By BeachRock Bill
I started brewing beer with a good friend at his house 13 years ago. I cut the tops off some old kegs, bought an Igloo cooler, added hardware to it all, and we had ourselves a functional 10-gallon all-grain system on the cheap. Since our new “brewery” had a view of the ocean, we decided to call it BeachRock Beer, and on March 9, 2009, we brewed our first all-grain batch of beer, an IPA we creatively called #1.
My co-brewer had a tendency to sneak ingredients into the beer without telling me–typically honey–so I affectionately called him Colonel Mustard, joking that he probably wanted to add mustard along with the honey and put the resulting beer on a salad. We read a lot of how-to books, researched the shit out of the internet, and hit the ground running. Looking back at our brew log notes, we summarized that first effort as:
Taste and results are excellent, feel like we could have a bit more caramel flavor.
The bottom line of all this history is to explain that–for the Colonel and I at least–on our very first attempt we were able to brew a decent beer. As the years passed, we brewed dozens and dozens of batches at that seaside brewery. In 2017, when the Colonel moved away to the wine country in Sonoma, I absconded with the hillbilly equipment I built, and continued brewing dozens and dozens more batches at my own home a few blocks away.
Admittedly, there have been many clunkers over the years–I would say the majority of those early batches especially were barely decent. But with time, our skills and knowledge improved, our passion held firm, and we started to consistently produce varying styles of truly delicious beer. Because of our “success” with homebrewing, for years I held to the philosophy that brewing beer was easy.
Brewing is easy…..
Fast forward to last Saturday night, where Wife Helen, Mabel the Dog Walker, and I went to a small brewery to relax and sample a few different beers. As usual, I was hoping to get some material for my next blog post, and after perusing the menu, we selected four half-pours in a variety of styles and went outdoors to sit on the picnic bench area, which was the parking lot in pre-Covid days.
After just a few sips each, the consensus was that all the beers were underwhelming, if not completely undrinkable. So in an effort to redeem our evening, we agreed to leave our beers unfinished, and head to an alternate (previously blogged about) taproom across the street.
In the end, everything turned out fine. We ended up having a wonderful time, drinking a creative assortment of perfectly crafted beers. Sitting there, however, I couldn’t stop myself from dwelling on the evening’s previous brewery–dumbfounded how it was possible they could be selling such underwhelming beer when, as I found it to be at home, brewing was easy.
It’s all about the beer?
So why do some breweries serve subpar beer and how is it that many of the ones that do, survive, and even thrive? A perfect example of this is a brewery located just down the street from my house in Solana Beach. This small brewery/taproom has an awesome location in a beach community with sunset views, a sleek and trendy vibe inside, a friendly knowledgeable staff, and yes, underwhelming beer at best…and it’s always packed!
They have been so successful, in fact, they have expanded into three more beach locations around Southern California. For a long time, I was confused about why people would flock to this place, but I’ve slowly come to realize that, for a lot of people, it’s not about the beer at all, or at the least, it’s way down their list. Vibe, location, trendiness, and service are the bigger draws to a lot of people. For me, though, beer is número uno, so even though the intimate hip taproom is within walking distance, I rarely visit.
“You’re all just Tourists”
I think my epiphany on the brewing is easy subject began at a holiday party last year hosted by the brewery where I work as a Tapster. Our then-Head of Sales and Marketing, about five beers into the evening, came over and to my face called homebrewers like me “beer industry tourists.” Hackles raised, I shot back what an absurd statement that was, and proceeded to recite a countless list of former Homebrewers who had gone on to start successful breweries.
As I continued to name names, and as an exclamation point to my argument, I pointed to our owner and exclaimed, “HE started out as a homebrewer, is HE a tourist!!” The marketing guy dropped the subject pretty quickly, maybe being too buzzed for a coherent comeback, or maybe reluctant to push his point with the owner listening in.
I respected the marketing guy’s extensive industry credentials, but as a long-time craft beer business lurker who had finally taken the big leap into the business, it hurt being dissed like that. Because this guy was supposedly well-respected in the business, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and tried to understand the reasoning behind his opinion. In the months to follow, the comment continued to fester inside of me. Am I a tourist?
I didn’t begin to understand until very recently what may have been behind the marketing guy’s Tourist barb. I think what he may have been trying to say was that, for homebrewers, brewing beer is typically an act of leisure–a vacation, if you will, from the regular schedule; a way to be creative, relax, and unwind without the pressure of having to perform in a job-type setting. Whereas brewing beer in large quantities on a daily basis as a business is a do-or-die, no-margin-for-error attempt to turn a profit, which is a whole different salami entirely.
Experimenting with recipes at home has little to no consequences when a failed batch ends up down the drain, so understandably a homebrewer may think “brewing beer is easy,” as I did initially. But when you contemplate the prospect of a failed experiment resulting in hundreds of gallons worth thousands of dollars going down that drain, it’s obvious my initial assumption may have been a tad, to put it kindly, naive.
Often, especially when financing is tight, many breweries play it safe, sticking with an unchanging selection of decent core beers that never improve, but also never completely disappoint. Thankfully, a select few have found a way to thrive in spite of all the risks.
So why don’t all breweries make great beer?
I think most people agree that the number one factor in a brewery making great beer starts with a talented brewer with a passion for his work. While almost anyone with training and experience on a particular brew system can create a beer by following a recipe to the letter, a Head Brewer needs to have the knowledge of a chemist, the attention to detail of a surgeon, the creativity of a talented artist, and most importantly the ability to recognize, accept, and adapt their process to constantly improve their beer.
My belief is that it takes a great brewer to brew a great beer, but having a great brewer doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great beer. And if a brewer with tons of talent and potential is working in a financially constrained environment that stifles creativity and discourages experimentation, the flame of passion inevitably fizzles out and dies. I’ve seen it a bunch of times with brewer friends over the years who simply burn out. When a situation is ideal, however, where that magic mix comes together with a talented brewer, supportive management, and maybe even a little luck, a fortunate few breweries can grow into greatness, which in my opinion is the single coolest thing about craft beer today.
To give some perspective of what I’m saying about the beauty of craft brew “evolution over stagnation” thing I’ll point to one of my favorite Hazy IPAs right now- Art is Hard from (previously blogged) North Park Beer Co. It’s truly amazing, yet when I visited NPBC for the first time back when they opened, I initially found their beer to be merely decent. I was equally unimpressed with two other breweries when they first opened, Modern Times and Pure Project (previously blogged), but fast forward to today where they are now producing several unique varieties of truly delicious beer.
Or take the place I work at now, which opened a little over a year ago. Despite the fact that we are now putting out very good beer across the board, I’ve been noticing subtle differences in our core beers from batch to batch.
When I asked our Head Brewer about it, he told me he is constantly tweaking each recipe a little bit in an attempt to improve each batch. I was thrilled.
So what gives? My guess is that despite the challenges, despite the risks, despite the failures, a few brewers have the desire and resources to keep plugging along and just keep getting better and better. A talented passionate brewer paired with a supportive culture is the model for making great beer.
Hurry up and finish
So that’s all I got. I wish I was able to be blogging about the beer from the first brewery we went to last Saturday, but the SCCBB is about supporting, not dissing, small breweries that, at the least, had the passion and guts to give it a go in this crazy beautiful So Cal craft beer scene. Maybe I still AM just a tourist, but if so, this tourist is starting to understand the complexity involved in making a living brewing extraordinary beer.