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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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, 4/15:***  First bottle release: Supernatural Imperial Hibiscus saison, 2016 World Beer Cup gold award-winner.  Tart, dry, delicious.  Live music and some special guest beers!

***Saturday 4/22:*** Noriega, triple IPA w/Galaxy hops and pineapple, can release.

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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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