I made my first two stops today on my grand tour of NC Breweries for the book: Roth Brewing Company in Raleigh and Triangle Brewing Company in Durham. I couldn’t ask for a better way to get everything rolling. It was a great couple of stops with a bunch of guys who are really passionate about their craft.

But I fully expect to tell you that about everybody I meet with.

If you haven’t been over to Roth, you should take the time to do so. They’ve got a little taproom/hang out area that’s warm and cozy. The big leather couch, old TV and game system bring me back to my college days in a way that isn’t unpleasant. The added bonus is that my college days didn’t have great beer on tap a few feet away.

Until recently, (on the opening of Dry County Brewing) Roth had the distinction of being the smallest brewery in the state. They operate a 2 bbl system that double batches into 4 bbl fermenters. For those of you playing along at home – that means that they brew twice in one day to make 8 kegs of beer. It’s a lot of work, but it’s given them an enormous amount of brewing experience in a short amount of time. Last week, June 11, was the one-year anniversary of their opening and owner Ryan Roth shared with me today that they’ve brewed over 250 batches of beer in that time.

Ryan talked to me a little bit about where he and his brother came from, what brought them into the beer business, and where he sees the brewery in the future. They’re currently looking at accounts outside of the Triangle area of North Carolina for the first time since they’ve opened and they’re excited to expand: “By this time next year, we should be operating on a much larger system and continuing to grow – but we really want to be a big part of the local craft community, here.” He also shared a little bit about Roth’s flagship beer, the Raleigh Red. “I couldn’t believe it when I looked it up and I found out that none of the local brewing companies had ever named a beer ‘Raleigh Red.'” Ryan is an alumnus of NC State and his brother Eric, Roth’s head brewer, is currently finishing his studies there.

In the book, we’ll get into what the Roth brothers were doing before the brewery opened, how they decided to take the leap, and a few good stories about naming and maybe dumping a batch or two of beer. We’ll see how it plays out.

* * *

Word to the wise: If you’re planning on visiting Triangle Brewing Company on a day that they’re not offering a brewery tour, call ahead.

Triangle is located in an area of Durham that used to be a little unsavory. While that’s no longer the case, the warehouse that is the home to Triangle Brewing Company is located behind a locked fence, and while the guys inside are welcoming and friendly, they might not know you’re there unless you give them a ring.

Once inside, you’ll be met with a busy brewery. Their canning line – the first automated craft canning line in North Carolina – is full front-and-center in the space with their brewhouse and fermentation room acting as a back drop.

Rick and Andy sat down with me and told me a little bit about their history – they went to high school together up in New England (Rick is a die-hard Red Sox fan; right on!). Andy moved down to North Carolina to work in the hospitality industry and when Rick came down to visit, he fell in love with the area. From there, they finally got to a point where they decided the time was right (the phrase “shit or get off the pot” might have been mentioned in passing) and decided to act on opening the brewery they had talked about for so long. For a while, they owned the distinction of being Durham’s only operating brewery (and maybe its first – historical research pending). What really set them, apart, though, is their choice of making strong Belgian-style ales as their flagship brands.

Rick: “People said we were crazy to have a Belgian Strong Ale as our flagship in North Carolina. They said it wouldn’t work, that the market wasn’t ready for it. But here we are!”

In the book, we’ll get into what Rick and Andy were doing before they become brewers, their decisions behind why they started canning, and the story of Rufus, the beloved brewery mascot found buried in their basement.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 17 Jun 2011 @ 04 42 PM

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 13 Jun 2011 @ 11:13 AM 

You know, I’ve been struggling with this for a while. Do I like cans or don’t I? I keep hearing so much about how good cans are for craft beer, and from a theory standpoint I totally agree. There’s no light, there’s no oxygen egress – they’re basically just little kegs for your beer. How can you go wrong? At the same time, a significant number of the canned beers I’ve had have either been oxidized or unintentionally sour – and these from breweries that I have a great respect for outside of that can. If cans are so much better for craft, how can good breweries be making bad beer?

I’ve written about cans before and in general have felt very favorably about them, but time – and dumping more bought beer than I’d care to – has changed my thoughts on the matter. So now I present to you the reasons why I don’t like cans and why you probably won’t see a canning line in my brewery for a while.

1) I’m not convinced that craft canning lines have less oxygen. Not to say that some don’t – but a lot of craft canning lines are going to look a lot like this one:

Note: Nothing against Caldera Brewing Company – they probably make fine beer, I’ve never had it – but their canning line is an excellent example of what I’m skeptical about. And the video IS three years old, so maybe I’m just looking at old technology, but considering some people are using bottling lines that are older than I am I suspect that there’s not a ton of upgrades across the industry.

Here’s what I’m interested in – the point between 0:13 and 0:54 – between when the cans are being purged by CO2, filled, and the lid is applied. Let me describe in words what I’m seeing here. This line fills 5 cans at a time. As the cans move down the line, they are purged with CO2 – which is what those first 5 fillers are doing when they dip into the can. Purging with CO2 is basically just pushing a shot of carbon dioxide into the can on the theory that since CO2 is heavier than air, and that you’re pushing from the bottom, that CO2 will somehow completely displace the oxygen in the vessel. The cans are then moved down the line to the second set of fillers which fills the cans with beer, and does what is known as “fobbing.” FOB, by the way, stands for Foam on Beer. The theory on fobbing is that if there is foam over the top of the beer that you are somehow not allowing oxygen to contact the beer itself. (Never mind that oxygen is in contact with the foam which has a much larger surface area than the beer and that foam has had much of its CO2 released already removing much of whatever protective barrier that gas might create.) The fillers are removed from the cans and that foam is pulled back into the can whilst the filler drips beer through the open air back down into the can itself. Finally, a lid is kind of slapped on from a roller trapping in all that oxygeny goodness.

Sure, you may not get much oxygen into the can AFTER it’s sealed, but before it’s sealed you’re pretty much just slopping it in there, at least on this type of line. What’s more? Most craft breweries don’t pasteurize, which means that the shelf life on these beers is starting to get perilously low. If you get ’em cold and fresh? They’re probably awesome. But throw them in a warehouse, in the back of a hot truck bouncing down the road, and on an unrefrigerated end cap display in a grocery store somewhere, and I bet your shelf life is down to something like 2 weeks before you start getting stale or sour flavors in there.

Necessary caveats: I know not every canning line is like this, and I know the process is going to differ brewery to brewery and that’s going to make a hell of a difference. I’m using this as my “probably industry average” example. Why? Because canning lines are expensive and sometimes you buy the less expensive equipment so that you can get something in place faster. Sometimes you get the less ideal equipment because you’re getting a deal on it. Because nobody’s going to buy the top shelf option every time. Because I know that for every person in the industry that is fanatical about making sure that everything is perfect, there is another person out there in the industry who is kinda lazy about the way they’re getting part of their process done. After all, this is all somebody’s job. When was the last time that you went through your work day and never cut a corner on anything? Sometimes, all you want to do is go home at 4:30 so that you can get to the beach, or pick your kids up from school, or whatever, and a little extra oxygen pickup be damned.

Final word – there’s probably a good case to say that once beer is in the can it’s a great packaging material, but process and equipment are too inconsistent at a craft level for me to believe that it is true in every case.

2) Cans lack elegance. This is a small re-hash of one of the articles that I’ve written previously about cans. No matter how pretty your art is, when somebody is out on a romantic date at a nice restaurant, they’re not going to be getting canned beer. They’re probably not even going to see an option for it, because I suspect most nice restaurants – the places that really should be about getting good beer to go with good food – will most likely not buy cans unless they’re there for a novelty. I think it’s a long way in the future before a can sits next to a wine bottle at a white-linen type restaurant.

Cans are good for the beach. They’re good for public parks. They’re good for hiking. Otherwise, they’re no different than bottles. Are those three markets really going to take a brewery to the next level? I have my doubts.

3) Cans are BMC territory, and they can out-can us. Like it or not, craft beer as a market segment poses more and more of a threat to the likes of ABI and MillerCoors, and if there’s something I know about those guys, they’ve got cans down pat. They don’t have extra oxygen pickup in their cans – you know why? Because they can in an oxygenless environment, because they can afford one. As craft becomes more of a threat to the big guys, it becomes more and more likely that they’re going to enter a craft-like offering into the market. The more we emulate them in our packaging options, the more options we give them to be able to take market share back from us.

Doubt me? Consider that Blue Moon as a single brand outsells most of the craft breweries in the country. You can get Blue Moon in a can, now, too.

4) I am turned off by blind faith and hype. In high school I used to get in trouble for not taking whatever my teachers told me as fact. What I didn’t realize at the time is that I was going through entrepreneur training.

I cannot wrap my head around blindly believing what people tell me without seeing evidence for it myself (especially if those people are trying to sell me something) – and I say this as a person who is fairly trusting in nature. What’s even worse is when I see large groups of people automatically believing something that I see as probably a sales pitch – that’s when my knee-jerk reaction to disagree sets in, and that’s where I am with cans.

I have not, thus far, been presented with data that suggests that cans are nearly as awesome for craft beer as I see publicized, primarily because – as I stated earlier – process and equipment are too inconsistent right now. So why does that put me in the “no cans” camp? Because from the outside of the package, I can’t tell what’s inside. That means I won’t touch any of them. I have had too many cans from breweries that I trust – and you trust – that have been obviously spoiled in a way that I think they would consider unacceptable.

My trust for the can marketplace has been broken, and it will take some serious science to bring me back around.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 13 Jun 2011 @ 11 18 AM

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 04 Jun 2011 @ 11:20 AM 

As I’ve been working toward starting Mystery Brewing Company, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity of making some great new friends in the craft industry, particularly here in North Carolina. In talking with friends in the industry, I find that we discuss topics in a completely different ways than I did when I was just a fan and beer drinker.

Yeah, that sounds arrogant as hell. But it’s not what you think. It’s not like I’m somehow more awesome now, but the discussions take a different path. It’s not: “Hey – is that beer awesome?” Those still happen all the time, but it’s also “Hey, what do you think of the packaging options these guys are using to get into the market?” It’s “I know you’ve been monitoring oxygen pickup on that process, what have you found?” It’s industry-related, it’s technical, and it’s fascinating. So, when a fellow brewer – one that I particularly enjoy these discussions with – approached me to propose some sort of podcast centered around those same discussions, I was intrigued.

We talked about it. We planned it. And now here it is.

It’s not going to be for everyone, but we hope that it allows us to bring a unique perspective to some topics in and around the brewing industry that we don’t see getting a lot of discussion. Sebastian is the Director of Brewing Operation at Natty Greene’s Brewing Company, one of the largest breweries in North Carolina. I am Founder of the soon-to-be-open Mystery Brewing Company, one of the smallest breweries in North Carolina. He’s school-trained in Germany, I’m self-taught in my backyard. His brewery makes a lot of traditional styles, mine attempts innovative twists on style creation whenever possible. We think that our combined perspectives are, at the very least, interesting and worth listening to. We hope you enjoy it, we hope it leads to discussion, and we hope that you’ll join us in the future when we put more together.

What do you think about homebrewers pouring in public under the auspices of a startup brewery? Hit us up in the comments section below; we’re eager and willing to keep going on this conversation.

A big ol’ helping of thanks (and many beers to come) to Tres Bruce Media for helping us shoot, edit, and post this.

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I have this really basic problem with the craft beer industry. Well – it’s not really a problem, per se, so much as a difference of ideals.

For all that craft breweries talk about how different they are from the Big Boys, they really trend toward the same: a flagship beer with a few supporting brands. As brands expand the key word isn’t “flavor” it is “consistency.” Based on what I hear at the Craft Brewers Conference, from personal discussions and advice through panel topics, I’d say that everybody’s ultimate goal is consistency over anything else.

There’s a lot to be said for consistency.

I truly believe that every great brewery has its own character. It’s an over-arching flavor or terroir, for lack of a better term, that is infused into all of that brewery’s offerings. Maybe it’s due to the equipment, or something in the process, or even just a certain ingredient combination that they use a lot – it doesn’t matter. There needs to be consistency in that character. You also want consistent quality in a brewery. A brewery should always be striving to make great beer. Will you make one every once in a while that’s just good? Or that maybe needs some work? Sure. Absolutely. Shit happens. (Heh.) But you need to learn from those mistakes to make that beer better, or know when to cut your losses on a recipe. The goal should be “consistently great beer.”

But when you’re talking about what it tastes like? Consistency is just insane. Similar? Sure. But always consistently the exact same? You’re ripping the soul out of the beer. You’re talking about using a palette of constantly changing agricultural ingredients and an actual live organism to make the exact same product every time? You must be joking. That’s like saying that you’re going to go to the art store and buy completely different paints, canvases, and brushes every time you shop and paint exact replica pictures. Will you get close? Sure. But exactly the same? Not unless you take some of the “art” out of the art.

What if the wine industry valued consistency over variability? Would there be as much mystique about different years, vintages, and terroir? If the agricultural differences between each field and batch of grapes were all blended out of the wine, would people buy case after case for aging purposes?

In beer, why do people age special release beers if not for that variability? If all beer tasted the same after aging why would people bother to buy different years and compare them? What’s the point of a vertical if everything tastes the same?

Craft brewers see a constant stream of variable products. The alpha acid content in hops varies from year to year and even from field to field. You can adjust how many hops you’re including in your recipe to keep the bitterness the same, but that will invariably change the amount of essential oils you’re getting – and even those essential oils may change depending on those variables… or others, like when they’ve been picked.

Malt changes from year to year, from field to field, and from maltster to maltster. Can we work to blend away these changes and to reduce any character influence these agricultural changes have on the final product? Certainly. But isn’t that what we snobbishly accuse AB-InBev of doing all the time? I remember one of my instructors at Siebel saying that there is something like 60 batches of beer blended into every can of Bud. Why? Consistency. They know that each batch tastes slightly different, for a variety of reasons. They also know how to achieve consistency to an amazing degree.

And what’s the buzzword I hear around the craft industry? Consistency. Why are we working so hard to emulate those we work so hard to distance ourselves from?

I don’t want to fall for it.

This is why I like to tell people that at Mystery Brewing Company I’ll never make the same beer twice. It’s not completely accurate, of course. I’ll be making the same recipe over and over again, but rather than try to minimize every single variation between the batches, I’d like to celebrate them, tell people that they’re there, why they’re there, and why they should be enjoying them.

“We had to replace Hop X with a similar one, so in this batch you should tastes notes of A, B, and C instead of the normal X, Y, and Z you’re used to tasting.”

“It was really hot in the brewery while we were fermenting Batch 9 of Evangeline, and we think it is a little fruitier than previous batches.”

But don’t get me wrong – it’s not about having a lazy process or being transparent about having a lazy process. The plan is to work hard to make every batch of beer as good as it can possibly be, and then to give as much information as possible to the drinker to let them know what is going on. What’s the malt bill? What hops were used? What yeast? How is this different from other beers that we’ve made? How is it the same?

One of the things that I’ve learned over the years as a homebrewer and a drinker is that the more I learn about a beer, the more probable it is that I’ll enjoy it and others like it because I can made educated and informed decisions about it. The craft industry lacks this as a whole – we strive for sameness and we don’t tell anybody what we don’t have to tell them, sometimes not even alcohol content.

I want to change that, and I feel like the only way to do it is to do it myself.

Consistent quality, but real beer has variability. That’s my motto.

À votre santé,
Erik

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