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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Historic English Imperial Stout Revisted

Any long-time readers may recall my interest in the original Russian Imperial Stouts – brewed in England with four malts (pale, amber, brown, and black) plus caramelized sugar. Fermented with English ale yeast and Brettanomyces. They bear about as much resemblance to modern pastry stouts as the original English-brewed IPAs do to today’s hazies and milkshakes.

Of the many recipes from this blog that we’ve adapted to the big system at Sapwood Cellars (Atomic Apricot, Cherry Wine, Tmavé Pivo, Scottish Stout, Cheater Hops, Saphir Pilsner, Berliner etc.) my Courage RIS-Inspired is probably the one I was most excited about! We closely followed the original recipe from 2007 (which I preferred to the 2016 rebrew). Last summer we released the base beer (Lord Rupert Everton), followed last fall by Lord Rupert Barrelton which had a quick dip in barrels that held Cognac Finish Rye Whiskey from Sagamore Spirits.

After refilling the barrels from kegs of the same base beer, we pitched the same strain of Brett I used for the original, WY5110 Wyeast Brett anomalus. It's been out of production since 2007, but I asked everyone I could think of (starting with Wyeast) and no one had the strain available… French microbiologist Christophe Pinchon to the rescue! We’d already gotten “his” Willner Brett strain second hand for our gose (Salzig). The culture he sent started up quickly and I pitched half of an active 2L starter into each 80 gallon barrel in September… then not much happened. The Brett didn’t produce any CO2 or reduce the gravity over six months. Originally, we planned to bottle the beer once it stabilized, but without any apparent fermentation we decided we were better off kegging the beer as Sir Rupert Barrelton.


Sir Rupert Barrelton

Smell – Loamy, with fresher notes of Tootsie Roll (from the malt) and coconut/vanilla (from the barrel). I really have a hard time figuring out it that earthy note is Brett, or just mild oxidation from time warm in the barrels. The spirit-character is relatively subtle, but is enough to immediately make it clear this isn’t an authentic take.

Appearance – Black with chestnut edges. Pretty good dark brown head. Solid retention.

Taste – Smooth flavor without any sharpness from the roast. The Maris Otter and Amber malt help to fill-in the background of the black malt. Plenty of baking soda prevents the roast-acidity that can cause stouts to become acrid. The dark candi syrup brings a subtle dark fruitiness without being obnoxiously raisin/plum like dark crystal can be.

Mouthfeel – Not as thick as stout drinkers are used to (I’ve seen some stouts finish above 1.080 now… and I used to think Dark Lord’s 1.060+ was absurd)! Low carb, just how I like by big/dark beers.

Drinkability & Notes – It’s a unique beer compared to the other more “modern” stouts we brew. The “reasonable” FG of 1.026 makes it easier to drink than the typically sweeter ones. I like the depth of the combination of barrel-character and malt. The age/Brett give it additional complexity. If you are in Maryland and want to try the beer we'll have it available in crowlers the next month or so.

Changes for Next Time – Maybe it was the alcoholic boost from the barrel that prevented the Brett from doing more? Better to use more neutral barrels, or stainless with oak barrel-alternatives. We refilled the barrels with a riff on my Big Funky Ale and pitched additional microbes. It would be fun to try making our own invert no.4 to replace the dark candi syrup.


Courage RIS Inspired 2016

Smell – Brett (cherry, funk, dusty). The Brett C really covers up the malt almost completely in the nose. Blind I suspect I’d lean towards calling it an Oud Bruin.

Appearance – Black with dark-brown edges. Big tan head that is held up by the carbonation for a few minutes before deflating.

Taste – Stout-ier than the nose, with some cocoa notes. However, the Brett is still the primary flavor. Some nutty (almost peanut brittle) flavors from the malts. Moderate bitterness.

Mouthfeel – Carb is similar to what I remember, higher than I’d prefer. A little thin, although once the carbonation is swirled-down it improves.

Drinkability & Notes – It’s a bit beer with a lot of funk, plenty of alcohol, and a bit too much carbonation, not exactly a beer I (or many) would drink quickly.


Courage RIS Inspired 2007

Smell – Oaky. Unlike Sir Rupert, it is the wood rather than spirit coming through. Not damp basement, and not Home Depot lumber aisle either. Just a pleasant vanilla-sugar cookie woodiness. A hint of licorice. The roasty-toasty malt is there, but is subtle. Like Sir Rupert the Brett is restrained, honestly makes me more confident that the Brett really did do “something” in the fresher beer.

Appearance – Black with chestnut highlights. Head pours small and drops quickly.

Taste – Every bit as good as it was 10 years ago. Cookie-toasty, vanilla-oaky, cocoa-roasty, and leather-earthy. It is relatively dry for a beer this big, but the bitterness is mostly gone too. I don’t get any wet paper, or any other signs of detrimental oxidation.

Mouthfeel – The body a bit thin, but considering I brewed it when I was 24 and I’m 37 now I can’t complain! A testament to my beginner's luck… and metabisulfite. Carbonation is low, but I wouldn’t mind if it was even lower.

Drinkability & Notes – What can I say about a beer I brewed more than 1/3 of my life ago? The other two are good beers that I enjoy, this one is something special. A huge range of flavors that all work in unison. Sadly this is my last bottle.





Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Why Are Brewing and Winemaking so Different?

On their surfaces the fermentations of beer and wine seem like they should be similar. A cool, sugary liquid is inoculated with Saccharomyces cerevisiae (or a close relative) and the eventual product is packaged with a goal of minimizing oxidation. Why then are the two approached in such fundamentally different ways from yeast pitching rate to the use of oxygen scavengers?

I’ve only made a handful on wine kits over the years so I’m by no means an expert vintner. That said, I’ve been thinking about cider while I wait for TTB-approval to begin production at Sapwood Cellars. The question is, do we approach it like a beer or a wine?


Wine yeast has a different history than beer yeast. Where ale and lager strains have been domesticated for centuries, most wine strains were at best semi-domesticated until the last few decades. A big reason for that is the seasonal production differences between the two products. Dried grain and hops store and ship easily compared to grapes, so harvesting and repitching yeast was common in beer long before wine (which relied on an annual spontaneous fermentation).

Wine strains are still less domesticated (more wild) and thus tend to be more “competitive” than beer yeast, producing kill factors and generally being able to bootstrap up from low cell counts. As a result, suggested pitching rates for wine are usually much lower than for beer. A typical pitching rate for a 1.080 beer might be 3 grams of dried yeast per gallon, where wine is usually 1 g per gallon. This is also reflected in the package size for the strains (5 g vs. 11.5 g).

For home winemakers anyway, it is difficult to find best-practices for things like pitching rate and oxygenation. We can certainly debate the credibility and accuracy of the advice, but homebrewers have widely referenced formulas and targets for these based on original gravity and type of yeast (ale vs. lager).


Wine must isn't boiled to avoid destroying its fresh fruit flavor, so without chemical intervention there is no “clean slate” to begin fermentation. Even pitching a pure culture of yeast wouldn’t guarantee a product that doesn't eventually sour or go off. That helps to explain the common uses of antimicrobial sulfite and sorbate (which winemakers have widely referenced formulas for dosing rate). Chemical stabilization also allows the packaging of sweet wines, where brewers have mash temperature to control fermentability.

Most of the analysis of wine, must, and fermentation has happened since the 1970s. Where some of the earliest work on microbiology (not to mention scientific measurement) was from breweries a century earlier. Beer became science-ified first thanks to the earlier industrialization of brewing (again a result of the differences in ingredients). 


Modern breweries are built upon keeping oxygen out of the beer post-fermentation. Much of this is accomplished with purging with carbon dioxide or nitrogen and transfers and packaging under pressure. Conversely, conventional wine production relies on dosing with metabisulfite (a potent oxygen scavenger) to neutralize oxidation while the process doesn’t do as much to avoid it.

Part of this is that breweries may make 25 or more batches of beer in a given fermenter each year, while seasonal wineries don’t have this luxury. This means even smaller breweries can afford to spend more on their equipment allowing for transfers under pressure rather than pumps. Dealing with force-carbonation makes pressure vessels a requirement. There are also stages of winemaking, like punch-downs or separating the skins from the fermented wine, that are nearly impossible to do without introducing some oxygen. There is also an expectation of stability and ageability with wine.

Traditionally beer was naturally carbonated, which allows the yeast to scavenge oxygen introduced during packaging. Combine that with typical quick consumption and oxidation wasn't as large of a concern until recently.

Natural wineries that avoid the addition of sulfites do take some cues from brewing in limiting oxygen, but this is currently a growing but still niche winemaking approach.


Beer has always been a recipe: grains, water, and herbs at a minimum. Sugars, fruit, spices etc. all have a historic precedent in brewing. It is no big surprise then that brewers are more likely to add 100 different ingredients than vintners who can make wine from crushed grapes alone - although adulteration had a historic place. Most of the wines I see with a "flavor" addition (e.g., chocolate, almond etc.) are inexpensive gimmicks. The lone exception is herbs in wines like vermouth. Where most of the expensive highly sought-after beers contain additions that fall outside of the core ingredients.

Modern wineries add all sorts of processing aids, acid/sugar adjustments, nutrients etc. but generally with the goal of balancing, showcasing, or heightening the fruit expression. Wine strains are now carefully selected to have specific interactions to increase aromatic compounds (e.g., the ability to converts the thiol 3MH to 3MHA). Wine yeast blends are also popular with one strain freeing a compound and another converting it. All things that are rarely considered for brewing.

Brewers have only relatively recently begun to embrace aging in oak barrels, something many wineries never gave up on when stainless steel became the standard. Brewers have very much relied on the secondhand barrels from wine and spirit production rather than buying new or directly supporting coopers.

This goes after the larger point that brewers are currently less tethered to their industry's recent past than wineries. The most popular craft beers of today don't look or smell like any beers that were produced 30 years ago, while wines have remained relatively unchanged. Much of the American craft beer boom was based on taking dead or dying styles, ingredients, and techniques and resurrecting them. It is great to see the same becoming more popular in wine with the resurgence of orange wine, obscure varietals, and natural winemaking.


I’m not here to argue that either brewers or vintners are better. I think there are things that each side could learn from the other. Why don’t we see dry hopped wine? Why don’t brewers add 5 PPM of metabisulfite as insurance for the hazy IPAs? Why don’t we see more wineries reduce their sulfite usage by purging their tanks and bottles? Why don’t we see more brewers celebrate the terroir of local ingredients? I even wrote an article for BYO about using wine yeast in beer.

Someone could likely write a similar article about distilleries, cideries, sake-producers, etc. The point is to get out of your box, and see what other experts suggest in their chosen domain. Determine if any of it is useful to what you do!

I've talked to cidermakers who operate just like a winery in terms of their fermentation and highlighting of the apples, while others are clearly more influenced by craft beer (take Graft). We'll likely take a hybrid approach for our ciders, using our best low-oxygen transfers along with winemaking techniques that make sense to us. Celebrating the character of the apples, but still sometimes having fun with additional flavors.


Monday, December 2, 2019

Tracking Brewery Purchases, Crafty Beer, and Craft Conglomerates

In July 2018 I made a poster illustrating the connections between breweries. I've expanded and updated it a few times since then, both thanks to people who have commented with suggestions and because big breweries haven't stopped buying smaller breweries. Below is the most recent update. As always let me know if you see anything incorrect, but please include a source confirming it.

Higher resolution image - Prints are available from my web store.

The biggest change since my last update two months ago was the purchase of New Belgium (and Magnolia) by Kirin/Lion. Other big news included purchases by Legacy Breweries (Ninkasi's parent company) of Laurelwood, and Aspen in pursuit of buying 15 breweries by the end of 2020. AB InBev purchased the remainder of Craft Brew Alliance (Kona, Red Hook, Cisco, Widmer etc.) up from 31.5%.

I added some smaller ownership groups around the center box, both craft breweries who own other craft breweries, and private equity firms that own a brewery in their entirety. I've also tried to replace the bigger breweries outside the US with smaller breweries that would be more easily confused for independents.

As always my goal isn't to tell anyone what beer they should buy/drink, only to provide information. There are a wide variety of situations represented along the outside of the chart, and there is a big difference between a brewery owned by Duvel Moortgat and one owned by AB InBev. Personally I do my best to support small local breweries where the owner is personally involved. Then to independent regional breweries, then to independent national breweries, on to the private-equity-backed conglomerates, and finally those owned by big beer (whose interests, lobbying, and sales practices often hurt small breweries).

There are also a wide range of situations that I haven't found a way to represent on the chart. For example the breweries that are owned in part by private equity firms (Abita, Stone, Schlafly, Unita, Weyerbacher, and Lord Hobo).

A few common questions:

How did you choose which breweries are in the center box?
  • I tried to include a range of sizes and locations, focusing on my favorites, friends, and those that had been generous with their time. There are tens of thousands of breweries and not enough room for all of them.
Why is Sol under Heineken, isn't it owned by MillerCoors?
  • The poster shows ownership, MillerCoors has a 10-year distribution deal for Sol in the US. My goal is to show ownership, so I ignore contract brewing. This is different than the overlap between Groupo Modelo and Constellation where brands like Corona and Dos Equis are owned/brewed separately for the US.
What is that weird symbol above the Trappists?
  • It's the logo of the Holy See (Vatican). Certainly not the same as the corporate relationship depicted elsewhere, but it is certainly a connection between them and the other monastic orders of the Catholic church.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Dealing with COLA, FONL, and Compliance

With our first anniversary (and party) coming up, I wanted to write a post on one of the many areas I didn't know anything about as a homebrewer that goes into an event like this. One of my many hats at Sapwood Cellars is compliance. It is a necessary part of the dream job, but luckily not the whole thing! It includes things like record keeping, filing excise taxes, and TTB submissions for formula and label approvals. The taxes took awhile to get used to, but aren't that bad now that we have adequate record keeping procedures in place.

We're lucky to be in that Maryland doesn't require federal COLA label approval for in-state distribution. So we're just now getting into that as we've recently been approved to sell beer in Virginia, DC, California, and Oregon. Don't get your hopes up, for now it's just small shipments for festivals and events (e.g., Modern Times Festival of Dankness, Aslin Anniversary Party, Snallygaster). So far it hasn't been too burdensome, mostly just getting the templates for our labels and keg collars in spec, and then learning what words are required or problematic. It is a bit more work given the wide variety of beers we produce (more than 150 in our first year), but most of those are tasting room only.



The more annoying piece is formula approvals (FONL). Despite what several brewers have told me, formula approvals are required any time you are adding ingredients not in the list of Exempt Ingredients and Processes regardless of whether label approval is required or where/if the beer will be distributed. I called the TTB and had my understanding confirmed. True, the odds of getting in trouble for not having an approved formula are low for a beer that stays in state (especially taproom only), but as a long-time government employee I'm just not an "ask for forgiveness" kind of person. The issue is that it seems approvals are really subjective/inconsistent.

Last fall I'd requested a formula with acorns, to do a small batch with the acorns I dry-fermented. I was rejected. Well that isn't entirely true, what the TTB usual responds is to request the GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) notification from the FDA for the ingredient in question. The issue is that they know well that the most ingredients aren't on there, and that the only way to get it there would be to fund a study showing its safety. As a result, most of "GRAS" substances are specific chemical compounds (e.g., Xylooligosaccharides from sugarcane, Ergothionine, and Synthetic dihydrocapsiate) that large companies have gotten through. You know what isn't on there? Apples, while apple peel powder is. Oranges, but orange pomace and enzyme-treated orange pomace is. You get the idea.



When I contacted the FDA about acorns they responded that while acorns were not GRAS, I could use "tannic acid extracted from nutgalls or excrescences that form on the young twigs of Quercus infectoria Oliver and related species of Quercus." Pass...

Recently I saw another brewer mention that they had gotten acorn flour approved (but were still requires submission of a "tannin leaching" process). I submitted a formula for a dark saison with acorn flour, and was rejected again, but this time for the reason that acorn flour is approved without a request being required. Not sure what grinding the acorns up does to change it from requiring FDA study to being allowed without even having to submit a formula request.

Something similar happened with Staghorn Sumac (which I'd used at home with wonderful results). GRAS notification was requested from my submission, which annoyed me because I've had several commercial beers brewed with. I responded:

Maybe I am misunderstanding the GRAS Notices? It doesn't seem to include most of the typical ingredients added to beer, e.g., hops or barley. Most of the entries are for chemical compounds or specific extractions from plants, not fruits, vegetables, or other commonly consumed foodstuffs? Rhus typhina (staghorn sumac) has been made into a lemonade-like drink for centuries. Here is an info sheet from North Dakota State on the species, that includes: "Food - Sumac lemonade made from berries."

Three weeks later and my formula was approved without further comment...

I've got nothing against safety rules on what goes into beer. I'd just prefer they were clearly delineated and widely followed.

Since both of these ingredients are foraged and thlimited, we decided to make 15 gallon variants with each for the anniversary party. A barrel-aged dark saison (based on Funky Dark #4) for the acorns and a pale sour fermented with The Yeast Bay Melange for the Sumac!



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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

14k Yellow Gold Hammered Circle Earrings Drop Dangle Fine Jewelr

There are so many reviews of homebrewing gear online, but when it comes to craft brewing equipment you're lucky if you can find a forum post or two. It makes sense as there are so many more homebrewers than craft brewers... I also had more time to write before I started making beer 60+ hours a week. Now that we're a year into brewing at Sapwood Cellars, it seemed like a good time to step back and get my thoughts down about the equipment we purchased. Hopefully what follows will help a brewer starting out, looking to add something, or just wanting a sense of what things cost.

Forgeworks 10 bbl Brewhouse - $71,306

The Good: Reasonable price, solid build quality, gets the wort production job done.

The Bad: A few design head-scratchers on the mash tun. It has a huge volume below the false bottom (~90 gallons/3 bbl). The under-screen spray balls spray directly into the supports making them useless (the connection for them is also around back making it difficult to access). The torsion ring on the rakes wasn't adequately tightened when we received it causing the rakes fell off mid-mash a few batches in. No issues since properly tightening. Originally the pickup arm in the kettle extended into the center (right into the trub cone), but they swapped us our for a shorter one that is now standard.

Verdict: Satisfied with it so far, but not thrilled given things like having to pull the false bottom to clean underneath/between after the last brew of the week (the plates can be annoying to remove, but not bad compared to some other systems).


MidCo EC300 Burner - $1,070

The Good: Plenty of heat to have the kettle close to a boil by the time run-off is finished.

The Bad: The burner's control board is incredibly sensitive to moisture, just a few drops and it is fried. A fact that it would have been nice to have a warning about from Forgeworks (they said some breweries have had it happen multiple times). Otherwise it has just been a learning curve to wait longer to turn it on and throttle the gas to avoid boil-overs. Our beers are 1-2 SRM darker than predicted thanks to direct fire, but not really the burner's fault.

Verdict: Steam would have been great, but wasn't in our budget. We haven't had issues since covering the control board with a plastic baggie (we've got a spare controller too). We were told that MidCo had a waterproof housing almost complete last fall, but haven't heard an update since.


10k Two Tone Yellow Gold I Love You Key Charm Necklace Pendant F - $4,198.72

The Good: Their website allow you to input the parameters (volume, desired chilling rate, ground water/glycol temperature) and they build a unit to accommodate. That seemed to work for us as the chill times seem to line up reasonably.

The Bad: Nothing major to complain about. In the summer we do have to slow run-off as the second stage (glycol) doesn't lower the temperature compared to ground water by more than a degree or two at full blast.

Verdict: Might have been worth it to go a bit more over-sized, but no issues with the build-quality, durability etc.


Apex 10/20 bbl Fermenters - $7,500/10,700

The Good: The price is reasonable. We've got the "new style" 10 bbls that have an easy-rotate racking. The 2 inch dumps at the bottom rarely get clogged with hops, and the 4 inch dry hop ports work well, especially with our hop doser (below).

The Bad: The 20 bbl tank is the "old style" meaning the racking arm is just a tri-clamp. Not ideal, but it works fine especially after switching to a Teflon gasket. The big issue on that tank is with the hop port, the literature said it was a 6 inch, but it turned out to be a DIN150 (European fitting). Apex had been aware of this for 6 months and it took me ordering a gasket (to confirm the size), a custom reducer, and a new clamp all from Sanitary Fittings to resolve the issue.

There is a minor issue with one of the 10 bbl fermenters as well, the sparyball arm is just a little short which makes reassembly a two person operation (one to push, one to clamp).

Verdict: Given the issues and poor service with the 20 bbl, I'm hesitant to order more tanks from them when the time for expansion comes. Especially as they don't manufacture the tanks, the only advantage of going with them rather than directly from a Chinese manufacturer would be service.


Colorado Brewing Double Keg Washer - $6,370‬

The Good: Great price for an semi-automated keg washer. It rinses, washes, sanitizes, and purges two kegs at a time without intervention. As long as everything is connected and the reservoirs are filled, we rarely have an issue (other than hops in the occasional keg plugging up). The cycles are customizable, so we've tweaked them. We run a double cycle on our sour kegs, and no issues so far sharing them with clean beers.

The Bad: It's been a bit of a chore to deal with the issues that have arisen in one year of use: casters fell off, weld on one of the pots failed, software "disappeared", gas solenoid failed etc.

Verdict: The company has been great at dealing with these issues as they've occurred, shipping us replacement parts, paying for a welder etc. That said, I'd rather have not spent so much time dealing with it.


Marks Mini-Hop Doser - $495

The Good: Allows us to add hops with minimal oxygen pick-up. Safer than dry hopping loose (no risk of foam-up). Ability to add hops to a tank without venting the head pressure.

The Bad: Nothing big, although expect to double the cost of the unit itself in fittings. We have 4 inch butterfly valves on our tanks and move the doser between them as needed.

Verdict: Not sure what we'd do without it... oh I do because we we're able to use it on our 20 bbl because of the wonky port size (run CO2 and hope you don't get a face full of beer).


Navien Tankless Water Heater Standard Model - $1,260

The Good: Outputs up to 180F, plenty hot for collecting water for the mash and sparge or pasteurizing a line. Relatively inexpensive to buy and operate compared to a traditional always-on HLT.

The Bad: In the winter 180F output runs at 3 gallons/min. Helps to have a tank with an electric element to speed things up, or pre-collect water the night before.

Verdict: At our scale, and without steam this made the most sense and we're still happy with it. Two units can be daisy-chained together if we want to speed things up (e.g., first heats to 140F, second to 180F).


Uline Straddle Stacker: Semi-Electric - $3,245

The Good: It's considerably less expensive than even a used propane-powered forklift. It's good in tight spaces because it's human powered, and powerful enough to lift a rack with two barrels. Being electric, it doesn't produce fumes that could negatively effect barrel-aging beers.

The Bad: Given the legs in front, it can't get around larger pallets, or standard pallets the long way.  It is propelled by pushing, and weights over 1,200 lbs (plus whatever you are moving up to 2,200 lbs more). Only one wheel turns with steering making direction changes difficult. It also needs additional height above it, which can be tricky in a building with HVAC, lights, doorways etc.

Verdict: With our relatively cramped space, a forklift doesn't make sense, this gets the job done.


FlexTanks - $460-$1,190

The Good: They are inexpensive compared to stainless steel totes, while being easier to use than IBCs (international bulk containers). They have standard 1.5" tri-clamp fittings and sample ports. We mainly use the 300 gallon ones to hold bulk sour beer waiting for barrels, or to dilute barrel-aged beer that is too oaky (especially with so many first-use barrels). The 80 gallon FlexTanks are for fruit additions, where the large opening makes them easier to fill and empty than a barrel.

The Bad: They can only take ~1 PSI, so most of the movement has to be from gravity. The gasket on the lids is round and doesn't have a grove to sit in. This makes it is difficult to align without dropping in.

Verdict: They were a good place to start thanks to the price, but stainless would be more versatile and foolproof if you have the money.


EuroTransport Container Dimple Jacketed - $6,595

The Good: It's a movable, stainless-steel, temperature-controlled tank. We use it as our blending tank for sour barrel-aged beers. The bottom port is for liquid in/out (with a T for the sample port), and the two side ports for the temperature probe and carbonation stone. We currently have it off the pad, so it is nice to be able to pallet-jack it onto the pad for cleaning.

The Bad: It's odd that a jacketed tank doesn't have a built-in thermowell for the temperature probe. We use corny fittings for some kegs anyway, but it is weird to have a tank like this with a gas poppet on top. While the tank is jacketed, it isn't double walled so it sweats like crazy in the summer, we need to insulate it.

Verdict: Reasonably happy with it, but it requires a bit of a unique situation (like ours) to justify this over a standard brite tank.


XpressFill XF4500 - $6,295

The Good: It's a reasonable price for a four-head counter-pressure bottle filler. Does four bottles a minute when everything is humming along.

The Bad: We had some issues early on with the fill sensor. One or two heads would indicate that the bottle was filled even when it was empty. Turned out it was a drop of condensation on the CO2 line "falsely" completing the circuit. Not a problem now that we know what to do. One of the switches won't stay in the off position, which can cause the pneumatic foot to rise unexpectedly.

Verdict: I'm happy with it. Worth the added cost over a gravity filler for us because it reduces oxygen exposure, and allows us to bottle partially (or fully) carbonated beer. Our general approach is to chill the beer in the blending tank, prime with sugar and rehydrated yeast, agitate the tank, then pump in CO2 through the stone to get to ~1.5 volumes of CO2. The yeast does its job to bring the carbonation to target in the bottle, and we don't have to worry about predicting residual CO2 in barrels stored in ambient conditions.

Update: We had to cut down the stoppers to lower the fill heights which were ~17.4 oz in our 16.9 oz bottles. That seemed to work well.



Thursday, May 16, 2019

How to Win Untappd (or any Online Beer Rating)

Like it or not, online beer ratings have been one of the big drivers of craft beer over the last 20 years. As a brewery, you don't need to cater to them, but high scores can drive sales and excitement.

I spent a good deal of time on BeerAdvocate during my first few years of beer drinking (2005-2008). Reading other's reviews was beneficial for my palate and beer vocabulary. I reviewed a couple hundred beers, which gave me confidence to "review" my homebrew for this blog. However, there were aspects of trying to track down all the top beers that made it not entirely healthy. Whether it was fear of missing out on a new release, or the thrill of the catch outweighing the enjoyment of actually drinking the beer. I  find how many new beers there are now freeing, there is no way to try them all, so I don't try!


Now that Untappd is the dominant player I'll glance at reviews (especially for one of our new releases), but I don't rate. It's rare to see a review that has much insight into the beer. Even the negative ones are rarely constructive. As an aside, I find it a bit weird when people in the local beer industry rate our offerings. Generally they are kind, but it just seems strange to publicly review "competing" products.

For four or five years I maintained a spreadsheet to track the beers I drank and those I wanted to try. I weighted the beers not just on their average BeerAdvocate score, but on the score relative to their style. That's to say I was more interested in trying a Czech Pilsner rated 4.2 more than a DIPA at 4.3 because Pilsners generally have lower scores. If all you drink are the top rated beers, you'll be drinking mostly the same handful of styles from a small selection of breweries. Why is that though?


Whether it is the BeerAvocate Top 100, Rate Beer's Top 50, and Untappd's Top Beers they all show a similar bias towards strong adjunct stouts, DIPAs, and fruited sours. I don't think the collective beer rater score aligns with what the average beer drinker enjoys the most or drinks regularly. It is a result of a collection of factors that are inherent to the sort of hedonistic rating system.

So what makes beers and breweries score well?

Big/Accessible Flavors

People love assertive flavors. Once you've tried a few hundred (or thousand) beers, it is difficult to get a "wow" response from malt, hops, and yeast. This is especially true in a small sample or in close proximity to other beers (e.g., tasting flight, bottle share, festival). So many of the top beers don't taste like "beer" they taste like maple, coconut, bourbon, chocolate, coffee, cherries etc. If you say there is a flavor in the beer everyone wants to taste it... looking at reviews for our Vanillafort, it is amazing how divergent the experiences are. Despite a (to my palate) huge vanilla flavor (one bean per 5 gallons), some people don't taste it.


Sweetness is naturally pleasant. It's a flavor our palates evolved to prefer over sour/bitter because it is a sign of safe calories. That said, too much can also make a beer less drinkable. I enjoy samples of pastry stouts, but most of them don't call for a second pour. Balance between sweet-bitter or sweet-sour makes a beer that calls for another sip, and a second pour.

Even the most popular IPAs have gone from dry/bitter to sweet/fruity. They are beers that are less of an acquired taste. More enjoyable to a wider spectrum of drinkers. I'm amazed how many of the contractors, delivery drivers, and other non-beer nerds who visit the brewery mention that they are now into IPAs.

If you want a high brewery average, one approach is simply to not brew styles that have low average ratings. That said, for tap room sales it can really help to have at least one "accessible" beer on the menu. For us that has always been a low-bitterness wheat beer with a little yeast character, and a fruity hop aroma. Their scores drag our average down, but it is worth it for us.

Exclusivity

The easier a beer is to obtain, the more people will try it. The problem is that you don't want everyone rating your beer. To get high scores it helps to apply a pressure that causes only people who are excited about the beer to drink (and rate it). This can take a variety of forms, but the easiest is a small production paired with a high price-point and limited distribution. You can make the world's best sour beer, but if it is on the shelf for $3 a bottle at 100 liquor stores you'll get plenty of people sampling it that hate sour beers. Even with our relatively limited availability we get reviews like "My favorite sour beer ever!" 1.5 stars... The problem with averages is that a handful of really low scores have a big impact.

I'll be interested to see how our club-exclusive bottles of sour beer rate compared to the ones available to the general public. The people who joined self-identified as fans of ours and sour beers. My old homebrewing buddy Michael Thorpe has used clubs to huge success at Afterthought Brewing (around #20 on RuffleButts® Baby/Toddler Girls Ruffled Woven Bloomer). In addition to directing his limited volume towards the right consumers, clubs allow him to brew the sorts of weird/esoteric (delicious) beers that might not work on a general audience (gin barrels, buckwheat, dandelions, paw paw etc.).



As noted above some styles have higher average reviews than others. Simply not brewing low-rated styles goes a long way towards ensuring a high overall brewery average. Anytime I feel like one of our beers is underappreciated, I go look at the sub-4 average of Hill Farmstead Mary, one of my favorite beers. Afterthought recently announced a new non-sour brand, which will prevent beer styles with lower averages from "dragging down" the average for Afterthought.

I remember there being debate over the minimum serving size for a review on BeerAdvocate. I think a few ounces of a maple-bacon-bourbon imperial stout is plenty. However for session beers, can you really judge a beer that is intended to be consumed in quantity based on a sip or two? We don't do sample flights at Sapwood Cellars. We sell half-pours for half the price of full pours. Not having a flight reduces people ordering beers they won't enjoy just to fill out a paddle. It also means that more people will give a beer a real chance, drinking 7 oz gives more time for your palate to adjust and for you to get a better feel for the balance and drinkability. What kills me is seeing people review one of our sessions beers based on a free "taste."

Another option is physical distance. Most trekking to Casey, De Garde, or Hill Farmstead are excited to be going there and ready to be impressed. It helps that all three brew world-class sour beers, but I'm not sure the ratings would be quite as good if they were located in an easily-accessible urban center.

The trick to getting to the Top Beer lists is that you need a lot of reviews to bring the weighted average up close to the average review. So having a barrier, but still brewing enough beer and being a big enough draw to get tens of thousands of check-ins and ratings. Organic growth helps, starting small, and generating enough excitement to bring people from far and wide. Lines (like those at Tree House) then help to keep up the exclusivity, not many people who hate hazy IPAs are going to wait in line for an hour to buy the new release - unless it is to trade.


Shelf Stability/Control 

Many of the best rated beers are bulletproof. Big stouts and sours last well even when not handled or stored properly. This means that even someone drinking a bottle months or years after release is mostly assured a good experience. Most other styles really don't store well and are at their best fresh.

Conversely, hazy IPAs are one of the most delicate styles. I think it's funny that some brewers talk about hiding flaws in a NEIPA. While you sure don't need to have perfect fermentation control to make a great hop-bomb, they are not forgiving at all when it comes to packaging and oxygen pick-up. That's partly the reason that the best regarded brewers of the style retail most of the canned product themselves. Alchemist, Trillium, Tree House, Tired Hands, Hill Farmstead, Aslin, Over Half etc. all focus on direct-to-consumer sales. That ensures the beer doesn't sit on a truck or shelf for a large amount of time before a consumer gets it. Consumers seem to be more aware than they once were (especially for these beers) that freshness matters.


Of course the margins are best when selling direct too, so any brewery that is able to sell cases out the door will. It can turn into a positive feedback loop, where the beer is purchased/consumed fresh which makes the beer drinker more likely to return. This worked well for Russian River, not bottling Pliny the Elder until there was enough demand that it won't sit on the shelf for more than a week.

Sure the actual packaging process (limiting dissolved oxygen) is important. But generally an OK job on a two-week-old can will win out over a great job on a two-month old can.

The ultimate is to have people drink draft at your brewery. That way you can control the freshness, serving temperature, glassware, atmosphere etc. That said, I notice the scores for our beers in growlers are usually higher than draft. I suspect that this is about self-selection, people who enjoyed the beer on draft are more likely to take a growler home and rate it well. It might also be a way for people to appear grateful to someone who brought a beer for them to try.

Reputation

This is one area where blind-judged beer competitions have a clear edge over general consumer ratings. When you know what you're drinking, that knowledge will change your perception. Partly it is subconscious, you give a break to a brewery that makes good beer. Or after a lot of effort to procure a bottle you don't want to feel like you wasted money/time. It can be more overt. I've had friends tell me that they'll skip entering a rating for our beer if it would be too low. I remember boosting the score of the first bottle of Cantillon St. Lamvinus I drank, it was so sour... but I didn't want to be that 22 year old who panned what people consider to be one of the best beers in the world.

I could also be cynical, but I can imagine someone buying a case of a new beer to trade and wanting to make sure they get good "value" by helping the score for the beer. Might be doubly true for a one-off beer with aging potential!

Sapwood Cellars has done pretty well in our first year. Out of more than 100 breweries in Maryland, we have the third-highest average score (4.06) on Untappd. That isn't even close to meaning that our beer is "better" than anyone below us though. In addition to being solid brewers, we're helped by our selection of styles (mostly IPAs and sours) and by selling almost all of our beer on premise. Hopefully that feeds a good reputation, which further drives scores as we continue to hone our process.