Stainless Steel Fermenters

Friday was a very exciting day for us.  We got our stainless fermenters!  We purchased two 1.5 BBL and one 3 BBL stainless fermenters from Stout Tanks in February and have been counting down the days until they would ship.  Well, they finally arrived!

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So what’s the big deal?  Not only will it mean better beer, but it will also mean more beer, as we will be doubling production in order to get some beer out to some accounts in preparation for our expansion, as well as bottles.  In addition, we have one 14 gallon conical en route from SS Brewtech, which we will use for test batches and variants. For the past year and a half, we have been using plastic inductor tanks from Ruralking to ferment our beer, a great cheap option for nanos.  They have served us reasonably well and we have made some fine beer with them, but they have some limitations.

So why the change, and why after this long? First, the inductor tanks are neither airtight nor lightproof.  Even after lining the collars with food-grade sillicone, I was never able to get them completely sealed.  In addition, HDPE is oxygen permeable, although the rate is so low it is negligible for a two week fermentation time.

Second, the inductor tanks do not have a port for racking above the yeast.  When I kegged, I would hook up a diaphragm pump to the bottom of the cone and pull from there.  Even after dumping yeast, I would inevitable pull some of it into the kegs.  Not terrible, as it would settle out, but it required my kegs to be babied, as any shaking would result in the yeast getting kicked up.  Even handled gently, they still sometimes required a period of 15 minutes to settle after moving them in order to serve brite beer.  Not good, and especially not good for sending beer to restaurants and festivals.  Why not install a port on an inductor tank?  My feeling was that this would be an easy point for contamination, using a bolted on ball valve or plastic spigot that would be very hard to remove and clean.

Third, dry-hopping isn’t as effective in an inductor tank.  Since I had to pull from the cone, I couldn’t add my hops directly into the beer since they would end up in the keg.  Instead, I had to add the hops inside a nylon paint strainer bag tied to the side of the fermenter.  With less dispersion and contact area with the beer, I would get less flavor out of my dry hops. Lastly, there was no way to deal with the negative pressure when kegging.  Air would be pulled down into the top of the tank as I kegged the beer.  Not terrible, as there is a fair amount of CO2 sitting above the beer, but not optimal. With the new tanks, beer can be racked from above the cone using CO2 pressure.  By simply taking the blow-off tube from the top and attaching it to a CO2 tank and regulator outfitted with a low pressure gauge, I can push the beer out of the racking port at 2 PSI and into the kegs.  No exposure to air or light, just brite beer. Why didn’t we get these sooner?  When we opened in 2013, there was only one manufacturer of smaller conicals, Blichmann Engineering.  While Blichmann makes some cool things, their fermenters were around 3 grand a piece.  Now, there are a couple companies making nanobrewery-sized equipment.  Our fermenters ran $1200-$1500 each–much more affordable for us. We celebrated the arrival of our new tanks by brewing our Galaxy single-hop American IPA, Storm, and two variants: a peach habanero and a cherry cayenne version!

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Crafted

Necessity is the mother of invention.  At Crooked Run, we not only make beer, but a lot of other things as well!  With a tight budget and a lot of needs, we have crafted a lot of items and built out much of the interior ourselves.  We re-purpose and reuse whenever possible.

First, we needed tap handles when we began draught distribution.  The first attempt at tap handles was to purchase stock handles and design stickers for them.

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This proved to be a very bad idea, as the blank handles are commonly misappropriated by bars when they don’t get a handle for a new beer.  They just take a blank handle and put a sticker on it.  At $30 a piece, we could not afford to lose any handles.  We set about coming up with a solution: a relatively inexpensive handle that could not be used for any other beer.  On such a small scale, custom-fabricated handles from manufacturers were out of the question.  We needed to be able to make something ourselves.  Fortunately both Lee and Sean have a lot of skill in construction and wood-working, and have been able to make some pretty cool stuff.

These handles are made from live-edge cedar.  The all-purpose handle has the lettering burned in using a wood-burning kit.  The metal leaf-seal is fabricated by our friend with a water-jet.  The other handles we are making are stamped with linoleum-cut artwork created by our friend Mike.  These handles are for individual beers we commonly serve, and there are more to come!

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Tap handle

Using the same techniques, we also made coasters.  The leaf seal on the other side is a lino-cut, and the lettering is once again burned in.

Coaster

Our jockey box cover is made from slats from a pallet, painted with a dark walnut stain.  A metal strap gives an appearance reminiscent of a barrel.

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Our bar top , tables, and shelves were made by our friends at Eco-Friendly Lumber in Warrenton.  A lumber mill and furniture maker, Eco-Friendly Lumber specializes in large pieces of live-edge wood.  Getting the bar top into the brewery was quite a challenge: 500 lbs of American white oak!  The shelves are also oak, and the tables are cherry.

Table and bench

 

Bar top

We like to use a lot of chalkboards around the brewery.  Sean made all of our chalkboards, and our bartender Daniella is an excellent chalkboard artist!

Chalkboard

Sean made our big cabinet for the brewing area.  Using a projector screen, Lee and I superimposed the leaf logo on the cabinet and painted it in.

Cabinet

Our flight paddles were a Sean creation.  We wanted to design something that could hold our narrow flight glasses securely, and would not tip over.  Drain holes allow them to drain and dry while hanging on the wall.

Flight paddle

We put in chair rail made of pine trim and Pergo.  Pergo is a faux-wood that floats freely on the wall, so it can expand and contract without warping.  The chair rail adds to the decor, but also protects the wall from inevitable scuff-marks when moving fermenters and equipment around.  The ledge is made from pieces of the old deck at Market Station that we salvaged from the dumpster, sanded, and sealed.  The upper trim is made from the cutouts from the wooden barrel rack that Lee made.

Chair rail

The brewery garden contains three kinds of hops, elderberries, raspberries, black and red currants, and a variety of flowers.  Bamboo poles give the hops structure to climb.  I harvested the bamboo from a friendly Leesburg resident’s yard, cured it with a heat gun, and sealed it with polyurethane, which keeps it from splitting and getting discolored.

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Lastly, our newest addition is a window sign.  Lee made the sign out of wood from his parents’ barn in New York.  The slats are over 100 years old!  On the other side of the sign is a chalkboard where we can write messages for departing patrons.

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Sometimes having a tight budget is a good thing.  It forces you to be creative, to work with your own two hands, and to produce something unique.  If you have any questions about these designs, feel free to message or email me!  Coming soon: new patio furniture for 2015!

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Wheat Beer Project

One thing we struggle with at Crooked Run is keeping multiple beers on tap.  I try to have 4, sometimes have 3, and would like to have 6 on tap at a time.  We do brew on a small (1.5 BBL) system, but we also have limited room to store beer.  If I want to get to six beers, I am going to have to get a bit creative.

Enter the wheat beer project.  When I first opened, I told people I was never going to brew a wheat beer.  Nothing against them–German hefe is one of my favorite styles.  I just didn’t feel that excited about them, and I didn’t think others would feel that way either.

As it turns out, I was pretty wrong.  Our first wheat was a big kettle-soured batch of Berliner weisse with sweet orange peel called Weisse City.  I was quite surprised at how much people enjoyed it, especially since it was a Berliner (quite tart).  The second wheat beer we did was a small batch of a beer called You’re Cool.  It was a cucumber mint wheat.  People are still talking about that beer!

Anyways, I came to see wheats in a different light.  To me, a wheat beer is a blank canvas to showcase different ingredients.  I started coming up with different wheat beers that I really wanted to do, but I haven’t gotten around to doing  them.  Now, I can!

The plan is to do 45 gallons of simple wheat beer base.  1.045 OG, 25 IBU, 50/50 pils/wheat malt.  After the boil, run off beer into 6.5 gallon bucket fermenters and then add my different ingredients.  Here’s the breakdown of what 45 gallons can produce:

10 gallons Berliner weisse

10 gallons cucumber mint wheat

10  gallons beet wheat

10 gallons imperial dark vanilla wheat

So, that’s the plan.  In two weeks I am going to give it a go!   After kegging these beers, I’ll release one each weekend.

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Building a Recipe

Photo1 I’ve designed, brewed, and served over 30 different beers at Crooked Run.  Brewing on a small system gives me the flexibility and freedom to experiment with many different styles and ingredients, and this is my favorite part of the job.  Sometimes people ask me if I have ever made a beer that didn’t turn out well and could not be served.  My answer is that, aside from infection, I have not.  In fact, I’ve only made minor tweaks to subsequent re-brews a few times–mostly raising or lowering the IBU’s by a couple points.

At this point, recipe formulation is second nature to me, and designing recipes is what I love. This did not happen overnight.  Rather, it took me many years of homebrewing and many batches to become familiar with the different malts available.  You can read about ingredients, but only by using them over and over can you learn exactly what flavors they contribute in varying amounts and how they interact with one another.

So, if you’re interested in developing your own recipes, where do you begin?  A great place to start is the book Brewing Classic Styles by Jamil Zainasheff.  I believe this is the greatest homebrewing book ever written.  Free from fluff, it contains 80 award-winning recipes from one of the most venerable home (and now pro) brewers.  Five years ago I purchased this book and began working my way through different recipes.  Even if you don’t brew every recipe therein, Brewing Classic Styles is a great visual aid, since you can flip from style to style and take note of what ingredients they have in common and what sets them apart. After you’ve brewed some proven recipes, you can start to notice the flavors that malts contribute, and you can start to play around with them.  For example, let’s take Jamil’s best bitter recipe:

1.047 OG
30 IBU
9.5 lbs Maris Otter
0.5 lbs Aromatic
0.5 lbs C-120
0.25 lbs Victory
 

A great beer.  But let’s say I want to make a bitter that emphasizes caramel malt a bit more.  So I lower the IBU’s, increase the caramel malt, and cut the aromatic and victory.

1.044 OG
25 IBU
9 lbs Maris Otter
0.75 lbs C-60
0.25 lbs C-120 
 

There’s my English pale ale recipe, called Logan’s Song. After you’ve been tweaking recipes for a while, you can start to venture into completely uncharted territory and create beers that are blends of styles or don’t fit into any category at all.  You can also start to use non-traditional ingredients, such as fruits, vegetables, and spices.

When creating a recipe, I like to explain things in terms of direction and dimensions.  The direction of the beer is sort of like the beer mission statement.  For example, let’s work on a Belgian single recipe.  This beer will be called Hopsail.  It’s direction is:

A malt-forward, easy-drinking Belgian ale finished with extra Saaz hops.

The dimensions of the beer help define it and help it accomplish this direction.  I am all about complexity through simplicity, so I use the term “dimensions” because it helps set limits for the beer.  You don’t want a beer that is one-dimensional, but you don’t a five-dimensional beer either.  By focusing on a few flavors, you will accomplish more by letting your ingredients shine, and avoid muddling flavors. For Hopsail, I choose to work with three dimensions: pilsner malt flavor, Saaz hops, and Belgian yeast.  So I create a recipe that looks like this:

1.042 OG
18 IBU
8 lbs pilsner malt
0.25 lbs aromatic malt
3 ounces Saaz hops at flameout
WLP 530/Wyeast 3787
 

Low bitterness and a touch of aromatic helps emphasize the pilsner malt.  A bit more finishing hops than a traditional single helps give it a little kick of spicy Saaz flavor.  Trappist yeast fermented at 70 degrees gives a low-to-moderate touch of esters. There you go. After you brew your recipe, taste it.  Ask yourself, did it go in the direction you wanted?  If not, what can you change to get it right?  For Hopsail, I lowered the IBU’s until I hit a point where the pilsner malt flavor really came through, from 22 to 18. Here is a list of tested recipes.  If you would like a copy of any recipe, please feel free to comment or email me.

 
Session Ales:
 
Hopsail Belgian single
Logan’s Song English pale ale
Thunder American pale ale
Jake o’ Lantern pumpkin amber ale
Wishing Well dry stout
Roganbier roggenbier
Red Kolsch Irish red/kolsch
 
IPA:
 
Storm American IPA
Logan’s Bite English IPA
True Vision Belgian IPA
Force of Nature fresh hop double IPA
Nature’s Wrath brett trois triple IPA
Summer Storm raspberry dark IPA
Hellfire black IPA
 
Saison:
 
Summer Dawn blackberry saison
Endless Summer basil rye saison
Summer Night raspberry dark saison
 
Abbey-style:
 
Heartsong Belgian dubbel
Seek Truth cherrywood-aged tripel
Shadow of Truth black Belgian tripel
Realize Truth elderberry quad
Stoicism coffee quad
 
Sour/Brett
 
Pure Fiction sour tripel
Provisionale sour raspberry brown
Cardinal Jake Flanders red
Free Yourself brett brux pale
Weisse City sweet orange peel Berliner weisse
Nature’s Wrath brett trois triple IPA
 
Lager:
 
Carrera Torcida Vienna lager
Commando imperial American pilsner
 
Oddballs:
 
Bad Boy black ESB
Coconut Boy coconut ESB
You’re Cool cucumber mint wheat
Stovepipe smoked pumpkin imperial porter
 
 
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Red Kolsch, our flagship beer

10153914_726763284031088_7336673119264758584_nIn about a week, our flagship beer will begin hitting bars and restaurants.  Red Kolsch is a cross between an Irish red and a German kolsch, with a ruby-red color and super-smooth flavor.  Malt-balanced, this beer showcases pilsner malt flavor but with a very light chocolate and caramel finish.

Picking a flagship beer was no easy task.  At Crooked Run, we have had over 30 different beers on tap since we opened, and many people have real favorites that they have told me they would love to see on tap elsewhere. So how do you pick a flagship?  For most breweries, the vast majority of the beer they distribute are their flagship brands.  These beers need to be either approachable, popular, or both.  Having strong flagship brands helps give you the freedom to experiment with other beers, barrel-aging, and sour programs, which is something that I really would like to get into on a larger scale.

It is my hope that Red Kolsch will be a great flagship because of several reasons.  First, it is a beer no one dislikes.  It is light, but flavorful, so it has been a big hit with casual beer drinkers and people who generally go for heavier styles. Second, kolsch is a style that has been very popular in Virginia.  We even hold an annual Kolsch Cup.  Normally, I would be hesitant to try to sell an esoteric European style to bars.  Other breweries feel the same way, which is why you don’t see a lot of approachable-yet-unfamiliar styles such as altbier or patersbier as brewery flagships.  However, kolsch has become a familiar style to people.  I’ve noticed no one mispronounces it! Lastly, we offer Red Kolsch on nitro as well.  I enjoy both serving methods, but nitro Red Kolsch is like drinking red velvet.  The good news is that after meeting with many bar managers, a lot of folks are looking to replace Guinness with another nitro offering, and have expressed a great deal of interest in this beer. Working with Beltway Brewing in Sterling, we produced 60 barrels of Red Kolsch for distribution in the DMV area.  I will also have sixtel and half-barrel kegs available for sale to brewery customers as well, so if you’re looking for a beer for your party that everyone will enjoy, come on in!

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Galaxy Hops

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Woohoo!  After waiting a year, my contracts for Galaxy hops are finally ready!  These Australian hops have a really incredible flavor, and I am super-excited to start brewing more IPA’s, particularly our double IPA, Force of Nature.

A little about the hop market: most hops are bought through contracts, which allows farmers to produce the right amount for the market.  Northern hemisphere hops are harvested and processed in fall, and southern in spring.  My other contracts have been in for a long time, but I have waited a year for these Galaxy hops.  Galaxy is a proprietary strain, and, along with Mosaic, the hottest, most in-demand hop right now.  These hops are patented, have some really unparalleled flavors, and are not very easy to get.

I now have 88 lbs of Galaxy to work with each year, which is a bit more than I can use.  This is pretty exciting.  Up until this point, I have been using Centennial hops for IPA’s.  I tend to be a single-hop kind of guy; I like the beer to be a showcase for the hop.  Now, I’ll be switching my American, Belgian, and double IPA’s to Galaxy.  If you ever have had Schlafly Tasmanian IPA, it is a single hop Galaxy IPA, and it is my favorite.

What’s so good about Galaxy?  If you walked in to the brewery right now, you could probably still smell the intense melon and passionfruit flavor from when I merely opened the bag yesterday.  People throw flowery descriptions around for hops all the time, but most of the IPA hops just smell and taste like citrus.  This is not true with Galaxy.  The aroma is just on a completely different level.

What does this mean?  First, I’ll be making more IPA’s.  Second, they are going to be even better.  Third, I’ll be keeping my Belgian IPA, True Vision, on tap as our second flagship beer.  And last, our double IPA, Force of Nature, should start appearing more regularly.

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One Year Anniversary!

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On Saturday, July 19th, we celebrated the one year anniversary of Crooked Run!  One year ago, Lee Rogan and I opened the brewery for the first time.  At 25 and 26 years old, we were some of the youngest brewers in the business.  We barely had any money, but thanks to the great people that donated to our Kickstarter project, we had built our 1.5 BBL electric system and had just brewed our first two beers.  There may not have been much furniture or even paint on the walls, but it was do-or-die time.  I had two weeks to make rent, and I was completely broke.  I remember the incredible feeling as I drove in to the brewery on that beautiful summer morning.  Wow!

Now, a year has passed, and it has been a great one.  The support from the community, the town, and visitors has been amazing.  I have had the chance to meet so many great people and make new friends.  With a lot of help from you all, and a bit of luck, I am so happy to be where I am today!

The anniversary party was, to put it mildly, “off the chain.”  It was absolutely packed from open to close, and I have never poured so much beer and washed so many glasses.  We had six beers on tap, including our special anniversary beer, Nature’s Wrath, a brett trois triple IPA.  Friends brought in some delicious cake and cupcakes made with Summer Night and incredibly good soft pretzels, which we gave out in appreciation for all the great support.

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I’d like to thank my mom, who helped me bartend until she moved to Guatemala in January, Sean and Trisha Adams, who have helped build most of the stuff you see in the brewery, Mike Clay, who built the system, the Lost Rhino crew, for helping me out every week, Corey, Brent, and Rick, who have helped brew quite a bit of beer, the folks at Hop & Wine, my great bartenders Buster and MT, virtuoso Tim Dugan, Sten Sellier at Beltway,  and my great and supportive girlfriend Brigitte and her family!  A big thank you to all you restaurant managers who took a chance on a little beer called Shadow of Truth.  Most of all, I want to thank my partner Lee.  A man of true character and strength, he has been there from those first days turning wrenches on the system.

There have been some very trying times.  Besides the hours and ramen noodles, two points I will really remember are working my butt off with Lyme disease all through November, and bartending on one foot after my motorcycle crash.  Fortunately, that stuff knocked me down, but not out, and as long as I have a pulse, I’ll keep trying my hardest.

What’s in store for the future?  First, Lee and I are excited to announce that our two flagship beers will be Red Kolsch and True Vision IPA.  It was really tough to narrow it down, but it seems you all enjoy these beers, and I am working on offering these beers in six-pack cans in the not-too-distant future.  Second, some of you may already know that we are working on expanding.  Things are moving along, and I will keep you all posted on our progress.

In the mean time, I look forward to brewing more beer and seeing all of you again, or for the first time if you haven’t had a chance to come by.  So, this is year two–let’s make it a great one!

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