Sunday Musings

March 18, 2012

A statement that I hear from time to time that I really dislike is “I hate lagers”. The natural outgrowth of that is the plethora of polls on beer blogs asking “which do you prefer: ales or lagers?”, which is ridiculous due to the complete lack of good representations of the traditional lager styles in this country.

Now, I spent a month last year in Germany at brewing school, where I was drunk pretty regularly on great lager styles. I’m sure that the majority of average beer drinkers in this country, and many craft beer enthusiasts, don’t have much understanding of the wide range of lager styles that are out there. Unfortunately, there really isn’t much supply of good lagers in this country. Most of the lagers sold in the U.S. are of the American Lite Lager style that Bud/Miller/Coors developed over the last century. The rest are mostly imported bottles of German lagers that have spent weeks in non climate controlled containers on a ship, then a dock warehouse, then a truck, then a distribution warehouse, etc. No bottle you get in this country from Germany will do the beer justice.

Compounding this is the fact that craft breweries are routinely very small operations with little available capital and tenuous debt levels. Many of them would find it incredibly difficult to justify letting product sit in their tanks for the extra weeks necessary to make a good lager style. There are some breweries that do this, like Metro Brewing in Chicago, but they are few and far between at this point. If you have a chance, try Victory’s line of German lager styles. Their Helles is a wonderful beer.

So that statement about hating lagers does bother me, but I understand where the mentality comes from. It’s just misconceptions and lack of knowledge, which is fine. Hopefully I can get my own brewery off the ground some day and can find a way to make some of these beers profitably and represent the styles well.


Over the past several weeks, things have changed a bit at the brewery. We have a new brewer that’s been training for a while, which has forced some changes in the shift schedule. I’ve was first moved to the 2pm-midnight shift, coming in for 2-4 hours on Friday afternoons to finish any cleaning and close up the place. At the beginning of this week I moved to the graveyard shift, 8pm-6am, so my week is now four days long, which is a schedule that I love. Surprisingly, I’ve adjusted to the overnight shift really easily. I get home around 6:30 and fall asleep fairly quickly, getting up around 1pm.

The best thing about moving to nights is that I no longer have someone actively training me, so no one is standing behind me watching everything I do intently. That makes even the most interesting activity stressful and obnoxious. And being told a particular way to do something, and being corrected if I try to do it a different way, is frustrating. Now I can develop my own methods that I feel comfortable with, so all is well. I’m loving this shift.

One of the unfortunate things that’s happened is that, for several reasons including an inventory backlog, we’ve dropped from twenty brews per week to eighteen. I’m told this will likely last for a while, but isn’t permanent. The big downside there is we get left with not a whole lot to do at night, especially down in the cellaring area. I’ve been able to take my sweet time running CIP cycles on tanks and hot rinsing the bottler and kegger, and still have wound up with lots of down time. Next week I get back down to the brewhouse, so things will be a little more active.

On the brewery startup front, I’m still actively thinking about it and doing some reading, but the move to a less stressful shift has reduced the urgency for me. Several articles and blogs have mentioned small ‘nanobreweries’ that people have started that have been quite successful. Some started in separated garages as side-businesses, like Blind Bat in Long Island, and some start small but full-time like Barrier Brewing. The guys at Barrier, a couple of Sixpoint veterans, are starting full-time on a 1BBL system. I’ve read about startups like that all over the country, many of which appear to be profitable (there’s a particular one I’d like to link to, but can’t remember the name of it right now). That road sounds the most interesting, honestly, but also one of the more risky ways to do it.

On the one hand, starting a full scale production brewery (or brewpub) is going to give you a serious debt load to worry about, which has killed many breweries before they even opened. The other side is starting ‘nano’, selling only on premises (where the margins are high enough to be profitable), and build on peoples’ preferences for local options and word of mouth.

Anyway, this was just a brain dump before I head out to my last shift of the week. It’s basically gonna be ten hours of cleaning the brewery and hopefully running some CIP cycles.

Also, Hess Brewing has a nice list of links to nanobrewery websites. The list was written a while ago, so I’m not sure just how updated it is currently.

Homebrew Competition Time

September 20, 2011

After years of homebrewing, I had always been interested in entering a competition to get some feedback on my brewing and maybe actually compete for an award. On the other hand, given how subjective beer tasting can be and how widely different palates can be, I had always been hesitant.

Last year I entered the Knickerbocker Battle of the Brews at the Albany Pump Station to see how the whole experience would be. I wound up entering six beers in the competition, and though I wound up getting a few awards, it’s the feedback that was most important. Of the judges that reviewed my beers, several were professional brewers from brewpubs in the region, some worked at homebrew shops, and a bunch were homebrewers that were certified judges. The experience levels of these people varied drastically from novice judges up to the very experienced ones.

When I read through all of the comments, there definitely seemed to be a divide between the judges that work in the field professionally and the judges that were homebrewers that were staying involved in their hobby by being judges. The homebrewer judges seemed to be a bit more strict and narrow in interpretation of styles, while the judges that were pro brewers tended to be more accepting of the outer edges of the guidelines. That’s just an observation, and I’m not complaining. The differences in the viewpoints and perspectives in the comments were interesting and lead to some ideas on how to alter the recipes if I wanted certain beers to do better in the competition.

The fact that three different judges review each beer is nice in that you get three different levels of experience, three different viewpoints, and three different sets of preferences from which your beers are judged. Given the different perspectives, you kind of have to give the subjective comments on flavor and aroma a wide berth, the comments on technical flaws all seem to be pretty accurate. As I’m not overly experienced at detecting off-flavors (at Siebel I found there are some off-flavors I can’t detect very well even in significant quantity), that’s the aspect of the judging that I really look for, and where competitions can be really helpful to me as a brewer.

All in all, going to the Pump Station in November last year with a couple homebrewing friends to hang out during the competition was an absolute blast. This competition is coming up again this November, and now I’m living much closer so it’s even easier to get out there for it. I have yeast en route that I ordered so I can finally start brewing in my apartment here in Cooperstown (I would use yeast from the brewery, but I don’t plan on making any Belgian styles anytime soon), and hope to have some beers ready to submit to the Battle of the Brews at the end of October.

My goal as a brewer right now, other than continuing to research opening a brewery myself, is to seriously work on tweaking some recipes and getting them to the point where I’m happy with them and can call them finished products. For the competition I’m hoping to be able to submit the next iteration of my Dark Mild Ale, a combined version of last year’s chocolate porter and coffee porter, and a new version of all the Rye Pale Ales I’ve been making. Hopefully I get my yeast in a couple days and can start brewing again this weekend. I’m working on getting all of these recipes finalized, and will post them as I brew them.

As I relax on my couch getting ready for my first day of the new work schedule at the brewery, I have spent my time thinking about the kinds of planning I’ll need to do if I’m really serious about opening a brewery. The types of beer, brewery philosophy, brewpub or production brewery, name/logo/marketing, etc. Hell, even just deciding what city/region to do it in hasn’t been concrete in my mind yet.

Obviously the first important step is figuring out where to do it. Most of the ensuing decisions and variables stem from that decision. Despite my understanding that it’s best to leave New York state to start a business, I honestly don’t see myself leaving. Besides, the demand for craft beer in upstate New York is strong and growing, and it’s a market that still has serious potential. I think I’d actually lean most toward Rochester as I know the area, I know people in the industry in the area, the craft beer community is very thirsty and is a close-knit group that is very supportive, and I know someone there is serious about starting a brewery and wants someone else to do the brewing.

So that’s my current thought process. I loved Rochester’s craft beer scene while I was out there and think it will be ripe for expansion over the next several years. Between Rohrbach, Custom Brewcrafters, Three Heads Brewing, and the new ROC Brewing (that I don’t know much about at this point), they have a very close and mutually supportive craft brewing industry. I think the city could seriously support several more breweries.

Time To Get Serious

September 10, 2011

As my love of craft beer has developed into a love and passion for brewing, the usual thought that most beer lovers get went through my mind: man, it would be awesome to brew professionally. Well, after interning at Custom Brewcrafters and attending Siebel Institute, I’ve landed that dream job.

Through my experiences in, and breaking into, the craft brewing industry, I’ve learned some important lessons and had some perceptions thoroughly reinforced for me. The first important thing is that I learned that no matter what kind of work it is, I really hate working for other people, especially in multi-layered hierarchies. Yeah, I know that’s not really an uncommon feeling out there, but it’s something that needs to be experienced enough for it to sink in.

The other major thing that has been reinforced for me is how long and time consuming it is to get a brewery started. With that in mind it’s about time to stop saying “I hope to open a brewery someday” and actually start getting a plan together. As the whole process can take multiple years, especially if you need to hunt down financing (as I most certainly would), it’s best to start sooner rather than later. With that said, I’m now starting to sit down and get some serious thinking done on various things like what I’m looking to open (some sort of production brewery or a brewpub, etc), where that would be, and all the little things that go into forming a plan.

Obviously there’s a ton of research that needs to take place, and I’ll need to get involved with people that can cover the aspects of starting/running a business that I’d be weak on. This’ll be a group effort, definitely. All that being said, it really is time to get serious. I’ll start posting more thoughts as I go through all of this. Should be a fun, and incredibly challenging, ride.