concerns, and the whole general Figuring This Out process, we didn't want to bring in a third yeast culture beyond our saison and Brett cultures. We had three tanks. Three tanks, to keep two yeast cultures alive and healthy. We had to devise a core lineup of beers around those two unique house cultures. It was actually quite a fun challenge. It forced me to be creative, but ultimately allowed us to brew most of the stuff that I wanted to focus our core lineup on anyway. We'd be brewing a Brett IPA (and several variations thereof), goses, and an assortment of saisons. The only types of beers that I was fond of but that I couldn't really get to, with that setup, were clean IPAs. But those could wait to come in later, especially as we were waiting to build up our hop resources. And still are — hop contracts are a whole other logistics nightmare that I won't even dive into here.

But the market is a force with a strong will — a will that is fortunately pretty easy to interpret, in this industry — and we were in a position to be adaptable. Or at least a mindset to be adaptable. The nature of our lineup was not set in stone. And the nature of our lineup — the beers I made in the first year, but more precisely how often I made each of them — was something that was shaped by the sort of responses we saw. As it happened, the market seemed to demand the type of brewing I was most comfortable with anyway. The type of brew schedule I would prefer to do regardless, because it's the same approach I took as a curious homebrewer with a terrible attention span. The market demanded variety. I like variety. We found that beers moved fastest, and thus were served fresh and at their peak quality, when we didn't brew any one beer too much all at once. With a few months in between releases — and a number of beers released only on an annual basis — the market could "miss" things they hadn't had in a while, rather than getting bombarded with the same offerings constantly. This realization isn't new — there's a reason why seasonals and one-offs have become such a big thing, even for older, flagship-oriented breweries — but I think this dichotomy is growing more and more prevalent and unavoidable. Perhaps our experience would have been less extreme if we had a tasting room or a brewpub, and regular patrons expecting certain things to always be there. But we had to build a brewery brand based on distribution only, and thus, the frequently-rotating taplists of other people's bars. Beer bars inherently favor variety these days. So, not by calculated planning or lengthy board meetings or strategy sessions, but by instinct and reflex and a readiness to embrace experimentation at the first opportunity, we became the type of brewery that releases about 50 distinct beers in its first year of operation.

We saw quickly that the market likes variety. This is great for me, because I also like variety, and I like brewing different things. But the degree to which the market pushed us toward variety was still shocking to me. And it made me question: is the flagship (or core lineup) model of brewing, at least for small new breweries, starting to die? How much will the rotating nature of beer bar draft lists shape the future of the brewing business?

More thoughts on that over the next few weeks. In the meantime, if you enjoy my writing or reading about fermentation in general, please consider pre-ordering my book, The Fermented Man, on Amazon, and follow me on Twitter and Instagram for more regular updates.



Thursday, May 19, 2016

About That Time I Ate Nothing But Fermented Food For One Year (The Fermented Man Pre-Order)




In two months, on July 19th, The Fermented Man will finally be released, so I think it's time for a little update on the book. Many of you have no doubt been waiting for The Fermented Man these last few years as ravenously as the masses anticipate a new Star Wars film, so if you don't require any further elaboration from me, I'll here point out that the book is already available for pre-order. For more details, please read on!

In Case You Don't Know About the Book-
During the year of 2014, I lived off of nothing but fermented food for the entire year. Yes, an entire year consuming only things which were fermented. However, this isn't a new lifestyle diet I'm going to be endorsing on Dr. Phil, but more of an experiment (a thought experiment turned into a challenging reality), and a means to journey through the world of fermented food in an interesting and immersive way. I wanted to write a book that would be entertaining and informative for any reader, whether you know a lot about fermentation already, or absolutely nothing at all.

Even though fermentation is as old as civilization itself, studies into our microbiome and our relationship with microbes are only recently entering the public consciousness. One might be tempted to conclude that probiotic foods are just another new health fad, but fermentation is anything but. It is a fundamental element of the culinary world. So fundamental, you could even, just for example, live off of nothing but fermented foods. The influence of fermentation really does permeate just about everything.

There are many excellent guides to making fermented foods at home out there. In fact, that is primarily how the publishing world has dealt with fermentation thus far. I wanted to write a different type of book, one for hobbyists and general readers alike. Maybe you can't even pretend that you'll ever be motivated to go home at night and spend a few hours packing cabbage into a jar to make sauerkraut. That's totally fine — not everyone needs to be (or has time to be) a hobbyist, and fermentation is far more important (and interesting) than as just as DIY activity for foodies. Maybe you've spent most of your life convinced that you need to slather your hands in sanitizer gel to lead a healthy lifestyle, and are simply fascinated that anyone would risk eating food crawling with living bacteria, much less a whole year of it. After all, we go to great lengths to eradicate microbes in almost every area of our lives. Why would we want more of them?

This is a book for those terrified of microbes, and those who love them.


What To Expect From The Fermented Man-
The Fermented Man is a narrative non-fiction journey into the world of fermentation. Living off of fermented foods for a year posed a host of challenges and educational opportunities alike, and allowed me to structure the book as a walk-through of the entire world of microbe-made foods, as well as an exploration of the very nature of diets. You will hopefully learn a lot. You will probably read some thoughts about diets and health that you weren't expecting. You will hopefully be entertained, and get a few chuckles out of my ordeal, here and there. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be inspired to post passionate memes on Tumblr demanding a sequel. In the back of the book there is even a brief recipe section, so after traveling with me through this eye-opening culinary realm, you can try your hand making a few of my favorites at home, if you are so inclined.

When Does The Fermented Man Come Out?-
The book will be released (both online and in bookstores) on July 19th.

How To Get a Copy Of the Book-
The Fermented Man will be available through all the typical channels that books are typically available.

You may guess that authors generally take home more money when you order from the author directly, rather than, say, Amazon. And while I could probably make a few more bucks by setting up a sale for the book through my merch store and encouraging everyone that reads this blog to order the book that way, it's actually probably better for me in the long run if you just order the book from a regular store — either your local bookstore, or Amazon. While I might make less on each sale, Amazon is also a very powerful marketing platform, in a sense, and the more visible my (or any) book is on Amazon, the better it is likely to do. So, it's probably ultimately better if Amazon sees that my book is selling well, versus trying to squeeze out a few extra dollars by selling a bunch of copies myself. Likewise, your local bookstore can always really use your support, and their interest in my book is also supremely helpful. So, please visit them and ask if they'll be getting copies of The Fermented Man in. If they are not already, you can always request that they do so. A win for everyone!

One more thing: after you have read the book, please consider doing me a huge favor. I mentioned that Amazon also essentially works as a marketing platform. Along those lines, the more reviews a book has, the better for its visibility to other shoppers. So please consider doing me a major solid and adding a quick review to the Amazon page. Even a short review is immensely helpful to an author — especially a new, unknown author like myself.

How Many Copies Of the Book Should I Order, Just To Be Safe?-
At least four or five, but up to 10 if you really want to improve your social standing. Copies of The Fermented Man make excellent gifts for any family member, friend, significant other, or all 527 of your Facebook friends!

How Can I Order Copies To Sell At My Store?
If you work at a bookstore, you'll be able to stock the book as you would any other. However, if you work at a store that isn't able to order this book through your usual distribution channels, you can email Ross Gerstenblatt at my publishing company (Overlook Press), who will set you up.

Will You Be Doing Events To Promote the Book?
Indeed I will. I don't have a ton of details on this front that I can announce just yet, so I'll save this stuff, mostly, for another post.

Will You Be Doing Any Events That Are On A Big Roof?
One event that I can reveal now is a fermentation workshop I will be doing with Brooklyn Grange, who operate the world's largest rooftop soil farms. That workshop will be on Tuesday, August 9th. This will be a really fun, very unique event, and you can sign up now by clicking here.

Will You Do An Event At My Venue, Please?
Possibly! If there is some place you know of, work for, or run that would like to organize an event with me, please get in touch with me at bearflavored @ gmail dot com.

What If I Donated To Your Indiegogo Campaign?
You are truly a hero, and thank you for helping to make a vital section of the book possible. If you were one of the supporters on my Indiegogo campaign back in 2014, I will already be mailing you a copy of the book directly. If you also got a t-shirt through the campaign, I will eventually ask you what size and stuff you want, or go ahead and just let me know now.

What If I'm Impatient, And Wish To Hear More Right Now, But In Audio-Only Format?
I'm glad to hear you are so eager. Go ahead and listen to a podcast I just did with Fuhmentaboutit, a lovely fermentation podcast that interviewed me on a broad range of book-related subjects.



Thank you all very much for helping to support my writing career and fermentation education efforts. July 19th will be here very soon! Until then (and after then), follow me on Twitter and Instagram for more regular updates.



Monday, March 28, 2016

What's the Best Way to Add Coffee Into Beer?



It's always fun to think about how many people have, in their combined efforts, produced a staggering number of variations on beer throughout history. Brewers will commonly remark that few things we make today are truly original ideas — that some historic brewer, somewhere along the way, has already tried just about everything. But there must be at least a few inventions unique to modern brewers. We throw some weird stuff into beer. Coffee, one of the more common and less weird things thrown into beer of late, is a pretty obvious and logical adjunct. Not only does it compliment flavors already present in certain beers, but most of us brewers drink just about as much coffee as we do beer. The notion of throwing coffee into a beer seems like something very particular to our modern sensibilities, but who knows? I've never heard anything indicating that coffee was ever used as a flavoring in beer before the 80's/90's, but while it certainly wasn't traditional, it's not impossible that someone tried it hundreds of years ago.

Now, of course, coffee beer is all the rage. (I could swear I recently saw some statistic about coffee beers being one of the largest categories of beer in competitions, but now that it would be useful, I can't find it). There's hardly a style of beer that we haven't tried adding coffee to. Dark beers hardly warrant mention, but I've also seen coffee sours and coffee saisons. Coffee IPAs are not totally uncommon, and at Kent Falls, we took that trend a step further and add coffee to our Brett IPA — which, as far as I know, is possibly the only beer of its kind. 

When we first started producing Waymaker (the aforementioned Brett IPA), we realized we were limited in what we could brew in those first few months by the esoteric yeast cultures I had chosen for our house strains. We wanted to get as much diversity as possible out of a few beers with similar foundations, and easy-to-add ingredients that could spin a new beer off from an existing base was a common sense way to accomplish that. Thus, Waymaker Brett IPA, with the addition of coffee, could become a second, distinct beer: Coffeemaker Brett IPA. Obviously, we were only going to pursue the concept if it worked. And in this case, it worked wonderfully. We partnered with Irving Farm Coffee Roasters — not only one of the best coffee roasters in the region, but one whose roasting facility happens to be a short (only 40 minutes, about as close as anything gets around here) drive from our farm. Together, we tested out a number of roasts and ratios until we had a combination of beer and coffee that we enjoyed for its complexities and uniqueness. 

Since we were doing only small runs of Coffeemaker to start out, figuring out how to actually add the coffee into the beer wasn't hard. The knowledgeable folks at Irving Farm recommended adding the coffee late in the process, and not using cold brew, which wouldn't extract the full range of flavors. We settled on using a 2x coffee concentrate liquid, which could be pumped into the brite tank under CO2 pressure minutes before packaging the resulting blend. No oxygen, just maximally fresh coffee. You could achieve the same effect on a homebrew scale by pouring 2x strength coffee (at an 11% ratio) directly into the keg. 

This method works great when you're splitting off a batch and only turning a small fraction of it into a coffee beer. (It also works great when you don't have to concern yourself with making 15-30 gallons of coffee yourself). We could have easily employed this method with 6 bbl, up to about 12 bbl volumes of beer. But then we started talking about brewing full-sized batches of Coffeemaker, on its own. Potentially up to 30, even 35 bbls. That's a hell of a lot more coffee. That's a volume of beer that would require potentially 80+ gallons of coffee. Can you imagine 80 gallons of coffee? That's an insane amount. That's almost four times what I drink during the average day. How do you make that much coffee? 

We spent about a month brainstorming methods for brewing 80 gallons of coffee. Irving Farm offered us an old giant coffee maker that could brew 6 gallons of coffee at a time, which is a lot when you're thinking of coffee in terms of just drinking it, but bizarrely undersized in terms of a beer that can suck up a bathtub's worth of the stuff. 

Then we took a trip out to San Diego for Modern Times' Festival of Funk. Modern Times established themselves early on as a leader in the coffee beer game by becoming the first brewery in the country to have an in-house roaster. After that, they started barrel-aging coffee beans, not only to sell to the public to drink (I've bought a few bags; they're trippy cool and tasty) but to add back to beer, and complete some kind of insane beer-barrel-coffee Ouroboros loop. Unsurprisingly, while hanging out at Modern Times, we gleaned a few useful methods from their extensive coffee-related shenanigans.

Many brewers add coffee beans directly into their beer, but we'd theorized that it would be best to avoid this method for a few reasons. First, we didn't want to add the coffee too early in the process, before fermentation. Fermentation transforms things, and both the Irving Farm folks and us Kent Falls folks felt that we would get the clearest, most stable coffee flavor the later in the process the coffee went in. Right into the brite immediately before packaging is about as late as you can get, but the volume of liquid then becomes the issue. So why not just add coffee beans into the brite tank or fermentor, in a bag, you may be thinking? Certainly, that could work, and is probably an alternate solution. But there's a degree of control you may have to give up with this approach, as the amount of contact time between the beans and the coffee are now dictated by the time it takes you to package the beer. Plus, we had been worried about the alcohol pulling undesirable flavor compounds out of the beans, especially with that extended contact time. And then there's the simple matter of scale, once more: when you're Modern Times size (much bigger than Kent Falls, and Kent Falls isn't even that small in the grand scheme of things), how many pounds of Stuff do you want to be shoving into your gigantic tanks? If you reach the point where you're brewing a 200+ bbl batch of coffee stout, say, do you really want to be dropping several hundred pounds of coffee beans into your tanks? What are you going to put all that coffee in? How are you going to keep it out of the packaged product? How are you going to fish it back out?

Modern Times had figured out a nice sort of hybrid approach. I've now adapted it here at Kent Falls, and utilized it for one of our most recent beers, a Coffee Milk Stout. This was indeed the first batch of coffee beer that was all what it was — a full-tank, full-volume batch, thus requiring quite a bit of coffee. (Ultimately, I did end up filling some bourbon barrels with the stout before adding the coffee, so the final ratio was a 23 bbl batch of beer that got about 23 lbs worth of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee). Rather than adding the coffee beans into any of the tanks, I thoroughly cleaned one of our half-barrel yeast brinks, which have butterfly valves on the bottom and top for yeast collection. I poured the whole beans into the keg and set up a loop from the bottom of the fermentor (after clearing it of trub), into our cellar pump, into the coffee-keg, out of the top, then through a hose and back into the racking arm of the fermentor. On the out of the keg containing the coffee, I attached our hop filter, which is basically a torpedo-like tube with two inner stainless steel mesh filters, and which in this case would prevent any coffee beans from riding the beer wave out of their holding vessel. (A smaller type of mesh screen that fits inline would work as well, probably better, as this set-up made for an awkwardly vertical hose arrangement). With this loop, the beer gets pulled out of the tank, runs through the coffee, and returns to the tank, cycling a constant mixture of coffee-beer through the vessel(s). I let this cycle run for a little under a day. When the beer was ready to transfer into the brite tank, I simply reconfigured the hoses so that all the beer from the fermentor would pass through the coffee keg once more along the way.

You could replicate this approach on a homebrew scale quite easily, either with my trusty ol' dry-hop keg set-up, or using a simple bag to contain and filter the coffee before transferring. You wouldn't be running a cycle/loop, but the basic idea would be the same.

Either method — coffee liquid, or calculated contact time over whole beans — could be the easier for you depending on your set-up and scale, at least assuming you're a homebrewer or smaller-scale commercial brewer. Above 20 bbls or so, you probably have no choice but to add beans right into the beer. Result-wise, there are also pros and cons either way. I liked how "present" the coffee character remained, even over time, with the direct liquid injection method. The immediacy and purity of the coffee addition seemed to bring about the clearest, most stable coffee character. But with certain roasts, we also noticed that the coffee character would shift over time and develop an interesting note often described as "jalapeno." The flavor never disagreed with me, and I found it more of a subtle shading with a curious flavor association, but it did shift the profile away from pure coffee, even if the beer as a whole remained pretty vibrantly coffee-forward. With the loop method, based on my impressions so far, I think the result will be a smoother but mellower coffee flavor, and I'm curious to see how it holds up over time.

My favorite part of making coffee beers? With all the experimentation and blends and testing and friends made in the coffee industry, you somehow or another end up with a lot of coffee on hand. I remember the days, years ago, when I couldn't even drink coffee after 4 pm without dooming myself to lay awake in bed all night. Haha. Oh man. How young and much healthier I was back then.




Thursday, February 11, 2016

Maple Imperial Stout - Recipe & Tasting Notes





In retrospect, I guess it is a little weird how long I went without brewing any dark beers at Kent Falls. I do love stouts and porters quite a bit, and we had always intended to add them to the lineup. But winter snuck up fast, and with the many many many many things I'm juggling all at once, even just orchestrating the timing of releases to their appropriate weather patterns sort of slipped from my attention. There are many ideas I've been working on, and concepts I would like to try out in the future, and a lot of those fall into the neglected dark beer realm. You'll see more stout/porter-type stuff from us next winter, and especially whenever we're able to expand our barrel cellar. (So far, we haven't put a single clean beer into barrels). Different stouts, different porters, different flavors touching up those simple bases, and perhaps even different barrel-aging processes to create something new and #extreme. Like, has anyone even ever tried putting a stout in a barrel before? A barrel-aged stout? I can't say I've heard of it being done. It's probably just too crazy to work, but I'm at least willing to approach the concept on a purely theoretical level, before abandoning it as an absurd idea.

Eventually, maybe I'll even repeat something like this recipe: a 15% ABV maple imperial stout. Maybe. If you've encountered many Kent Falls beers in real life, you'll know that that's about triple the average ABV of the beers I brew here. The anarchist in me kind of wants to avoid brewing anything super boozy, but if there's one thing I'd buck my own conventions for, it'd be a beer like this.

One of my brewing white whales is perfecting this vague ideal I have of a maple imperial stout. It's weird: I generally haaaaaaaate sweetness in beers. In many cases, it can completely ruin a style I should otherwise appreciate. I've come to realize that I just... don't like imperial IPAs anymore. I could probably go the rest of my life without drinking another barrel-aged barleywine. Malt bombs just aren't for me, I guess. Basically every beer I brew is super dry, and rare is the beer that finishes above 3 plato that I would consider acceptable. Their grain bills are super stripped down and simple for a reason. Yet, oddly enough, imperial stouts very often slip through the cracks of my preferences. I think it may be that the roast and depth of flavors balance out the caramel raisin sweetness that I can't stand in other boozy malt-focused beers. Some additional adjuncts can still send these beers too over-the-top, and I'm getting a little burned out on the bourbon barrel-aged stout thing as well, but maple? Maple is one of my favorite flavors in the universe. Maple is a Trojan Horse into my heart and soul. God help me if maple becomes the next pumpkin, because I am helpless to resist it. Thus, I will always be chasing the perfect maple stout, a beer that balances a subtle sweetness with those earthy maple notes, roasty malts and coffee and vanilla undertones.

Having already written about the troubles of imparting maple flavor into beer (the TL:DR: it's just way too fermentable for the flavor to really stick), let me go on a bit of tangent. Let me talk briefly about the brewing-foibles along the way for my grandest Maple Beer attempt. I wanted this beer to be big, incorporate an absolutely ludicrous amount of maple syrup, have a bit of oak backing it up, and hold up as something I could age for years and years and decades to come. Born in the driveway of a homebrew shop, it was later carried home half a mile to my old apartment, where it was fermented and aged. It then endured one of the most miserable packaging experiences of my homebrewing career, thanks to the wonders of leaf hops.

Leaf hops are like this vegetative homing missile designed to find things that can be clogged, and clog them with supernatural vigor. And they follow no rhyme nor reason, either; sometimes they will decide to grant you mercy, and leave your things unclogged; other days, they will decide just to clog all your shit right to hell. Immediately before trying to keg this stout (the plan was to age further in the keg, then bottle off of the keg), I transferred a Brewer's Gold single-hop pale ale that had used leaf hops for every stage and had zero issues. All the beer went through fine, and the leaf hops stayed right where they were supposed to be.

Then I tried to transfer my imperial stout. There were considerably fewer hops in my imperial stout than in my Brewer's Gold pale ale; I'd used a mix of leaf and pellet hops for bittering and late additions. Not for any particular reason, but because it was what I'd had on hand, and I hadn't thought about it too much. But despite the small addition of just a few ounces, these leaf hops decided they were going to clog my auto siphon. Aggressively. I tried unclogging. I tried pumping harder. I remember the moment where the end of the hose popped out of the keg due to some kind of pressure build-up and sprayed syrupy imperial stout all across my room. The auto siphon I was using was so clogged I could not get any beer through it. I would pump and it would just shoot blanks. I separated the hose from the siphon and tried siphoning the old fashioned way, to no avail. I tried sucking the beer through the hose to start it; clogged. I tried a second auto siphon, and it immediately clogged. I tried one of those mesh straining bags around the end of the siphon: this did a great job of siphoning noisy angry air pockets through my hose. I tried creating a small wormhole in the bottom of the fermentor to draw the remaining beer through dimensions, summoning it into my keg with arcane magicks: clogged. These goddam things were so maliciously intent on clogging every piece of brewing equipment in my house, I'm fairly sure that they actually devised means to travel back in time and kill the parents of my auto-siphon. I'm sure that if I had just tried pouring the liquid from the bucket into the keg, these leaf hops would have found a way to clog the air itself. If they'd had these leaf hops available on the Titanic when its hull was ruptured by that iceberg, the ship would have never sank.

But I digress.

At some point I was standing there, half my apartment sprayed down with a thick mist of imperial stout, broken auto-siphons littered about me, and I was seething with rage. These mere five gallons of imperial stout contained, I'd guess, at least $100 worth of ingredients, and for whatever stupid reason or curse or personal incompetence, I could not move it from one vessel to another. Just physically... couldn't. The laws of gravity were broken that day. I gave up. Sealed up the keg, purged. Purged the carboy with CO2 and sealed that back up until I devised a better plan. Or had access to a better filter. Something that those leaf hops could not defeat. That turned out to be my patent-pending Bear Flavored Dry-Hop Keg device, and in the end, I did eventually successfully get to package this beer.

I had a terrible fear that this stout would come out oxidized or infected after all the abuse that it endured, but it's now been in the bottle for a year, and it's holding up very well. It's sweet, certainly, and trending more towards the typical imperial stout sweetness as it ages. The maple is there, but considering the tremendous amount of maple syrup that I used — two thirds of a gallon Grade B syrup in 4.25 gallons of beer — the flavor is still not as prominent as I would have liked. Part of my hope in making this beer so high in alcohol was that the yeast would tire out and just stop fermenting the stuff while there was still a little maple character left, or that the fermentation would proceed slowly enough that all the delicate nuances wouldn't get scrubbed out. [Edit: the first comment on this post raised some questions that I really should have addressed to begin with, regarding the fermentation. Getting a big beer like this to attenuate is obviously a concern, and by adding the maple syrup in staggered additions, following primary fermentation, I figured the gentler fermentation would help maintain some maple character, but also ensure the yeast didn't get hammered too heavily, and would thus be able to finish this beer out to the degree I expected. Fermentation-wise, especially as a homebrewer, I think this always the best strategy for high-ABV beers]. This worked, to an extent, but if you really want a dynamic maple bomb, you'd have to go to even more extremes. Which is insane to suggest. Clearly there is a point at which just adding more and more maple syrup ceases to become practical, and I think with a touch of oak and maybe even vanilla beans, you would get some magnification of some of the maple characteristics. I did add an ounce of oak chips in the carboy as this aged, but they weren't enough to come through. In retrospect, I wish I'd done more along those lines — a more prominent oak backbone would be good here.

Then again, subtlety is a beautiful thing. The only downside of the beer tasting as balanced and restrained as this is, is the cost of maple syrup. It's... not cheap. So either you have access to a maple source yourself, and cost doesn't matter, or else you're going to be throwing down a lot of money for little reward. What's a little nuance and complexity worth to you?

And maybe that right there explains why something like the "pumpkin spice everything" craze became what it was, and hasn't happened yet with maple. At least in terms of beer, pumpkin and maple both come through extremely, teasingly subtle. In a market that really hasn't had a whole lot of interest in subtle, that's not gonna fly. But pumpkin has those spices to back it up, And man, those spices sure don't have to be subtle. You can load up on the spices. Maple has no such cohort. It is a natural and independent flavor. It is pure of heart. Noble. Humble. And that is why I'll keep chasing it.


Recipe-
5.0 Gal., All Grain
Brewed: 9.24.14
Bottled On: 3.14.15
Fermented at 66 F
OG: 1.093 (before maple addition)
FG: 1.028
ABV: 15%

Malt-
38.8% [#10] 2-Row malt
27.2% [#7] Grade B maple syrup
15.5% [#4] oak-smoked wheat
7.8% [#2] chocolate rye
7.8% [#2] flaked oats
2.9% [12 oz] Carafa III

Hop Schedule-
2 oz CTZ @FWH

Other-
1 oz medium toast American oak chips

Yeast-
British ale yeast


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