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.

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 DDH IPA, In the Zone DIPA, Torrid Zone DIPA w/Guava, Blackberry Vibes Berliner weisse.  Quite a Friday!

8/18 Best Days Hefeweizen, You’re Cool cucumber mint wheat

8/25 Cherry Cayenne Storm IPA, Saving Light saison

8/31 Skyline Saison w/Oranges

9/8 Black Hoof collab

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

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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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Hype

I’ve kept this blog positive so far, but I’m going to take a one-time departure and vent about something I really hate.  Hype.  Hype is my least favorite part of the beer industry.  It obfuscates beer quality and turns something that is supposed to be fun into a competition where it’s more about coveting beer and posting pictures than enjoying it.

Hype has been on my mind a lot lately, and I wish I could just ignore it.  The dumbest thing is that the people that propagate hype often have the most unrefined palates.  Last month I was drinking a gimmicky adjunct beer.  It was absolutely horrendous, yet it’s Untappd ratings were through the roof, people waited hours for cans, and were giving up huge trades for it.  I say this with all sincerity–I take no pleasure in saying a beer sucks, and it has to truly suck for me to say so.  I also would never say that based on my own subjective tastes.  This beer was pretty much undrinkable.

I saw a triple IPA being posted for trades recently.  I had had the beer when it was six days old, and even then it had fallen off so badly it was a phenolic, sickly sweet mess, with the bottom of the can a solid layer of sludge.  The poster said right up front the beer was 3 months old.  People were offering huge trades for it.

These two examples are pretty harsh, so here’s a lesser example, but still a poignant one.  I was drinking a sour last week that was pretty decent, except for a very slight twinge of isovaleric acid, a cheesy flavor that occurs in kettle-soured beers where unwanted bacteria took hold.  The beer has a considerably higher rating on Untappd than our sour IPA.

And that’s what just kills me.  Often times I compare our ratings to other hyped up beers that I have had, and I have a sneaking suspicion that in a blind taste test the same people rating that beer highly would prefer a beer I made in the same vein, or rate ours higher if we had more of a name attached.

I read Yelp reviews and the ones that really affect me are the ones that say “beer is pretty par for the course” or “nothing special.”  That may sound incredibly thin-skinned, but I’ll tell you why that hurts me.  I feel like it’s because we do beers like a light lager or fun styles like chili IPA.  We offer 12 beers on tap–you want a hazy DIPA, we have one.  I would put our imperial stouts up against most.  Our fruited sours are killer.  But not everything I make is going to be beer for beer geeks, and sometimes I think that it would almost make some people think we were better if we didn’t even have any lighter or less popular styles on tap, and instead offered 5 or 6 beers.  It’s like having a light lager on actually makes us not as good a brewery in some eyes.  Why?  Would we be better if we didn’t even offer it?

I chose to try to offer the best taproom experience and give people a wide variety of styles.  I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it too.  I don’t think we’ll ever achieve any sort of hype.  All I want to be is a good regional brewery, and I hope we can get that reputation.

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Rules for Starting a Brewery

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A couple years ago I wrote a post on rules for starting a nanobrewery.  Since then, I’ve learned a lot and progressed past a nano into a successful full-size brewery.  I’d like to share a list of rules for success for anyone that is interested in opening a brewery.

  1. Offer something good to the craft beer scene.  Don’t be a “me too” brewery.  If you’re going to go through all of the trouble to open a brewery, you need to have a good reason to.  In this day and age, there are thousands of breweries.  If you’re just going to offer an IPA, a kolsch, a porter, and some other seasonal beer, they’d better be really, really, really good.  Because there are already a hundred other true-to-style good beers out there, and chances are, someone does it better than you.  If you put out mediocre beer, you may still be able to stay in business, but all you’re doing is making a crowded market more crowded and doing nothing for the scene.
  2. Do not think you are going to make a lot of money.  Since we opened, our tasting room has become one of the busiest in a busy region, and our beers are moving well in distribution.  But guess what?  There are a lot of expenses.  We’ve written two successful business plans (the first one for the nanobrewery) and, surprise, expenses are higher than we thought, again.  Opening a small, regional brewery is not a path to riches.  My colleagues do not drive around in Ferraris.  I am not being arrogant, just stating simple truth: our expansion was one of the most well-executed plans I have seen, and we are profitable.  But this is something you do for love–if you do it well, you’ll be able to live in reasonable comfort.  If you have a family to support, consider what you are risking to follow your dream.  This is really important.  How long can you go without taking a salary?  Most entrepreneurs prepare themselves for the idea that they could go down in flames, but don’t really consider a more likely reality–they struggle to make money, and finally, after years of very hard work for no reward, they sell the business and move on.  During the nano years, I lived with my mom on a shoestring budget, and Lee worked in his very little spare time for free.  Most people are not willing to make those kinds of sacrifices, and sometimes I wonder if I would do it all again.
  3. Learn about construction.  My partner’s background was construction, so he handled the vast majority of our project.  We opened on time, saving thousands of dollars in rent and lost revenue.  However, most people aren’t as lucky.  You would not believe the conversations I have had with people who are pretty far into opening a brewery (i.e. about to sign a lease/release equipment) who have a fraction of the money they need budgeted for construction.  Newsflash: the brewhouse is less than half the startup cost.  The big ticket item is construction, and delays will at worst sink you, and at best drain your money so you spend the next year recouping costs instead of buying more tanks.
  4. Have realistic expectations for distribution.  No, you are not going to sell 120 BBLs of draught beer per month from day one.  Three years ago, we did some contract brewing.  Being stretched too thin, we barely had any time to get out and sell, but that didn’t matter, because local beer was in demand and there was barely any of it.  Now, we are back in the market again, but this time I have devoted considerable time and energy to sales.  And I had to.  Because beer does not sell itself anymore.  The era of limitless growth is over, and even as a 10 BBL brewery with two busy taprooms, we can’t just drop even a small amount of beer on the market, dust our hands, and walk away.
  5. Learn how to retain staff.  Hiring and training new staff is not only expensive, but it can hamstring your brewery if the guy or gal that makes your beer decides to leave.  One of our greatest strengths is that we’ve never had anyone in four years quit on us.  The starter here is an obvious one: pay your employees a fair wage.  I have seen crazy turnovers on the brew side that probably could be avoided by a dollar or two more an hour.  What’s worse, spending more on payroll, or having your production grind to a halt or the quality of your beer suffer due to staff leaving?  The other obvious way to retain staff is to create a positive environment.  Treat people with respect.
  6. Choose your brewer wisely.  Brewers don’t necessarily know how to create recipes.  A shift brewer may have about as much skill in that area as a fry cook does.  A head brewer with years of experience may have just been hiding out at an older brewpub, making mediocre beers for years.  In fact, someone with experience might just be a liability–more likely to insist on his or her way, leading to problems and an eventual exit.  Data has shown that in some fields such as medicine, more experience actually produces inferior results, since some professionals tend to either phone it in or are very rigid and unwilling to break rules.  I can believe that this applies to brewing.  Fortunately, I do not have to worry about losing our head brewer, which is greatly reassuring.  On that note, if you are under a 15 BBL brewery, it may be tough to pay for a full-time brewer and be very profitable.
  7. Strive to be better–disrupt the status quo.  We were the first brewery in the state to partner with a restaurant as a separate entity, and it has been enormously successful.  We worked very hard to create a taproom that went far beyond the unfinished warehouse look that is the norm.  Since opening two months ago, we have already done a can release and a bottle release next week, all at a scale when neither is normally feasible. We’re going to have a mobile taco and beer trailer up and running within a month.  At the end of the year, we’ll release our first spontaneously-fermented beer, and the first of it’s kind in the county.  We are already working on a third location.  What I am saying is that we are not content to just sit there resting on laurels.  The market is crowded, but I believe that a brewery that makes good beer and goes steps beyond is going to be very successful.
  8. Know who you are, and be it.  What identity do you want to be known for?  For us, we want to offer a great taproom experience with a wide variety of styles, all made very well.  We want to offer non-traditional styles that are unique but still good–never weird for the sake of weird.  If you go back through the archives in this blog post, you can see the idea I had for our place has never deviated in six years.  We have changed beers and concepts many times, but the idea of what we wanted to be was always there.  In the past three years, I have seen two local breweries go under because they didn’t have a clear idea of their identity.  One rebranded and added bourbon and steaks as well as beer.  The other tried to be a live music venue and butcher shop as well as a brewery.  Keeping your core business model simple is never a bad idea–you can branch out as time goes on, but you first need to create a working identity.
  9. You are not going to reinvent the beer market.  When I first opened, I wanted a Belgian single to be our year-round beer.  We made beers like English bitters, dry stouts, and other styles that aren’t very common.  I remember thinking that we would make styles no one else was making, and that would be part of our appeal.  Guess what?  No one makes those styles because they perform really poorly.  At the nano scale, this was fine because we controlled our taproom and didn’t have to worry about distribution.  You may want to make more obscure or traditional styles, and your taproom is your own kingdom, but outside of that, most bars want to make money, and that means moving beer.  Over time, 2/3 of what we brewed became IPA, and with our bigger system, it is still 50% of what we make.  Our NE DIPA, Verdant Force, is our top-selling beer and pretty much all I ever get asked about.  In distribution, our Vienna lager lingers around the warehouse, while our IPAs are in and gone.  If your revenue depends heavily on distribution, you are making everything way harder by trying to push something that is a hard sell.  Give people what they want.  I am happy to be on a 10 BBL system because we can still make single batches of beers like our black tripel or English bitter for just the taproom.  If you’re on a larger system, you need to think really hard about each beer you make–will it sell in the market?
  10. Retain ownership.  Ownership is your most precious thing as a brewery operator.  It should be given up only when you must, and you definitely never want to give up any voting power to owners who are not also operators.  We took a really difficult path by going the nano route, but by operating on a very tight budget, we were able to show profit and get an SBA loan.  To secure the loan, we did seek outside investment, but since we were only required to put up a 15% equity injection, we did not have to give up nearly as much ownership as someone opening a brewery with private equity or a traditional loan.  Now, Lee and I each own 37.5% of the business.  I’m not going to ask any other owners how much they own, but outside of people who were already very wealthy, this percentage of ownership is rare.  When talking to investors, you need to research and perform a valuation of your company so you have a place to start negotiating.  This may sound obvious, but if you have no idea what you should be asking for, you may make a very bad decision.  In fact, the business owners I received counseling from through our local SBA told me I was going to have to give up 80-90% ownership for our expansion.  Guess they were wrong!
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