Beers today are conceived quite differently than when beer itself was still being created. Centuries ago, modern styles were not developed based on brewers’ whimsy but out of necessity. Before Arthur Guinness had nitrogen-widgets, he had hard water and it just so happened that the calcium carbonate in Dublin’s water makes for great stout porters. In Burton-on-Trent, fortune smiled on William Bass since the municipal water source was rich in gypsum, lending itself to fantastic pale ales. Shortly thereafter, some bloke schemed to add more hops to preserve and ensure this particular pale ale’s colonial safety once it arrived in India. Don’t forget the braumeister in Bamberg who still dried malts the old-fashioned way, over an open flame, giving rauchbiers their distinctive smoky flavor.
Many generations and scientific breakthroughs later, some brewers strive to recreate these traditional styles while others run shrieking from them. Authenticity versus innovation (or authenticity plus innovation) are factors allowing so deep a field of brewing concerns, and all come up with multiple brands. A brand comes to fruition as either a company’s calling card into the popular world of India pale ales, a personal act of artistic freedom just to see if a beer can taste like key lime pie, or sometimes just by disaster striking ever so artfully such as discovering that a keg left in freezing snow makes for amazing ice beer. Essentially, beers like these appear before us as a result of demand, risk, or sometimes by accident.
Small, medium and large producers are free to create any style―no matter how common or unique. When doing so, they rely partly on the autonomy of the brewing staff and partly on the reaction (in the form of purchases) of consumers. Three elements key to success no matter which brewer releases which beer, and no matter where it’s available: quality, timing and marketing (and on that last note, only a wealthy few do any sort of advertising to boost sales).
To find Grady Hull tinkering with hop additions on a fifteen-gallon pilot system isn’t what you’d expect of the assistant brewmaster at New Belgium, which produces well over half a million barrels each year, 70 percent of which is Fat Tire. Holding out no more, Hull said brewing an IPA has been “a fundamental discussion of our company for years… We hesitated on doing one because it’s not a Belgian style.” Since forming in a Ft. Collins, CO basement in 1991, New Belgium has focused on the malty, culinary curiosities the Belgians are known for, ranging from abbey and triple styles to experimenting with dandelions and being one of the early American experimenters with wild Brettanomyces yeast. Having expanding their operation greatly to an entire brewing campus on the banks of the Cache la Poudre River, pounding palates with hoppy IBU bombs (International Bitterness Units) just had never been their thing.
But as branding director Greg Owsley copped, “Admittedly, we were the last brewery to do one in America. But our ‘beer rangers,’ the marketing reps out in the field, were pleading for one. We wanted to (expand our) portfolio.” So Hull was tasked with creating a brand X IPA.
Development lasted around five months. Various iterations of this highly anticipated IPA involved experimenting with different hop varietals, with each batch coming up for review before a panel called the Portfolio Council. It usually consists of owner Kim Jordan, Owsley, sales director Joe Menetre, Hull, some of the marketing rangers, and the brewmaster Peter Bouckaert. But Bouckaert is a transplant from the esteemed Brouwerij Rodenbach in Belgium―so he’s more of a sour than a hoppy guy and excused himself from this brand X.
After repeated efforts, Hull said they “had something we were happy with. The first run was packaged and on the trucks with all of the accounts expecting it but we decided it wasn’t quite what we wanted so we pulled it all back at the last second and went back to the drawing board with the recipe. We decided to go really big with the hops.”
Imagine, all that beer in all those kegs and bottles, and just as it was about to emerge into the light of day, it gets sent back for further development. Surely some of this brand X IPA ended up in some happy employees fridges. But eventually, Hull hit upon the desired combination of Chinook, Simcoe, and Cascade hops aplenty and the result is Ranger IPA (the name is an homage to the reps, explained Owsley).
While New Belgium finally caught IPA fever, the demand for hops has unleashed a new generation of bitter beers even if not everyone can quite agree on what to call this boom. Mitch Steele, Brewmaster at Stone in Escondido, CA, debuted Stone 11th Anniversary in 2007, designing it as “hop-forward but black like a porter.” It was Steele’s first true creation at the brewery after owners Steve Wagner and Greg Koch hired him away from Anheuser-Busch. He says the concept was a tough sell to Koch and the fact that pilot batches “came across like a hoppy (but sweet) stout, not IPA-ish” didn’t help his cause. Fortuitously, after four failed test batches, once the brewing crew made it on the larger system, the anniversary beer came through with flying color: black. Little did he know that three years later, this hybrid-style beer would merit its own, nascent category at GABF: American-style India Black Ale.
In Steel’s vast research on IPAs, he points to the style’s birthplace as Vermont. Reportedly, the first rendition of this style came from Greg Noonan at Vermont Pub and Brewery with his Blackwatch IPA, served on draft at the pub circa 1994. In 2003, Matt Phillips of Phillips Brewing in British Columbia bottled Black Toque India Dark Ale. Concurrently, Rogue’s Brewmaster John Maier created a test batch called Skull Splitter internally or externally dubbed an imperial schwarzbier. The appropriate name has been a matter of debate. Phillips has since caught the Pacific Northwest bandwagon and renamed the beer Skookum Cascadian Brown Ale. Rogue’s goes by Black Brutal Bitter. They are considered the harbingers of a style locals call Cascadian dark ale or CDA for short. Whether or not they lose the name battle, many such CDAs also refer to themselves as black IPAs on their labeling.
The public’s response to Stone’s one-off 11th Anniversary was so positive, it was brought back―recipe unchanged―as Sublimely Self-Righteous, dubbed a Double Black IPA. The name is an inherent misnomer since a beer cannot be both black and pale. Regardless, Koch’s probably glad he issued his brewmaster artistic license and gave this beer the green light because it earned a bronze medal in the inaugural IBA category at GABF.
That brewing out on a limb could lead to fans clamoring for a beer’s wider release is what every brewer aspires to. Sometimes demand follows supply. Such was the case when brewmaster Ron Gansberg from tiny Cascade Brewing in Portland, OR, walked up to the stage during the 2009 GABF to receive his silver medal in the Barrel-aged Sour Beer category for Vlad the Imp Aler. In his excitement, he missed the announcement that his Bourbonic Plague then won gold. At Cascade, Gansberg has an assistant brewer and someone to help with blending. Bourbonic is the bourbon-aged version of their spiced porter Bain du Bruge and Vlad is the product of simply blending some of their inventory. Those beers are just now available in bottles though will likely only be sold from the pub.
Gansberg conjures up a new beer every week or two, “to answer the ever-present question, ‘What’s new?’” The inherent problem with this method is lack of certainty for what he’ll end up with. As it happens, both Bourbonic and Vlad were promising experiments from the start. However, he’s discovering that’s not always the case.
“Each one of these batches is like laying the keel of a ship. Each one is intended for a certain voyage and destination. We’ll make several beers side by side with slight variations. We’ll see if they went where we thought they would. And whether or not how we equipped them as far as recipe, strength, et cetera, holds up to the voyage.”
Another way to look at the ship’s voyage idea is to consider large batch beers from bigger breweries as being like the Love Boat, in that each week it welcomes on board more and more cast members and “promises something for everyone.” Small batch experimental beers are more like the SS Minnow from Gilligan’s Island, “set ground on the shore of this uncharted desert isle.”
Take Hull’s co-worker, Lauren Salazar, the sensory specialist responsible for Tart Lychee. A bartender at a sushi restaurant who asked if she’d like a lychee martini planted the seed. “I had no idea what he was talking about,” she said but of course ordered one for that reason. What she received was a “gorgeous martini with two of the ugliest things floating around in my glass.” Lychees look like eyeballs.
With the liberty large or small breweries have to do less expensive, small-batch beers comes the freedom for brewers and blenders to make mistakes, so long as they learn from them. Paul Arney, assistant brewmaster at Deschutes in Bend, OR, said, “You have to fail. The beers that we’re making need to fail hard in order to go back and make it right.” Case in point? He attempted to make a plum pie beer using biscuit malt to replicate graham cracker crust, tons of plums, and a Belgian yeast strain. “It sounds good but something happened in fermentation. The acidity of the plums and the sourness took it over the top. Not complex like Brettanomyces, but one-dimensional.” While the beer may have been disappointing, Arney put it back in a barrel to see if aging it somehow gives it a second shot―a risk he’s willing to take.
Other similarly dessert-minded creations have achieved greater success. Take Joe Short in Bellaire, MI, who lives up to his name by not being very tall. So why not design a beer that also lives up to his name by adding strawberries, milk sugar, and biscuit malt for a Strawberry Short’s Cake ale. Launched as a brewpub in 2004, Short’s leapt into the packaging world in 2009 with a series of seven distinctive stouts.
One of them was S’mores, which, naturally, was brewed with chocolate, marshmallow and graham crackers. Arney at Deschutes could relate to the Short’s Smugglin’ Plums Stout brewed with said stonefruit. But instead of premiering with a bang, the bottles hit shelves on a sour note―literally. “Unless you drank them within 30 days, they all went sour,” Short lamented.
Rather than deciding such “crazy adjunct” beers weren’t worth the hassle, Short worked feverishly on dialing in the brewing and packaging process. Back then, Short’s didn’t have a quality control lab and the beers passed human sensory analysis. Such are the pitfalls of scaling up from a seven-barrel system from the pub to the 30-barrel system used at the plant.
One of the beers created at Short’s that successfully made the leap is the brainchild of Joe Short’s understudy, Tony Hansen, billed by Short as “the yin to my yang.” He whipped up Key Lime Pie brewed with lime purée, milk sugar, graham crackers and the leftover marshmallow fluff. The concept proved fertile on the first try, no test-runs required. How would beer lovers react to such a beer? Not only did it win gold in the Experimental Beer category at the last GABF, but once it was “liberated” by the brewery, it was devoured.
Short’s brewed a total of 8,000 barrels in 2010, with each batch yielding only 400 cases. In fact, they bottled Key Lime Pie “just to get people to stop emailing us and get them off our back.” So far, Short doesn’t fret risky beers since they only brew 30 barrels’ worth. “The danger is in getting too big. You fill a fermenter full of beer, you gotta sell it.”
In the case of Allagash, the mid-size brewery in Portland, ME, it’s not always stainless steel fermenters their beer fills. Sour beer brewing is, to a small degree, becoming less risky as brewers understand the bugs better that they use to inoculate such beers. But what if they have no clue what said microflora are? Founder Rob Tod and Brewmaster Jason Perkins built a “coolship” at the brewery to allow the wort they brewed to ferment spontaneously the same way lambics do in the Senne Valley. Asked what exactly is getting into this structure where batches cool in the night air as unknown microorganisms drift in with the breeze, Perkins responded, “We don’t have a great answer to that. In my mind there’s no doubt there’s Brett involved. Probably lactic acid, too. We do have a masters student at University of California, Davis doing some genetic testing for us on microbes in the beer. That’ll be interesting.”
Leaving these beers to chance―to Mother Nature without any controls in place―has worked for the Belgians for centuries but time will tell if this experiment works in Maine. “We had some barrels that did not turn out well and got dumped. If you’re pushing the limits of beer production and trying new things, you’re gonna get bad beer otherwise you’re not being honest.” Then again, an early test batch of this experiment, Coolship Resurgam, just yielded a silver medal in the Lambic-style Sour Ale category.
Meanwhile, back at New Belgium, being a sensory specialist means the bulk of Salazar’s job entails running product panels including teaching sensory panels at the Siebel Institute. But at the end of a long day, she gets to hang out in the wood cellar nicknamed Cache la Foeder (recall the river’s name is Cache la Poudre; foeders are large barrels like the kind used at Rodenbach) for trysts with Felix. This doesn’t upset her husband Eric Salazar of New Belgium’s Eric’s Ale fame, creator of the sour peach beer that just won a silver medal at GABF, making the Salazars something of sour beer royalty. Felix is the name of the base used for all the sours.
Salazar ordered a massive amount of lychees and juiced them, which, she says, “turns into this crazy, coconutty, viscous, pearlescent matter… If I filter it, all the flavor and aroma leaves.” She also added 400 cinnamon sticks. “Eric was like, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ I had no clue.”
Those who have tried it insist otherwise. Nonetheless, it hasn’t advanced passed the Portfolio Council and come to term as a New Belgium Lips of Faith beer yet. Lips of Faith is a series of small-batch beers not intended for the huge sports bars Fat Tire and friends make it into, nor for the Explorer series of mid-grade adventurous beers such as Ranger for the intermediate level craft beer seeker. Indeed, Salazar proclaims of her Lips of Faith projects, “I want to make these for the beer geekiest people in the world.” And at this point in its infancy, fewer than nine barrels of Tart Lychee Test Batch #2 are in existence.
Accidents Happen, Thank God
Finally, sometimes a beer comes into this world unintentionally. Cheers to serendipity. Take the story of Deschutes’ Jubel 2000 for example. In late 1988, the year Gary Fish founded the brewery, he tapped the seasonal beer Jubelale. A few winters later, someone actually tried to make off with a full keg of it but discovered two things―beer is heavy and he was dumb. The would-be thief made it as far as just outside the door, where, during the freezing night, the winter warmer became half frozen by the time Fish noticed it in the morning. Employees tapped it out of curiosity and the de facto eisbier or ice beer was to their liking.
Because ice distilling is illegal in the United States, Paul Arney said they recreated the effect by adding more malts and calling the offspring Super Jubel. It is brewed annually at either the brewpub in Bend or the newer one in Portland. In 2000, Deschutes pulled off their first oaked beer experiment―Super Jubel in barrels―resulting in Jubel 2000 sold in bottles. The plan is to reproduce it every decade and the primary difference for Jubel 2010, said Arney, is that, “We’ve got more process controls now. When we go to create a recipe, our equipment is better. We can hit our targets. Jubel 2000 wasn’t as strong as we’d hoped and the oak flavor wasn’t what we do now. We’ve learned how to select and use oak barrels better now.”
In Petaluma, CA, Lagunitas Brown Shugga was also fashioned serendipitously. Back in 1996, the brewers replicated a homebrewer’s barleywine recipe for a beer that became Olde Gnarlywine, brewed with star thistle honey. The next year, when they planned on doing it again, Ron Lindenbusch (whose staff title is Head Beer Weasel) explained that, “the brew sheet didn’t say anything about honey. There’s no place on the sheet for that, only hops and malts.” They realized something was amiss when they measured the mash’s sugar and came up way short. Everyone was sent to every local store to buy as much brown sugar as possible. One-pound boxes and five-pound bags littered the floor after 200 pounds were added. “I hope nobody was baking cookies that day,” deadpanned Lindenbusch. Did they learn their lesson? No. To this day, they still don’t do test batches.
Lest you think happenstance plays no part in the mega brewers’ new creations, MillerCoors’ first collective effort isn’t future-forward but a retro, Pre-Prohibition style lager. Blue Moon creator Keith Villa, PhD in brewing, stumbled upon the original Coors brewing log over a decade ago and mostly admired its meticulousness and penmanship. When the basement at the factory in Golden, CO flooded in 2004, Villa not only salvaged the log, but replicated one of the recipes. Of course, he couldn’t clone it since the malts and hops used at the time are lost to history. Nonetheless, rare Noble hops―Hersbrucker and Strisslespalt―were used for an effect that is noticeably different than, say, Coors Light. The Pre-Pro has been available at the Coors compound for years where Peter Coors does, in fact, get final say on new products. Now, a year after medaling at GABF, the marketing department decided to leak the beer, dubbed Batch 19, into five test markets around the country only on draft. It’s produced on the same line as Coors Light, just ever so briefly. “It’s like letting a semi come down a real narrow street,” said Villa.
Whether or not Batch 19 is given wider distribution is not up to Villa and the production staff but folks like Sarah Ross, Director of Promotions. So far, she says, MillerCoors is pleased with the results. “We’re not ready to claim victory. We still have more learning.”
Ultimately, the larger the brewery, the deeper the paperwork when it comes to producing new beers. Mitch Steele compared his days at A-B to Stone saying, “The marketing department came up with what we’d brew and then we’d formulate it. I’d have to go through five levels of management. Here I have a lot more creative freedom and I’m having a lot more fun.”
Brian Yaeger is the author of Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey. He recently moved to Portland where he homebrews and is exploring the beers of the Pacific Northwest with his wife Half Pint and his dog Dunkel. He can't wait to have a beer (nothing light) with Fred Eckhardt.