17 Jun 2013 @ 11:35 PM 

Since Mystery Brewing Company‘s appearance on Crowd Rules in May and the introduction of our brand idea on a national scale, I’ve seen a fair amount of discussion online (and in my inbox) about our “no flagship brand” model with varying degrees of agreement or disagreement. I thought it might be a fine time to talk about what seasonal-only brewing means to us, how we do it, why we do it, and why I think that it’s the future of craft beer.

Why seasonal-only?

It’s easy: people love seasonal beers.

This idea didn’t just come fully formed into my head. Back when I attended my first Craft Brewer’s Conference, one slide during Paul Gatza’s State of the Industry presentation kept sticking in my head. I might get into a bit of trouble by pulling this slide out of an industry-only presentation, but here it is from 2013. It’s looked pretty much the same way for the past 4 or 5 years:

Taken from CBC 2013 State of the Industry presentation

Taken from CBC 2013 State of the Industry presentation

Seasonal: #1.

And, yes, IPA is coming up strong because IPA, but you’ll notice that the other big climber is “Variety.” These trends look the same year after year and they read to me like this:

People are no longer brand drinkers. They’re portfolio drinkers.

It’s always amusing to me that an industry that spends so much time trying to define itself as “not industrial lager” bases its primary business model on the industrial lager model, which is the flagship model: Make one beer, make it well, make it as cheaply as possible, use other brands to keep competitors off the shelf.

There’s two obvious reasons why this model has worked so well and why it’s been adopted by the craft industry.

  • In the early craft market, when there wasn’t a lot of brand recognition for craft beer, much less craft brands, it was a lot easier – and better for business – to emulate the big brewery model. In the 1980s and even the early 90s, it was necessary to have big iconic craft branding to stand apart from and against the industrial lagers.
  • It’s the way distributors operate. Distributors are built around selling core brands and selling them well. Since distribution was key in the growth of craft across the country, craft breweries adopted the flagship model in order to move their beer.

But this isn’t your daddy’s beer industry any more and drinkers have moved on from the core brand model. A quick look at Rate Beer, or Beer Advocate, or Untappd – or even the fact that those sites exist – will show you. Very few craft fans buy one brand and drink that one brand. Drinking variety is a badge of honor, sometimes even literally.

A few years back, when I was just getting into the beer industry, I saw the results of a survey that showed that when people had a beer that they identified as their favorite – a brand that they were loyal to – they bought that beer, on average, once per month. The same survey showed that they consumed beer several times per week, and often 2 – 3 beers at a time. Some loyalty, huh?

(I really wish I could find that survey and link to it and/or see the results of those questions today.)

The young members of the drinking market – the kids just turning 21 years old – have something that their predecessors never had: vast variety. Any young drinker that walks into a beer store today is faced with not 10, not even 100, but thousands of varieties of beer. I can get 55 different pale ales at the store near my house. And that brings me to two different questions:

1) How could anybody choose just one of those without trying a ton of them?
2) With that much competition already in the market, why on earth should I make a pale ale?

If you’re a craft drinker, ask yourself these questions: When was the last time you weren’t interested in trying something new from a brewery you like? When was the last time you didn’t want to try something from a new brewery? When was the last time you bought the same beer more than a couple of times in a row?

See? It’s happening to you, too. Variety is king.

What we mean by seasonal-only brewing

Based on that information, I decided to pursue the idea of seasonal-only brewing. There were a couple of different facets to the decision. One of them was to capitalize on the fact that people enjoy variety and enjoy seasonal beers. It’s what people buy the most, and so it seemed natural that they would also buy our seasonal beers. The other was to differentiate our brands, and not just make another golden, pale, amber, porter, stout, IPA lineup, but to actually fit into the niches that were open in an already-crowded beer market.

One of the main misconceptions about our model is that we’re just flying by the seat of our pants and have no idea what’s coming next. In reality, we have a set schedule that we brew by that is based on both style and season. It works like this:

Click for a larger version of our seasonality chart.

Click for a larger version of our seasonality chart.

We have four style categories that we brew in: Session, Hop Forward, Saison, and Stout.

Each season we make something seasonally appropriate within that category, and we repeat that beer each year. So, just like every other seasonal brand in the country, each beer comes out once/year, is consistent with how it tasted last year, and will be back again next year when it is again seasonally appropriate.

You can click into the graphic, but I’ll break down the styles for you here in text.

Session Line

  • Gentlemen’s Preference, Belgian Blonde Ale (Spring)
  • Langhorne, Rye Wit (Summer)
  • Pickwick, English Mild (Fall)
  • Ballantrae, Scottish 60/- (Winter)

Hop Forward Line

  • Queen Anne’s Revenge, Carolinian Dark (think English-style Black IPA) (Spring)
  • Lockwood’s Retreat, American IPA (Summer)
  • Fantine, Red Belgian IPA (Fall)
  • Hornigold, English IPA (Winter)

Saison Line

  • Beatrix, Hoppy Saison (Spring)
  • Evangeline, Rye Saison (Summer)
  • Rosalind, Autumnal Saison (Fall)
  • Annabel, Black Saison (Winter)

Stout Line

  • St. Stephen’s Green, Dry Irish Stout (Spring)
  • Papa Bois, Citrus Foreign Extra Stout (Summer)
  • Thornfield’s End, Smoked Rye Stout (Fall)
  • Six Impossible Things, Chocolate Breakfast Stout (Winter)

On top of that, we also do more limited seasonals, one-offs, experimental, and barrel-aged brews. Since it seems weird to call a beer a seasonal at a seasonal-only brewery, we release them in a line we call our Novella Series. Some of them are truly one-and-done. Some of them we’ll make again. Some of them are candidates for future categories as we expand. Basically, these are where we’re trying our new recipes and styles. Now that we have an operating taproom, many of these go on tap there and there only, but we still like to be able to get special one-offs into the market in keg format.

Challenges to the model

There are, no doubt, many challenges to this model. I anticipated some of those challenges, and some of them caught me by surprise.

I, like most crazy founders of things that don’t really exist, thought that the brilliance of my idea would be self-evident and that people would immediately understand what the hell I was talking about. In reality, we opened the brewery to confusion about our model and it’s still one of the most significant challenges we face (which is at least one of the reasons I’m writing this article).

As it turns out, the most common question you’re asked as a new brewery is, “What’s your flagship?” When you have an answer that’s a paragraph and not a sentence, people aren’t excited to listen and that’s because – as I was surprised to find out – most of the people who are buying beer at bars and restaurants don’t really care about beer.

I will almost definitely catch some sort of flak for that, but it’s true and, what’s more, it will always be true. You can almost definitely say the same thing about wine, liquor, chocolate, hot dogs, or any other specialty product. Because the people who are most likely making these decisions are making a myriad of different decisions and purchases, and they’re just not excited by the nuances of the brewing industry, nor should they be. They want to make an easy decision about one small facet of their operation and then get along to the next crisis in their day. Plain and simple, it’s not their job to care about the difference between your business model and the next guy’s. In many cases, beer is a set-and-forget kind of purchase. They will buy one brand until sales start to dip and then they will buy a different brand. If you go into a bar or restaurant with a brand that will go away on its own (or will appear to), then it looks to them like you’re just giving them more work.

We’ve honed our elevator speech, we’ve made charts and graphics and flyers, and we’re continually working on more ways of getting information out to bars and restaurants on a regular basis. Still, our largest challenge is defining our business to the customer in a way that they easily understand. We have a hard time convincing bars that they could just, say, always keep our stout on tap and that it creates variety in their lineup for them without any further work on their part.

The same goes for our relationship with our distributor. We’ve had a great time with our distributor, but we’ve found out the hard way that we were not providing enough information to their reps in order to best sell our beer. Sales reps fall in the same place as bar managers and beer buyers. We are just one brand in their book. If they don’t have a good understanding of what that beer is, what it tastes like, or why it changes, it’s a lot easier to sell something else. We’ve had to come back into the brewery and make changes in how we are handling information and what we’re expecting from sales. It was our assumption that beer reps working for our distributor would naturally be interested in learning more about the product and representing it correctly, but it’s a naive view of a crowded market. We don’t just make another pale ale, and if our beer is difficult for a rep to sell, they won’t sell it. After all, it’s just one small facet of their job.

Seasonal-only also contradicts how distributors are built to sell product. There is an onus in distribution to push the flagship brand of a brewery in order to qualify a retail establishment for inclusion on seasonal releases. To put it more plainly: If you, as a retailer, order a bunch of Crappy Golden Ale from Brewery X then you are virtually (but not legally) guaranteed that when Super Popular Imperial Stout comes out from Brewer X in the fall, you’ll get some. But if you don’t buy Crappy, you can kiss Super Popular goodbye. When all of your brands are seasonal, it’s hard to play that game.

Consistency is the challenge that I correctly anticipated. My feeling was that in order to get people to trust an ever-changing beer lineup, you have to make sure that the beer that’s going out is consistent within the brand and that it’s always great. Simply put: You cannot have your entire lineup change four times per year if half the beer you put out is sub-par. What’s more, the beer has to be consistent year-to-year, so that the flavor that customers loved last year is back again for their enjoyment.

We’ve put a lot of effort into making sure that we have an excellent lab and good science. We manage 95% of our own yeast propagation, we test every batch through the system for any sort of contamination, and we’re in the midst of starting a tasting panel program to make sure that flavor consistency isn’t just a decision between me and my brewer.

Why I think seasonal is the future of craft (specifically small craft)  beer

All this said, I do believe that seasonality is the future of craft, and that these challenges – particularly the ones in which people don’t understand our business model – will fade away, precisely because more breweries will eventually buy into the idea.

If I were to polish up my crystal ball and tell you what I think the future of beer looks like, I think it goes a little like this:

Small craft brewers face a number of future challenges from both inside and outside craft.

The big guys are losing market share, and they know where it’s going.

MillerCoors just expanded their “craft” division. Tenth and Blake just got a fancy new building and I’m sure we’ll be seeing plenty of new MillerCoors-funded “craft” brands coming into the market. Anybody who isn’t concerned by that from a small business perspective should take a look at Blue Moon sales numbers and then taste the sours that are coming out of ACGolden’s barrels and think again.

This past year AB-InBev took what should look less like a warning shot and more like first volley in the purchase and proliferation of Goose Island. They can shore up loss of market share by purchasing and assimilating craft breweries and this act shows it. Aggressive corporate behavior and ruthless market dominance is what took them from prohibition to the best selling brand in the world and nobody should believe that they can’t, or won’t, make beer good enough to give any craft brewery a run for its money. Everybody should also remember that Budweiser was, at some point in history, a delicious, crisp, and well-made American pilsner.

These giants and their pocketbooks have considerable influence and sway with the distribution system, which most small brewers still depend on enormously without having robust protection from franchise law. Small brewers, in most cases, still play by the same rules as the large brewers when it comes to distribution because there are no exceptions for business size written into the law in most states. Unfortunately, 99.9% of small brewers don’t have the same financial sway that the makers of industrial lagers do. They are at an incredible disadvantage there.

Inside the craft industry, we’re building our own industry giants. Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and others are so far and away larger than most of the small breweries in States that it’s almost unfair to lump them in the same industry. When we talk about “the Big 3” we could just as well be talking about those three, since the three of them together make more beer than 98% of the breweries in the U.S. combined.

Regional and super-regional breweries continue to dominate the craft market through many of the same tactics used by the makers of industrial lagers: aggressive expansion and financial influence on local markets through event sponsorship. They get a pass from craft drinkers, though, because of two key reasons: 1) They’re still largely seen as small breweries (because in comparison to AB-InBev, they really are). 2) They make great beer.

However, as those companies continue to grow with a bevy of regional breweries behind them looking to follow in their footsteps, I find myself asking:

Can this country support 50+ super-regional breweries AND 3000+ small breweries? How long can we go before small breweries start going under because they can’t keep up with the big craft brands? How do I differentiate my company to allow it to survive?

I can’t play in the same space as these other breweries. I have neither the financial resources nor the desire to create a nationwide brand. What can I do to stop my company from being swallowed up? What advantage do I possibly have over any of these guys?

The answer is the same for any new small business: agility, creativity, innovation.

I’ll never be able to get my ingredients cheaper, I’ll never be able to make more beer than they can, have lower prices, have flashier advertising, or fancier new packaging. Our advantage – and the advantage of many other new breweries out there – is our small size. We can do things on a 7 bbl scale, that nobody would ever want to do on a 100 bbl system. Maybe because it’s a pain in the butt to manually quarter that many lemons, or maybe because finding a source for 500,000 jasmine flowers is unreasonable. It doesn’t matter why – it is.

The advantage to seasonality in a small brewery is that it takes advantage of what we do best: We make small amounts of really fresh beer, we make a variety of styles, we make them quickly, we make them well, and then they go away. We offer variety and exciting innovation in a marketplace that’s filled with overwhelming sameness. We offer exactly what drinkers are looking for, exactly when they’re looking for it.

Now, if only we can get everybody to understand that. Drinkers love the idea. Bars, restaurants, and distributors are following along, and soon, I hope, breweries will, too.

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Tags Categories: brewery, distribution, history, industry, ingredients, marketing, Mystery Brewing Company, op-ed, seasonality Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 17 Jun 2013 @ 11 35 PM

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 05 Feb 2013 @ 10:46 PM 

Ah, the new classic debate of the craft era: Cans vs. Bottles and which one is better for your beer.

In this podcast we:

  • Get back on the podcasting wagon
  • Talk about how bottles and cans are filled
  • Talk about the benefits and detriments to cans and bottles and why some people prefer one or the other
  • Talk about the 3000, no.. 1000, no… 500.. err.. well.. probably 100 year headstart bottles have over cans in the marketing department

Glad to be back in the recording chair – I hope you’re still here with me. Cheers!

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Categories: history, industry, marketing, media, packaging, podcast
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 05 Feb 2013 @ 10 46 PM

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When I started working on finally getting Mystery off the ground, I really wanted to try to keep things fairly transparent. I wanted to be able to share the startup experience with people via Top Fermented, because it’s really living every homebrewer’s dream.

I’ve been having a difficult time doing that, because when progress is slow or when there doesn’t feel like there’s progress you don’t really feel like you want to share that. One of my least favorite questions that people ask me on almost a daily basis is, “So, how’s the brewery coming along?” The reason that I hate it is that it’s such a complicated answer. Nobody wants to sit down and hear me pontificate for 45 minutes in response to that question, so my normal answer is, “Good!” and then they invariably ask, “So, when can I buy beer?” Which is just as complicated a question. It’s hard to share that nothing is moving, or that you’re waiting for phone calls or that you’re frustrated with a lack of response from a bank or something. You want to share good news and not seem like you’re complaining or – worse – like you don’t know what you’re doing. But I’m in a place now where I feel like there’s been a significant amount of movement and I’m happy to throw the curtain back a little.

So, now, here’s the story behind the startup of Mystery Brewing Company … so far. This is going to be a long post. This is by no means a “how to start a brewery” post. Hell, in a lot of ways it’s a “how not to start a brewery” post. But I think it’s interesting and worth reading.

So, let me start from the start and bring you to present day:

Like a lot of homebrewers I’ve entertained the thought of opening my own brewery for some time. I started brewing about 11 years ago, now. As I’ve said in many forums: my mother bought me a kit for Christmas one year. It was one of those crappy 2 bucket systems with an IPA kit. You know, a fermentation bucket and a bottling bucket that, if you’re some sort of wizard, you could make some decent beer with. I did not do that. I made some crappy – nay – intensely crappy beer with it. But a few reasonable successes kept me going until I could upgrade my equipment here and there and started having more good beer than bad. I’ve never won an award for homebrew. In fact, more often than not, homebrewing competitions kinda irritate me. They’re incredibly subjective, the feedback sucks more often than not (and if I’ve ever judged your homebrew, I’ll tell you now: my feedback sucks – sorry) and there are only a few that I’ve been involved in that I felt were really well organized. So, the decision to start a brewery wasn’t because I was rolling in gold medals or anything like that. The decision to start a brewery was really based on the fact that I find making beer to be fun – way more fun than anything else that I’ve spent days and days and days of my life focused on.

I think somewhere on some “about” page somewhere I talk about the heady mix of art and science that is making beer and I’ll stick to that. There’s this one thing that I’ve decided will live on everything that Mystery puts out:

Flavor : Art :: Quality : Science

Making a great recipe is an art. Making it over and over again for a consistently great product is a science, and the blend of those things are what I like about the brewing industry. My entire background is balanced between art – I have a degree in performance art – and science – I’ve been working in IT and programming, much of it in a Medical School, for the past 15 years. Brewing is the perfect synthesis of both sides of my personality. Plus, I get to be a nerd about business and finance and be my own boss. It’s a win-win-win-win-win.

So, anyway, that’s the why. I think it gives you a little bit of a background about where I’m coming from. Now, let’s get into the how and what.

As you might know, when I launched, I decided to use the website Kickstarter as a basis for seed money. If you want, you can watch the original video and read the whole idea there, but I’ll give you the quick and dirty, so I don’t have to think about somebody watching it again (I’ve only ever watched it once, I find it unbearably embarrassing to watch myself on video). After going to the Craft Brewers Conference for the second time in a row – the first as a beer-interested blogger, the second as a panelist talking about social media – I came home feeling ridiculously inspired (it’s hard not to at the CBC) and decided, with my lovely wife, that it was time to launch the brewery. At the time, my wife was still in graduate school so the idea was to launch using Alternate Proprietorship (AP) to create a mobile brand.

If you’re not familiar with AP, it’s sort of like contract brewing – you’re using somebody else’s facility to make your beer, but instead of hiring somebody to do this work for you, you do it all yourself. You are in legal possession of the brewery for, say, a day. You are technically renting the entire place and it is your brewery for that time span. It was originally designed for the wine industry. Since wine spends so much time aging, there is a lot of time in any given winery where equipment is not in use. AP allows multiple wineries to use the same space for startup, and allows a winery to capitalize its assets a little easier, since they can get money off of the equipment even while they are not using it themselves. The trick is that in order to be licensed for AP, you need to show the TTB a business plan that states that you are working toward creating a brick-and-mortar brewery at some point. Incidentally, the two most well-known AP breweries out there that you might have heard of: Pretty Things and Stillwater.

So, that was my plan. Knowing that my wife would soon be graduating with her Ph.D. and not knowing where the job market would lead her, I decided that starting an AP brewery would be a really interesting project. If it launched and did well, I could probably move myself and keep the brand with me while still staying in my current market because, at absolute worst, I could always make the beer somewhere else and ship the beer down OR I could just go back to my original location on a regular basis and brew some more. I spoke to a bunch of breweries in North Carolina and got a fairly good response that, yes, we might be able to make room for you, get everything put together and let’s talk. That’s when the Kickstarter campaign launched.

As you can see from the little widget above, the Kickstarter campaign was successful. Asking for $40,000 was a bit of a gamble – it was a pretty high goal for Kickstarter at the time (still is one of the higher ones) and there had not, at that point, ever been a brewery successfully funded on Kickstarter. A few had tried before me. One had failed well short of its goal and one never even got a pledge. Not one. I think that a lot of my success with Kickstarter was just being in the right place at the right time. I was able to market myself on the crest of a wave of social media interest in the craft beer world, and it worked really well to spread the idea wide. On top of that, I have incredibly generous friends and family who were able to help boost my dream to the edge of reality. That said, I personally know less than half of the 243 people that backed me (though I’ve met many since then, and they’re really awesome people).

On top of the Kickstarter campaign, as I was working up a business plan, it became increasingly obvious to me that $40,000 was not going to be anywhere near enough to start an AP brewery, or even a contract brand. $40,000 will probably buy kegs and a cold room. So, I also worked at putting together some larger investors. This is where generous friends really come in to play. I’ve been lucky enough to assemble a team of five investors that I’ve known for years. They are excellent friends from college, old roommates, and drinking buddies who, for some reason, believe in me enough to help me see this through to reality and allow me to retain creative control over the company. In return, I have given them one of the best pickup lines ever (“I own a brewery”) and will hopefully give them a return investment that will be worthy of their trust in my vision.

The Kickstarter campaign ended in July, and the investors were all wrapped up in September 2010. We had an Operating Agreement in place, we had a company formed, we had money in the bank, recipes, and a plan. I gave notice at my job so that I could focus on getting the company off the ground. That happened at the end of October 2010. The only thing we needed, then, was a brewery to brew in. And so I started going back to people that I had conversations with and that’s when I hit my first hurdle:

The craft beer industry in North Carolina is doing great. At first blush this doesn’t seem like it should be a problem, but that’s when I discovered the problem with AP in the brewing industry: it really requires a brewery that isn’t doing well or, at the very least, is not growing. By the time I put everything together, every brewery in North Carolina was operating at capacity. It stopped me in my tracks.

In retrospect, I really should have seen that coming. It seems like such an obvious problem and I can’t figure out why I didn’t realize that it would happen. We switched gears quickly and started looking at doing just regular contracting – the idea being that if I could just get some beer on the market and start making a little bit of income it would give me time to get AP going. Or, that by getting myself on the market and showing proof of concept, it might be easier to get a larger chunk of money together to get a brick-and-mortar brewery going. So, in November 2010, we officially switched gears to getting contracting off of the ground.

Let me take a moment with an aside to tell you that I’m not really a big fan of contract brewing. I’m a little bit of a control freak, and I want to be able to be in charge of every aspect of my product and company. To basically send my recipe off to someone else and trust them to make it right is a pretty big leap for me. I’ve always been a believer in “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” It’s probably the only-child in me. But, I wanted my company to work, so I started looking at contracting.

Here’s the thing about contracting: Most places that contract aren’t really interested in doing a lot of really creative brewing. Most of my recipes involve rye, unmalted grains, or some sort of weird spice addition or other. I really like balancing flavors from all different parts of agriculture, and I think I make some really great beer. But go to a contract brewery and say, “I want you to make a beer with 60% rye in the grist and throw 15 lbs. of hibiscus flowers in” and most of them reply with something along the lines of, “You can use this pilsener malt, or you can go home.” The really big contractors require you to use the ingredients that they have on hand. I have my own proprietary yeast for my saison and a lot of people don’t want to even consider that. The smaller ones will do it, but want to charge you extra for weird shit, even if you’re willing to provide said weird shit. But in the end I ran into a more familiar problem:

All the contractors I contacted were full. I actually came within a few hours of signing contracts with two separate brewpubs in different parts of the country that had some extra space to rent and interest in helping me do the wacky stuff, but both contacted me at the last minute to say that they couldn’t do it because they just closed on distribution contracts that would – you guessed it – require them to operate at capacity. The only contract brewery that I was able to get solid response with was Lion Brewery who does contract brews for a bunch of people. You can use their ingredients… all 6 of them, or something like that. You can use their lager yeast or their ale yeast, and the minimum order is 300 bbls. Basically, it meant that if I contracted with them not only would I have to throw out all of my recipes, but I would be stuck with 600 1/2 bbl kegs of this beer to move before it went stale. There was no way it would work.

It took a few months of getting turned down by contractors to get me to decide that starting a regular brick-and-mortar brewery would probably be the best way to go. I spoke with my investors about it and gambled a little that my wife would be able to find a job somewhere nearby post-Ph.D. (She didn’t – so begins The Commute.) and made the plunge. The business plan officially changed over around January of 2011 and I started working on securing enough money to get a small brewery off the ground. I got my first quotes on equipment in and applied for an SBA loan to get everything going.

Thus starts the section in which I will, against everything I would like to do, not name any names.

What happened from January through April of 2011 is that I got dicked around, and dicked around hard, by a financial organization that will remain anonymous, but about whom I have written long and detailed letters to the North Carolina Attorney General. The long and the short of it is that after months of receiving nary a phone call or e-mail response back from anyone after literally hundreds of e-mails and messages, and not wanting to start down another path for fear of mucking up the first one, I finally got turned down for my loan (in reality, I am positive that they never once even looked at the paperwork). During those months I was pushing in every way I could. I kept moving marketing forward, I was paying rent, me, utilities, supplies, test batches, and everything. Basically, I was shedding money and seeing no possibility of income and for a while I was really thinking that I was going to be looking at returning money to my investors, taking a huge personal loss, apologizing to everybody that funded me via Kickstarter and calling it a year.

In May, though, things started to turn around a little. First, enter the awesome North Carolina craft beer industry. In my time working the the Brewer’s Guild, I’ve ended up becoming good friends with people at a few local breweries. Namely, LoneRider, Fullsteam, and Natty Greene’s, among others (I really, REALLY, like the Roth brothers). After lamenting about my problems to them over a few beers, they graciously put me in touch with a lot of their personal contacts and, wonderfully, they put me back on the road to bank funding. Soon afterwards, I found some good deals on used kegs and a used cold room, and I started to feel the tepid breeze of progress again buffet my sails. I can’t say enough about how amazingly generous and helpful the local industry has been to help a potential competitor open its doors. It’s astounding and humbling to have peers like this.

At around the same time, I started looking for new space around Hillsborough, NC where I wanted the brewery to be based. The space that I had been renting was perfect as a storage space when I was going to be doing AP or contracting, but it was small and required an enormous amount of upfit to make it a reasonable space for a real brewery. On a whim one day, I walked into the renovated Eno River Cotton Mill (now the Hillsborough Business Center) and found.. well.. I found a brewery.

I found a space three times larger than the one I was currently in. It already had trench drains, a loading dock, office space, ventilation, and a 3″ water main. Above all, it had a landlord who was excited at the prospect of a brewery moving in. We have been working together for a few months to make it work and I am happy to say that I signed a lease to move in this week. He’s giving me a great deal and in return, I’m hoping to help revitalize that corner of Hillsborough and make his business center a new center of commerce.

Within the past week, I have received great news from the bank that my good friends in the NC beer industry put me in touch with, and I hope to sign paperwork next week that will make it all a reality. I have met with manufacturers to talk about custom-building a brewhouse for me. I will be moving in to my final space as soon as the previous tenant finishes getting all of their stuff out, and I feel generally more positive about the state of Mystery Brewing Company than I have since I originally put the project together last year. I feel, with confidence, that I will be operating this year.

There’s still a long way to go. the equipment has to be built, shipped, and installed, there’s a lot of TTB licensing and processing to get through and that can take months (and months and months), and there will probably be another one of these book-length posts explicating all of the things that have been happening along the way, but it’s all moving forward.

So that’s “how the brewery is going.” It’s a long and complicated path to startup, but in the end I feel like it’s been worth it as everything has started to come together, and I can finally say that I look forward to sharing a pint of Mystery Brewing Company’s beer with you soon.

À votre santé,
Erik

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Categories: brewery, history, industry, Mystery Brewing Company, startup
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 24 Jul 2011 @ 09 47 AM

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 22 Mar 2010 @ 3:40 PM 

I will admit to having the same thought while I was brewing. It was a novelty idea: “I want to have a dark beer that tastes like an IPA.”

For me, it was about trying to make something dark where the bitterness wasn’t contributed by the roasted grain, but by the hops. A nice malt backbone, a nice dark kind of chocolaty flavor, but a nice hop profile as well. It was a challenge to make something with a unique, balanced flavor from two essentially distinct flavor profiles and have them meet somewhere in a balanced, drinkable, middle ground.

I brewed it up for Fullsteam’s Backyard Brew Fest, and it got great reviews.

Later, I found out that I had actually been brewing in, what people are saying, is a new style. “Cascadian Dark” they call it. In fact, there are already proposed style guidelines for it. Here, let me show you where that style guidelines surprises, bold emphasis mine:

History: A style that came to prominence on the Northwest Coast of North America in the early 21st Century. Northwest hops play key flavor roles, balanced with malt, roast malts give color and flavor, but body should be reminiscent of an IPA, not heavy like a porter or stout. The style celebrates the hops of the Pacific Northwest, but is commonly brewed in other regions.

Really? That’s a lot of Northwestiness. No offense to ya’ll up in the north-left corner, but this is not only limiting, but a little cocky. You don’t think a Black IPA or an IBA or whatever can’t be made without using hops from the Pacific Northwest? I made mine with Goldings and Fuggles. Should that be a new style, too since I wasn’t celebrating the Pacific Northwest? English Cascadian Dark?

I hear the English Cascades are beautiful this time of year.

And, for the record, let me throw this article out there that puts the origin somewhere around the 1880’s. Also, this article which pegs the idea behind the “style” to Greg Noonan up in Vermont. So, nyeah.

I’ve got a healthy load of snark saved up for the name “Cascadian Dark”, too, but I’ll hold onto that because what all of this really got me thinking was this:

How does a new style come into being these days?

Most of the styles that we recognize have some basis in fairly recent history. Not many of our currently recognized styles go back farther than a few hundred years, and only a very few of them you see are from within the past few decades in which we’ve seen the rise of American Craft Beer: American Pale Ale, American India Pale Ale, American Brown Ale, Dark American Lager, American Wheat, American Stout, American Barleywine. You see a trend here?

In all of these cases, the new style is simply a regional style from elsewhere in the world, but with more hops. It’s very American; not just because of the hops, but because of the multicultural background, co-opting, and re-imagining of the concept.

It’s kind of what we’re seeing going on with Breakfast Stouts, as well, which (I’m told) is defined by the presence of oatmeal and coffee. Someone might have thrown coffee into their Oatmeal Stout because they thought that the flavors would work well together, but once many people start brewing them up at what point does it stop being an Oatmeal Stout with Coffee and start becoming Breakfast Stout? At what point is the critical mass upon which a new style is reached?

Similarly, we’ve got a handful of breweries making Black IPAs. Are they now a presence in the marketplace? Sure. But how many are there? 13? 15? 20? 50? Out of 1500 breweries in the country, is 3% enough to declare a new style? Are we just jumping the gun on this because beer geeks (and especially Americans) tend to be rabid classifiers? Or are we jumping the gun because whoever writes out a definition first has the best possibility of getting that definition followed? I’m looking at you Oregon.

Finally, if someone is jumping the gun and pre-defining style, how does that limit creativity in the evolution of that style? It took decades or longer for some of the styles that we brew to develop into how we recognize them today. Isn’t it a little premature to say that something that’s been marketed for a year or two is a new style? What if it hasn’t finished evolving yet?

I don’t have a good answer.

These questions certainly seem to fly in the face of my previous stance on style guidelines and what they mean for the industry, but I’m not sure they do. Part of me would like to see us hang out with these hybrid styles for a little while to see if they stick around before we rush to put labels on them. Brew them, drink them, enjoy them, and play with them in the creative forum that is the craft beer industry because we label them for posterity. I’m pretty certain people will know what you mean when you say a “Black IPA” for now, the silliness of the name notwithstanding.

What do you think? When is the time to declare a new style vs. a creative trend vs. “I put some new stuff in my beer”?

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Categories: history, industry, marketing, new beer, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 22 Mar 2010 @ 05 33 PM

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The sentiment is right, but the quote is wrong. I know it’s popular, and I’m really trying to inform rather than criticize, but:

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. — Ben Franklin

He never said it. I’m sorry. I know that this flies in the face of half of the t-shirts you’re going to walk by at the next beer festival you’re at, and even disagrees with the myriad of posters, signs, banners, inscriptions, murals, and frescoes you’ll see at breweries across the country, but it’s just not right.

What he said is basically the same sentiment, but Ben Franklin, as near as I can tell, wasn’t much of a beer drinker (not that I’m much of a historian). You can go read it for yourself, if you need to, but here’s the correct quote, in full:

We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana, as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain, which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy. The miracle in question was only performed to hasten the operation, under circumstances of present necessity, which required it.

See? No beer. I mean, sure.. you can put “grain” in there instead of “grapes”, “fields” instead of “vineyards” and change “wine” to “beer”, but if you’re really looking for heavenly beer miracles, the wedding at Cana ain’t it. Instead, look for St. Brigid of Ireland who turned her bathwater into beer to nourish a leper colony. Fun, if disgusting.

Here’s another interesting excerpt from Ben Franklin’s autobiography (in fact, one of the only spots in his autobiography that mentions beer at all, thank you Google Books), in which he’s discussing working at a printing house in London:

At my first Admission into this Printing House, I took to working at the Press, imagining I felt a Want of Bodily Exercise I had been us’d to in America, where Presswork is mix’d with Composing. I drank only Water; the other Workmen, near 50 in number, were great Guzzlers of Beer. On occasion I carried up & down Stairs a large Form of Types in each hand, when others carried but one in both Hands. They wonder’d to see from this & several Instances that the water-American as they call’d me was stronger than themsleves who drank strong Beer. We had an Alehouse Boy who attended always in the House to supply the Workmen. My Companion at the Press, drank every day a Pint before Breakfast, a Pint at Breakfast with his Bread and Cheese; a Pint between Breakfast and Dinner, a Pint at Dinner, a Pint in the Afternoon about Six o’Clock, and another when he had done his Day’s-Work. I thought it a detestable Custom.

Not to say that ol’ Ben was a teetotaler by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t get the impression that he was necessarily waxing eloquent about beer in any great length. Given the time that he spent in France, wine certainly seems much more his speed.

So, there. Now you can live in the joy of the sentiment (God provides rain which naturally turns into wonderful fermented beverages for us), without living in ignorance (Ben was a CHUGGAH! It’s all about the Benjamin’s bayy-beeeee!). You’re welcome.

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Categories: history, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 27 Jan 2010 @ 04 04 PM

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