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.”