Victory Lap

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So here we are after a month and a half of being open, and it seems like everything was an instant success.  The taproom is reliably packed, and distro is starting to pick up.  After so much work, it is nice to enjoy a sense of accomplishment for a moment.  We risked everything and it worked.  Our taproom is already too small, and we are going to need to order more tanks soon to up production.

Personally, this is a huge deal for me.  I had to move back in with my mom in order to open the original nano in 2013.  Living in the same tiny room I had lived in since I was 9, the house packed full of equipment, we both struggled to build the business and endure for three years with a far-off goal of expanding.  Expansion meant everything to me–a way to a real financial future where I didn’t live week to week, worrying about running out of beer or unplanned expenses sinking everything.

On a psychological level, I also struggled with feeling a lack of validation.  With no marketing budget and a tiny presence, I felt like no one really noticed our efforts.  Not everything we made was good, but there were some really good beers we released at the nano that went largely unnoticed.  We also had some issues with beers during the first year, and I always felt like I was struggling to overcome a negative perception among beer snobs around here.  I remember one time I was introduced to a guy when I was out and about, and he said “Crooked Run?  I hear you guys are pretty iffy.”  I smiled politely and told him that I think every nanobrewery struggles a bit in the beginning, but on the inside, it felt like whatever I did, it made no difference.

Fortunately, there are a few industry people whose opinion I respect tremendously and who have been very supportive.  Your random neckbeard only knows what social media tells them is good beer, but I’d rather have people who actually know what they’re talking about like what I am doing.

In addition, even though the beer scene around here is more friendly than competitive, you are sort of competing in the sense that customers judge you the same as anybody.  I.e., a three barrel nano the size of some walk-in closets started by a 25 year-old is supposed to be the same as million dollar brewery or bar.  Time and again, I was frustrated by how careful we had to be.  Other businesses could just throw money around or ignore regulations, but we had to be very focused.

Now, I am tremendously proud of what we have accomplished.  With careful planning, everything has fallen into place.  We managed to avoid a lot of pitfalls.  Believe it or not, hard work and patience DO pay off!  Sometimes it takes a little longer, but it is worth it.

My three favorite things about the Sterling location:

  1. The look.  Lee did a fantastic job creating one of the nicest-looking taprooms I have ever seen.  The handmade tables and bar are amazing!  I love the lounge area with the projector TV.
  2. The beer.  Over three years at the nano, I learned a lot about recipe formulation.  Anyone can brew clean, passable beer–that’s not hard.  But a menu of 12 rotating beers that hits a wide variety of styles, including some pretty unique ones, is something that I think will bring in all different sorts of people and have them leave happy.
  3. The food.  Teaming up with Senor Ramon was, in my humble opinion, a brilliant move.  Their food is fantastic and just goes so well with our beers.  We were the first in Virginia to do something like this, and I think you will see more and more of it.

Anyways, this is just the beginning.  There is plenty of work to do ahead, but for the moment, it is nice to rest on your laurels for just a second.

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Upcoming Beers

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Hey everyone, here’s a look at some of the beers we are going to release over the next month.  We have a few new ones that I am pretty excited about.

Wednesday 3/8: Peach Habanero Storm IPA.  Probably my favorite batch so far of this beer, the heat and fruit flavor are really nice on this one.

Thursday 3/9: Verdant Force returns!

Friday 3/10: Nightcap.  Collaboration with Brothers Craft Brewing, a sweet porter with cherries and vanilla.

Wednesday 3/15: Saving Light, a classic saison made with Dupont yeast and dry hopped with Hallertauer Blanc hops.

Friday 3/24: Bourbon Barrel Seek Truth, Carrera Torcida Vienna lager

Friday, 3/31: Raspberry Empress!  My favorite of all the Empress beers.  Also, Teddy’s Ale bitter and Orange Empress.

***Saturday, 4/8:***  First bottle release: Supernatural Imperial Hibiscus saison, 2016 World Beer Cup gold award-winner.  Tart, dry, delicious.  Live music and some special guest beers!

***Friday 4/29:*** Noriega, triple IPA w/Galaxy hops and pineapple, can release.  Also, a special version made with a huge amount of sweet cherries, Idaho 7 hops, and Sacc Trois yeast.

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Thoughts on Expansion

I am very happy about the successful first weekend–I don’t think things could have turned out much better.  We have a lot of work ahead to get ready for our grand opening, but I definitely think everyone who came out had a nice experience.  I thought I’d talk a bit about what went into making all this.

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Before I talk a bit about the process of opening the new brewery, I’d just like to stress a couple of things for anyone looking to open a similar sized brewery who is reading this.  Lee’s and my areas of expertise have been critical to the success of this new start-up.  With Lee’s construction experience, our build-out has been one of the fastest I have ever heard of, at three months.  You could be able to make very good beer, but if you burn through all your free rent during construction, you can go under or have to give up ownership for more money before you even open.  I cannot stress this enough–this is not easy.  If you have no construction experience, spend as much time as you can researching.

My challenge was hopefully accumulating enough knowledge from brewing on a smaller system to be able to flawlessly brew our first round of beers.  I am happy to say that despite being nervous about sizing up, we killed it on this first round of beers, and we’ll only get better.

I stress these things because so many people are opening breweries these days.  It is not easy.  I am sometimes fairly stunned at how little knowledge some people have going into this.  Do your research, please.  So without further ado…

Our 10 BBL system, a direct fire brewhouse from ABE, arrived in early November.  Before it arrived, we had to have our concrete pad completed and painted.  Previously, we had used an expensive floor coating (Flowcrete) at the nano, but this was out of our price range for a much larger concrete pad.  We opted to use a floor paint and medium traffic seal.  So far, it already has chipped a lot.  Ultimately, we can just fix it as we go.  The other options were to use a heavy traffic seal that has a 30 day cure time, and waste a month of rent, or use the aforementioned polyurethane/concrete blend, which would cost $10,000.  If you are using paint, just make sure that the concrete is fully cured and roughed up enough.

The system arrived undamaged and with everything we had ordered.  We hired a team of two riggers who assisted in moving it in.  A pallet jack and a chain hoist were enough to get everything in pretty easily.  The glycol chiller was an exception, but we borrowed a forklift from our neighbor to move it in to place outside earlier.  We probably could have done it all ourselves, but hiring some experienced guys probably cut the time in half.

We opted for a 700 sq ft cold room, which is a bit oversized, but since it is marginally more expensive to get a larger sized coldroom, it is a good idea to go bigger.

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Putting together the cold room was by far the hardest task.  We had to lift and lock together 36 panels, each weighing about 200 lbs each!  It took three people 24 hours to complete.  The camlocks can be very difficult to lock together.  We were able to keep the very nice set of ratchet straps from the brewhouse shipment, and these were incredibly helpful in pulling the panels together to lock them.  At one point we pulled the entire coldroom with them to center it!  Also, it was critical that we were able to use two scissorlifts from construction to help lift the ceiling panels into place.

Once this was complete it was time to start painting the place.  I really want to thank our awesome friends who volunteered to come help paint.  We managed to knock out painting the entire 7000 sq ft place!  I definitely have had my fill of painting for a bit.

The next task was building the bar.  We’d like to thank Sean Adams, our friend/former bartender, for coming by to help.  Lee and Sean are very skilled carpenters, and our 40 ft bar is looking pretty nice.  The most exciting part was pouring and setting the BBs!  The entire bar top is covered in a layer of copper Crossman BBs and epoxy.  The result is pretty neat!

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After that, we started setting up our tanks.   We opted for separate glycol shutoff valves for each tank, so when an inevitable problem happens, we don’t have to drain much glycol to access one tank.  We were very pleased with the condition of the tanks, and after caustic and passivation, they were good to go!

Overall, I am very happy that we opened on schedule and have produced such good results.  We have done a ton of things ourselves.  Sometimes when you hear of extensive DIY, you may think of amateurish workmanship, but with Lee’s extensive background in construction, we were able to knock out a lot of work and are getting close to having a pretty beautiful brewery on our hands!

Once we had our brewery license and occupancy, we immediately brewed five batches over five days to fill all the tanks.  One thing I really regret was not purchasing an oversized mash tun, since so many of our beers are pretty big.  In any case, we picked six difficult beers to brew first: kolsch (we’ve never used kolsch yeast, which has very poor flocculation), lemon serrano IPA, NE double IPA, imperial stout infused with vanilla and cinnamon, black tripel, and kettle-soured IPA with oranges.  The only recipe adjustments I made scaling up were increased efficiency (due to grist rehydrator and mash tun rakes for better mixing) and increased hop utilization (lower your IBUs by 2-5).  We hit target OG on all beers except for one.

Lemon Serrano Storm, our west coast IPA with fruit and peppers, presented a bit of a challenge.  I couldn’t afford to mess up any of these beers.  Knowing that I would get increased utilization from these tanks and by rousing them with CO2 through the bottom, I opted to use half the amount of lemons and serranos as I normally do.  It worked perfectly.

The same held true for Empress, our sour IPA.  I made 8 BBLs of Orange Empress with 25 navel oranges, juiced and zested.  I also made a run-off batch in a 3 BBL tank of Mango Empress.  We’ll do things like that often to get a greater variety of beer on tap.

I am very excited for what it means to have this new system.  Besides having ten times the production capacity of the nano, our new system is really going to improve our beers in so many ways.  I think we’ve made some fine beer on our 3 BBL system, but we did not have glycol, brite tanks, and so many other important things.  I look forward to making beer without any of the significant limitations I’ve had to work around for these past three years.

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The next tasks we have are ramping up production and renovating the nano location.  You’ll start to see us on tap more and more over the next few months as we begin distribution.  We’re also working on on-premise cans and our first bottle release at the new place.

Renovating the nano has started in earnest.  We’ll go up to 8 beers on tap there, including some special ones just for that place.  The existing 3 BBL system will get some hard piping and other improvements, and we’ll begin doing barrel-fermented mixed culture sours.  The layout will change a bit, with the bar getting moved, the addition of booth seating, and a new paint job and finish for the interior.  We’ll be adding a new deck outside, and will be offering live music and special beer releases on First Friday in Leesburg over the summer.

Overall, we can’t wait to learn and grow as a part of this great beer scene in NOVA.  Cheers!

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Spontaneous Beer

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As we work to open our second location, we wanted to try a test of making spontaneously fermented beer at our nano.  This method involves using only ambient yeast and bacteria in the surrounding air to inoculate and ferment the beer. For this first trial run, we are brewing three one barrel batches of the same beer.  They will be blended together to fill one white wine barrel once that barrel is emptied in a few months, and aged for an extended period until a sufficiently good beer results, if it even does.

For this procedure, we wanted to test a couple of ideas that I had.  First, the grain bill and mash is somewhat unique.  Forgoing a turbid mash, the labor-intensive traditional technique used by Belgian lambic brewers, we ran a simple two step mash of a saccharification rest at 162 degrees, followed by a big decoction to hit a 172 mash-out, and a 190 degree sparge.  This should accomplish somewhat similar results of a turbid mash.

The idea behind a turbid mash and/or this mash schedule is to create a wort that is high in long-chain sugars.  The reason for this is that aggressive wild Saccharomyces strains may ferment your beer too quickly and leave very little for brett and pedio to work with, so you want to create a less fermentable wort.  Our grain bill also involves creating even more complex starches in the wort.  Usually, a high amount of unmalted wheat is used.  However, I am a fan of using rye over wheat to achieve this.  Rye contributes considerably more dextrins than wheat.

The last part of the grain bill is just purely something unique and fun.  We used Red X malt for most of the base.  Red X is a 13 L kilned malt that is kind of like a “super Vienna” malt in terms of flavor.  It is very, very malty.  I’ve used it before and always wanted to try to use it in a sour to balance sharp acidity and provide a deeper flavor.  I think it could work quite well for this, but regardless, it provides a beautiful ruby color.

The recipe:

80% Best Malz Red X

20% rye malt

We skipped a boil and sent our 180 degree wort straight to the kettle where it was left overnight to cool and capture microbes outside the brewery garden.  We added a small amount of Saaz hops (0.5 ounces for 26 gallons) to the wort.  Aged hops left at room temperature for an extended period are traditionally used.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have any on hand.  However, using a small amount of low alpha hops at 180 degrees may achieve similar results.

Another unorthodox method we tried was spiking the surrounding flora with brett from previous beers.  Our elderberry and cherry trees were periodically splashed with yeast, where it could grow and hopefully mutate over time.

Obviously, our 30 gallon kettle we use for pilots is not a coolship.  However, the cooling rate should be somewhat similar to a large commercial coolship, and this is just a test for when we begin brewing 3 BBL batches of these beers at the nano with our future coolship.

The resulting beers will be allowed to ferment in steel for 3 months, before being tasted and blended in a barrel to age.  If any or all of them taste completely horrendous due to enteric bacteria or clostridium, they will be tossed.  Furthermore, we’ll plate and examine the beer in the lab to see which microbes are present.  If all goes well, after extended aging (8 months to two years) the beer will be refermented with raspberries in the barrel, and bottled.

If this works, we’ll begin more production next spring.  Fingers crossed!

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Nov/Dec Beers

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Here’s an upcoming list of what we have coming out in November and December.  Our year-round beers are Red Kolsch, Storm, and Verdant Force.

November
Peach Brandy Barrel-Aged Seek Truth Barrel-aged tripel
Coconut Vanilla Shadow of Truth Infused black tripel
Let Go Sour saison w/pineapple, anise, turbinado sugar
Machismo Smoked chipotle stout in bourbon barrels
Stovepipe Smoked porter
Mango Starfire Sour double IPA
December
La Ventana Grisette with brett
Charm Milk stout
Disenchanted Double IPA w/trois yeast
Lies Brett C IPA
Sin Nombre Mexican imperial stout
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Sour Saison

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Along with sour IPA, the next style we have started focusing on is sour saison.  This is a cool project that I am working on with Julien-Pierre Bourgon, bar manager at Masseria in D.C.  Julien is a both a very talented mixologist and a beer guy, a rare combination.  His drinks have some very interesting but functional preparation of ingredients, similar to what we strive for with adjuncts.  The saisons we want to create are all modern cocktail-inspired–I believe the style is a great canvas to work with.

What is a sour saison?  That is pretty open to interpretation, but for us, it is a kettle-soured beer fermented with saison yeast.  What makes it different than Berliner weisse, or other kettle-soured styles?  Saison yeast creates a drier beer, which increases the sourness, and adds typical esters, most of which are overshadowed by lactic acid, but some of which carry through in the flavor.

The first sour saison we made was Endless Summer, a sour rye saison made with basil and lemongrass from the brewery garden.  Six ounces of each per barrel, boiled for two minutes, will add a nice flavor to the beer.  The resulting beer was like summer in a glass.

Here’s a list of past and upcoming sour saisons:

Endless Summer: Rye, basil, lemongrass

Drifting Away: Blueberries and thyme

Tears in Rain: Passionfruit and molasses

Siamese Dream: Pumpkin spice

Let Go: Pineapple, Anise, and turbinado sugar

Something for the Pain: Guava, Thai chili

Thank You: Cranberries and sage

Wide Awake: Coffee

Waiting for the End: Douglas fir, coconut, and lime

More Than Anything: Oranges, mangos, passionfruit

 

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Brewing With Adjuncts

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At Crooked Run, we brew a lot of adjunct beers.  Adjuncts are any ingredient other than water, malted grain, or hops.  Adjuncts can be anything from corn to fruit to artificial flavoring.  Adjunct beers are ubiquitous, from light lagers made with rice to flavored IPAs.  At Crooked Run, we steer clear of artificial flavoring or extracts, though.  A lot of fruit beers have turned people off to adjunct beers due to heavy use of flavor extracts, which can create a beer that tastes like cough syrup or candy.  A common compliment that I get is: “I was expecting not to like this, but everything is really well-balanced.”  Fresh ingredients and balance are key.

Start with fresh ingredients.  No extract will taste as good as real fruit.  Dried peppers or herbs will not be the same as fresh.  Our adjunct beers are incredibly labor-intensive and expensive to make.  Our Cherry Cayenne IPA costs $6 for a 12 ounce tulip.  Some people may think that is expensive, but it should cost even more–the adjuncts alone cost nearly $40/barrel, a dollar value that cannot just be passed on to a consumer or retailer.  Plus, it’s all Galaxy hops.

The reason that fresh is better than processed is that when ingredients are processed, you lose aromatics.  Aromatics are really important to getting good flavor.  A juice concentrate created using evaporation loses most aromatic compounds.  Extracts are even more heavily processed.  Sometimes ease of use and cost are an issue, but if you can use raw ingredients, the results are almost always better.

Whichever adjunct you are using, a good rule of thumb when determining the rate of usage is, “can I take a bite out of this?”  You can bite a peach, a cherry, or a pineapple.  It’s going to be very hard to overdo anything that you can take a bite of.  Using too little is more likely.  Even less obvious ingredients like basil, you can still pop right in your mouth.

So conversely, since you don’t want a mouthful of cloves, you’d have to be really careful putting cloves in your beer.  With this rule of thumb, you can use common sense as a guideline when deciding how much to use.

At Crooked Run, we really can’t afford to have a batch turn out poorly, but we are also trying to experiment as much as possible before we open the new location.  I’ll usually relegate experiments to our 1 BBL pilot system rather than the 3 BBL, just in case something goes wrong.  In all honesty, however, nothing ever has.  I have not had a single beer not hit the marks other than maybe not having enough of a certain flavor, and too little is way better than too much.

So without further ado, here are a bunch of rates and preparation methods for adjuncts:

Hot peppers: 1 lb per barrel, de-stemmed, rinsed in acid sanitizer, roughly chopped and added in an autoclaved mesh bag on day five of fermentation.  Depending on the pepper, you may need to remove some seeds to reduce the heat.  I use a Chili Twister for this.  Wear gloves and eye protection…a habanero seed hitting you in the eye is incredibly painful, trust me.

Stone fruit: 0.5-1 lb per gallon is a good starting point.  You may think this rate is too low, but the key is to puree the fruit.  We’ve been using a Vitamix, which works on a small scale.  We even used one for a 15 BBL collaboration we did.  In the future, we’re planning on purchasing one of these.  Like peppers, we sanitize the outside of the fruit first, remove any unwanted skin or seeds, roughly chop, and puree.  The puree is added directly to the fermenter on day three of fermentation, to allow yeast to get a foothold since the puree is not aseptic.

Berries: 1-2 lbs per gallon is a good starting point.  Some berries have seeds that don’t sink easily, so it’s best to freeze berries and add them in a mesh bag.

Citrus: We make a puree by first sanitizing the fruit, then zesting it, then juicing it, and then mixing the zest and juice.  The acid in the juice helps sanitize the zest, and both add flavor.  Oranges: 20 oranges per barrel.  Limes or lemons: 3 ounces of zest per barrel, with just enough juice to cover it in a jar.  I usually add citrus after fermentation has subsided, since it can be very acidic.

Basil or mint: 8 ounces per barrel, placed in a mesh bag and boiled for 5 minutes.

Hibiscus: 2 lbs per barrel, made into a tea by boiling in water for 5 minutes.  The flowers should be “sparged” afterwards, and all the runnings collected and allowed to cool.  Add on day three of fermentation.  Our hibiscus saison won gold at World Beer Cup this year using this method.

Pumpkin spice: 3 tsp cinnamon 1/2 tsp allspice 1/2 tsp nutmeg 2 cloves per barrel, boiled for 5 minutes.  This is a relatively low rate, but produces really good results.

Coffee beans: 0.5 lbs per barrel, steeped in a mesh bag.  Coffee beans go a long way.

Vanilla beans: 20-30 beans per barrel, pulverized in a blender with a little bit of vodka, added directly to the fermenter.  Make sure to get Madagascar beans.

Cacao nibs: 2-4 lbs per barrel, steeped in a mesh bag after fermentation.  There is some evidence that nibs are anti-microbial.  I’ll do some tests on our golden stout next time to see if nibs can be added to the cold side with no problems.

Salt: 180 grams per barrel in our gose.  Noticeable, but not too much.

 

So, there’s a good list for a lot of usage rates.  I could go on about fruit, and may do a separate post in the future.  Something to keep in mind when preparing your ingredients is that you will never fully sanitize your adjuncts, but by sanitizing them as much as possible and adding them after fermentation has been going on for a few days, you reduce the risk for contamination.  A beer with adjuncts added to the cold side probably isn’t the best beer to bottle or barrel-age, but if consumed quickly, there should be few problems.

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