Moving On Again

May 14, 2012

So it’s time for me to move on from this leg of my brewing career. There’s no reason to get into the specifics, but it’ll suffice to say there was a disagreement over a potential conflict of interest. The place has had a very corporate feel to me for a long time now, so I’m not really sad to be gone. Part of me thinks I forced the issue because I wanted to get out and didn’t have the balls to quit. It was a great experience for the last ten months, and I met some truly awesome people there and made great friends in the Cooperstown/Oneonta area. There are no hard feelings toward this brewery at all, and I wish them all the best.

Now is the time to start looking at moving on to bigger, better, and more awesome things. I want to spend some time now figuring out exactly the best path forward for me. I’m really sick of being desperate enough to have to take the first opportunity I see, which is what led me to ITT all those miserable years ago. My time at ITT and Rochester set the stage for everything that has come since then, as it gave me the financial ability to attend brewing school, and put me near a brewery that has a strong apprentice program (and a set of amazing brewers – I can’t thank Bruce and JP enough for what they did for me). This time, though, I want to slip into a job and brewery that are exactly what I’m looking for.

Right now, there are a couple of options to choose from and several possibilities elsewhere. I’m still in talks with the guys starting Abandon Brewing out in Penn Yan. That project won’t be finished and up and running until the end of the year, at the earliest. Pursuing that would require me to find some way to survive financially for about seven or so months, which will be a lot more challenging than the fifteen months I was unemployed after the layoff from ITT (great severance and lots of savings back then). I also hear that there is a brewpub in Albany that’s still searching for a head brewer replacement, so I may look into that possibility this week.

The great thing about being unemployed in the craft brewing industry is the amount of start-ups, brewpubs, and expansions going on right now. There are tons of options out there, especially if I’m willing to move. That’s the other thing I need to think about, potentially moving away from New York state. At this point, I’ve spent almost thirty years living in upstate NY, bouncing between the Capital Region, Central New York, and Western New York. Part of me wants to go somewhere completely new and start with a clean slate, and part of me wants to get back to one of my former homes and reconnect with all the friends I don’t see much of anymore.

If you know me at all, you likely understand just how hard it is for me to be decisive about anything. That’s really the tough issue I have to deal with now: deciding what I want as an “ideal situation” and pursuing it relentlessly. I have no interest in settling right now. No more large corporate entities, no more being someone else’s bitch. It’s time to get some creative control, an equal footing, and respect. Nothing less.

Cheers!

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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.

Options

February 22, 2012

Tonight I kegged the Belgian Pale Ale I brewed at the end of January. It came to a final gravity of 1.009 and 5.6% ABV. That leaves me currently with one empty keg, a dark mild that’s ready to be kegged, and a Belgian dubbel that’s ready to be kegged/bottled (and an IIPA that still needs time). The issue with deciding on which to keg next is that I want to use the English yeast cake of the dark mild and the Belgian yeast cake of the dubbel to brew with.

So I basically have fresh and healthy English yeast and Belgian yeast I need to brew with soon, and tons of ideas for both. A new version of my mocha porter, imperial chocolate stout, Belgian IPA, Belgian quad, Belgian dubbel with licorice root and some other interesting spices, English bitter or ESB. I don’t really know what I want to make, but I’d like to figure something out to brew either tomorrow or Thursday.

This weekend I had a friend from Albany in town to help me brew. He’s getting ready to upgrade his system so he can do all-grain batches, and wanted to see an all-grain brewday in person. I had Ryan help me brew my favorite recipe, the Amarillo IPA.

The Amarillo IPA is my best house beer, and the only change I had to make to it this time was recalculating the hop additions based on the higher alpha acid content of this year’s Amarillo crop. The only issue during the brewday was that we oversparged a bit, so I tacked on 15 minutes to the boil and we wound up hitting our gravity and volume targets perfectly. It’s currently bubbling away in the fermentor.

Just in time for this weekend, I found a place to get my CO2 cylinder refilled so I could get my chest freezer full of carbonated kegs. The dark mild ale, pale ale, and Munich pale ale are all carbonated and on tap now, finally.

Dark Mild – This current version of the dark mild came out really nice. The increased hop rate helped the hops come through just enough to be noticeable. Adding flaked oats and reducing the crystal malt gave the beer a smoother and less cloying body. All in all this batch really came out well, and tastes significantly bigger than the 3.9% ABV that it contains. I may play with the recipe again at some point, but for now I’ll call it finalized.

Munich Pale Ale – This was just an experiment to see what a beer would be like if it was almost all Munich malt. It’s a very deep amber color with a rich malty sweetness. Galena and Northern Brewer hops give it a slightly sweet citrus aroma and flavor with some nice spiciness in the background. The bitterness is pretty well balanced and the body is fairly full. I’d say it was a successful experiment, and could the base for a really nice amber ale in the future.

Pale Ale – Given how few beers in Cooperstown are remotely hoppy, I made this beer to be strongly bitter up front with lots of hop character. When I tasted it near the end of fermentation I thought I had gone too overboard with the bittering addition. Now that it’s carbonated and chilled, I really like where it is. The aroma is full of citrus, resin, and pine. The body is light, with a dark straw color. Up front, the bitterness is strong and prominent, but smooth and resiny. The bitterness lingers, but not for long. I really like how this turned out. I’m considering brewing it again with a higher gravity to make an IPA out of it. That could turn out really nice. At 5.3% ABV, it’s not gonna last long.

A lot of things are happening at the brewery right now that are keeping life interesting. The biggest being the addition of two new brewers next week. This will bring us to ten total brewers on staff. When I was hired, I was number nine, but a month into my tenure there one of the guys quit to go work for Butternuts. Obviously that makes me no longer the lowest on the totem pole, so I greatly approve.

Going to ten brewers has been the overall plan for a while. Back on Memorial Day week the brewery increased weekly production from 17 brews to 20 brews per week. As this necessitated a haphazard schedule of overtime shifts for everyone, the decision was made to bump the staff to nine brewers, three 8-hour shifts of three brewers each, with plans to add a tenth brewer as a swing guy so we could cover sickness/vacations/etc. Well, now we’ll have those ten, as soon as they get fully trained.

The downside to all of this is that I came in at a pretty unfortunate time. With all these plans, they really needed me to be hired on two months earlier, in all honesty, which has put the burden on me to get trained as fast possible so I can get on a shift and start reducing the overall workload for everyone. Well, two months into my three month training cycle and I’ll be moving to a 2pm-midnight shift next Monday to facilitate the two new brewers starting their training in my current schedule slot. This really means that I get thrown into the fire and need to switch over to learning a lot of the cellaring stuff as I go. At least I’ll be putting in my fair share of overtime to hopefully take the burden off the other guys a bit.

Couple all the staff additions with consultations we’re getting right now on brewhouse upgrades and the brand new brite tank we just got… yeah, major expansion is coming.

Future Considerations

September 5, 2011

The first two months of working at Ommegang have shown me a ton of things to consider in the theoretical future where I get off my ass and start planning a brewery where I’m no longer working for someone else. From brewhouse design to brewery layout to considerations about volume versus labor input, it’s been eye opening.

So far I’ve used three commercially sized brewhouses: the systems at Custom Brewcrafters, Brewery Ommegang, and the pilot system at Doemens Academy in Munich. The three have varying levels of automation and number of actual vessels.

  • Custom Brewcrafters has a 10BBL system that has a combination boil kettle and whirlpool vessel and a combination mash and lauter vessel. There’s no automation on this brewhouse, so all valves and pumps are operated manually.
  • Brewery Ommegang uses a system to make 50-55 hectolitre batches with a combination boil kettle and whirlpool vessel, a mash mixer, and a dedicated lauter vessel. Most of the pumps are variable speed, and are all controlled by a computerized panel (which also controls the steam valves), though all the liquid valves are still manual.
  • Doemens Academy uses a 6 hectolitre system with a mash vessel, dedicated lauter vessel, boil kettle, and a dedicated whirlpool vessel. On this system everything is automated and computerized except pulling grain out of the lauter tun and pouring grain into the mash tun.

Now, ignoring the system sizes, the Doemens system is the most ideal. Being able to specifically control flow paths, the steam supply, and vessel temperatures allows you free time to get other important things done and gives a great level of control and consistent repeatability.

From the standpoint of vessel layout, the Doemens system is the best because you’d ideally like to have dedicated vessels for mashing, lautering, boiling and whirlpooling. If you’re really trying to maximize your number of brews, you can also put in a wort collection vessel so you can lauter while the previous batch boils in the kettle.

Of the three systems outlined above, the Custom Brewcrafters system gives the least amount of control and has the most limiting brewhouse layout with only two vessels, but it’s so much less irritating to use than the Ommegang system. Neither system is fully automated, but the way the Ommegang system was constructed makes it really tough on the brewers. The vessels there are all elevated, so you can walk or crouch under them, and all of the piping was placed in that space. Of course the spent grain pump under the lauter tun is right in the way of the easiest access point to get to all of the valves, leading us all to speculate just hos drunk someone had to be to design the system like it currently is. At Custom Brewcrafters, the flow valves were all in front of the vessels, making it super easy to run around and alter flows when necessary, and simple to just look over and see exactly what part of the process was going on.

When you get down to it, though, the biggest question in my mind is: what size and how many vessels do you need? At Ommegang, we’ve outgrown the size of our system and are up to brewing 20 batches a week, so 24 hours a day for 4 days (with Friday as a cleaning day). To facilitate this, we have our system piped so we can run the mash into the lauter tun and lauter the wort back into a the mash mixer while the previous batch boils/whirlpools in the kettle. Seeing how much overtime everyone has to put in there just to increase production to get a little closer to meeting demand really drives home the point of properly sizing an initial system. That system has been there since the beginning, so they sized it right for the initial decade+ of the brewery. Just imagine if they had gone the cheap/bootstrap route that so many startups are going in these days and bought a system half the size. They’d have needed to upgrade a few times since… $$$.

Getting Back Into The Game

August 11, 2011

This weekend I move into the new apartment, which means I finally get to feel settled in and comfortable in my town. Once all the moving and unpacking unpleasantness is finished, I can finally get back into brewing my own beer 🙂 The one downside to the apartment is that I’ll be on the second floor, making it less feasible to get all my brewing equipment outside to brew on the propane burner. The place does have a gas stove, though, and I was able to make an electric stove in Fairport work pretty well so I’m not worried.

Currently the only big concern I have is how my two kegs of homebrew held up in the warm storage unit in Victor for a month and a half. Not well, most likely. Hopefully I won’t need to dump them, but it’s a possibility. Either way, once the chest freezer is available, I’m gonna use it as a fermentation chamber to control temperatures for a bunch of batches. I’m thinking of doing a couple side by side English session beers, like a bitter and a dark mild or some combo like that, then bottling them and using the freezer again for my first two lagers. By the time those lagers would be done, we’d be in the time of year where controlling temperature of a fermentation outside of a fridge isn’t hard, so the chest freezer would once again be a kegerator.

Alright, so my first attempts at putting together the recipes for the next two beers are shown below. Input always welcome. I’m sure I’ll modify things as brewday approaches and I see what ingredients are available at the whatever homebrew store I get to (probably Hennessey in Troy).

Dark Mild:

  • 7.00 lb Maris Otter
  • 0.85 lb Carafa III Special
  • 0.43 lb Crystal 60L
  • 0.43 lb Chocolate Malt
  • 0.50 oz Northern Brewer Hops (60 minutes, 9.8% Alpha Acid)
  • 0.50 oz Northern Brewer Hops (15 minutes)
  • Yet to be determined British ale yeast
  • Efficiency 85%, OG: 1.042, FG: 1.011
English Bitter:
  • 6.25 lb Maris Otter
  • 0.75 lb Flaked Barley
  • 0.50 lb Munich Malt
  • 0.50 lb Wheat Malt
  • 0.90 oz Northern Brewer Hops (60 minutes, 9.8% Alpha Acid)
  • 0.50 oz Challenger Hops (15 minutes, 7% Alpha Acid)
  • 0.50 oz Challenger Hops (End of Boil)
  • Yet to be determined British ale yeast
  • Efficiency 85%, OG: 1.039, FG: 1.010