14 Feb 2014 @ 8:00 PM 
 

On supply chain for small breweries.

 

I’ve been kind of struggling over whether or not to write this. Partly because it comes off as something of a “woe is me” kind of post and partly because it looks like an excuse, but in reality it’s just me being frustrated and venting. So, hi, I have a blog.

Well, it IS something of a “woe is me” post, I guess. But, here goes.

Here at Mystery, we use a lot of specialty malts. You could probably argue that the only thing that we use is specialty malt because we don’t use any base 2-row malts. All of our base grain is either Pilsner Malt or Maris Otter depending on the style. For a handful of our brands throughout the year, we use very specific malts because of a very specific flavor we get from it.
DSC_0041
Let me explain that last sentence. One some very base level, malt is malt. The Cara malt from Crisp will get me the same basic flavor as the Cara malt from Simpsons, which will get me the same basic flavor as the Cara malt from Patagonia or a blend of Crystal 10 and Crystal 20 from Briess.

It’s not entirely true. They all have their own character, but when blended into an overall beer the only people who are really noticing those things are the people inside the brewery that have been around since last year’s run of the same beers and have tasted them a LOT. That’s just 3 of us, really.

We have some ingredients, however, that have very specific characters that we feel aren’t reproducible in other malts. The one that specifically jumps to mind for me – primarily because I’ve been having a problem with it – is Simpsons Golden Naked Oats. It is, without a doubt, one of the primary driving flavors in Six Impossible Things, our Chocolate Breakfast Stout (and pretty much our most popular beer). I haven’t been able to find anything that tastes the same. We have a handful of grains like that. They’re normally from small foreign producers. You’re probably already guessing what I’m going to write about.

This winter in particular, our supply chain has been a complete disaster. We’ve had orders come in wrong, we’ve had orders get lost, we’ve had deliveries show up a week late. It’s been one thing after another. In the case of our oats, we bought the last few bags in the entire Southeast in mid-January after being out for the better part of a month. I had to buy two more bags from a homebrew shop to do another batch of beer. As near as I can tell there are no Golden Naked Oats in the US. Anywhere.

The container that the oats are supposed to be in left England (which, of course, has been experiencing catastrophic flooding) late. It got caught in a storm on the Atlantic Ocean. Twice. It was finally supposed to arrive this week just in time for the winter storm that hit this weekend. Once it finally gets unloaded and goes through customs it has to take a truck to Minnesota where it’ll get portioned out to more trucks who will then get it to warehouses around the country around a week after that at which point I will finally be able to order it ASSUMING that order is handled correctly.

So what’s the result? The result is that I stop producing my most popular seasonal beer because I, quite literally, cannot do it. It’ll be weeks or longer before I get it back out in the market, at which point it’ll be mid-spring and totally out of season. It’s frustrating.

So, why the bitch session? Because nobody can see it. To my distributor, to bars and restaurants, to customers in my pub, I’m just not making enough beer, and I’m not making enough of something that will make all of them happy, too. It’s an excuse. What do you mean you can’t get oats? I can go get Quaker Oats at the grocery store and bring you some.

No, you can’t.

And I feel very responsible for the fact that every piece of the chain below me is disappointed, and I feel, too, that I have no recourse in the supply chain above me. Not just for this instance, but for anything.

What am I going to do? Not order again from my largest supplier? Hold them financially responsible for the fact that I’m losing business because they can’t get an order right? What leverage does a small brewery really have? We can’t order in all of the grain for the year up front. We don’t have that kind of cash, much less that kind of storage space. I would imagine that most small breweries are in the same boat that I am.

In a lot of ways, this seems like it would be so much worse if I had a flagship. At least now I can call it quits on a brand and move on to the next season, better luck next year. What happens if you have one of these things happen to your flagship? You change the recipe? Change the flavor? Screw consistency?

So, the next time you see a brewery with what looks like supply problems, maybe think a little bit about how supply chain makes a difference.

Tags Categories: industry, ingredients, seasonality Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 14 Feb 2014 @ 08 00 PM

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Responses to this post » (4 Total)

 
  1. John says:

    Enlightening post, Eric. Idea: could all the small breweries in the Triangle work together as a co-op for the purposes of grain buying? More leverage = better prices, plus you may be able to afford communal storage space that would enable you to order in larger bulk.

  2. Jake says:

    An unflinching commitment to quality and consistency – so strong that it could kill you. Please expand on your Quaker oats comments. Specifically, you hold the entire chain below you hostage over the fact that 3 people notice the difference? Have you considered the reasoning behind why you couldn’t go elsewhere for oats in a bit more depth other than “no you can’t.”

  3. Sean says:

    This is one of the important techniques of industrial food production: arranging ways that the “same” flavor can be achieved with multiple sets of ingredients. This increases your supply chain flexibility in the face of shortages and price fluctuations. As you’ve discovered, a flavor that depends on an aspect of a single, specific ingredient is economically fragile – but a flavor that your can achieve with 2 or 3 different combinations of ingredients is more economically robust.

    This is one of the major reasons why mass-produced, medium-to-large scale anything (beer, chocolate, bread, ice cream, etc.) tends to be so bland: avoiding nuanced flavors that highlight the ingredients in favor of fungible flavors contributing to a consistent product.

  4. Bogon says:

    Sounds like at least one of the six impossible things really was impossible!

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