The Mad Fermentationist

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A record of my successes and failures with all things fermentable (aimed at people who have at least a basic knowledge of beer brewing). While I focus on beer and sour ales especially (Lambics, Flemish Reds, Berliner Weisse, as well as my own creations), I also touch on many other fermented beverages and foods including sourdough bread, charcuterie, sake, wine, mead, not to mention cooking in general.
Updated: 1 hour 34 min ago

Dark Funky Saison - A Retrospective

Mon, 04/08/2019 - 6:52am
Since 2008 my friend Alex and I have been brewing dark funky saisons. Each year we come up with a new concept, usually involving dried fruit and/or spices. We've been a bit lax the last couple years, the ninth iteration was brewed a year ago, and neither of us has bottled our share yet.

For my birthday a couple weeks ago, Alex came over to the brewery and we opened bottles of all the versions (including a few variants). I shot a video of our discussion, enjoy!




Recipes:

2008 Dark Orange Rosemary Saison
2009 Funky Dark Saison with Black Cardamom

2010 Fig Honey Anise Dark Saison

2011 American Farmhouse Currant Dark Saison

2012 Dark Saison with Quince Paste

2013 Cranberry Dark Saison

2014 Dark Saison Etrog

2016 Dark Saison Date and Pomegranate
Categories: Homebrewing blogs

The Economics of Opening a Brewery

Mon, 03/04/2019 - 4:31am
The excitement over hazy/NE IPA is the best thing that has happened for local breweries in a long time. They are expensive to brew, difficult to package, a nightmare to distribute long distances, and get beer drinkers excited! When we put a juicy Double IPA on tap it flies. Our recent 7-barrel-yield of Snip Snap lasted less than three days, while an IPA might last three weeks, and a pale ale five. Having a beer that draws increases growler sales, and helps sell all of our other beers as people end up trying other similar beers when they come in.


Here is a graph of the scores of 13 of our hoppy beers (pale ales, IPAs, and DIPAs) showing the Untappd score compared to the ABV. The formula for the trend line is y = 3.2008+.1392*x. That suggests if we brewed a 0% ABV hoppy beer it would score a 3.20 and to get a score of 5 would require 14.31% ABV. The R-squared value of the correlation is .71, so the most important factor in the consumer's opinion of our hoppy beers is strength (granted that typically comes with a higher dry hopping rate, sweetness etc.).

Driving business to your tasting room is job #1 for a small brewery because that is where the profit is highest. When you buy a beer at a bar or restaurant, most of the money goes to them rather than the brewery. While a ½ bbl keg of a pale ale might sell to a bar for $150-175 (a portion of which might go to a distributor), at even $5 pint the bar makes $620 in revenue. At our scale, it is almost impossible to make a profit only  selling beer at wholesale. It requires a tight reign on expenses with a premium price point, not to mention low overhead.

It is no coincidence that local brewery booms seem to follow when a state or city allows production breweries to serve/retail their own beer. In the case of Maryland this has created backlash from distributors, and a lesser extent bars and liquor stores who see more consumers cutting them out.

Ingredient Cost

We aren’t doing a great job controlling ingredient costs. We don’t reuse our yeast nearly as much as we "should" (3-4 batches per pitch), we pay as much as $35/lb for hops that are difficult to get on the spot market, we buy our malt pre-milled by the bag, we use expensive “real” ingredients for our variants (and usually don’t up-charge over the base beers) etc. That said, having a tasting room that is busy covers all of those sins.

10 bbls – Pillowfort
$484 – 2-row
$137 – Malted Oats
$40 – Chit Malt
$50 – Milling Fee
$11 – Glucose
$.80 - Whirlfloc
$.06 - Zinc Sulfate Heptahydrate
$1 – Calcium Chloride
$1 – Gypsum
$.25 – Epsom Salt
$2.00 – 350 ml 75% Phosphoric Acid
$125 – Liquid yeast
$150 – Dry yeast
$77 – Columbus
$99 – Centennial
$396 – Citra
$264 – Azacca
~$100 – CO2/Gas/Electric/Chemicals
 ($1950/batch - $1.11/pour)

Let’s say we put more effort into yeast management and that gives us confidence to reuse the yeast for 20 batches. Bringing the proportional cost down from $125 to $25 per batch. The net savings to us would be $.05 per pour. What if we moved to a silo for 2-row, and cut our base malt cost down to a third and added a mill? $.14 per pour. That would make Pillowfort ~$.92/pour. Granted these recurring costs add up over the course of a year and both might yield improvements to the consistency and quality of our beer. But selling just one 1/2 bbl keg to a bar, even charging $250, loses us more money per batch then we’d save from making those moves. It also speaks to how important yield on these heavily dry-hopped beers is.

Most of our IPAs and DIPAs work out to $100-150 per ½ bbl keg. Self-distributing these beers for $200-250 there would be no way to make enough to cover rent, pay ourselves, and fund expansion. However, being a retailer of our own beers means we get $800-900 for that same keg sold by the glass and growler. It makes sense for us to charge a reasonable price ($7-8 for a 14 oz pour in a 17 oz glass) and have consumers return rather than charge a dollar or two more and end up having to self-distribute kegs (with the added effort).

When we do send kegs out, we try to get as much of a push out of it as we can (fests, tap-takeovers, beer dinners etc.). We don't pay for any traditional advertising, but we view the "losses" from self-distributing as a form of marketing. That also means not always sending beer to the same bars, as we want people to feel like they have to come to us to try our beers regularly.

Most bars use a flat percentage markup to price their draft. If a beer costs twice as much for them to purchase, they’ll charge twice as much to the consumer. That means that they’ll make a much larger dollar-per-ounce profit on more expensive beers. The same isn’t true at most breweries, an IPA with Nelson Sauvin or Galaxy is easily twice as expensive as a session wheat beer (especially considering the lower yield with high dry-hop rates), but we don’t double the price. Still, charging $7 for IPA and $6 for the session wheat makes the IPA more profitable per pour. When you visit a brewery and buy beer, you’re allowing them to spend more money on the ingredients and make better beer. Not to mention that the brewery will care more about their beer and have better control over the product.

Overhead

After ingredient cost, our next biggest expense is rent. Scott and I debated where to open and toured spaces with a wide range of looks and costs. While a beautiful rustic plot with room for outdoor events and a small orchard was appealing… either running on a septic or paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a municipal sewer connection was not. Conversely, opening in a vibrant downtown with plenty of foot traffic would have meant easier retail sales, but would have tripled our rent. Brewing is a space-intensive manufacturing business (especially with barrel aging), it is difficult for me to justify paying $30+ sq ft for the parts of the business that aren’t customer facing.

If we are able to brew enough to outstrip tasting room demand, we’ll look into opening a small taproom someplace other than an industrial park. For the time being, our location is close enough to residential for the tasting room and inexpensive enough for 4,000 sq ft of production. Luckily the power of Google Maps, Untappd, and social media has been enough for us to draw people in.

In addition to the ability to sell beer by the glass, a tasting room opens up the way for merchandise sales, private events, packaged beer, and even food sales (working on that now). It has been essential for us to have a space and offerings that attract customers, even those who aren’t beer nerds. A fantastic staff, and enough of them working for short waits also improves the customer experience.

Salaries are the third big expense. Scott and I have done 100% of the brewing, tank cleaning, kegging, and keg washing up to this point. Financially speaking, our labor has been free, but we certainly could have kept our day jobs and paid less-per hour than our lost wages to hire brewers and cellar-people. That said, it didn’t seem right to trust something we’d worked so hard for to other people. As I learned from consulting, the people who are physically there have the biggest effect on the results. We’ll be looking to hire someone in the brewhouse soon, but we’re still trying to figure out what the role will be (cleaning and cellar duties, or someone who already has the skill-set to be a lead brewer eventually). We were willing to pay for front-of-house, as that is where we didn’t have experience (or the time to learn).

Other Income Streams

I posted about Brewery Clubs a few months ago. As a brewery that didn’t take on outside loans or investors, the extra money we brought in from club sales was essential. It gave us the breathing room to buy more expensive equipment, ingredients, not to mentions barrels for beers we won’t sell for months or years, and dump most of a batch that we didn’t love. Padding in the bank account helped with our sleep those first couple months too.

We’re now “paying” some of that money back. We made it through the club holiday events, for which we created 16 sixtels of variants that we didn’t sell a drop of. Not to mention paid employees to work (and at $15 an hour as tipping was light without tabs). Most of that cost was in our time, but we’ll continue to incur costs as we give bottles, decanter baskets (below), and events that club members paid for last year. Not only do we want to ensure that customers (and many friends) are happy they joined, we’d like to over-deliver so many consider re-upping for 2020!

The rest of this year our biggest focus will be on packaging. Direct sales of canned and bottled beer should give us the chance to increase total revenue, but it will also lower our per-ounce revenue. While many people are willing to pay $8 for a 14 oz pour of DIPA... $5 for a 16 oz can of the same DIPA is about the top of the market. Cans have higher costs associated with them as well, both in terms of labor and materials (especially when you don't own a canning line). That really slims down the margins, and will dictate which beers are more likely to be canned (e.g., Pillowfort with Azacca rather than Snip Snap with Galaxy). The most important thing for us will be avoiding turning draft sales into can sales. Ideally cans are an add-on to tabs or an additional trip for a release rather than a replacement for draft consumption and growlers.

What makes sense for a brewery will depend on the types of beer they brew and their goals as a company. If you want to be a large production brewery, it may make sense to start fighting for draft accounts early. We don’t have any resources dedicated to outside sales, in fact we turn down most offers to put our beer on tap. We’d rather have an excess of demand, and be in strong position rather than fight for a limited number of tap handles with an ever-increasing number of breweries.

Having the huge catalog of homebrew recipes between the two of us has been a big advantage too. On Saturday we tapped a scaled-up version of Atomic Apricot. The price difference on the apricot puree was particularly stark, $1.71 per pound at the commercial scale vs. $7.84 for the same product (Oregon Fruit/Vintners Harvest). I haven't been doing much homebrewing or test batch brewing so most of my social media posting has moved to the Sapwood Cellars Facebook and Twitter accounts (Scott does Instagram because I usually avoid posting from my phone).
Categories: Homebrewing blogs

Am I a Better Craft Brewer or Homebrewer?

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 4:09am
We're doing pretty well at Sapwood Cellars so far. Our most recent batch of Snip Snap (Citra-Galaxy DIPA) only lasted 2.5 days on draft, about 200 gallons drained by the pour and growler fill. Ratings on Untappd were stellar. Is this how good Scott and I were at homebrewing or is our new 10 bbl brewhouse and temperature controlled fermentors making our beer better than it was?

I shot video of the big batch of Snip Snap and brewed a small batch at the brewery with my old pots and fermentor. We tried to keep them as identical as possible, using malt/hops/yeast from the same bags for both batches. I sampled both beers blind, and we served them to 49 customers in the tasting room to see which they preferred for this Video!



Categories: Homebrewing blogs

Is American Homebrewing Dying?

Wed, 01/30/2019 - 7:00am
Brewing beer at home changed the course of my life. At first it was merely a fun way to explore my drink of choice, and an excuse to hang out with friends. As time passed it became a larger part of my life, a side-hustle, a reason to travel, altered who I am. I always hated public speaking… until I figured out that I’m engaging when I care about the material. I was never passionate about reading, researching, and writing, until they meant I could learn to brew better beer and share my passion. I met many of my friends at homebrew club meetings, through this blog, and homebrewing forums. I worked a boring government desk job for 12 years, until brewing allowed me to open a business!


That’s why I'm sad that homebrewing is on the decline in America. I see it at DC Homebrewer’s meetings, where there aren’t nearly as many fresh faces as there were five years ago. The closures of retailers, like the recent announcement from Love2Brew. The surveys from the American Homebrewer’s Association gives hard numbers: from 1.2 million homebrewers in 2013, to 1.1 million in 2017.

Anecdotally over the last 30 years, American homebrewing has experienced three similar dips. Roughly the early-1990s, early-2000s, and the last few years. These coincide with three pivotal moments in commercial beer availability.

By the early 1990s most parts of the country had a selection of bottled craft beer from the likes of Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer, not to mention a few local breweries. No longer were beer drinkers limited to macro lagers and stale impotrs, because hoppy pale ales, malty browns, and roasty stouts were available coast-to-coast. I've met a few former homebrewers who thought that was enough selection to make homebrewing superfluous. There were still plenty of people who wanted to drink a wider range of styles though, and that still meant brewing their own.

A decade later with the opening and expansion of breweries like Allagash, Dogfish Head, New Belgium and hundreds more, the selection and availability of craft beer had exploded. You could find wit, kolsch, imperial stouts, apricot pale, IPA and a multitude more everywhere. Most cities had stores where you could pick from hundreds if not thousands of bottles. Again, some homebrewers didn’t see the need to keep brewing when they could drink a solid example of pretty much any style. Still though, many homebrewers wanted greater variety, unique flavors, and ultra-fresh beer.

Now we’re in another slide. With more than 6,000 breweries spread across the country, most Americans can take a short drive to visit a different brewery tasting rooms every week for a few months without repeating. Not only that, but the old model of four core beers, four seasonals, and a couple special releases is  gone. Many breweries are producing 50 or more beers each year. The variety is staggering, and again many former homebrewers are happy to reduce their risk/effort and sample as many new beers as they desire. Not only is homebrewing suffering, but so are many of the breweries from those previous waves… Smuttynose, Green Flash etc.

In the chart below, the red line represents Google searches for "Brewery" the blue is "Homebrewing." December 2008 is the closest they have been (29 to 13), while July 2018 was the furthest (100 to 5). That's to say that while search interest in breweries has more than tripled over the last ten years, during the same time interest in homebrewing has dropped in half.

Where does homebrewing go from here?

There have always been different types of homebrewers, different reasons they brew. There will always be homebrewers. Those who brew not to save money, or drink the “best” beer, but who love the process. Those who are passionate about recipe design, microbiology, botany, community. engineering, culinary techniques, and experimentation. For them craft beer is a source of inspiration, but not a replacement for the hobby!

I don't view automated homebrewing systems as a threat to traditional homebrewing or a big boon for the hobby. If I hear one more new product that bills itself as the “Keurig” of beer… I’m going to lose it! It isn’t even like Keurig is synonymous with high quality coffee. I just don’t see any product that makes brewing that easy gaining a strong foothold because brewing beer involves more care than coffee and to-the-minute freshness isn't as important. You can buy a six pack at the store for less than it takes to brew these, and enjoy a bottle each night. The automated systems will always make beer that isn't as good as commercial, at a higher price-point. Not that automated wort production isn't appealing (and useful) for homebrewers looking to devote less time to the process.

If this time is like the previous two lulls, homebrewing is due for another bounce. Maybe the continual push for novelty in craft brewing, extra-bold flavors, and lack of true originality turns people off. Lack of quality, high prices, poor quality control, beer that sits too long before being sold… honestly now that I know how good IPA tastes within a month of brewing, I rarely buy a six-pack off the shelf. Hopefully as more consumers become accustomed to really fresh beer at tasting rooms, they get interested in brewing it for themselves! Maybe the greater number of people drinking craft beer simply gets more people interested in brewing.

The second option is decline. As quality beer becomes more accessible the price will be pushed down, making it an even more attractive option for marginal-homebrewers. Homebrewing becomes an even more specialized/nerdy hobby, and we lose out on the vibrancy that new hobbyists bring.

My best guess is that we're reaching stasis. There won't be a return the levels of excitement and engagement we saw ten years ago. There will still be plenty of people who drink craft beer, and try their hand at homebrewing, but only enough to replace all of the homebrewers who stop to drink craft beer or join the industry.

Homebrewing Matters

Drinking beer wouldn't have done the same thing for my life as homebrewing. An active engagement with brewing is the best way to really understand and appreciate beer. It caused me to learn and grow in areas that aren't really connected to beer or brewing. I understand that drinking a beer and checking in on Untappd is no-risk (I wrote a couple hundred reviews on BeerAdvocate), but it doesn't really lead to anything. Drinking beer is a diversion, brewing beer can change your life!

Categories: Homebrewing blogs

Foraged Staghorn Sumac Beer

Wed, 01/23/2019 - 4:26pm
My homebrewing frequency has taken a nosedive recently (surprise), but I still try to find time to brew a weird batch when I can. In August, when Scott and I drove to pick-up our first hop order in western Maryland, I noticed that Staghorn Sumac was in full bloom along I-270 . I’d read about flavoring beer with it in The Homebrewer’s Almanac, but never actually tasted a beer brewed with it. Sumac is tart and fruity, traditionally used in a tart lemonade-like beverage.


I pulled over and harvested about a pound. The range I’d read was 1-5 lbs per 5 gallon batch. Without a beer ready for them, I took the clusters of dusty berries off of the central twig, vacuum sealed them, and froze. That was enough of an excuse to brew a batch of Berliner weisse (fermented with US-05 and Omega Lacto Blend). After primary fermentation I racked 1 gallon onto the resulting .75 lbs of sumac, and another onto .5 oz of dried Turkish sumac from Penzeys. Obviously if the dried version is just as good, it certainly would be easier!


Dried Turkish Sumac Berliner

Smell – Aroma is light, doughy-grain, lightly citrus and roasted pear. An odd note of cinnamon as well.

Appearance – Clear pale yellow. It’s almost so pale that yellow isn’t the right word, it looks washed out, faded. Retention isn’t great, but the tight, white head sticks around for much longer than the other half of the batch.

Taste – Bright acid without being obnoxious. The finish has an odd fall-spice note as in the nose that I suspect is from the sumac. Dry without being a desert.

Mouthfeel – Classic Berliner, light and spritzy.

Drinkability & Notes – The not-entirely-pleasant musty-herbal flavor the dried sumac provided when the beer was young seems to have mostly faded to a light spiciness. I’m not sure I’d even pick it out if I didn’t know it was in there.

Changes for Next Time – Maybe a different/fresher source of dried sumac would provide a better flavor and aroma?

Staghorn Sumac Berliner

Smell – Aroma has the generic fruitiness of Hawaiian Punch, or Hi-C, but with an herbal hint of a Ricola cough drop. I don’t get any of the base beer, at this elevated rate it is all sumac. Certainly in the same sort of flavor-family as hibiscus.

Appearance – To go along with the aroma, it has the color of Hawaiian Punch. Similar head retention too…

Taste – The same fruit flavor from the nose, but more pronounced cherry candy. It’s a really fun flavor, that doesn’t stray into cloying. Acidity is snappy, sort of Vitamin-C, quick and punchy. No sweetness, finally breaks the comparison to "fruit" beverages.

Mouthfeel – Light, medium+ carbonation, but not excessively thin or harsh.

Drinkability & Notes – Staghorn sumac is a foraged ingredient that has a real chance for broader appeal. The flavor is fun, quenching, and somewhat familiar. The color certainly doesn’t hurt either. With how much it took, a mild base beer like this makes the most sense.

Changes for Next Time – I was sort of hoping this one wouldn’t be delicious so that I didn’t have to source a couple hundred pounds to put into a beer next summer. Likely could drop down closer to .5 lbs/gallon for a more balanced beer, but it is delicious as is!

I’m hopeful I can get this formula approved by the TTB for Sapwood, as there are already a few commercial beers from the likes Sumac Sour from Four Quarters, Backroads from Suarez Family, and of course several sours and saisons from Scratch. That said, it seems like they are clamping down as I had both acorns and Eastern Red Cedar rejected already. I’ve had several brewers tell me that the step isn’t necessary unless you are getting label approval (not true) or that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission…

I'll be making the trip down to Asheville, NC March 22-23 for another round of BYO Boot Camps! As usual I'll be talking about Wood/Barrels one day and Sour Beers the other. I said it before, but this really is looking like the last one of these for me given how much time running a brewery takes!
Categories: Homebrewing blogs