New Tank/Canning Line

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Last month, we received our newest piece of equipment, a beautiful 40 BBL fermenter from American Beer Equipment!  Nicknamed Uncle Phil, this big guy alone ups our production capacity by 50%!  It’s a huge step for our brewery, but what I am most excited about is how this changes our production plans–in a very good way.

I’ll get to the farther-reaching implications in a bit.  This tank is big–twice as big as our other tanks.  This also means it was a lot trickier to install.  Our team, along with some help from the guys at Black Hoof Brewing who happened to be visiting, managed to figure it out, but it wasn’t easy!  Our new forklift was very helpful here.

The tank is safely in place now and we’ll be installing glycol next week, and hopefully using it very soon.  The same day, our canning line from Wild Goose arrived!  We purchased a WGC-50, a two-head semi-automated canning line.  We plan on canning 3-10 BBLs of beer per week.  This is not enough beer to use a mobile-canning service, and a bigger canning line is much more expensive and would be overkill for such a modest goal.  In addition, this line does not have a lot of moving parts, so the resale value is pretty good if we ever did want to upgrade.

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Along with the canning line, we have a bunch of shrink-sleeve 16 oz cans in production.  The labels were designed by our sales rep/graphic designer, Dylan.  They look pretty slick!  We plan on selling most of the cans on-premise, but we will have cans at a few places–some local bottle shops and Sterling Wegmans!

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Having a legit canner is going to make us so much happier than we were canning before.  Previously, we had purchased an MK-16 from Oktober.  This little can seamer was an inexpensive way to test out cans, but it was insanely labor-intensive and we had quite a few issues with leaking cans.  This will be much better for us and our customers.

I am very happy that we can up production, but this equipment means more than just more volume.  Our tank configuration is three 20 BBL fermenters, two 10 BBL fermenters, a 4 BBL fermenter, a 20 BBL brite, and a 10 BBL brite.  This has been very good for allowing us to rotate beers a lot.  However, we’ve discovered a few of our beers have become quite popular and need to be brewed all the time.  Originally, Heart and Soul, our core IPA, was going to be our only year-round beer.  Now, we are adding Raspberry Empress sour IPA and Cruise Control pilsner to that list.  We’ll alternate between using the big tank for Heart and Soul and Empress, and make one of our 20 BBLs a dedicated tank for Cruise Control.

The other benefit of the new tank is that it frees up the rest of the production schedule immensely.  Now, we brew pretty much whatever we want in the other tanks.  With four other tanks free to make anything, expect our taplist to get really, really solid.

Here’s an ideal taplist (for me, at least):

Cruise Control NZ pils

Heart and Soul IPA

Raspberry Empress sour IPA

Seek Truth Belgian tripel

Verdant Force DIPA

Best Days hefeweizen

Rotating IPA

Vibes popsicle Berliner

Peach Habanero Storm IPA

Realize Truth rum barrel-aged quad

Sin Nombre imperial stout

Wouldn’t that be cool?  Also, if you’re interested in our beer for distribution, this means that there are now some core beers from us that are proven fast-sellers.  Coming up next: our new line of 375 ml bottles of sours!

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Upcoming Beers

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Here’s a look at what is in the works.  Reminder: nothing guaranteed, all dates subject to change.  Some things to notice: cool collab w/Charm City, more cans including Raspberry Empress, more BA beer, and our first coolshipped beer!

11/3 Boomstick DIPA w/Galaxy and Motueka hops

11/7 Raspberry Empress + cans

11/10 Sun and Moon IPA

11/11 Machismo BBA stout w/habanero peppers bottles.  Realize Truth rum barrel-aged quad.

11/17 Charm City Meadworks collab: Rushlight winter warmer w/honey, cinnamon, and vanilla beans.

11/22 Verdant Force cans, BBA Heartsong Belgian dubbel w/cherries bottles

11/25 Toasty toasted porter

12/1 Lost Forever IPA w/Ekuanot and Simcoe hops

12/9 CUVEE: Spontaneously fermented red ale in bottles!!!

 

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Pilsner

IMG_20171101_074705_847Pilsner is quickly becoming one of the hottest styles in beer right now.  While it’s never going to generate a ton of hype, a well-crafted pilsner is a thing of beauty.  We are not talking macro lager, but a full-flavored, sometimes quite hoppy, beer that manages to be light and refreshing but not bland.

I have more brewers ask us about our pilsner than any other beer.  Brewers don’t typically ask too many questions on individual beers, since everyone has their own ideas and interpretations on what a good beer is.  So it’s rare that someone says “how did you make this?”

Our pilsner is called Cruise Control, and it’s a favorite among staff.  We call it a New Zealand pilsner, since it uses all New Zealand hops.  Cruise Control is a tasty beer because it is extremely full-flavored for the style, managing to be both simultaneously very malt-forward, but also crisp and hoppy.

We accomplish this in three ways: by keeping the IBUs low, using a lot of melanoidin malt, and using a significant whirlpool and dry-hopping regimen of Motueka and Wakatu.

The melanoidin puts the beer at 5 SRM, right at the upper limit for the style.  It’s a bit darker than most pilsners, at a rich golden color.  We do not have the equipment for a decoction mash, and this is a way to emulate the flavor.  It really helps make this pilsner into something unique–I’ve had some craft pilsners that are pretty bland malt-wise.

The hopping schedule is something I may change, because Motueka tends to dominate over the noble-hop flavor of Wakatu, which is a New Zealand Hallertauer.  I like the beer with a bit more of that skunky Wakatu flavor, but the lemon-lime flavor of Motueka is very nice as well.

We also turn this beer in as little as four weeks.  As you can tell from the picture, it is crystal clear despite no filtering.  As a 10 BBL brewhouse, our tanks come up to temperature quickly, with less of a distance for yeast to drop out, so we can really push this beer faster than most.  I am also a big fan of the 34/70 yeast, a workhorse in several great German breweries and a decent flocculator.

So, why am I writing about pilsner?  Pilsner has been creeping up in popularity, and my theory as to why is that it is the style of choice for beer industry people when they’re off the clock, and these preferences tend to trickle into the general population.  I enjoy pilsner immensely because it is so different than hazy double IPAs.  I love IPA, but I cannot drink super-sweet 9% juicebomb beers all night.  I can drink pilsner all day and wake up fine and dandy in the morning.

As I wrote in a guest post, I see another emerging trend to go along with the rise in beers that don’t taste like beer (NE IPA, fruited sour, pastry stout).  That trend is beers that taste like beer.  Yep.  The rise in well-crafted German styles (pilsner, hefe, and other lagers) to round out a lineup of adjunct-laden and super-hopped beers is great for people that just want a good, regular beer.  Our pils sells like crazy in both the taproom and distribution.  We did an ultra-hazy hefe that just killed it in sales this summer.

These styles are popular with people that can really appreciate a well-made beer.  While they aren’t going to turn a lot of heads, the simplicity is what is beautiful about these beers.   Look for more lagers and German styles from us in the coming months!

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Upcoming Beers

Here’s a look at what is in the pipeline.  Reminder: all dates subject to change, no guarantees.  A few new things.  First, we’ll be doing some cask beers on Fridays in Sterling now that the weather is cooling down.  Second, we don’t have as many new beer releases since we are currently putting a lot of stuff in barrels for winter time.  I think we’ll all like the results!  Lastly, after a long hiatus from cans we’ll be firing up our brand new canning line soon!

9/22 Kid Brother collab Spilt Salt gose w/strawberries.  Dolce Vita bourbon barrel-aged imperial milk stout w/coffee/

9/29 Cask horchata Flapjack–Sterling Only.  Sin Nombre Mexican imperial stout–Leesburg only.

10/6 Seek Truth Belgian tripel

10/13 Wayward IPA w/Rakau hops

10/20 Black Hoof collab Orion India pale lager.  Motorhead Schwarzbier.

10/27 Cask German chocolate cake Motorhead–Sterling only

11/3 Raspberry Empress can release

11/11 ***Machismo bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout w/habanero peppers bottle release.  Bravado rum barrel-aged imperial stout w/chocolate and oranges bottle release.  Intensify DIPA can release.  Braveheart bourbon barrel-aged scotch ale.  Guest taps TBA***

 

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Distributing Beer

Our brewhouse is only 10 BBLs.  That puts us way on the small side–a step above a nanobrewery–and with two busy taprooms we don’t have a lot of beer to distribute.  I am incredibly thankful for this, because distribution is incredibly hard.  If you are opening a brewery and are planning to distribute a lot of beer, you want to read this.

After four years of operating on a tiny system, sizing up has allowed us to finally distribute some beer.  With good quality beer, some years in business, and not much beer to have to sell, things should be easy, right?  Absolutely not.  Since we’ve hired a new full-time brewer, I have been spending more time focusing on sales.  I cannot emphasize enough how hard it is to sell beer in today’s market.

Generally, we send about 6-8 barrels of beer into distribution per week.  That’s about two pallets of beer, really nothing for most breweries.  It is a struggle to sell the beer.  Three years ago, local beer sold itself.  If you are opening a brewery and still believe this is how things will go, you need to rid yourself of this misconception immediately.

First, the market is over-saturated.  Good accounts are getting hit by reps several times per day.  With so many choices, many beer buyers prefer to constantly rotate.  Most of the time, we get picked up once.  If we do get picked up again, they want a new beer.  This works OK for us since we only do one year-round beer and the rest are rotators.  But this lack of permanent lines and dependable accounts makes it difficult to manage production.  Fortunately, we sell the vast majority of our beer in the taproom, and can throttle back distributing if we need to.  But I have a constant fear of having to buy back out-of-date IPA.

Second, good beer is not enough.  There simply are not enough accounts with educated beer buyers.  Time and again I sample our beer out and it does not get picked up.  I do not mean to sound arrogant, but it is frustrating when a place is running an inferior beer to yours.  Also, many times I want to tell people how quickly our beers will move once they go on tap.  I can maybe understand a little bit of hesitation on running a new, relatively unknown brewery, but we are offering approachable, in-demand styles that really should not be a hard sell.

Third, every place wants samples.  Chalk this up to the herds of reps roaming all over the place now.  I really do want to tell people that if they’ve run our beer and liked it before, they should not need a sample of our latest IPA.  But this is the norm, and if they want to try it first, you have to try to make it happen.

Lastly, we cannot compete price-wise against breweries 1000 times bigger than us.  A lot of bar managers are not going to understand why a beer with higher hopping rates from a tiny brewery costs more than Lagunitas IPA.  You can mostly avoid places that are all about cost, but there are some places I wish would pick us up because I believe they’d see the difference in increased velocity.

What can you do as a brewery to make distribution run smoother?  Number one, brew styles that are not a hard sell.  If you are new to the industry, let me make this plain and clear.  You do not know something other people do not.  Your ESB or biere de garde is not going to succeed just because no one else is making them.  No one else makes them because they are not popular.  If you want to make styles like that, keep them taproom only.  We do a lot of styles we don’t distribute, and that works fine.  I am not saying with enough work you might be able to get some momentum on an esoteric beer, or that you might stumble on something that does really well for some reason.  I just believe in setting yourself up for success, and European styles are tough to sell.

Another important part of distribution is your relationship with your distributor.  The industry is full of bad blood between breweries and distributors.  We are lucky to have a really good relationship with ours.  I’ve tried to be as easy to work with as I can be, being a small brewery that doesn’t make them very much money.  Our value as a brand is more based upon the prestige we bring as a very good local brewery, rather than volume.  Your distributor can really help sell your beer, or if things go south, potentially sink your business.  I’ve tried really hard to go out with our distributor reps, introduce myself to everyone, and make sure people know how much I care about our beer and relationships with our accounts.  I want people to know that I am there to support everybody that wants to sell our beer and will do whatever I can to help, and I think it has led to a lot of goodwill for us.

We are continuing to scale up, with a 40 BBL tank and canning line currently in production.  I believe we can continue to grow, even if the market shrinks.  I may sound pessimistic about distribution, but with hard work, good beer, and good marketing, you will eventually see a change.  Last week, I sold all of our beer from my laptop.  It takes time, but things are starting to move.

 

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Sour Tank

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20170808_100539Last week we installed our new sour tank!  A 750 gallon (~23 BBL) stainless IBC from Custom Metalcraft, this new tank has allowed us to double batch kettle sours.  Previously, when brewing a kettle sour, we could only brew 10 BBLs–the size of our kettle–at a time.  We opted for a small customization of a 3” rather than 2” port on the top to accommodate a Stout spray ball/tri-clamp adapter we already had, but otherwise it is a simple square tank with no insulation or cooling.

The plan was to suspend the tank up above the brewhouse so that we could gravity-feed it back to the kettle for pasteurization/whirlpool additions and avoid running bacteria through a pump.  We took some metal shelving and cut and welded the crossbeams to be the right size for the tank, along with some additional pieces for reinforcement.  We put the shelving in place, and then lifted the tank up into place with a chainfall, using straps to pull it out and then over the shelves.  After setting it down, we strapped the tank down with ratchet straps, put some 6×6’s underneath the legs of the tank for additional support, and chained the uprights to the nearby building upright.  This amount of additional reinforcement could support several more tons than the weight of the filled tank, so we felt safe.

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The process worked like a charm.  We knocked out two batches of our sour IPA into it at 100 degrees, pitched a big starter of lactobacillus plantarum, and hit our target PH 36 hours later.  I would like to cut this time down but I am OK with it for now.  The soured wort had zero off-flavors or aromas.  Once we hit our PH, we did exactly as planned, draining 10 BBLs at a time to the kettle for pasteurization and a big whirlpool addition of Mosaic hops.

After draining, I hit the tank with some 180 degree water from our HLT through the spray ball we hooked up to the top.  I took the sample valve on the side off before to make sure the tank could vent steam adequately.  They cannot hold much pressure, so I was a bit worried about this, but it was fine.  After hitting and draining it repeatedly, I felt satisfied that everything was dead inside and proceeded to run a cycle of hot caustic.  Afterwards, I rinsed with ground water.  Here is where I nearly messed things up.  The cooler ground water immediately created negative pressure, and the sides of the tanks started shuddering.  I only had it on for a half second before I cut it.  Next time I will start it very slowly.  A bit of rinsing and a visual inspection later, and the tank was mirror clean–the key to a good kettle sour.

Some key parts to our process.

  1. Your souring vessel needs to be absolutely clean.  Kettle sours are very risky because the beer is not protected against unwanted yeast and bacteria during the souring process.  That is why a separate tank is superior to your kettle.  It’s hard to get your kettle as clean–there are way more ports, vents, etc, plus the buildup on your kettle is hard to remove completely.  The secret to success is a clean vessel.
  2. You need to hit your target PH as quickly as possible.  You cannot add too much healthy lactobacillus.  Make a big, healthy starter a day or two beforehand.  The more time your beer spends unhopped without yeast, the more likely it is to become wrecked by unwanted stuff.
  3. No pre-acidifying, no CO2 purge.  There are acid-tolerant strains of Clostridium bacteria, so pre-acidifying your wort to 4.4 or under isn’t a total safeguard, and the idea that it aids in head retention is asinine to me since I always use lots of wheat, rye, or milk sugar which aids in body.  Furthermore, the point of kettle souring is to avoid adding food grade lactic acid to your beer.  But the big one so many people swear by is the CO2 purge.  There is no purpose to this.  Clostridium, the main culprit in ruined kettle sours, are anaerobic.  So purging does nothing.  Lactobacillus only creates off-flavors in heavily oxygenated wort, so some air in the head space is not going to do anything bad in that area, either.
  4. You can really crank your yeast after a kettle sour since PH suppresses esters.  I let mine run to 76 and our yeast seems to really love acid beers, absolutely ripping through them.  So even with the souring, the turn time is really fast.

So that’s our process.  I’d like to also take a minute to talk about what makes a good kettle sour.

First, a kettle sour is a kettle sour.  Sounds obvious, right?  Well, a kettle sour is not just made by adding food grade lactic acid to a beer or using acid malt.  Every beer I have had made this way has been obvious and disappointing.  Beers either are not sour enough or have a harsh, throat-burning sensation.  Unfortunately, many breweries are passing these beers off as sour beers.

Second, a kettle sour should never have a cheesy or vomit-like aroma or taste.  Man, oh man, are there a lot of offenders here.  I do not want to name names, but some big, respected breweries have put out some very bad kettle sours that should have been dumped.  Uneducated consumers don’t seem to notice as much as one would hope, maybe writing these flavors off as “funk,” but these are unpleasant flavors that should not be tolerated.

IMG_20160909_154955Making good sours isn’t extremely difficult, but it does require more sanitation and care than a regular beer.  Our fast sours are clean, and we also use a lot of real fruit.  They’re some of my favorite beers we make.  If you’re planning on making one, again, the key is clean real estate, big starter, fast sour.  Do that and all will be well!

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Upcoming Beers

Here’s a look at what is in the pipeline.  You may notice some classics in here–we are going to step back a bit from brewing so many IPAs and get back to our roots a bit.  Don’t worry though, there will still be plenty of IPAs in the mix.

*Note ALL DATES SUBJECT TO CHANGE.  They probably will change.  Please do not call me or staff and get upset when beers don’t adhere to this schedule–yeast is a living organism and not 100% predictable.*

8/4 Dulce De Leche dessert stout.  Stout fans, this one is for you!  We’ll do some cool variants as well.

8/11 Supernatural hibiscus saison, Another You IPA

8/18 Best Days Hefeweizen, Raspberry Empress and Verdant Force return!

8/25 You’re Cool cucumber mint wheat

9/1 Skyline Saison w/Oranges, Cherry Cayenne Storm

9/8 Halcyon IPA, Sin Nombre imperial stout

9/15 Kid Brother collab: Spilled Salt gose w/strawberries

9/22 In the Zone DIPA, Torrid Zone DIPA w/guava, Vibes Berliner weisse w/blackberries, vanilla, milk sugar

9/29 Black Hoof collab

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