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Sunday, November 07, 2010

On Brewing Experiments, a Dissenting View

Last week, I commented enthusiastically on Breakside's recent offering of five versions of a porter, each with one different adjunct. Vasilios Gletsos, MacTarnahan's brewer, added a comment I'd like to share.
I'm probably getting lost here at the end of the comments section, with all the excitement and all, but I wanted to suggest that this kind of thing happens at commercial breweries all the time, as part of the R&D process. It is just that the decision is typically made by the brewer before releasing the beer about which one is best.

Also, what is 'best' can also have different criteria. Like for yeast: how does it perform in the cellar?, flocculation, attenuation, longevity, and of course flavor profile, among many other questions.

We often trial different hops in our standard brews or quantites of spices, etc. What is unique here is that Ben is presenting the beers and letting the public decide for themselves. I would personally feel uncomfortable putting out a beer if I thought some other example worked better.
I have no doubt that Vasili speaks for lots and lots of commercial breweries here. A brewery is in the business of offering the very best product it can; beta versions may work for software, but not beer. Fair enough. I wouldn't expect to see a brewery's work as it's hammering out a new recipe (although Deschutes regularly releases in-development recipes to beer at their brewpubs).

What Breakside did is a little different. Ben used a recipe that was already excellent--it didn't occur to me to ask, but I assume he was pleased with it. With that recipe, he made four variants that used a single different ingredient. That's the kind of thing I'd like to see. Take MacTarnahan's for example. It's a beer made exclusively with Cascade hops. It would be absolutely fascinating to see the brewery do a few other versions that used different hops--everything else being identical (process, IBUs, etc.). It'll be a cold day in hell before they do it, but I'd love it. (Or, if you prefer, Mac's with different English and American ale strains.)

There's no right answer. One thing I've learned in talking with scores of brewers over the years is that they all have definite ideas about what they're doing--and these ideas are in no way identical. So I'll put Vasili in the "no" column. Any other takers?


  1. Hey Jeff,

    Thank you for elevating my comment to the status of a post. I just wanted to stress that what Breakside is doing highlights the flexibility of a brewpub experience and practice, an experience which, in itself, may be rewarding enough to make a special trip out for.

    On the production brewing side, that type of flexibility is restricted to R&D or a taproom. We experiment with different or earlier versions of seasonals and offer them up for public scrutiny, assuming again that they pass our standards, but there are many other trials that go on behind the scenes that also impact our seasonal and standard beers.

    As an example, we recently tried using Cascade hops from three different vendors to simply see what, if any differences we could pick up in fresh as well as force aged samples. I can tell you that our results will have consquences for the beer, but only to improve it, rather then to educate the public.

    of course brewers like Mikkeller come to mind as far as offering this varied experience in bottled beer, or subtle changes like this years fresh hop celebration, but the vast majority of packaging is certainly in the predictability and repeatability camp, no matter what our whims or desire to educate may be.

    In short, as long as the best beers are going out the door, it's all good.

  2. On the production brewing side, that type of flexibility is restricted to R&D or a taproom.

    Fortunately, Mac's has a taproom! I put in a bid for Sorachi Ace Mac's. Run that up the flagpole and see what you get.

    Seriously, though, thanks for commenting and offering your insight.

  3. I agree with Vasili's insights on this subject which is basically stating:

    1. A brewery should enough pride to put out their best effort for public.

    2. Testing and Trails are for behind the scene eyes only, where brewers and others who have a financial interest, decide whats put out to the public.

    That's the professional Modern Brewing Business.

    Also, I agree that a small brewery has an interesting advantage of being able let/allow the public to taste small test or experimental batches. In doing so, they expose themselves and their beer in a raw form. Un-trialed and tested. Is that a great thing?

    Vasili says, "I would personally feel uncomfortable putting out a beer if I thought some other example worked better." Rightfully so!

  4. ..Looks like long posts are not allowed anymore?

    Part 2

    I know Vasili was a Home brewer and as a home brewer, part of the fun is experimenting with beer; Adding and tweaking ingredients. You can then share these experiments with friends and other home brewers. No shame or financial burden on sharing a few beers with friends. If they like it, you say, I'll make it again. If they say, "Oh! That's God awful," you bow your head and quietly pour the rest down the toilet. ;-}

    How could one charged that guy $4 for that pint that was awful? I would give the guy his money back. Actually, I wouldn't have taken money for an experimental beer, but that's the thrust of this argument. Is it professional behavior to take money for un-trialed and tested beer?

    Vasili makes some great points!

    This is a professional brewery, not a guy making home brew.Professional brewers "prepare to present their best effort in brewing". There's a line of professionalism that is being crossed.

    Vasili mentions pride in product; behind the scenes trail; Professional business discretion's; Professional brewing behavior.

    Does a home brewer sell beer to his friends to get feed back? NO. Could a home brewed experimental beer put the home brewer into financial ruin or send out a negative ripple due to quality? NO.

    If you go Professional, you are a professional brewer, period. You really can't just pretend you're a home brewer who can sell his experiments. If so, we'll have hundreds of home brewers applying for Brewing Permits for their garage or barns, so they can sell all their screw ups, experiments and maybe even infected beers.

    Others will continue to argue.... (Whine) Well...Full Sail does a Hop Series of a single beer with different hops. Yes, they do, but they also trial every one of those different hopped beers behind the scene to make sure they're of drinkable quality. I'm pretty sure they're not charging the public to trial their misfires.

  5. Jeff,

    FYI, Block 15 brews a series of "One-Hop Wonder" IPAs. On one of my occasional visits to Corvallis, the featured beer was a very tasty Sorachi Ace IPA.

  6. Soggy: cool. I'm going to be there next week.

    Doc, I don't know anything about limiting length, but it could be a new Google effort to save bandwidth.

    And just to be clear, nowhere have I suggested anyone put out bad beer. I've explicitly said the opposite.

  7. I didn't make it to the tasting, and have no financial or other interest in Breakwater, but I too thought it was a unique twist. The notion of putting out a "bad" beer never occurred to me; rather, it gave willing, knowing consumers the chance to try something "different".

    Unconventional? Maybe. Detrimental? Dunno. I'm just a home brewer, but it seems best effort, like taste, is highly subjective. :)

  8. Jeff... Not questioning your stance. Just throwing out a thought in regard to vasili's comment.

    Post length may be a Google thing...

    Soggy: If this linear tasting of tweaked beers was trialed before being put up for sale and all versions are highly drinkable, there is little to argue.

    If these beers were put out for public purchase and had not been trialed, then we get into... Making the public pay to be tasting Guinea Pigs for a non-trialed beer, which is more the issue.

    Do you think the public should pay for non-trialed beers? As a Home Brewer would you charge people to taste and trial beer from your 10 gallon batch? Probably not... So, why would a professional brewery charge for the same? If this is acceptable practice, I'll get a license to brew and sell beer in my garage! I'll just crank em out and sell em! Good Bad and Ugly. Quality Assurance? Quality Control? Eh! Throw that out the window, I'll get make a buck any way i can... ;-}

    It's just food for thought.

  9. wow this may be the first time Doc has ever agreed with anything I've said or done! a new age of common ground indeed! Just ot be clear, I didn't want to give the impression that I was saying in some way that they were putting out bad beers for the public. I haven't had the fortune to try them, but I am sure that they are in no way bad. I had to clear up the line between the specific and the hyperbole which doc was spinning, which I think is also clear, he just says 'bad beer' so often that it may be confusing.

    My point is that packaging breweries do lots of trials to constantly update and improove their standard beers and new offerings. There is just too much competition in the market to be competing against yourself as well to try and sell all the additional experiments.

    My other point was that I am hesitant about the idea of brewer as educator if and when it leads to a beer that is ment for educational pourposes. for me, it is a step too far, or puts the cart before the horse. I read a review at a recent festival of an beer that was recieved unfavorably. in the comments, one die hard far defended them by saying something like "didn't you read their website, they made this beer to show a specific bacterial strain" or whatever. To me one person may say it was educational but I'd say it was a squandered opportunity. As brewers we are obliged to make the best beer we can first and let that be it's own lesson. What do you think the lesson someone will learn from a beer that isn't your best? probably not to drink that brewery as much.