The Golden Rule of Brewing

Feature by | Mar 2012 | Issue #62

Photo by Christina Kiffney

While making the drive from Boulder, Colo., to Denver to pick up a borrowed fermenter from Black Shirt Brewing Co., Matt Cutter, founder of Upslope Brewing Co., smelled a strange odor emanating from the engine in his Jeep.

He made it to Denver, but he learned that his car would not be making the trip back. That’s when Chad Miller, who co-founded Black Shirt with his wife, Carissa Holsted, and brother, Branden Miller, hitched his pickup to the trailer loaded with the fermenter—“without a second thought,” Cutter wrote in a blog post about the experience.

“Would you believe that I am driving a borrowed pickup truck, towing a borrowed trailer that is loaded with a borrowed 15-barrel fermentor to the brewery right now?” Cutter remembers saying on a call with Carissa during the trip back.

Cutter’s brewery had been facing a familiar problem: Having outgrown their current equipment, but a few months away from a new fermentor, the brewery was in need of help. One of Cutter’s employees had spoken to a friend at Black Shirt, who mentioned they had a tank that was going unused while their new facilities were under construction.

But a truck wasn’t supposed to be part of the deal.

That kind of generosity, though, is one of the defining attributes of the craft brewing industry. Part of craft’s narrative has always been a scrappy, underdog sensibility, which bonds brewers as friends. What bonds them as business partners is the understanding that the more room in the fridge for craft brews from every corner of the country, the smaller the probability that a consumer will reach for a beer that’s advertised during the Super Bowl. Not to mention that with startup and expansion costs threatening to sink even moderately successful small brewers, helping hands are not just appreciated; they’re often crucial to survival.

But the goodwill doesn’t stop at the occasional tank or piece of advice. It’s an industry-wide culture that can be found at every stage—from conception of a brewery or beer to execution, to, yes, even consumption.

A Hop, Step and a Jump Start
With so many breweries cropping up, it’s easy to forget the challenges of opening one. Like starting any business, brewing beer professionally is a risk, an expensive proposition requiring serious investment of time and capital. Good thing, then, that Boston Beer Co.’s Brewing the American Dream program, which provides small loans and business training to microbrewers, is there to help.

In late 2011, Boston Beer Co. chose Roc Brewing Co. as one of the worthy startups. The brewery used the $10,000 loan to purchase a keg washer, and co-founder Chris Spinelli has already made one of the four prepaid trips to Boston, also included in the award, for a few days of mentoring and training at Sam Adams.

“We got to sit down with everyone, and I mean everyone and anyone,” says Spinelli, adding that the award has also gotten them national exposure they would have otherwise struggled to gain.

Of course, tanks alone do not make beer. Hops supply has been a recurring problem for the brewing industry—demand for quality beer creates demand for quality ingredients. And while the 2007 shortage that threatened to cripple the rise of craft brewing is mostly over, a scarcity of certain kinds of hops remains.

Charlotte, N.C.’s NoDa Brewing Co. opened strong in October 2011. Demand for Hop, Drop and Roll, their signature, Citra-heavy IPA, was soaring. Just one problem—Charlotte isn’t exactly a hotbed of hops production.

“I sent emails out to West Coast breweries asking if they could spare any Citra hops,” says Suzie Ford, who co-owns NoDa with her husband, Todd. “Being a new brewery, we had no ‘hop power’ in the market.” Then Full Sail in Hood River, Ore., “came through, and sold us enough for two or three batches,” Ford says. “They are awesome!”

The online Brewers Association forums is one way brewers like Full Sail and NoDa make these connections. Matt Nadeau, co-founder of Vermont’s Rock Art Brewery, keeps on eye on the forum, and also lets his distributors know when Rock Art has extra hops, sharing the perks of his great relationship with his hops wholesaler.

“If everyone has a little piece of the pie and is able to put food on the table, then there’s no need to not help someone out,” Nadeau says plainly.

Rock Art’s charitable attitude isn’t limited to ingredients—along with Long Trail, Hill Farmstead and Harpoon, they pitched in to help their fellow Vermonters, The Alchemist and The Flat Street Brew Pub, when their facilities were wrecked by Hurricane Irene last fall. Rock Art bottled The Alchemist’s salvaged beer, lending their bottle-conditioning expertise to owners John and Jen Kimmich. Adds Nadeau, “To me, [helping out] is just important, as good neighbors and good people.”

An Industry that Brews Together …
Collaboration doesn’t just mean more beer—it means better beer.

“The old ‘rising tide floats all boats’ analogy is very true here in craft brewing,” says Mitch Steele, head brewer at Stone Brewing. Stone has been a leader in the collaboration-brew movement, another avenue of cooperation among breweries. “That’s one reason why we often try to pick an up-and-coming brewer to collaborate with. They instantly get their beer to many states. The craft brewing business is still relatively new and exciting, and we all want each other to do well. Many of us started out as friends, and sharing beer is an activity that builds friendships and camaraderie, and just further develops our relationships with other brewers.”

Since experimental beers are made in small batches and are often barely profitable (if at all), it can be tough for brewers to pursue the next great beer. For New Belgium Brewing, pushing the envelope with new ideas, new tastes and new beers has required serious investment.

Enter Elysian Brewing and the Trippel IPA, the first of the Trip series of beers. This collaboration provided the ideas and means to create a new beer while mutually benefiting each company.

“It seemed like a great opportunity to collaborate creatively,” says Grady Hull, assistant brewmaster at New Belgium. “Initially, it was fairly informal, but we realized if we wanted to do anything commercial, we would need an alternating proprietorship license so we can share facilities. This allowed us to help Elysian grow as they invested in growing their infrastructure. It’s been a win-win-win on a lot of levels.”

The culture of craft brewing and cooperation does not end at US shores. Another partnership that has yielded great advancements for American craft beer is between Cantillon Brewery in Belgium and Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland, Maine. Traditionally, Lambics have been unique to the Senne Valley, and Jean Van Roy was brewing some of the best out of Cantillon in Brussels. So in the early ’90s, when a couple of Mainers came along looking to bring the tradition to New England …

“[Jean] told us all you can make good beers in other parts of the world, and that kind of stuck with me,” says Rob Tod, Allagash founder.

“It was a little piece of confidence that we got from him,” adds Jason Perkins, Allagash’s brewmaster. “That, despite what you read in a lot of historical books about brewing Lambic, in his opinion, these kind of beers—spontaneous-fermentation beers—could be brewed outside of the Senne Valley.”

Phone calls and many trips to Belgium followed. “We went back and forth a bunch about just little things, about some of their mash profiles or selection of barrels,” Perkins says. And Allagash is part of that “culture of cooperation,” as Perkins puts it, sharing tips with inquiring brewers on bottle conditioning, barrel aging and installing coolships—although not everything is transparent.

“I think every brewery, whether they admit it or not, has some things that they’re not going to talk about,” Perkins says. “Whether it’s the source of their yeast, or, you know, we have secret spices in our White beer. Or maybe some proprietary thing, or some process that they do in their cellars. But it’s just like a chef is not going to tell you every secret that they’ve got—I think it’s kind of cool that that’s still set up that way.”

Sealing the Deal
Once a brewery is started and a beer is brewed, there’s one last step—getting it onto shelves.

When a brewer is a helpful guy in that regard, word gets around. One of those guys is Vinnie Cilurzo—as Matt Lisowski, of Joseph James Brewing Co. in Henderson, Nev., can attest. Back in January 2011, Lisowski and his team were trying to hand-cork and cage their first 750-milliliter bottles, but the corker kept breaking the champagne bottlenecks.

“Frustrated, we all had a beer and talked it over,” Lisowski posted on a recent thread. “We were drinking Damnation by Russian River and thought, ‘I bet you Vinnie would know how to cork.’”

So, not expecting much to come of it, he gave Cilurzo a ring and left a message. “To my surprise, an hour later, he returned my phone call. He spent the next 40 minutes going over hand-corking procedures with me.” When they realized they were using the wrong size corks, Cilurzo offered to sell them some of his. “I was floored!” writes Lisowski. “I had never met him before, but was always told he was always helpful. That is an understatement. Vinnie went out of his way to make sure another craft brewery, 1,000 miles away, was making a good product. The product was a success, and we can partially thank Vinnie.”

And success for one brewery can mean success for other. Take Oskar Blues—when other Colorado breweries wanted to follow OB’s lead and start canning, founder Dale Katechis and his team were eager to get their new allies in the “canned revolution” up to speed.

“My feeling on it from day one and through today—and I can’t foresee it changing—is that the more, the merrier, and the more people that begin to understand the value and the premium nature of the can, and they put their beer in a can—as a craft, I think will benefit all of us,” Katechis says.

Traveling to breweries like Avery, Upslope and Wynkoop to teach the art of canning, Oskar Blues even sold its old canning line to Ska Brewing Co., in Durango. “We went down there as a group to help get the machine up, and still remain great friends with those guys,” Katechis says about Ska.

One For All, and All For Beer
Make no mistake—craft brewers are competing with each other for a piece of a growing but still narrow market. The industry resurgence has been led by dedicated, talented brewers working to produce the best beer available while crowding out lesser breweries.

“Even though we say we’re not competing with each other, we are, to some degree, of course,” says Perkins from Allagash. “We’re looking at the same bars and the same stores, and so on. But the industry built itself so grassroots-like, and these relationships developed over time, and it’s just always been there, and I think almost every brewer who’s in this industry now, who’s been in it for a while, doesn’t know any other way.”

Some industries might balk at the transparency of the craft community; as Oskar Blues’ Katechis says, most craft brewers share an “anti-corporate mentality” … albeit one that’s being tested these days by the spike in demand for craft beer.

“As we’ve all experienced a great deal of growth over the last few years, I think we’re challenged by that initial mentality. Just due to that exponential growth, some are required to put some mechanisms in place that sometimes strip companies of their soul and culture,” Katechis says. “We’ve seen what’s happened to larger segments of the beer industry, and we know guys that are in that business, and it just doesn’t seem like a whole lot of fun.”

Perkins agrees that, for the most part, the future is unclear. “Most breweries are growing now, and most breweries are at capacity or doing very well—and so I guess the only question might be, what happens if that time comes where not everybody is growing? Maybe more competition will rise out of that,” he says. “But the general sharing of information on the technical side and on the equipment side? I guess I don’t see that going anywhere.”

Hull, of New Belgium, emphasizes the importance of solidarity to a collective sustainable growth. “The craft segment is growing, but we are still small in relation to the entire beer segment,” Hull says. “Therefore, we need to be unified in things like making sure barley growers, malters, hop growers are hearing our voice, as well as distributors and retailers.”

“It’s possible that we could see less cooperation as the business matures, but people have been saying this for years, and I haven’t seen it happen yet, especially now as friendships are being developed and solidified,” Steele says. “Hard to say what will happen, but I think one of the reasons we all love being in this business is the friendships and cooperative relationships we have.”

Regardless of the changes that will come as craft brewing works through its growing pains, for Cutter and his team at Upslope, the generosity of Black Shirt Brewery—that borrowed Jeep pulling a borrowed fermenter in a borrowed trailer—will certainly not be forgotten.

“The five of us stood in a circle and talked about our industry, where it has been, where it was going, and each of our parts in it,” Cutter recalls. “This was among the concrete dust and wet floors and plastic-covered equipment that would some day brew and ferment the incredible BSB Red Ale, brewed from a pilot system behind the wall, that we were all sipping in plastic cups. It was something I will never forget. What will happen between these guys and ours? I don’t know, but I do know that we are forever in their debt, that they will be very successful in their pursuits due to their passion and hard work—and that we will certainly be there for their grand-opening party.”

Courtney Cox contributed to this story.