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  But I have a constant fear of having to buy back out-of-date IPA.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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Anatomy of a Modern IPA

20170429_170011(0)At Crooked Run, we’ve definitely gone more IPA heavy.  I have a stressful job juggling brewing, production management, and distribution, and to make my life easy, I started brewing more IPA since a) it sells way easier in distro and b) I need to reuse the same yeasts.

However, I do also really enjoy IPA, and I think there can be more nuances to it than just either bitter or hazy and double dry-hopped.  With the right blends of hops and/or malt bill, both can really shine.

Two weeks ago, we had four similar IPAs on tap, but you could tell them apart pretty easily if you were familiar with them.  That’s the result of picking interesting hop bills, and using the right malts that will actually show up in a juicy, highly-hopped beer.

First, I’d like to talk about the style of IPA I like to make.  We do some very hazy, low bitterness double IPAs in the NE vein.  However, those are for the taproom or on-premise cans only.  Our other IPAs are generally 6.5-7% ABV with a fairly big but not obscene level of dry-hopping. These are my favorite beers, and also what we distribute.  They straddle the line between New England and West Coast IPA: all ranging from 20-35 IBU, with a moderate level of suspended yeast.

This is done for two reasons.  First, it’s the style of IPA that I like.  There are two other very good breweries in Virginia that produce similar beers.  Second, these beers don’t fall off immediately.  This ties into number one.  I’ve had some very bad NE IPAs.  Drink fresh?  OK fine, but if it’s on tap in your taproom and it tastes like a phenolic, sickly sweet mess, that’s on you.  And if you plan to distribute these beers at all, you need to create something that has a shelf life greater than two weeks.  Sometimes some super hazy low IBU beers hold up, but it’s really luck of the draw on that.

Even though our top seller is always whatever DIPA we released, I’ve really been enjoying just our single IPAs.  We keep one standard IPA, Heart and Soul, on tap, with a couple of rotating IPAs.  For these rotators, I keep messing around with different hop and malt combo.  The idea is to get a beer that doesn’t just taste like a juicebomb, one where you can tell them apart by hop flavor, malt flavor, and color.  Here are some examples:

Dedicated: Motueka and Denali.  My favorite.  It’s super mellow, kind of lemon-lime.  Pale malt and a ton of carapils give a hazy yellow color and big body.

Envision: Sorachi and Mandarina.  Straight orange.  Vienna malt gives a very orange color and toasty malt flavor.

Still Searching: Citra and El Dorado.  Very juicy tasting.  Biscuit malt gives a real nice contribution to the malt flavor.

The key with hops is finding combinations that are unique, but still good.  Yeah, we all love Citra/Mosaic/Galaxy, but it gets old if that’s all you use.  For malt, I find that using either a combination of two row and Maris, or two row with kilned malts such as Vienna, Biscuit, Aromatic, etc can differentiate the flavors and colors.

Watch for more of these beers from us, as well as re-issues of ones that really work.

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Upcoming Beers

Here’s a look at what is in the pipeline.  All dates subject to change.

5/27 Young and Reckless DIPA w/honey, Citra and Huell Melon hops can release

6/3 Made of Sun saison w/Centennial hops

6/7 Raspberry Empress sour IPA w/cans

6/10 Aslin collabs Ronin DIPA w/rice, Hanzo DIPA w/plums can release

6/16 Bourbon barrel-aged Seek Truth Belgian tripel

6/21 Radiant saison w/Citra hops

6/22 Strength and Honor IPA w/Comet and Mosaic hops

7/1 Commando Imperial American Pilsner can release

7/8 Meridian Pint collabs Intemperate DIPA w/Citra and Mosaic, Intrepid DIPA w/mango and Motueka hops can release

7/22 FOUR YEAR ANNIVERSARY PARTY!  Re-release of Noriega triple IPA w/pineapple, plus Nifty Package, triple IPA w/coconut, in cans.  Release of Old Friends, mixed fermentation saison in bottles.  Release of Starfire Sour DIPA w/passionfruit.  Special taplist plus guest beers.

 

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Megabrewers vs. Small Brewers

So, as pretty much everyone knows, Wicked Weed sold to AB-Inbev this week.  Everyone has their own two cents on what this means.  In my opinion, Chris Herron from Creature Comforts has offered the best synopsis on what this and other sales to the megabrewers means.  You can read it here.

This is the perfect time for me to write this post and talk about some related things I have been meaning to for a while.  First, I’d like to talk about the word “craft.”  The Brewers Association offers it’s own definition of craft beer–forgoing the entirety of the criteria, the main point I look at is “annual production of under six million barrels per year.”

So you know, our production level should peak around two thousand barrels per year.  We are a very small regional brewery that sells the majority of its volume on premise.  We are not playing the same game as many other breweries, since we don’t rely on distribution for the bulk of our revenue.  This was always my goal.

However, this doesn’t mean that we don’t pay attention to developments with larger breweries and the industry as a whole.  Years ago, we saw the trend towards hyper local, and our business has been based around this.  I’ve never really like the term “craft beer,” and it is starting to mean less and less.  If I had to divide the brewery industry into two categories, I’d pick “large breweries” and “small breweries.”  Large breweries would be ones that have distribution in five or more states.  Small is anyone else.

I have zero ill will towards breweries such as Stone, Sierra, or New Belgium, but the reality is that these breweries are very, very big, and really aren’t anything like a brewery such as ours, despite the fact that they are classified as “craft.”  They are in a really difficult place, because they are facing pressure from AB-Inbev and Miller-Coors, and also from tiny local breweries like yours truly.  They can’t compete with the megabrewers on price or distribution networks, and they can’t compete with smaller breweries who can take advantage of taproom sales margins to offer beers with extremely costly ingredients that are more exciting and in demand right now.

This is where I knew we would end up.  It’s one of my core principles in business, which is: if you can’t beat someone at one game, play a different game entirely.  It’s a lesson that many smaller manufacturers of any product have either learned the hard way over the last 50 years, or have done from the outset and have been successful as a result.  Right now, you hear a lot about outsourcing jobs and the loss of American manufacturing, but you can hardly throw a rock without hitting a business that has figured out a way to compete by playing a different game.  We have small, direct-to-consumer businesses of every stripe, from clothes and razors to cars or accounting services.

One way smaller breweries are doing this is cans.  Can sales have been a huge development.  Cans sold directly from the brewery have become a huge (and in some the cases the only) source of revenue for some breweries.  I used to think that people standing in line and trading cans online was silly, but then I realized how tremendous this has been for a lot of breweries.  They essentially turned their customers into distributors–a big group of people buying cases of cans may only consume a small amount themselves, and trade the rest to other regions of the country.  Margins remain super-high, and freight costs incurred by the brewery are zero!  Amazing.  Furthermore, the era of a $16 four-pack of cans is here to stay.  No one seems to mind paying more for beer that legitimately is very costly to produce and in limited quantity.

The idea of target markets is a simple premise that has been accepted in other industries, but seems to be causing massive disruption now.  Small, independent restaurants have not really tried to compete with McDonald’s.  Why would they?  Beer is no different.  Larger regional breweries expanded during the unlimited growth era of the 00’s, but are now paying a price in a saturated market.  Some breweries grew slowly and more organically, and are reaping the rewards.  Hill Farmstead, Russian River, and Treehouse come to mind.

What does the future hold?  I see reigns-tightening and layoffs in store for the larger breweries, and more buy-outs.  I think some of the tiny local breweries will either flourish or grow tired of long hours for little reward.

For a brewery our size, the three most important things we can do are:

  1. Behave more like a big, publicly-traded company.  Be acutely aware of costs and maximize production.  Good breweries don’t have empty tanks.  They also figure out how to balance brewing the beers people want while bringing costs down.
  2. Keep thinking of what you can do that other people aren’t doing.  If you’re successful, you shouldn’t rest on your laurels.  Innovation, whether it be new styles of beer or creative and fun events or collaborations, should never stop.
  3. Be adaptable.  We’ve shifted routinely, and will continue to do so.  We are still in a sense throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks.  Beer trends are so short-lived these days, it’s important to always try to keep your finger on the pulse, or better yet, be one step ahead.
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Upcoming Beers

Here’s a list of upcoming beers!  All dates subject to change.

4/26 Heart and Soul IPA

4/28 Lemon Serrano Storm

5/3 Dedicated IPA w/Motueka, Denali, Simcoe–Delirium Collab

5/5 Dulce De Leche Imperial Stout w/cans, Vibes Berliner Weisse w/Key Limes, Vanilla, Lactose

5/6 Envision IPA w/Zythos, Mandarina Bavaria, Sorachi Ace

5/19 Raspberry Empress w/cans, Plum Empress

5/20 Verdant Force, Katana DIPA w/Cherries

5/24 Still Searching IPA w/El Dorado, Citra

6/1 In the Zone DIPA, Torrid Zone DIPA w/Guava

6/15 Ronin DIPA w/Rice–Aslin Collab

6/22 First sour bottle release

 

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