All About Beer Magazine - Volume 37, Issue 5
September 8, 2016 By

This article appears in the November issue of All About Beer Magazine. Subscribe today and have All About Beer Magazine delivered to your mailbox, tablet, smartphone or computer. 

Twenty years ago there was a chance that a beer drinker in Manhattan might open a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale that had traveled 2,850 miles from Chico, California, and decide, “This doesn’t taste like the beer I drank there.” Today, there is a better chance she or he will open one in New York recently made in Mills River, North Carolina, and think it tastes no different than one sampled recently in Chico.

Every Friday the people who know those beers best sit in video conference rooms 2,600 miles apart and taste them. The panelists in Chico and Mills River will not be told which were made in Chico, where Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi brewed the first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in 1980, and which were made in Mills River, where the first beers were ready to sell early in 2014. They will fill out evaluation sheets, then begin a roundtable discussion during which each of them reads his or her notes.

“Then you’ll get the big reveal,” says Scott Jennings, brewmaster at Mills River. “What’s really cool is we’ve gotten to the point where the preferred beer will come from Chico, sometimes from Mills River.”

The only thing better might be a tie. “Our goal is 100 percent flavor alignment,” says Mills River co-manager Brian Grossman, Ken Grossman’s son.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is not the first brewery to operate a far-flung plant. St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch made multi-site production common practice for large brewing concerns when it opened its Newark, New Jersey, brewery in 1951. A-B now has 12 branches in the United States and makes Budweiser in more than 50 breweries around the world. Sierra Nevada also was not the first of what were once called microbreweries to set up shop across the country. Fifteen years after Redhook Ale Brewery opened in Seattle in 1981, that company built a plant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

(Photos by Bill Manley)

However, in 2011 when Sierra Nevada revealed that it was shopping for a brewery site east of the Mississippi, it was not obvious what would follow. Not long after the announcement in 2012 that Sierra Nevada would build near Asheville, New Belgium Brewing and Oskar Blues Brewery also chose to open breweries in North Carolina. Since then California-based Lagunitas Brewing Co. began brewing in Chicago and laid the plans to open another brewery in Southern California; Oskar Blues built a third brewery, in Austin, Texas; and Virginia became second home to, or a future home of, four West Coast-based breweries.

And as well as opening one of those Virginia breweries, Stone Brewing built another in Germany.

Two Breweries, One Flavor (Sometimes)

(Photo courtesy Stone Brewing Co.)

Stone did not set out to meticulously replicate the flavors of beers made at its Escondido, California, brewery in the ones produced in Berlin. “We wanted them recognizable as our brands,” says Mitch Steele, Stone’s longtime brewmaster who recently left the company to become chief operating officer and brewmaster at another brewery in August. “In Richmond we wanted a flavor match.”

Stone’s prolonged search before it announced the location of either of the two new breweries drew attention to why a company would open a second brewery—growing demand, fresher beer shipped more economically, greater environmental sustainability. It also revealed that some municipalities will offer significant financial incentives to attract new breweries. Such matters are a story unto themselves. This one is about flavor.

“As craft brewers, that’s what we do, flavor,” says Karl Ockert, director of brewing operations at Deschutes Brewery, which operates a production brewery in Bend, Oregon, as well as brewpubs in Bend and Portland. Deschutes will break ground on a brewery in Roanoke, Virginia, in 2019 with plans to begin distributing beer made at the new location in 2021.

As to flavor matching, “We’re hot on this topic right now,” he says. “On the one hand you might hand them a recipe at the new brewery and leave them to it. The other extreme is the Sierra Nevada way. In between is where the rest of us will decide where we want to be.”

(Photo courtesy Green Flash Brewing Co.)

Green Flash Brewing Co. has basically replicated its San Diego brewery in Virginia Beach, from the design of the production floor to the brew house and fermentation tanks, which were fabricated by the same manufacturer. Brewmaster Erik Jensen plans to spend a week out of each month in Virginia in the first months after production begins at the end of the year.

(Photo courtesy Oskar Blues Brewery)

Several brewers familiar with the process in San Diego are moving to Virginia Beach, and brewers Jensen was in the process of hiring in August will train first in San Diego. When he is not in Virginia, he will have each batch of beer brewed there shipped to San Diego so he can taste it. Of course, it will have already been analyzed at the Virginia Beach brewery’s laboratory.

Oskar Blues stepped up its sensory and analytic programs “hard-core” with the addition of two breweries. “It’s going to take years to perfect,” says head of brewing operations Tim Matthews.

“With Austin we had a lot more quantitative, a lot of numbers we could look at,” he says. At its Brevard, North Carolina, location, “we learned a lot about water that we utilized in Austin.” All three breweries use base malts and specialty malts from the same supplier and identical hop lot blends in each beer brand. “We’ll analyze the water composition and the beer composition, but the wort composition is my No. 1 favorite. It tells you if you are on track.” Those analytics are the first line of defense, but sensory analysis determines if beers are properly aligned.

“We’re doing on-site sensory and also shipping beer to be tasted side-by-side,” he says. “We’ve learned what to expect from travel. We’re looking for [differences] that are outside of travel.

But It’s Not Just the Water

In the fall of 1991, the monks at Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont in the south of Belgium contracted with monks at the Dutch abbey Koningshoeven to brew Chimay Blanche because construction at their own brewery limited production. To ensure the beer tasted no different from the Blanche brewed at Chimay, workers filled tanker trucks with water that would be shipped to Koningshoeven. Brewers in Asheville or Chicago or Richmond do not have that luxury.

The quality of, and access to, water was one of the reasons that Sierra Nevada, then New Belgium, then Oskar Blues chose to build in North Carolina. That does not mean it is exactly the same as in Chico, Fort Collins, Colorado, or Longmont, Colorado, where the original breweries are located. Brewers make one set of adjustments to the water in Chico, for instance, and another at Mills River. Jensen is happy that he doesn’t need to remove anything from the Virginia Beach water to replicate—with the addition of brewing salts—what he uses in San Diego.

“This is all the operational stuff we are talking about,” says Ockert. Equipment, ingredients and process are all part of the equation. There is no single piece of software a brewery can buy that makes it possible to plug in an analysis of the water, list the ingredients, specify the size and shape of brewing vessels, verify the specifications for a particular brand, and then enter another dozen variables before receiving specific instructions how to brew a beer here that tastes just like the beer there.

Every one of these breweries went through this process at least once before, starting with a brewing system that seems laughably small today before building something new and shiny. Jeff Lebesch brewed the first Fat Tire on a 5-hectoliter system in his basement, then in a railway depot before New Belgium built its current brewery in 1995, adding on multiple times. Alex Dwoinen, now brewing manager in Asheville, was one of the first employees, hired in 1993 to hand-fill 22-ounce bottles with beer that he filtered through a cheesecloth. He got to know each New Belgium system as it was being put in place.

He became brew house manager in 1997 and moved to Asheville two years ago, long before any stainless steel arrived. “I pretty much know where every pipe is,” he says. The Fort Collins brewery has two brew houses, one 100 barrel and one 200 barrel. Asheville has a single 200 hectoliter brew house, not quite as big as the larger one in Fort Collins, but with modifications that reflect how New Belgium’s portfolio has changed—facilitating production of higher-gravity and more hop-forward beers.

(Photo courtesy New Belgium Brewing)

The fermentation tanks in each location are not quite the same size, although the aspect ratio (height-to-width) is. The utilities are different, affecting both heating and cooling. As important, the Fort Collins brewery is 5,000 feet above sea level, and Asheville is 2,100 feet above. Water boils at a lower temperature in higher altitudes, affecting the evaporation rate, hop utilization (and therefore bitterness) and the maillard reaction, which adds both color and flavor (as cooks also know).

“We have a lot of benchmarks,” Dwoinen says. “Once you have those made, you understand where you have to be.”

Sierra Nevada traveled, vertically, the other direction. Chico is only 200 feet above sea level. Of course, Oskar Blues went down from 5,000 feet in Longmont to 2,200 in Brevard, and lower still to 500 feet when it added its third brewery in Austin.

Adjusting for altitude is only part of the process, a word that Jennings pronounces with a long “o.” “One thing that comes out of the process and flavor matching is that you have a really enhanced level of detail you look at,” he says. “And with more eyes, more points of view—people who think about our beer in ways they didn’t before.”

At the outset Sierra Nevada carefully split lots of malted barley and hops between its two breweries. “We wanted to eliminate as many variables as possible, to compare apples to apples when we were troubleshooting the process,” Jennings says. “That way you aren’t chasing your tail.”

“The beer coming out of Chico was our standard,” says Veronica Sheehan, quality assurance lab manager. Hitting that mark did not mean Mills River was ready to start shipping beer, because, when packaged, the beer turned out to be different. “Our sugar and [yeast] cell counts were all over the place. It was a pretty frustrating experience,” Jennings says. “Analytical caught it.”

The culprit turned out to be the mixing tank that is used to blend sugar into finished beer before bottle conditioning. It was set up differently than in Chico. “I dumped a lot of beer,” Brian Grossman says. “I got a lot of angry phone calls from my father.”

It All Comes Down to Flavor

New Belgium started taste-panel training even before brewing equipment arrived in North Carolina. Panelists would gather in the living room of a house the company rented. Everybody at the brewery was involved at the outset, and about one-third of them serve now. It takes about eight months to be considered a panelist, and a trainee must be validated on any eight (of more than 40) aroma and taste attributes. To become validated on an attribute, a panelist needs to see that attribute in training at least six times and get it correct 60 percent of the time.

Sensory analyst Alex Hazelmyer keeps score and constantly reminds panelists, “I need you to be a sensory robot.” She provides a very specific regimen for evaluating beer and complete descriptions of the four beers currently brewed in Asheville. For instance, the aroma of Fat Tire may include “Nutty, grainy, caramel, DMS and toasted malt character upfront with some ethyl hexanoate and grass, herbal, earthy hop notes in the background.”

Panelists must judge each batch of beer “true to brand” before it leaves the brewery. (At Sierra Nevada, beers should be “true to type.”) They are more likely to detect a flavor that doesn’t belong in a beer earlier in the process. At Fort Collins there are two tasting panels, one for production releases and another whose members will provide descriptive analysis of each attribute of beers already qualified as true to brand. “There are people who have 10 years of experience,” says Hazelmyer. “They know the brand through and through.”

They do not pretend that every batch of Fat Tire released tastes exactly like every other one. “We know how variable Fat Tire is in Fort Collins. We have crazy statistical data to show that,” she says. Hazelmyer previously worked at MillerCoors, sitting on a panel that regularly tasted Coors Light, among other brands. There were “panelists who were so in tune with the beer that there were breweries they could pick out,” she says.

The same is true at Sierra Nevada. “The reality is that coming out of Chico there are differences,” says Sheehan. Some of these can be measured; others are detected by the sensory panels. They may taste the differences between a beer from the east side brewery compared with one that is a blend of beer from the east side and the west side. Both brew houses in Chico and the one in Mills River are much different from the original 10-barrel system on which Ken Grossman established the standard for Pale Ale for 36 years.

As Grossman writes in Beyond the Pale, his biography of the brewery, that process involved a bit of pain. Before they began selling Pale Ale, he and Camusi tossed or gave away a dozen batches. The issue was not the flavor itself, but rather variations from one batch to the next. Grossman was determined even then that the beer “would taste the same every time.”

That hasn’t changed.

Stan Hieronymus has been contributing to All About Beer Magazine since 1993. His newest book, Brewing Local: American-Grown Beer, is a guide to making beer with indigenous ingredients.