Co-Opting Craft Beer

Lately, it’s been pretty hard to ignore the acquisitions of an increasing number of beloved craft breweries by Big Beer (i.e. AB InBev, Heineken, Kirin, Constellation Brands, and San Miguel Corporation) and Big Equity (e.g. Firemen Capital, LNK Partners, etc.). I’ve been following this topic pretty closely for the last few years, but have avoided writing about it mainly because:

  1. The purchases felt like minor losses, especially when there are still so many awesome independent craft breweries to choose from.
  2. Frankly, there are more important things to be angry about.
  3. Being a middle-of-the-road kind of guy, I try to see (and appreciate) all sides of the coin.

That said, with the frequency and magnitude of acquisitions now occurring, I decided it was finally time to throw in my two cents. The writing has been on the wall ever since Goose Island sold to Anheuser-Busch in 2011, but the recent purchase of Wicked Weed seems to have stirred a bit more public awareness and perhaps even revolt, especially within the craft beer community. Unfortunately, the convoluted nature of brand ownership in the beer world makes it difficult for the average beer consumer to decipher exactly what they are purchasing and to whom their money is going. This confusion is precisely what Big Beer is looking to exploit—and why spreading the message of why craft beer consolidation matters is imperative.

AB InBev, with the acquisition of more than 10 craft breweries so far, has been the most active buyer. This is particularly troubling as AB InBev already controls nearly 45% of the beer market, owns much of the distribution infrastructure in the country, and recently purchased SAB Miller, further growing their dominance. The fact of the matter is that the broader beer category is hemorrhaging market share to wine and spirits, especially within the millenial demographic. This shift in taste has further exacerbated for Big Beer the fact that the minuscule market share that craft once represented has grown to over 12% by volume and now represents a tangible threat. They are desperate to turn things around and are spending substantial resources to reclaim the market share that has been lost to craft beer.

AB InBev is not just simply purchasing craft brewers. They are launching a strategic, multi-pronged assault that includes ZX Ventures, a “global disruptive growth firm”, and “The High End”, a division focused specifically on the craft segment. Beyond acquiring actual breweries, they have also created or purchased interest in media outlets, obscuring the lines between advertising and independent beer journalism. Websites such as The Beer Necessities, October, and Ratebeer, which are either owned (partially or completely) or funded by AB InBev, work to further AB InBev’s agenda by eroding the once obvious divide between craft and Big Beer. To quote the editor of The Beer Necessities, Ethan Fixell:

Throughout the years I’ve observed the massive shift in the marketplace: from a monochrome array of limited options, to an explosive availability of craft selections, eventually leading to a wide schism between “craft” and “macro.” Now, given the growth and merging of so many breweries big and small, and the naturally collaborative, collegial nature of all brewers, we seem to be living in a post-craft world: great beer is great beer. And I believe we should celebrate all of it.

AB InBev drove the creation of the “monochrome array of limited options” that Fixell laments. The wide schism between “craft” and “micro” that he cites hurts only Big Beer and is a reaction against the way they do business. AB InBev is trying to create the illusion of choice in the beer aisle, but when the wizard’s curtain is pulled back, all that is found is varying shades of AB InBev red and gold. To simply say that “great beer is great beer” is an overly simplistic approach to a highly nuanced subject. AB InBev is seeking a post-craft world. Let’s not let them have it.

It’s time to defend craft beer.

Why am I so angry?

Over the past few years, I’ve played around with the idea of opening a brewery. As this effort becomes more focused, I’ve been studying the strategy and mechanics of why and how craft beer has been able to go through such tremendous growth over the past decade. Specifically, I’ve been delving into branding strategy as it relates to starting and running a successful craft brewery.

What has become incredibly clear is that these recent acquisitions are a strategic assault on the craft beer identity. There is tremendous equity in the brand identity of being a craft brewer and the types of mental short cuts this identity provides the consumer. The biggest differentiators that craft breweries have over Big Beer are that they are typically small-scale business offering products with better ingredients and flavor, usually from a  local source. Big Beer is intent on taking on these same attributes, blurring the lines of what it means to be craft and eroding the very roots of the industry. If these boundaries are allowed to dissolve and lose meaning a key advantage that craft has over macro will be lost.

I’m also angry because Big Beer is trying to pull the wool over the consumer’s eyes. And they think we’re dumb enough to fall for it. They want us to believe that the source of the product has no meaning as long as the beer doesn’t change. They’re being deceptive in the sense that they are creating levels of separation from their core company via subsidiaries and utilizing unclear labeling that prevents consumers from being able to decipher the provenance of their beer. None of the websites of AB InBev’s acquisitions describe their true ownership on their ‘About’ or ‘History’ pages. Most people have no idea that when they buy a Goose Island, Elysian, Blue Point, or Golden Road beer, they’re actually buying an AB InBev product. Consumers deserve to have more transparency so they can make informed decisions.

At the same time, Big Beer is diluting the true value of craft. If you are AB InBev, it is a buyer’s market as they are the only company around that is big enough to make these types of purchases. Big Beer is auditing the heavily populated craft beer landscape and acquiring breweries to fill the gaps in their already expansive portfolios. At first glance, it seems breweries are selling out for huge amounts of money. In reality, however, these sums are minuscule compared to the true value an established brand provides to a company like AB InBev.

It is also important to recognize that macro brewers do not play on the same field as craft brewers. A massive percentage of beer distributors in this country are affiliated or owned by Big Beer. This puts real craft breweries represented by the same distributors at a massive disadvantage, forcing them to compete directly with craft-like brands that are now owned by both the distributor and brewery. With the addition of heavily publicized incentive programs, it becomes very difficult for real craft brands to gain any sort of distribution, especially in the high volume grocery and restaurant chains served by these distributors. Ultimately, this will limit the consumers shopping at mainstream outlets to macro beers or craft brands owned by Big Beer. This threat will be particularly tough on established regional craft breweries that in recent years saw significant growth in chain restaurants and grocery stores. According to the Brewers Association, this is already being seen, with 15 of the largest 25 craft breweries dropping production volumes in 2016 versus 2015.

Lastly, it is important to consider the dynamics associated with the pricing of beer. Craft-like brands owned by Big Beer will always be the cheapest option on the shelf. There is simply no way a craft brewery producing low volumes could ever compete on price with a brewery producing millions of barrels annually. Economies of scale in terms of ingredients play a big role, but more important are the costs of labor associated with production. The labor required to produce a set volume of beer within a small craft brewery is exponentially more than what is required in a large-scale macrobrewery. This unfortunately leads to a higher cost for the beer consumer if they what to purchase from an independent small craft brewery. This disparity in labor is the key driver of growth in brewery jobs, often extolled as one of the great positives of craft beer. Bargain priced craft-like options will be attractive to many consumers, especially those that don’t know what they’re buying. This will result in the failure of many craft breweries attempting to compete within these same outlets.

But what about the reasons given by the acquired craft breweries?

When a former craft brewery sells out, there is a predictable blitz of spinning that occurs as the newly acquired brand scrambles to explain their reasoning and assure their loyal customer base that the brand they support isn’t going to change. The campaign is almost formulaic, hitting on all of the concerns that Big Beer perceives will be on the mind of their new customers.

First, they will always reassure their customer base that the beer is not changing. As a matter of fact, if anything, the beer will get better because of the tremendous technical resources now available to the brewery via the acquisition. This preys on the belief of many consumers that the only thing that matters is the beer in the glass. Yes, qualitatively, I’d wager to say that the beer does stay the same. But I also argue that the source of the beer is much more important than what happens to be in your glass at any given moment. The choices we make buying a given beer today will ultimately drive and determine the beer options we will have in the future.

Another common reassurance is that being owned by Big Beer will make them better stewards of their community. The resources inherent to Big Beer will make them better local citizens. I’ve yet to see proof of this type of Big Beer altruism, but would love to be proven wrong. The fact is that buying from small local businesses keeps the money, jobs, and altruistic endeavors that many of these breweries participate in local.

The most common justification for selling out is the perceived need for a huge capital infusion to fuel a brewery expansion. Yes, funding a massive brewery expansion in an efficient manner is extremely expensive and out of the means of all but the largest craft brewers. I’d, however, ask whether or not expansion needs to always be so swift and in such fell swoops. I’d wager that incremental growth is a perfectly healthy way to operate a craft brewery and that the need for quick expansion and massive growth has more to do with ownership’s personal ego than viability as a company.

Do I begrudge those that sell out?

On the surface, it seems difficult to begrudge a brewery that works hard, sells out, and is able to collect a windfall of capital. The fault seemingly lies solely with the purchaser who has made an offer that simply cannot be refused. The seller is simply grabbing the brass ring. This was an opinion I held until very recently when it occurred to me that selling out is not just about the business transaction. Selling out to Big Beer is a conscious decision that simultaneously devalues craft and violates the moral character upon which the community is built.

Every craft brewery that starts up builds their identity around that of being a ‘craft brewer’. This identity conjures up a very specific meaning in the mind of the consumer. It offers a mental shortcut to a plethora of valuable associations that directly affect a consumer’s purchase decisions. Craft means high quality, flavorful beer, independent, artfully crafted, local, small, anti-corporate,… There is tremendous value in the ability to use this imagery to build and grow a business. I would argue that taking on the identity of ‘craft brewer’ morally obligates you to act as a steward of the craft identity and the community from which it was born. Selling out to Big Beer is a fundamental betrayal to the craft community that directly contributes to the devaluation and confusion of the craft identity, threatening its very existence.

On the other side of the coin, it’s hard to fault the Big Beer companies. They are simply doing what they’ve always done. They are large, faceless corporations and are behaving as such. They are facing declining market share in a segment that is already contracting and reacting in an appropriate manner. They are not morally obligated to the protection of the craft identity the same way craft brewers are.

The recent purchase of Wicked Weed brought to the forefront these types of ethical and value questions facing the craft community. Public statements from Jester King and The Rare Barrel helped renew some of my personal faith that craft holds itself to a higher standard than Big Beer.

With that said, we have some core principles that define who we are as a brewery, and those principles must not be compromised. One of our core principles is that we do not sell beer from AB In-Bev or its affiliates. We’ve chosen this stance, not because of the quality of the beer, but because a portion of the money made off of selling it is used to oppose the interests of craft brewers. In Texas, large brewers (and their distributors) routinely oppose law changes that would help small, independent brewers. We choose not to support these large brewers because of their political stances, and in some cases, their economic practices as well.
– Jester King’s (Blog)

It’s about values.

Yesterday, Wicked Weed announced that they are selling their brewery to the megabrewery AB InBev (Budweiser, Shock Top). Here at The Rare Barrel, we’ve made a decision not to serve, collaborate with, or affiliate with AB InBev because our values do not align with theirs.
– The Rare Barrel (Via Instagram)

What does the future hold?

A key brand identity attribute that makes craft beer attractive to many consumers is the fact that it is produced locally. This is an important factor for many consumers and an attribute I foresee the new craft-like Big Beer brands having a tough time owning. In order to develop this dimension, Big Beer will use their immense financial resources to open up local outposts of the craft brands they own, often in the form of local taprooms or brewpubs. These new establishments can be loss leaders for Big Beer as they provide broader value by reinforcing the local dimension of their brand’s identity. At the same time, they will poach business from local craft breweries that often rely on high-margin taprooms for their viability.

As Big Beer fills out their portfolio of brands to include every fathomable beer style, we’ll likely see less and less non-Big Beer craft brands being sold in large volume stores, restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues. For these establishments, beer buying is a chore now simplified as they can go to a single distributor to purchase the roster of beer styles they’ll be needing.

What Can We do About it?

The pessimist in me, says there is very little we can do to prevent Big Beer from stunting the growth of independent craft beer. The resources Big Beer has at their disposal are simply too great to overcome. It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that the majority of consumers simply aren’t able to tell the difference between a craft-like brand owned by Big Beer and a truly independent craft beer. If you’re reading this blog, you’re like me, a niche within a niche that unfortunately has a pretty small collective voice. What we do have is a lot of friends outside of our niche to whom we can share the story of the David and Goliath struggle that is craft beer and why it should matter to them. We must effectively and politely communicate not only the truth about where the money from craft-like purchases are going, but also the effect it has on the broader craft market and our local communities. The more people we can educate, the bigger the impact we’ll have on purchase decisions and Big Beer’s bottom line. The only way to turn the tide is to make Big Beer’s current efforts an overwhelmingly failed experiment.

Craft-Like Brands Owned in Part or Full by Big Beer

Below we’ve outlined the breweries that we know of who have sold their companies in full or partially to other larger brewing companies. Please note that I’ve made this list as comprehensive as possible. Please let me know of any errors or omissions and I will update.

BreweryOwnerAcquiredNotes
10 Barrel BrewingAB InBev2014New brewpub locations since acquisition: Boise, Denver, Portland, San Diego
Bass AB InBev
Blue Point Brewing AB InBev2014
Breckenridge Brewery AB InBev2015
Devils Backbone Brewing AB InBev2016
Elysian BrewingAB InBev2015
Four Peaks BrewingAB InBev2015
FranziskanerAB InBev
Golden Road Brewing AB InBev2016Opening additional outposts in Sacramento and Oakland.
Goose Island Beer CompanyAB InBev2011
HoegaardenAB InBev
LeffeAB InBev
Shock Top Brewing AB InBevCraft-like Brand Developed In House
SpatenAB InBev
Wicked Weed BrewingAB InBev2017
Dundee BrewingCervecerίa Costa RicaIn 2012 North American Breweries sold to CCR by private equity firm KPS Capital Partners.
Genesee Brewing CompanyCervecerίa Costa RicaIn 2012 North American Breweries sold to CCR by private equity firm KPS Capital Partners.
Magic HatCervecerίa Costa RicaIn 2012 North American Breweries sold to CCR by private equity firm KPS Capital Partners.
PyramidCervecerίa Costa RicaIn 2012 North American Breweries sold to CCR by private equity firm KPS Capital Partners.
Ballast PointConstellation Brands2015Rumored to have sold for more that 1 billion dollars.
Kona Brewing CompanyCraft Brew Alliance 32% owned by AB InBev.
Omission BeerCraft Brew Alliance32% owned by AB InBev.
Redhook BreweryCraft Brew Alliance32% owned by AB InBev.
Widmer BreweryCraft Brew Alliance32% owned by AB InBev.
Wynwood BrewingCraft Brew Alliance201632% owned by AB InBev. CBA has a 24.5% ownership stake.
Boulevard Brewing CompanyDuvel Moortgat Brewery2014
Brewery OmmegangDuvel Moortgat Brewery2013
Firestone Walker Brewing CompanyDuvel Moortgat Brewery2015
Lagunitas BrewingHeineken International2015-201750% stake in 2015, 100% in 2017. Have begun opening a number of satellite breweries.
Brooklyn BreweryKirin Holdings2016Kirin has a 24.5% ownership stake. Kirin also has a sales partnership with AB InBev in the U.S. related to the distribution of Kirin Ichiban.
Independence Brewing CompanyLagunitas U.S. Holdings2016Undisclosed ownership stake.
Moonlight Brewing Co.Lagunitas U.S. Holdings2016Undisclosed ownership stake.
Southend Brewery and SmokehouseLagunitas U.S. Holdings2016Undisclosed ownership stake.
Founders BrewingMahou-San Miguel201430% ownership stake.
Blue Moon BrewingMillerCoors-Craft-like Brand Developed In House
Hop Valley Brewing MillerCoors2016
Leinenkugel's BreweryMillerCoors1988
Revolver Brewing MillerCoors2016
Saint Archer BrewingMillerCoors2015
Terrapin Beer CompanyMillerCoors2016

Craft Brands Owned in Part or Full by Private Equity

Below we’ve outlined the breweries that we know of who have sold their companies in full or partially to private equity firms. Please note that I’ve made this list as comprehensive as possible. Please let me know of any errors or omissions and I will update.

BreweryOwnerAcquiredNotes
Southern TierArtisanal Brewing Ventures2016Victory and Southern Tier joined to form Artisanal Brewing Ventures (ABV), a private-equity backed holding company.
Victory BrewingArtisanal Brewing Ventures2016Victory and Southern Tier joined to form Artisanal Brewing Ventures (ABV), a private-equity backed holding company.
Full Sail Brewing CompanyEncore Consumer Capital2015
Abita Brewing CompanyEnjoy Beer LLC2015
Cigar CityFireman Capital Partners2016Undisclosed majority share.
Oskar BluesFireman Capital Partners2015Undisclosed majority share.
Squatters / WasatchFireman Capital Partners2012Undisclosed majority share.
Dogfish HeadLNK Partners201515% Ownership Stake
Uinta Brewing CompanyRiverside Company2014
BrewDogTSG Consumer Partners201722% Ownership Stake

Other Entities with ties to Big Beer

Northern Brewer / Midwest Supplies
In 2016, AB InBev via their ‘Disruptive Growth’ investment group ZX Ventures purchased one of the largest homebrew suppliers in the country. It is perplexing what interest AB InBev has in the homebrew market. My suspicion is that they are mining data. Homebrewers tend to be on the leading edge of trends in beer and Northern Brewer is able to provide deep pools of this data type.

Rate Beer
In 2017, it came out that AB InBev’s ZX Ventures had purchased a minority share in Rate Beer. Since this news has come out, several breweries including Dogfish Head and Black Project have requested removal from the ratings site.

The Beer Necessities
TBN is produced by ‘The High End’ division of AB InBev and produces craft beer centric articles and other content.

October
October is an online magazine ‘supported’ by AB InBev’s ZX Ventures and led by Conde Nest, Good Beer Hunting, and BeerGraphs.

Vice: Beerland
A TV show featuring homebrewers across the country seems pretty cool, right? It gets a little fishy when you consider it is hosted by Meg Gill, formerly of Golden Road, now AB InBev. The show has been promoted by The Beer Necessities, which discloses the fact that the show was produced as a partnership between AB InBev’s The High End and Vice Media.

Cream Ale – Homebrew Recipe & Review

Cream Ale

Cream Ale, Refreshing, Crisp, Clean

Cream ale, for me, is a bit of a compromise beer. Within my circle of non-beer geek friends, I make no secret of my fondness for adjunct-laden light American lager. Within my beer geek and homebrew circles, however, I tend to be a bit more reserved in my endorsement for flavorless lager. This egocentric rationale is probably why I’ve never brewed the style myself.

Instead, I’ll often brew cream ale, which has the ability to fill my desire for a flavor-muted, low-alcohol session beer. It also seems to be a more respectable beer in the sense that there is a bit more flavor, as well as a good historic precedence. That said, I should probably just drop the self-consciousness, bite the bullet, and brew up some shitty American lager. Until then, here’s the recipe and review for my latest batch of cream ale.

Cream Ale Recipe

Specifications:
Size: 3.25 gal
Efficiency: 74%
Attenuation: 80%

Original Gravity: 1.051
Terminal Gravity: 1.010
Color: 2.84 SRM
Alcohol: 5.3% ABV (calculated)
Bitterness: 14.2 IBU

Malt Bill:
4.5 lbs. (72.0%) Weyermann Pilsner Malt
1.25 lb. (20.0%) Briess Flaked Corn

Sugar Additions:
0.50 lb. (8.0%) Corn Sugar (Dextrose)

Mash Profile:
149°F – 60m

Water Treatment:
Extremely Soft NYC Water
3 g. Gypsum (to mash)
3 g. Calcium Chloride (to mash)

Hopping:
28 g. Hallertaurer Mittelfruh (2.5% AA) – 90m

Kettle Additions:
0.5 ea. Whirlfloc Tablets (Irish moss) – 15m
0.5 tsp. Wyeast Nutrient – 10m

Yeast:
Wyeast 1056 American Ale

Tasting Notes:

Judged as a BJCP 1C Cream Ale

Aroma (8/12):
The aroma is quite subdued and mellow, letting a very low fermentation character with hints of apple, pear, and, perhaps berry ester, come through. There is a low corn character that features a touch of sweetness which is somewhat vanilla-like. The pilsner malt character provides some doughy bread aroma that may be a touch high for the style.

Appearance (3/3):
The beer is very clear with only the slightest hint of haze. There is a nice, foamy white head with great persistence.

Flavor (10/20):
Like the aroma, the flavor is very subdued. Initially, there is a pop of fresh round malt that is bready, slightly sweet, and just a touch grainy. A slight touch of corn flavor is present, but not as apparent as some judges may be searching for. The hop bitterness is very, very low and leaves the beer finishing just a touch sweet.

Mouthfeel (1/5):
Beer has a very light body with sparkling carbonation. The residual sweetness and lack of bitterness leaves the beer feeling a bit flabby. My guess is that this is accentuated by the beer finishing at a relatively high pH as well. Perhaps some addition of pH-lowering mineral salts would help brighten up future iterations of this beer.

Overall Impression (5/10):
This is a pretty nice beer, but lacks the crispness that I would expect in a cream ale. Additionally, the beer is perhaps a bit too characterful for the style and could benefit from a more toned down pilsner malt profile.

Good (27/50)

English IPA – Homebrew Recipe & Review

English IPA

English IPA – A Balancing Act of Traditional Hops and Toasted Malt Flavors

“Balance” is one of the most overused (and misunderstood) terms used to describe beer. It is a characteristic thrown around by brewers and beer geeks alike as a silver bullet for communicating a positive impression of a beer. It is often cited as the end game which all beers should strive to achieve.

Discussing balance is problematic as the concept is not often understood as a way to describe the interplay between a broad spectrum of flavor, aromatic, and mouthfeel sensations within a given beer. For many beer drinkers, implicit to the concept of balance is the thinking that for each polarizing character a beer may possess there must be a counteracting character of equal stature to achieve “balance”. This neutralizing character is almost always malt character and sweetness. Malt seems to be the agent of neutralization for hop bitterness, roasted bite, sharp acidity, alcoholic heat, overly dry attenuation…the list goes on and on.

I believe that this concept of balance is somewhat limiting. I prefer to use balance as a metric for describing where a beer lands on the continuum of various traits. Parity between divergent traits may mean a beer has equal balance, but a beer can be also be balanced towards any number of traits and still be viewed as equally delicious. A beer can be malt-forward, hop-forward, barrel-forward, acidity-forward, or described in any number of other ways. This allows us to look at the commercial spectrum of highly acidic sour beers, fruit bomb IPAs, and sugary sweet barrel-aged beers, and realize that equal balance is not always the most sought after type of balance in a beer.

That said, this recipe for an English IPA strikes a balance between malt and hops which makes it incredibly enjoyable and sessionable. I’m a huge fan of the floral, and slightly earthy, character a large does of East Kent Goldings gives this beer.

English IPA Recipe

Specifications:
Size: 3.25 gal
Efficiency: 72%
Attenuation: 75%

Original Gravity: 1.057
Terminal Gravity: 1.012
Color: 11.23 SRM
Alcohol: 5.9% ABV (calculated)
Bitterness: 23 IBU (does not account for significant whirlpool isomerization)

Malt Bill:
5 lbs. (69.0%) Crisp Maris Otter
0.75 lb. (10.3%) Weyermann Vienna Malt
6 oz. (5.2%) Thomas Fawcett Crystal Malt I
6 oz. (4.2%) Torrified Wheat
4 oz. (4.1%) Briess Midnight Wheat

Sugar Additions:
0.75 lb. (10.3%) Corn Sugar (Dextrose)

Mash Profile:
151°F – 60m

Water Treatment:
Extremely Soft NYC Water
4 g. Gypsum (to mash)
1 g. Calcium Chloride (to mash)

Hopping:
0.5 oz.Target (10% AA) – 60m
1.0 oz. East Kent Goldings (5.7% AA) – Whirlpool 15m
1.5 oz.Target (10% AA) – Whirlpool 15m
1.0 oz. Cascade (5.5% AA) – Whirlpool 15m

Kettle Additions:
0.5 ea. Whirlfloc Tablets (Irish moss) – 15m
0.5 tsp. Wyeast Nutrient – 10m

Yeast:
Wyeast 1968 London ESB Ale

Tasting Notes:

Judged as a BJCP 12C English IPA

Aroma (12/12):
The beer introduces itself with a very appealing soft, yet sophisticated malt nose featuring a gentle toastiness and very light touch of toffee sweetness. There are some very low fruity esters that are fairly subdued for a British style ale. A very pretty, medium hop aroma complements the malt with elements of marmalade jam paired with a floral, dried rose element. Very nice.

Appearance (3/3):
The beer pours a striking copper with crystal clarity. A tight, frothy head of tan foam caps the glass and persists through the end.

Flavor (18/20):
The malt flavor of this beer is really great. Moderate in intensity, the malt manages to be interesting but not overbearing. Like freshly baked bread, the beer is very inviting and barely wafts just a whisper of caramel sweetness. There is quite a lot of hop flavor showcasing floral elements with a touch of sweet orange flesh. The bitterness is firm, but smooth and does not linger. There is just a touch of mineral sharpness on the finish.

Mouthfeel (3/5):
Medium body with slightly prickly carbonation that is perhaps a touch high. Beer is very crisp and clean.

Overall Impression (9/10):
This is a fantastic beer that showcases the soft nuances of British malt and hops. I love the way that this beer manages to be simple yet sophisticated at the same time. In a world where we frequently chase maximum flavor intensity in beer, we’re reminded that simple beers that showcase quality ingredients and careful craft can be every bit as enjoyable as the most complicated craft-brewed concoctions.

Excellent (45/50)

Belgian Golden Strong Ale – Recipe & Review

Belgian Golden Strong Ale

Belgian Golden Strong – Not My Finest Moment as a Brewer

A natural temptation for any homebrewing blogger is to write only about their greatest achievements. After all, for most of you reading this, your only way of judging my brewing abilities is through the write-ups I share.

Though this approach to sharing would undoubtedly boost my ego, I find it misleading and limiting as we all seek to better ourselves as homebrewers. Sometimes, I brew a beer that simply sucks. Whether through flawed recipe creation, poor technique, fickle yeast, or acts of God, bad beer happens. This is a fact for most homebrewers and one of the truths we can own without facing any real consequences. Sometimes the cost of a batch isn’t worth choking down a sub-par beer. Luckily this isn’t a big deal for us since our costs are low and we’re not driven to sell our creations—something, perhaps, that some commercial brewers could learn from.

Rant aside, this beer was unfortunately a dumper. While the recipe itself is solid, I made two critical mistakes.

First, I rushed the process, crashing the fermenter and bottling the beer way too early. When I crashed the beer, I was left with an overly sweet, under-attenuated malt bomb. This particular strain of yeast likes to take its sweet time to completely attenuate and I simply didn’t allow it to. After I bottled and stored the beer at room temp, fermentation began again, creating dramatically over carbonated beer. Luckily I bottled the beer in very thick Belgian bottles, which prevented any bottle bombs.

My second mistake came when I cold crashed the beer. Hoping to prevent air suck back through the airlock as the beer chilled and lost volume, I decided to bung up the Better Bottle. Unfortunately, some CO2 was still being generated by the ferment, which popped off the bung, and left the carboy open to the atmosphere for about 16 hours. This oxidized the beer and gave the malt a honeyed sweetness that didn’t help what was already a sweet beer.

Needless to say, I learned from these mistakes and hopefully won’t repeat them. If this can prevent even a single beer being dumped by others then my work was worth the effort!

Belgian Golden Strong Ale Recipe

Specifications:
Size: 3.25 gal
Efficiency: 70%
Attenuation: 75% (target was 93%)

Original Gravity: 1.072
Terminal Gravity: 1.018 (target was 1.005)
Color: 4.66 SRM
Alcohol: 7.12% ABV (calculated) (target was 8.69% ABV)
Bitterness: 15.9 IBU

Malt Bill:
7.25 lbs. (81.7%) Dingemans Pilsner Malt
2 oz. (1.4%) Weyermann Acidulated Malt

Sugar Additions:
1.5 lbs. (16.9%) Dextrose (Corn Sugar)

Mash Profile:
122°F – 5m
146°F – 40m
154°F – 20m

Water Treatment:
Extremely Soft NYC Water
2 g. Gypsum (to mash)
2 g. Calcium Chloride (to mash)

Hopping:
28 g. Styrian Goldings (2.8% AA) – 60m
28 g. Styrian Goldings (2.8% AA) – Whirlpool 15m

Kettle Additions:
0.5 ea. Whirlfloc Tablets (Irish moss) – 15m
0.5 tsp. Wyeast Nutrient – 10m

Yeast:
Wyeast 1388 Belgian Strong Ale

Tasting Notes:

Judged as a BJCP 25C Belgian Golden Strong Ale

Aroma (7/12):
Lots of intense fruit aromas jump from the glass. There is plenty of pear and apple esters as well as just a minute amount of cherry. There is a medium-plus banana or bubblegum ester which I’m particularly sensitive to (and not a huge fan of). There is a hint of peppery phenolic spice that adds a bit of complexity to the fermentation character. While the nose is dominated by fermentation byproducts, the malt comes across as quite bready and sweet with some honey-like undertones. The malt is just a touch oxidized with some prune-like aroma.

Appearance (1/3):
The beer is a very light blond color with some haze. The beer pours with a big white head with cascading bubbles from the ample carbonation. Good retention and lacing.

Flavor (11/20):
The beer has a lot of malt flavor, frankly more than I’d hope to find in this style. There is a honeyed pilsner character that is particular to Belgian pilsner malts that I’ve used in the past. Unfortunately, there is also an undercurrent of light oxidation with some subtle dark fruit notes. There is a bit of low sugary sweetness that is the antithesis of the hallmark of the style. The fruit flavor is high with lots of characterful fermentation elements including fruity pear and apple esters. The high fruitiness blends with the residual sweetness to give an overly sweet impression. Bitterness is very low—a bit more would be welcome.

Mouthfeel (4/5):
High carbonation bursts from the beer giving a very prickly, almost sharp mouthfeel and scrubbing what would otherwise likely have been a somewhat syrupy beer.

Overall Impression (5/10):
This beer is a bit too boisterous in its fruit character compared to the quiet elegance of a beer like Duvel, the quintessential Belgian Golden Strong Ale. Additionally, the overly sweet impression and slight oxidized notes detract from the drinkability that is key to achieving a good Belgian Golden Strong Ale.

Good (28/50)

Bonus: See how judges scored this beer at the 2017 Homebrew Alley competition in NYC.

English Brown Ale – Homebrew Recipe & Review

English Brown Ale

I keep coming back to this humble English Brown Ale recipe.

If you frequently visit this blog, you’ll notice that there are certain beer styles I tend to rebrew on (at least) an annual basis. This is certainly the case with Northern English Brown. My affinity for brewing this beer mainly revolves around the fact that it is a low alcohol, sessionable, malt-forward ale that packs a lot of flavor into a fairly small package. The Maris Otter base gives an awesome bready, slightly toasty base, that is further enhanced with the addition of other melanoidin-rich specialty malts.

Another reason that I frequently rebrew this style stems from the fact that back in 2012, I managed to score a gold medal in the final round of the National Homebrew Competition with a Northern English Brown ale. Every year since, I’ve attempted to recreate that beer’s magic by rebrewing very similar recipes and entering them back into the competition. I haven’t yet been able to get this beer back into the final round, although luckily, it is still a delicious beer to have on hand. This recipe is much more toast and melanoidin-forward than what is typical for the style, but I’m still holding out hope that I’ll eventually get it back onto the medal stand.

English Brown Ale Recipe

Specifications:
Size: 3.25 gal
Efficiency: 62% (No Sparge)
Attenuation: 75%

Original Gravity: 1.051
Terminal Gravity: 1.013
Color: 17.49 SRM
Alcohol: 4.98% ABV (calculated)
Bitterness: 29.0 IBU

Malt Bill:
5 lbs. (66.7%) Crisp Maris Otter
1.5 lb. (20.0%) Weyermann Vienna Malt
8 oz. (6.7%) Crisp Crystal 77
6 oz. (5.0%) Briess Special Roast Malt
2 oz. (1.7%) Crisp Pale Chocolate Malt

Mash Profile:
149°F – 60m

Water Treatment:
Extremely Soft NYC Water
2 g. Gypsum (to mash)
4 g. Calcium Chloride (to mash)

Hopping:
28 g. East Kent Goldings (5.1% AA) – 60m

Kettle Additions:
0.5 ea. Whirlfloc Tablets (Irish moss) – 15m
0.5 tsp. Wyeast Nutrient – 10m

Yeast:
Wyeast 1469 West Yorkshire Ale

Tasting Notes:

Judged as a BJCP 13B British Brown Ale

Aroma (8/12):
Up front are medium to medium-plus esters that are quite British in their character, reminiscent of berry, cherry, and perhaps just a whisper of banana. There is a very high toasted bread crust aroma, rich in melanoidin, which has a Grape Nuts cereal character. Beyond the toast, is a bit of burnt sugar and deep toffee that almost approaches the dark fruit / raisin end of the spectrum. The nose is all about heavy malt that is not particularly delicate.

Appearance (2/3):
The beer strikes a deep brown hue with reddish and copper highlights. The beer is generally clear, but does have some light haze. The beer has a big frothy head with plenty of persistence and lacing.

Flavor (10/20):
This beer is all about big toasty malt. There isn’t much sweetness other than just a touch of dark fruit, caramel, and toffee. This is perhaps a bit out of style from the BJCP guidelines. On the finish, a very slight touch of drying roast is apparent, complemented by a bit of dark grain acidic twang. The bitterness is firm but smooth, keeping in balance with any residual sweetness. The heavy toastiness lingers through the finish becoming borderline astringent.

Mouthfeel (1/5):
The beer has a medium body with medium-plus carbonation that may be a bit out of style. The acidic tang in the flavor slightly curls the back edges of my tongue.

Overall Impression (5/10):
This beer is intensely toasty and perhaps not as caramel-rich as the style guideline would dictate.The brash toast character detracts a bit from the smoothness I’d like to see in a style intended for sessionability. This is however a very characterful beer, especially considering the ABV of less than 5%. My tasting for the beer was completed only two weeks from brewday so perhaps it will mellow out with a bit more time.

Good (27/50)

Bonus: See how judges scored this English Brown Ale at the 2017 National Homebrew Competition First Round (NYC judging center).