Author Archives: mitchsteele

About mitchsteele

Stone Brewing Co. Brewmaster Mitch Steele has brewed at some of the largest and smallest breweries in the world since graduating from UC Davis with a fermentation science degree. Landing at Stone Brewing Co. in 2006, Steele has overseen the brewing and packaging operations as the brewery has grown from a 48,000-barrel operation to over 176,000 barrels in 2011. Steele is a long-time IPA fan and an avid homebrewer.

Brewing Records and Why They Matter

Last week I had beers and dinner at The Porter in Atlanta with author and brewing historian Ron Pattinson, who was traveling through Atlanta to speak at an event during Asheville Beer Week.

Ron writes the blog Shut Up About Barclay Perkins http://barclayperkins.blogspot.com and has written numerous books containing painstakingly researched recipes from brewing’s past.  Ron helped me a ton when I wrote my book on IPA and IPA history, and his work on recipe research helped me to decipher a lot of the brewing logs from the 1800s so I could relate them to current brewing terms and techniques. It’s a real shame that so many historical records from the 1700s and 1800s were lost when breweries sold or shuttered their doors. And in the case of the American breweries, Prohibition resulted in many brewing records being destroyed or lost forever. But people like Ron have been able to really do a deep dive and understand how beer was made back then.

Ron and I had some great conversations last week, but we finished up the evening  talking about current breweries and wondering how a future beer historian might be able to access today’s brewing records and write about them. In these days of the Information Age, one might think it should be easy to find electronically any brewery’s recipe and write about how the brewery brewed them. But not really. Here are my thoughts on why this might be very challenging.

I’ve been a proponent of documenting everything in the brewing process since the mid 1990s when I spent time in Anheuser-Busch’s Corporate Brewing Dept. and in their St. Louis Brewery. I remember clearly the VP of Brewing Doug Muhleman’s stance on record keeping: “If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen”. AB kept electronic records of all their brewing and QA analysis, kept detailed recipe logs, taste results, and maintained process and ingredient change logs at every brewery. Doing so allowed the brewing managers to track back when there were flavor issues or other quality issues in order to understand what might be potential causes. So now I wonder if these records are available anywhere now, with the Inbev buyout and the drastic changes at the brewery? It’s very hard to say. The database was built in house by AB, and probably will never be accessible to anyone outside the company, if it still even exists.

I’ll never forget working on the American Originals project to brew AB’s pre-Prohibition beers and how hard it was to find any detailed records of those beers, or the project that others were working on in Corporate Brewing to detail the recipe history of Michelob going back to the late 1800s. Very tough tasks indeed, and I can see history repeating itself with hard-to-find recipes and process descriptions for today’s beers.

When I worked in AB’s big St. Louis Brewery, in the late 1990s, one person was charged with the daily update of what was called “the McNab book”, which was a handwritten record in a binder that tracked every fermentation and lagering process. McNab was the brand name of an in-line instrument that recorded the yeast content of the beer as it moved from primary fermentation to lagering. Then, during the lagering process, the 0 hour, 10 day and end of lager cell counts were tracked in the McNab book, as were QA analytical values, and all of this data was used to determine proper zinc sulfate additions in the brewhouse. Zinc sulfate was used as a yeast nutrient, and affected the yeast cells’ flocculation (settling) rates, which in turn impacted natural carbonation, diacetyl reduction, and the unwanted acetaldehyde formation in the final beer. One person was charged with evaluating the McNab trends and with tracking the cell counts to proactively make zinc changes when the 10 day cell counts were too high or too low. This was a record that Brewing Directors in Corporate Brewing reviewed when they visited the brewery, so it was important to keep it accurate, neat and legible.

When I moved to Merrimack NH in 1999, I took the mechanics of the “McNab” book with me and adapted it to our brewing process in Merrimack. I added sections for brewhouse and primary fermentation, and noted which lager tanks were blended as they were filtered and packaged. And yes, much of this information was later available electronically, but I found it very difficult to structure the reports that had all data I wanted into a format that was easy for me to use. In addition, I found that I had much better retention of the information if I actually wrote it myself vs printing off a pre-fabbed report to review.  So I filled out spreadsheets. Lots and lots of spreadsheets. And as I filled them out, I gained a real thorough understanding of how we were brewing our beer over time. I also maintained an overall brewhouse recipe spreadsheet, which the brewers had at their workstations, which was updated with recipe changes as they occurred. This is a form that I again took with me from the St. Louis brewery operation and adapted to Merrimack’s operation. We had a “Yeast Tree” document that tracked the use of every culture we received from 0 to 10 generations. And we had an electronic change log that documented recipe changes. But these records were all lost to me when I left AB to join Stone Brewing, and I’d be surprised if anyone could still find them today.

In 2006, when I got to Stone, which was like many craft brewers in this respect, all the brewing logs were filled out on paper by the brewers and were kept in file folders. One of the first tasks I assigned to myself was to create an electronic record of all the recipes Stone had ever brewed, so we could refer back to them if needed, and also to make sure we weren’t accidentally repeating a hop combination or recipes that we had already used. But we had just moved into the new building on Citracado, and many of the really old brewlogs were filed in various offices, and in some cases, people’s homes. So I went back as far as I could with the brewlogs I was able to find, and then moved on to other things. I kept several other spreadsheets, including a master recipe sheet, a change log that included both recipe/ingredient changes AND process changes (new equipment, procedural changes and the like), and a brewing record that was based on the original AB McNab log that I called the “BrewDiary”. I had a separate worksheet in the spreadsheet for each core brand that tracked each batch of beer from start to finish, and then one large sheet for all the special releases,collaborations and one-offs we brewed.

During my final year at Stone Brewing, when we were putting together the list of beers to re-brew for our year-long 20th Anniversary celebration, we were asked to re-brew the Stone 02.02.02 Vertical Epic Ale, and the Stone 6th Anniversary Ale, which was a bigger version of Stone Smoked Porter. That’s when I regretted not following through on that early project to completely build files for the old recipes! After some discussions with original Brewmaster Steve Wagner and with former Head Brewer Lee Chase, there still wasn’t much detail available on either beer. The brewlogs were apparently buried in a box somewhere in the Stone archives, we made jokes about getting HazMat suits to sift through all the dusty boxes to find them.  In the end, I reversed engineered the Stone 02.02.02 Vertical Epic Ale from Lee’s original homebrew blog that we did for each VE release, and we interviewed many Team Stone members who had been with company a long time to learn about what went into the 6th Anniversary Porter-we had missed a lot originally-it was actually more complex than just a scaled up version of Stone Smoked Porter.

So my point in all this is that I suspect there are a lot of craft brewers over the years who have followed a similar pattern. They have graduated from handwritten brew logs, that are filed and stored in a box somewhere, to spreadsheets, or maybe even to more complex equipment supplier automated databases or ERP systems. But in 100 years, who is going to be able to find any of it if they want to document how beers were brewed during our current times? Especially if breweries continue to grow quickly or get sold or close shop.

Several years ago I was able to travel to England and brew a beer at Wadworth brewery. And I had some discussions with their Brewmaster, Brian Yorsten, about record keeping. He told me that they had recently moved from filling out the ornate brewing logs like the brewers in the 19th century used to the more modern practice of keeping records on spreadsheets. And he absolutely hated it, and eventually went back to filling out the logbooks.  Logbooks are easy to store and access, provided someone doesn’t throw them out with the trash. Computer records are not always easy to access, especially when stored in ERP systems or house-built databases.

I’m wondering right now if a concerted effort could be made by the industry to preserve some brewing logs from early craft brewers in a safe place, like a library or a museum, where researchers in the future could go back and learn about the techniques and ingredients being used today. As difficult as it was to research beers brewed in the 1800s, I sadly suspect that 100 years from now, it might be even harder for historians to research the beers that are being brewed today. Sure, there’s a lot of high level information available since brewers have been providing recipes to brewing magazines and homebrewers for many years. But nowhere have I seen the details of how someone’s beer is brewed, exactly how they describe their ingredients, what equipment they are using, and their brewing processes. And that’s the stuff the researchers will want to understand.

 

Atlanta

The end of this month marks a full 7 months that I’ve been traveling to Atlanta on a regular basis for the planning work that is happening for our brewery restaurant.
Many people are asking me “why Atlanta?”, which is a very fair question. I have no personal ties here, and up until recently, I haven’t spent much time here. But one of my business partners lives in the Atlanta area, and Atlanta was on the short list of places we were considering, primarily because it is a really cool city, and is, in our opinions, under-represented with craft breweries compared to other big cities in the country (though there are some very good breweries here). We thought the potential here was significant. Carey found a building for our business that is absolutely perfect for what we want to try and create. And since then, I’ve been here a lot, and have grown to really like this city and the people that live here.

Atlanta itself is a “happening” city, a lot of the neighborhoods have undergone renovation, and that are filled with unique and excellent restaurants and beer drinking establishments. It’s also a beautiful city, filled with parks, lots of trees, and some amazing homes.

There is a thriving craft beer scene here. Two beer drinking establishments are consistently ranked in the top ten of American craft beer bars (The Porter,  and The Brickstore Pub in nearby Decatur). I’ve been to each many times, they have great draft beer selections, lots of rare bottles stored in temperature controlled beer cellars, educated and knowledgable staff, and they really take care of their beer and their glassware.
There are some really good craft brewers here as well, with many more breweries in planning. This is despite current GA beer laws that restrict the ability of brewers who operate a “brewery” to sell beer out of their brewery, and severely limits maximum production volume of a brewpub that serves food. I’m learning more about the local brewers and breweries with each trip I’ve taken, and we are really looking forward to being a part of the scene here. As I have found everywhere, brewers are kindred spirits, and I look forward to getting to know the Atlanta area brewers better and enjoying their beers.

Some of my favorite beers so far are from Creature Comforts in nearby Athens GA, Scofflaw which really makes great IPAs, and Three Taverns Brewery in Decatur. Terrapin in Athens has been one of my favorites for a long time. Sweetwater Brewing is the largest brewery in the area, we got to visit a few weeks ago, and I was impressed with their operation, and pleasantly surprised at how big they are. They are doing some really cool special beers and wood aged beers, and their core lineup has always been solid. Torched Hop is a new brewpub that is a five minute drive from our spot, and they make really good beer, we’ve been there several times. And there are other brewers in the area I really haven’t had a chance to try yet, including Monday Night Brewing, Reformation, Eventide, Second Self, and others. A lot of brewers are putting some focus on sour beers, and the ones I’ve gotten to try from Orpheus and Three Taverns have been delicious. In short, there is no shortage of good and interesting beer, covering all styles, in the Atlanta area, which has been fun for me to learn!
We rented an apartment in the Inman Park neighborhood since one of our partners, Bob, and I are traveling in for now.  It’s better than staying in a hotel and is giving us a little sense of “home”. It’s not only located in a great neighborhood with a lot of restaurants and cafes, it’s located on the Beltline, a jogging/walking/biking trial that will eventually encircle the entire city, so it is only a 5-10 minute walk to our building site. The apartment is also is a 5-10 minute walk from The Porter, the Wrecking Bar Brewpub, Ponce City Market, and Krog Street Market, which has a great beer store and beer bar called Hop City. I just bought a bicycle for getting around-the Beltline is a wonderful place to do some quick rides and navigate through town.

I’ve been asked a lot about when I’m moving. I have a daughter in high school in CA, and will not move her while she is in school, so I’ll be commuting until she graduates. I do look forward to bringing the family out here, and showing them some of the things I really like in the area.

We still don’t have an official name, we hope to be able to announce something soon. As we start construction in our space, look for more progress updates from me!

Brewmaster Defined?

Every once in a while on social media, a conversation happens that discusses the merits of the word “Brewmaster” and what it takes to use it in one’s job title. It’s often said that any brewer can make a good beer once, but a brewmaster can make the same beer over and over again. Lots of people have written about it, like this take on it from my friend Teri Fahrendorf, this one from Stan Hieronymus or like this interview with Dr. David Ryder, all of which echo a lot of my thoughts below.

So here’s my opinion, for what its worth, on the term “brewmaster”:

It makes me uncomfortable to see people with very little professional experience or education being tagged as a brewmaster. I have often said that being an award winning home brewer does not make one a brewmaster. Being a head brewer in a small brewery without the benefit of education or experience does not make one a brewmaster. People tend to use the words “brewmaster” and “head brewer” interchangeably, but to me they are very different roles.

I didn’t want to be called a brewmaster in my first few brewing jobs because I knew I still had so much to learn. When I did New Products at Anheuser-Busch back in the mid 1990s, my official title was New Products Manager, but I was often referred to (especially by marketing) as the Specialty Brewing Group Brewmaster. I understood the logic, but this made me uneasy, especially when I sat in a tasting panel with some of the most accomplished brewmasters I have ever met, some of whom had 40+ years of experience brewing all over the world. And then when I joined Stone Brewing in 2006, I was hired as the head brewer. I took on more responsibilities every year, and my title changed accordingly, first to “head brewer and production manager”, then to brewmaster about 4-5 years into my tenure there. I worked hard to earn the title.

Here are some experience and qualities I’d like to see in anyone with the brewmaster title:

  1. Real brewing education. What’s the hardest part of brewing? It’s managing the living process of beer fermentation. Running a brewhouse and creating recipes is easy compared to managing yeast health and yeast fermentation consistency! Brewers who get this are good brewmasters, and having a good brewing education will really help a brewer with understanding the key factors of fermentation. There are a lot of good brewing schools out there, and there is so much science behind the art of brewing that I struggle to vouch for any brewmaster that doesn’t have at least some professional training. At Stone Brewing I usually tried to hire brewers who had gone to school for brewing. To me this was a strong indicator of their passion for the brewing business and their ability to learn. That being said, there are exceptions. Some very scientifically-oriented and technically savvy home brewers and professional brewers have successfully made the leap to running a brewing operation, and these folks have earned their brewmaster title through their consistently excellent beers, rigorous self study, training, and ability to ask questions. In my later years at Anheuser-Busch, Chemical Engineers were preferentially hired to manage brewing operations. Their philosophy was that AB could teach a skilled engineer how to brew beer. Not a philosophy I generally agreed with, but for a highly complex and technical operation like theirs, it worked to a large degree.
  2. Brewing Experience: Nothing beats time spent in a brewery for developing great brewing skills, knowledge, and problem solving techniques. One of the great things about craft brewing is that when you have an issue, there’s most likely someone out there who has seen it before and will help you solve it if you ask. The more experience you have, the more you have seen, and the more you can draw from to work through current issues. What’s the right amount of experience? I think it varies greatly depending on job history and skills developed, but for me it took over 20 years.
  3. Desire to learn. Any brewmaster who thinks that they know it all is a fool. I always learn something by talking with other brewers, it doesn’t matter how big or how small they are, everyone’s experiences are important and can help you come up with ideas to get better at what you do. I’ve often told my friends and peers that if I’m ever in a job where I’m not learning anymore, its time to for me to move on. Professional organizations like the MBAA and Brewers Association are great for continuing education. There’s a reason many of the world’s best brewmasters always go to the technical conferences that these organizations put on. They provide a great opportunity to learn.
  4. Desire to teach: This is something I think is very important.  I’ve had lots of great mentors in my career, and I think it’s important for an experienced brewer to give back and share what they’ve learned. In the long run, anything an experienced brewmaster can do to help anyone else who is brewing beer is a good thing for all of us in this business. A willingness to answer questions from  other brewers is something I’ve always admired in  brewmasters and is something I have strived to do myself.
  5. Ability to lead. This is a key strength of the brewmaster. Being able to set brewing quality standards and procedures and train the brewing team how to adhere to them is so crucial. Selecting professionally focused, excellent brewers for the team and educating them as much as possible is critically important for any brewmaster’s success. And an effective leader also needs to be be able to manage and direct their brewing team’s career growth and development. I love it when I see when brewers leave their breweries to become very successful brewmasters somewhere else. You know they had good leadership, training and mentoring at some point during their career.
  6. Problem solving ability. Every brewer will occasionally have beer flavors or brewing and packaging processes that aren’t up to quality standards. A good brewmaster can diagnose the issue, and take steps to correct it through process adjustments or ingredient changes. This is where education and experience become so valuable. What’s important in a brewmaster is the ability to first recognize that there is a problem, and then being able to use their knowledge to correct it. This often requires advanced technical skill and sensory skill, as well as diagnostic skills and problem solving training. And a brewmaster must also have the good sense to dump a batch if it cannot be rescued. We’ve all been there. Its very difficult and it’s heartbreaking, but it’s sometimes the only right thing to do. A brewmaster who ignores a known quality issue, dismisses feedback from consumers, or knowingly and willingly releases sub-par beer has failed.
  7. Sensory skills. Part of the problem solving process requires sensory analysis, this is how most off-flavors are discovered. Understanding how your beers should taste and then addressing situations where the beer is not “true-to-brand” is a key skill. Running formal taste panels is a must in any quality brewing operation. Training the team on how to taste their beers from ingredients through every step of the process is an integral part of sensory. At Stone Brewing, there were many times when problem fermentations and beer flavor/balance issues were discovered early by the brewing team. They knew when to escalate the concern, and this allowed us to solve the issues and rescue more beer than if we hadn’t had trained brewers checking the beers along the way. And a good understanding of beer flavor, hop flavors, and fermentation flavors and how they relate to each other is necessary to create recipes and good beer.
  8. Forward Thinking: At Anheuser-Busch, we referred to progressive brewmasters as “forward thinkers”, which I always thought was a great term. This is about having the ability to analyze brewing processes and situations that appear to be working just fine, and come up with a better, easier, safer, more cost-effective or more technically advanced ways of accomplishing the same end result. It also refers to being able to plan, both short term and long term. Complacency is the enemy of any brewmaster. A brewmaster should always evaluate how things are done and look for opportunities to make them better. The phrase I hated hearing: “We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way”. Asking the question “Why?” is a good practice.
  9. Technical expertise: Having some brewery engineering and design skill helps make sure you get the equipment you need to brew the beer you want to brew. Being able to ensure equipment is sized properly, and is of sound design for your beers is an important skill to have. The ability to evaluate build quality and supplier options for new equipment is also very important. I know what I want in brewing equipment, yet I don’t always know the best way to get there. That’s where the technical skill comes in. I have a lot of admiration for brewmasters that possess excellent technical expertise.
  10. Listening: Being aware of trends in the business, responding to the feedback on your beers from consumers and sales team, and generally just paying attention to what happens to your beer once it leaves the brewery will make you a better brewer. Ignoring consumer complaints is a recipe for disaster. The best brewers track and categorize consumer complaints so they know where to focus and prioritize their continuous improvement efforts. A brewmaster needs to get out in the field, taste their beers at the retail level and discuss them with their sales team and with consumers, and avoid living in the vacuum of their own taste panels. Another part of listening is related to talking with other brewers who, more often than not, are quite willing to share their failures. One of the best days I ever spent was with Scott Jennings, brewmaster at Sierra Nevada’s Asheville brewery. When we were just starting the design work for the Stone Brewing Richmond brewery, he spent almost an entire day showing us “everything they did wrong” to help us avoid the pitfalls they experienced.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

This quote from Tolkien strikes a chord with me. I guess I’m a bit of a restless spirit, and I’ve had a desire to travel and experience new areas for most of my life. One of the things my wife Kathleen and I have really enjoyed in our lives together has been the opportunity to live in different parts of the country, travel around different regions, work at different jobs, and experience and embrace different cultures and lifestyles.
I’ve had several major changes in my long career in brewing that in some ways have been fueled by this desire to explore, and now another change has come. I will be leaving Stone Brewing at the end of June to partner up with some brewing industry veterans on a new project. Stone made a video to announce my departure to the team, and I used this Tolkien quote in it, and it just seemed to fit.
My time at Stone has been nothing short of amazing. I’ve been given so many opportunities to brew great beer, travel to great places, and put myself in a position to represent and speak for Stone and for craft beer. There aren’t words to express how grateful I am to have had this role at Stone, and for everything I have been able to do with it. As excited as I am about this new project, it’s incredibly hard to leave a company that does such great things and that has treated me so well. And the hardest part about it is how much I am going to miss everyone at Team Stone that I’ve worked with over the past 10+ years. Team Stone is a great team of dedicated, skilled and passionate brewers and craft beer fans, and I cherish the time I was able to work with all of them. I consider my coworkers good friends and great ambassadors of craft beer, and I am sure they will continue to have major success and brew great beer.

Greg, Steve, and Pat (our COO) have been nothing short of incredible as we prepare for this transition. I honestly didn’t know what to expect, but I think they get why I’m doing this and what it means to me, and they have been very kind and have expressed a lot of gratitude for my contributions. I respect and admire these folks so much, and wish them and Stone nothing but the best success as things move forward. We have pledged to continuing to support each other in the future, for which I am very thankful.
I will still be part of craft brewing as I work on this new venture. And once details can be revealed, they will be. But for now, know that I will continue to be an active member of the craft beer community, and I am looking forward to continuing to cross paths with everyone as this moves forward. I’ve been lucky to have made so many great friends in the industry-the best industry on Earth, and I look forward to making more friendships in the future and continuing to share beers with everyone at industry events.

Cheers,  Mitch

Craft Beer Sales Are At An All Time High-and why this could be scary

And now, the things that concern me about the future….

OK, so the easy and obvious route would be to discuss how consolidation and craft brewer buyouts by large brewers are a huge concern. And they are. Almost everyone in the business is concerned about how this will impact pricing and distribution availability. We’ve seen pioneer breweries fail in the wake of consolidation, and we’re seeing the beers from purchased breweries at a much cheaper price than most craft brewed beers. I don’t know what the future holds here, but most people expect the buyouts and consolidations will continue for a while. And this could create some serious pricing and availability gaps that could put some craft brewers out of business and slow the growth of others.

But here are some other things I also find a bit disheartening:

1. Craft brewers for years have operated under the guise “A rising tide lifts all boats”. In other words, breweries helping other breweries succeed will facilitate everyone’s own success in the long run, because each brewery that succeeds helps grow the overall craft beer industry. There are some unwritten rules that craft brewers have followed since the beginning, all of which helped us “stick it to the man” (“the man” in this case being the large industrial brewers). For example, most brewers never badmouthed another craft brewer, at least by name, regardless of their own personal opinion about that brewer’s beer or practices. And for sales, targeting other craft brewing tap handles or shelf spots to try and replace with your own craft brand was sort of taboo. But now the game is changing. There are some verbal wars being seen amongst craft brewers, which is damaging some of the good relations the brewers have with each other. There are brewers that “poach” trained brewers from other breweries, thereby letting the poached brewery incur all the significant costs of training and education that goes into teaching someone to be a brewer, and reaping none of the benefits of someone well trained and skilled on their team. There is price gouging and undercutting, and there is vicious competition for tap handle space. Many brewing companies are stooping to illegal “pay to play” tactics for a competitive edge. It kind of sucks, and I see it getting worse before it gets better.
2. There aren’t enough trained brewers to go around. I’ve hit on this topic before in this blog, but right now there are a lot of larger craft breweries unsuccessfully searching for experienced, skilled brewmasters that understand the intense requirements of a production operation. There aren’t that many brewers out there that know how to run production on a larger scale, yet also get the creative and innovation aspects of what craft brewing is all about. More often than not, employers can find brewers that have strong skills in one area, but not the other. Some breweries are operating with unskilled and/or untrained brewers that are bestowed with the title “brewmaster”. Not to beat a dead horse here, because I’ve said this a lot, but making some good homebrew does not make one a brewmaster.
3. The big brewers are taking notice. For years, “microbrewers” barely made a blip on the radar of large industrial brewers, and from my own personal experience at Anheuser-Busch, the big brewers generally looked at craft beer as a bit of a joke. But after 10+years of declining sales in the face of the massive growth of craft, the big brewers now see this craft movement as serious competition. Now we are seeing the large brewing companies purchase craft brewers with increasing frequency and the large breweries are also purchasing wholesalers that (used to) sell craft beer. Add to this the addition of all the stealth craft brands, brewed by large brewers, and sold for a much lower cost than real craft beer, and you have a big problem. They have money and resources at their disposal, and aren’t afraid to squash the upstart breweries.

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What beer on these shelves doesn’t belong?

4. Is this craft beer thing a fad? I really don’t think so, but I’ve been making “adult beverages” for over 30 years now, and I’ve seen a lot of things come and go. White Zinfandel, wine coolers, spirits-based sweet carbonated beverages, dry beer, ice beer, amber beer, sweet fruit beer, etc. All of these made major waves and then dwindled to obscurity. I don’t necessarily see that happening with today’s craft beer, but it certainly could, especially if the big brewers start working harder to squash the category. And if craft beer really goes mainstream, is that a good thing? Depends on the circumstance I suppose. If mainstream means consolidation and homogenization, then that would be bad. Craft beer is all about having viable and meaningful choices.
5. The coming “Bubble burst”. It’s coming. Everyone believes that in the next few years there will be a wave of closings in the wake of the intensifying competition. To succeed these days, it isn’t enough to brew excellent beer, you also have to have a catchy marketing angle and a message that separates you from the other brewers. Brewers who don’t excel at both will be the ones threatened by this. There are well over 100 craft breweries operating in San Diego County right now. Is there room for all of them to succeed? It certainly is difficult when you rely on the distributors to move beer-with some distributors there are far too many brands in the portfolio to put adequate focus on all of them.
6. Long-term hop supply is a concern because craft brewers are using more and more hops on a per barrel basis than ever before. Combine that with the phenomenal 20% growth rate, and one will see that hop demand is starting to outpace supply. The competition for new hop varieties is getting pretty heavy. That said, because hop growers and craft brewers have now developed great relationships, everyone is working harder to get more of the high demand hops in the ground and available. But there’s not much to stop a giant brewer coming in and buying all the Cascade crop if they decide that’s the hop they want. It’s happened before.
7. The fickleness of the craft beer consumer is creating concerns for long time flagship brands. Think about it: if you are a craft beer drinker, when was the last time at a beer drinking session that you had the same beer more than once? It just doesn’t happen any more. There are too many really good beers out there, and people gravitate towards that shiny new object more often than not. Rapid and frequent innovation and understanding the life cycles of certain brands are becoming the focus of many brewers, who for years had been successful with just a handful of brands. Mixpacks/Variety packs are the biggest selling category in craft beer right now. This situation makes projecting sales and ingredient requirements an impossible task for brewers. Are the successful brewers of the future the ones that constantly innovate and come out with a lot of new beers and one-off beers all the time, and retire older brands at an increasing rate? Perhaps.
8. The death of Pale Ale and the IPA-ification of everything.  I love a good Pale Ale. But they are simply getting harder and harder to find. The incredible success of IPA in recent years has just about killed the Pale Ale category-you rarely see more than one or two in any multitap, at least here in California. There are some great things about the growing popularity of IPA, but when I hear “IPA will be the next American Lager” I wonder if that is a good thing for craft brewing. As much of an IPA fan that I am, I like drinking other beer styles too. Unfortunately, that might not be the case right now with the general beer drinking public.
9. Craft brewing has always separated itself from the big brewers by being much more beer and brewer focused. What does that mean? Well, as an example, when I was at Anheuser-Busch, the marketing team decided what new beers we would brew. Our job was to create the beer once we got our marching orders. Yes, we had some input, but the ultimate decision-making power was the marketing department. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about craft beer is that it is more “brewer-driven”. At most craft breweries, the Brewmaster or Brewing Team comes up with the beer ideas, and then works with sales and marketing to figure out the best way to sell the beer (as a regular release, a one-time release, or seasonal). Unfortunately I see that changing, and little by little, some breweries’ marketing teams are getting more and more power, and are driving more of the brewing decisions. Not naming names here, but when you see established breweries veer off their tried and true path, or brew a beer that someone else has already made popular, that is most likely a marketing decision, not a brewer decision. Maybe I’m a bit naive, but the idealist in me finds this unsettling, and I don’t think it bodes well for the future.

All this being said, I am still quite bullish on craft brewing and will remain a lifelong fan of great beer. But I think there will be some rough roads ahead as the industry growth continues.

Craft Beer Sales Are At An All-Time High

“Craft Beer Sales are at an All Time High!!!!”
Dave Edgar, when he was with the Association of Brewers (now the Brewers Association) always included this shout out to the industry in his annual state of the industry address at the Craft Brewers Conference

. It’s been a true statement every year since I’ve been a brewer, and quite probably every year since craft brewing got its start.
As we experience yet another great year in craft brewing, with record growth and a record number of brewery openings, I see many good things happening and several things that concern me as a brewer and as a long time fan of craft beer. So here are my thoughts on what I like about where craft beer is heading, and next time, I’ll talk a bit about what concerns me.
The good things:
1. It’s becoming harder to find a bar or restaurant that doesn’t serve craft beer than a bar that does.
 This is a great development, as even mainstream chain restaurants now often offer at least one good (and often local) craft beer in their draft lineup. This transition has been a long time coming, and I love it. I no longer have to focus on beer selection as criteria for choosing a restaurant! Unfortunately there are still exceptions. Many ethnic restaurants, Mexican, Indian, Thai, Chinese restaurants still need to learn and recognize that hoppy craft beer pairs wonderfully with their food.
2. There are some really great innovations happening.
 A lot of this stems from craft brewing’s relationship with the culinary arts. Many brewers I know also are good chefs, and with that skill comes a willingness to experiment with exotic and non-traditional ingredients. In addition, hop breeding programs are really taking off and this is fueling the brewing of many new hoppy beers with exciting new hop varieties.
3. The hop industry is really starting to “get it”. Hop growers and hop suppliers are realizing that the future for their business will revolve heavily around craft brewing. Here’s a great example of why: Craft brewers are using an average of over 1 pound of hops per barrel brewed, almost 5 times what the large brewers use per barrel. If craft brewing continues its growth, and hits 20% of the beer market, craft brewing will be using more hops annually than large industrial brewers.

For many years craft brewers were left with the leftover hops, the “too intense” hop varieties that big brewers didn’t want. Big brewers funded most of the hop research and variety development programs, and because of that, most of the research was focused on low alpha, mildly aromatic hops to use in place of European noble varieties and varieties like Willamette. Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen an amazing change here. Craft brewers have jumped in with both feet. Craft brewers are now funding hop breeding programs and research. Craft brewers have hired ingredient experts who were laid off from Anheuser-Busch-Inbev, and that has accelerated the involvement. Membership in organizations like The Hop Research Council and The Hop Quality Group is growing, craft brewers have their own hop varietal research programs, are sponsoring experimental fields and doing other things to develop close relationships with hop growers. More brewers now travel to Yakima WA to do hop selection than ever before-to the point where you can’t get a hotel room unless you book several months in advance.
4. The scenes outside of the United States and Canada, particularly Australia, New Zealand, Italy and the UK, are exploding. The UK, despite having a somewhat stodgy beer scene, has some great craft brewers, and the larger English brewers (at least the Brewmasters that work for them) are excited by what’s happening in the United States. And many other countries are just about to get it too.
 On my last trip to Berlin, I had some delicious locally brewed craft beer, and I think that town is ready to explode. I am seeing craft beer in Poland, in France, and many other countries. The international market may be the future for American craft beer.
5. The taste room concept is working as a business model for many small breweries. This reduces the need to rely on distribution, and eliminates the food side of the business, which, unless you are a passionate restaurateur, is a pain in the ass. In the San Diego area, what I’m seeing is that the local breweries are becoming the town’s pubs, gathering spots for people who like to hang out together and enjoy beers. I know from my own standpoint, I really enjoy going out on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and visiting a few of the great local breweries we have here in Temecula. And I always see people I know…pretty cool.
6. Brewers are still willing to help each other out, whether it be loaning hops or malt, yeast, hosting tours, sharing how they brew, how they analyze their beers, how the operate their equipment, or help in any other way. There still is a very good level of camaraderie in this business that is one of the things that make it so magical. I hope that never goes away.

Next time, the things that concern me about the future of craft beer……

The real quality issue: Oxidation

The recent buzz about the lack of quality in some of the new breweries is gaining noticeable momentum on the internet and social media. I have written much in this blog about beer quality and what every brewer should have in their arsenal to deal with quality issues.
Many people talking about beer quality refer to infected beers, beers with diacetyl, DMS (creamed corn) and beers with acetaldehyde. Those problems still exist, but in my experience are becoming increasingly rare, because good brewers are starting to understand these compounds and how they are formed, much better than 20 years ago. As an example, I can tell you that in the late 1990’s, at beer judging events, diacetyl (butter) and acetaldehyde (pumpkin seed) were common defects. Now, not so much.

One quality issue that is rarely addressed by the general public, and even some brewers, is oxidation (excessive exposure  of beer to air). Air can come in contact with beer a number of ways: if tanks, hoses and piping in the brewery are not adequately purged w/ CO2 or hot water, if there are equipment issues, like leaking pump seals or damaged valve seats, and in the packaging process, and especially if bottles and cans are not properly purged and sealed, oxygen can get absorbed into the beer-and the oxidation reactions that occur create all sorts of bad flavors. Oxidation is hastened by warm temperature storage of packaged beers, and lack of care in avoiding air contact post-fermentation before packaging. There are several reactions that can occur in the brewhouse that can hasten oxidation in the finished beer, but the important thing is to control exposre to oxygen in finished beer before packaging. I’ve heard many brewers say “nothing good can happen to your beer once it is put into a package”. And by and large, that is true, though of course some higher alcohol beers benefit from the changes that occur with aging.

The bottom line is that once yeast has completed the fermentation, the beer needs to be kept oxygen free and isolated from any oxygen exposure or contact risk.
So what does oxidation tastes like? It really depends on the beer, but as a beer ages the following flavor changes often can be observed. Excessive air contact will accelerate this flavor development:

1. In a dry-hopped beer, the first thing that happens is a rapid loss of hop aroma and flavor
2. In most beers, the malt flavor changes from a clean fresh malt character, to a worty and grainy flavor, eventually morphing into a strong and coarse grainy character, then developing to the dreaded wet cardboard papery flavor.
3. In beers brewed with a high percentage of crystal malt, the caramel and toffee like flavors evolve into a dried fruit flavor, raisins or prunes. In addition, these oxidized crystal malt characters will also mask and hasten the loss of hop flavor, which is why many of the best IPA brewers use very little to no crystal malts in their IPAs.

Some air pickup during filtration and packaging is normal, and in many cases unavoidable. But managing the air pickup to minimize oxidation is where the skill of the brewer comes into play. It’s a notoriously difficult situation to control, and some brewers are much better at it than others.

Brewers should always keep museum samples of their bottled beers and evaluate them stored cold and at room temperature once a month for 3-6 months. The resulting flavor differences are staggering, which is why it frustrates me to see craft brewers put 6 month code dates on their beer. I wonder who actually bases their code length on taste and who is simply making a bad assumption.

How does a beer drinker know when a beer is hopelessly oxidized? The only way to really know is taste. That said, before purchasing a beer, here are some clues:

1. A liquor or beer store that stores their beer on a shelf without refrigeration. Dusty bottles are a dead giveaway. Oxidation reactions occur faster with warmer temperatures, so non-refrigerated beer on a shelf in a retail account is always a danger sign.

2. If the brewer date codes their beer (and all brewers should do this, but too many don’t) any lower alcohol beer (below 8% abv) that is more than 2-3 months from packaging should be approached cautiously.

3. Slow moving beers at large multi-tap establishments should be approached with caution. Especially the lower alcohol or hop forward ones.

Now that we are contemplating selling our beer in Europe, we are finding that many countries require ridiculously long code dates on beer. 180 days and 270 day code length requirements are not uncommon. Obviously we have a long way to go to educate people that beer, like bread, stales. I always tell people to treat beer like milk. Keep it cold, all the time. It won’t go bad and make you sick like spoiled milk can, but the flavor does change based on temperature, and for most beers the flavor changes are not good.

 

 

 

The Anheuser-Busch Specialty Brewing Group Beers Before My Time-Pt. 2: Red Wolf

Right around the same time AB came out with the Elk Mountain beers, the beers I discussed in my last post, they also released a new amber lager called Red Wolf.

RedWolf2

redwolf4

The origin of this beer is what I consider a classic AB moment, at least the way I heard the story. Back in late 1994 or early 1995, someone at AB caught wind that Miller would be releasing a beer called Red Dog, and this caused quite a ruckus. Executives at AB always paid a lot of attention to what Miller was doing, what kind of beers they were releasing, and then tried to find ways to release beers specifically to compete with those new Miller beers. Miller was AB’s top competition at the time, and really was the only brewer standing in the way of AB reaching that magic 100 million barrel mark and becoming 50% of the US beer market. Some examples of the beers AB developed to compete with Miller included the Michelob Golden Draft beer, which was specifically targeted at Miller Genuine Draft (both “MGD”, get it?), and all the “bottled” draft beers (read: “unpasteurized and sterile/ aseptically packaged”) that came out after Miller started focusing an their “draft” beer in a can/bottle. These brands were called “Strategic” brands or “Competitive” brands, and it was usually the way AB approached innovation, which, for someone like me, who was trying to be creative, kind of sucked. The competition between these two companies was fierce at times. Another fuel addition to the fire was that Red Dog was marketed as being brewed by the “Plank Road Brewery”-this kind of subterfuge was something that AB railed against back in the day, which kind of surprised me when they started coming out with their own stealth “breweries” about the time I was leaving. Thank goodness I didn’t leave to go to Miller, as anyone who announced they were leaving AB for Miller was quickly escorted off the premises by security and not allowed back on site.

So in the case of Red Wolf, the way the story goes, is that some executive level people found out Miller was going to release a new beer called Red Dog. And mistakenly, they assumed Red Dog would be a red beer. This was at the time were ambers and reds were taking off with microbrews, so the logic made sense, but was absolutely wrong. Once that assumption had been made, the mission then became to beat Miller to it by coming out with their own red beer, the beer that became “Red Wolf”, a name that was a direct shot at the name “Red Dog”. At the time, I heard that this was the fastest new beer rollout in AB’s history, it was on the market in weeks, or maybe 1-2 months after the concept was developed. I can’t imagine what these AB folks thought when they found out Miller’s Red Dog Beer was a standard American Lager! And I remember in subsequent taste panels, many folks at AB suspected it had been formulated to taste like Budweiser.

redwolf3RedDog

For the recipe, Red Wolf used two of AB’s American Lager brands blended for the base beer and caramel malt extract to provide the color and flavor. This was a malt extract that came from the UK, and I remember the beer having a distinctly sweet caramel flavor. As an interesting side note, using a core beer as the base to build other beers like this was not usually the way AB did things at the time, most brands were brewed in the brewhouse as their own brand. So yes, Budweiser, Busch and Michelob all had their own specific grain recipes, hop recipes, and brewhouse recipes. Same with Bud Light, Natural Light and Busch Light. So the Homer Simpson Duff Beer gag where the same beer supplies several “different” faucets was really not the AB way.

 

Red Wolf1

Looking at my recipe spreadsheet that just has the basics of these brands, AB characterized Red Wolf as an American Red Lager, a style that didn’t exist prior to its release, unless one counts Carlsberg’s Elephant Red, which wasn’t really an “American” Lager. Grains in Red Wolf included 2-Row Malt, 6-Row Malt, grits and rice. This was reflective of the 2 beers that were used for the blend, AB didn’t brew any beers where both rice and corn were used in the brewhouse process. For the hop bill, it just says “lots” which means a lot of varieties, not that it was brewed with a large quantity of hops. This was standard AB practice for their American lagers: 6-10+ hop varieties could be used in any single brand, and the recipes could change frequently, which was why no one wanted to publicize the hops in Red Wolf. It was 5.5% abv, 15 IBUs and 15 °L in color. I remember the first time I tasted Red Wolf, it was in the Brewmaster’s taste panel at AB’s Ft. Collins Brewery, and I thought it was godawful sweet. But in later tastes it was more balanced with a crisper finish, so I believe the Caramel Malt Extract addition had been reduced a bit.

When I got to the Specialty Brewing Group in 1995, Red Wolf had been out for a few months and there were some big marketing pushes behind it. This beer had more merchandise created for it than any other brand in the Specialty Brewing Group portfolio. It was a very heavily marketed beer, I still have my Red Wolf jacket and Red Wolf gym bag at home. The beer itself appealed to (some) craft beer drinkers, and also appealed to the slightly more adventurous of the American Lager fan base. It was the best selling release from the Specialty Brewing Group for a while (soon after Michelob Amber Bock was released though, it overtook Red Wolf). But for a while, Red Wolf was very hot, and there was serious talk of doing some brand extensions on it-beers like Black Wolf, Brown Wolf, White Wolf and Gold Wolf were discussed as potential extensions of the Red Wolf family.  But the expansion never came to fruition, primarily because of the development of the Michelob Specialty line, which I will discuss in a future post.

 

 

The Anheuser-Busch Specialty Brewing Group Beers before my time-Pt 1: Elk Mountain Family

There were several “Specialty” beers that were developed by the Anheuser-Busch Specialty Brewing Group before I joined the team in 1995. Here’s summary of the Elk Mountain beers.

Elk_Mtn_Hop_Farm
These beers were named after AB’s Hop Farm in Bonner’s Ferry Idaho, near the Canada border. It was beautiful location, and AB grew Hallertau, Saaz and Tettnang there, probably the only place that successfully brewed Saaz on American soil, and used those hops in Budweiser and several other beers. It was a cool story, a great farm, and I got to visit the hop farm with a bunch of beer writers in 1997 (more on that later). Anyway, it seemed logical that specialty beers focused on hops got named after this hop farm.

ElkMtn

ElkMtnAle

Elk Mountain Amber Ale: This beer really got me excited for our fledgling new products efforts-I was still a Supervisor at the Ft. Collins CO brewery when this beer was first released in 1995, and I remember going to a special tasting after work in our tour center. As I tasted it, I remember thinking-“holy crap-someone in St. Louis figured out how to use hops like a microbrewer would!” This beer was malty and caramelly and had a significant citrus and pine blast of Cascade hops. This beer made a pretty good impression on beer drinkers-I don’t remember seeing any bad reviews, and I think it lasted about 3 years before finally giving way to the Michelob Specialty lineup. I remember some of my hardcore hunter coworkers in Ft. Collins complaining that the animal depicted on the label was not an Elk…

Pretty simple recipe really, it was 80% 2-Row Malt and 20% 40 °L Crystal malt. Hopping in the kettle was Willamette (an AB standard bittering hop at the time), Hallertau from the Elk Mountain Farm in Idaho, and Cascade. The beer was fermented with NCYC 1044 yeast, an English Ale strain that flocculated really well, and then was dry-hopped with Cascade at 0.25 lbs/bbl, tame by today’s standards, but the beer was one of the hoppiest beers I ever tasted from AB. Starting gravity was 14.5 °P, terminal gravity was 3.2 °P, 5.6% abv, 20 °L color, and my records show 25 IBU, though I think it may have started closer to 35 IBUs before being reduced later.  (As a side note, Doug Muhleman, who was a Brewing Director and then VP of Brewing when I was in St. Louis, was a big proponent of low IBU’s-he felt beers lower in bitterness sell better-his quote was “1,000,000 bbls increase in sales for every point of IBU drop”, referring of course to the American Lager style of beer). Elk Mountain Amber was brewed in the Fairfield, CA and Merrimack, NH breweries, and was the first ale AB brewed in almost 100 years.

Elk Mtn Red

Elk Mountain Red Lager: this beer had a similar malt bill to the Amber Ale, but used only hops from Elk Mountain Farms-Hallertau, Saaz and Tettnang. Probably closest to a Vienna Lager in style, this beer was too crystal malt forward to my tastes, and got a little sweet after a pint. Some interesting recipe tidbits-it was decoction mashed, and was fermented with AB’s house lager strain. 12 °P OG, 2.95 °P TG, 4.9% abv, 20 IBU and 16 °L color.

Elk Mountain Harvest

ElkMtnHarvest Neck Rider 1

ElkMtnHarvest Neck Rider 2

1995 Elk Mountain Harvest:

This was a special beer we brewed in the fall of 1995, right after I joined the group, and it’s claim to fame was that it was dry-hopped with fresh hops from the Elk Mountain Farm. AB called the hops “baby hops” because they were harvested earlier than normal-something that a lot of brewers and hop growers are looking at right now. Could this have been one of the first wet-hopped beers of the modern craft brewing era? Almost Pilsner like, this golden ale was bright, crisp, and had a really nice peppery spicy hop character. I don’t remember much about it, except that it was all malt, had a small amount of crystal malt and some wheat malt. Elk Mountain Harvest Ale was only a small batch and wasn’t released to the public, only given to our Distributors, though the neck label hints that it may be brewed again in 1996 for public release, which never happened. Because we never brewed it again, and because I liked the beer, I remember using this recipe to form the basis for the later release of Michelob Pale Ale.

American Hop Ale and 1996 Winter Brew: The recipes

I was straightening up the bookshelf in my office today and found an old spiral bound notebook that I used to log my old home brewing recipes in.  And as a nice surprise, I found tucked between the pages some recipe summary spreadsheets on some of the beers I’ve been discussing recently that I was involved with at AB in the 1990s. I thought maybe I’d share a couple of these.

American Hop Ale:

This was one of my favorite beers we brewed in The Specialty Brewing Group. The last of the American Originals, it was a deep amber/brown ale, malty, but not sweet, with an intense hop bitterness and floral, spicy hop aroma. Without a doubt, the most aggressively hopped beer we released while I was in the group.

Grain:
91% American 2-Row malt,
8% 40 dL Briess Caramel malt
1% Briess Black Patent Malt

Mashing:
The mashing profile is described as an “Upward Infusion w/ Reverse Boiling Water Pumpback”. That’s a mouthful, and the German term for it-that the old school German Brewmasters at AB used: “Hochkochmaishverfahrven” (forgive any spelling errors-I’m going off a 20 year old memory here!) was even worse. To understand what this means, you need to understand AB’s brewing process a bit:

At AB, most brands were mashed in at a fairly low temperature for protein rest, and a cereal boiling process was used in a separate cooker. In what AB called the American Double Mash process, the rice or corn after being boiled a short time to liquefy the starches, was pumped back to the mash vessel containing the malt, and that process, coupled with steam flow to the jackets on the mash vessel, helped raise the overall mash temperature to the desired conversion temperature. This is very similar to the traditional German decoction mashing technique.

The problem with this technique is that it produced a very fermentable wort, meaning it didn’t leave behind a lot of dextrins and other complex carbohydrates that an ale brewer would get using a traditional infusion mash profile, as was common in craft brewing in those days. So the specialty beers made using the traditional AB mashing schedule came out thin and too dry, and lacked mouthfeel. To fix this situation, Frank Vadurro, Sr. Asst Brewmaster in Merrimack, NH, Denny Franz who ran the Corporate testing program out of St. Louis, and Al Linnebach, who was running the pilot brewery (RPB) at the time, devised this process in which the thick malt mash was pumped into a second mash vessel containing only water that was at boiling temperature. It’s very similar to the jump mash process described in Kunze’s excellent  Technology of Brewing and Malting. The result was that the mash almost instantaneously increased to the proper conversion temperature, bypassing the beta amylase window (144-149°F) that results in highly fermentable wort. It was a neat technique to get some body and mouthfeel in these beers, and we used it for a lot .

Hopping:
Not a lot of detail available on my sheet, but the hops used were Cluster and American Fuggle (which is the same hop as Willamette. Legally, for labeling purposes, they are interchangeable). The beer was then dry hopped with 3/4 lb/bbl Fuggles. I remember we tried Cluster on a pilot brew and felt it was a little too catty for this beer.

Fermentation:
Yeast was NCYC 1044 Ale yeast. I don’t remember exact fermentation temperature but I think it was around 72 °F.

Analytical Targets:

OG: 14.8 °P
TG: 4.5 °P
IBU: 50+
ABV: 5.6%
Color: 16 °L

1996 Anheuser-Busch Winter Brew

As discussed in the last post, this was the second, and arguably the best, Winter/Holiday beer we brewed while I was in the Specialty Brewing Group. Here’s a recipe summary:

Grain:
68% 2 Row Malt
19% 40 °L Briess caramel malt
10% 20 °L Munich Malt
3% Briess Chocolate Malt

Mashing:
The mashing profile was the upward infusion process similar as described above for American Hop Ale

Hopping:
Willamette, Cascade, and Elk Mountain Farms Idaho-grown Hallertau and Saaz. I wish I had record of which hops were added early and which were added late.

Fermentation:
AB Lager yeast strain, probably at about 55 °F for primary, then cold lagered at 40-45 °F for 3+weeks

Analytical Targets
OG: 13.6 °P
TG: 4.95 °P
IBU: 2
ABV: 5.6%
Color: 16 °L