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2019 In Review

Another year has passed.  This one went by incredibly fast--probably since so much happened!  Our new restaurant opened, we got our own canning line, we started Maryland distribution, and we launched our mixed ferm sub-brand.  Plus two dozen or so other smaller projects.  It seems like yesterday we were demoing drywall next door.

At the end of each year, I like to reflect on lessons learned, developments in beer, and goals for next year.  I'll start with the two biggest lessons I have learned in 2019:

"Your most valuable assets are people."  This is so absolutely true for a small brewery.  Our canning line and new tanks have the ability to generate a lot of revenue, but their value they add to the company is nothing compared to our staff.  In the last month, we were doing our end of the year performance reviews.  A common theme emerged.  Everyone had improved, which has a synergistic effect of compounding improvement in productivity.  We are accomplishing more in less time and effort than we were six months ago.  A clear example is we had our largest set of purchase orders for beer for distribution we've ever had last week.  I was expecting Monday to be pretty rough, as I've spent 4+ hours shuffling pallets and hauling kegs to put together smaller orders.  But it took us 2 hours and was easy this time!

You get this by investing time and care into employees.  The developments I have seen over the past two years into transforming us into a company that functions on a high level have been slow but relentless.  It hasn't been about corporatization and rigid standards, it's been done through continued mindfulness and analysis of every process, driven by a real desire to improve.  Meetings help, but simply asking your co-workers "how can I make your job easier?" goes a long way.

The second lesson I have learned is: "consumer habits are being set."  This is a bit more negative, but it's important to learn.  I believe the restaurant industry (and tertiarily brewery taprooms) have overexpanded in my region.  There is going to be a contraction, especially if we enter a recession.  New locations are struggling because a lot of customers already have decided on their preferred venues.

I first used this phrase advising a colleague who was looking to open a new brewery.  I was trying to explain that even with good beer and food, it's hard to build a customer base when so much of it is already taken.  People don't stop going to one brewery and start going to another just because the beer and atmosphere are just as good or slightly better.  This holds true for all industries.  People didn't leave Facebook for Google+, and they weren't going to without some very compelling reasons.   

This is not to say that new places cannot be successful, but you really have to be prepared to weather a storm of 1-2 years at least of lower sales while you build awareness.  Marketing is incredibly important, which is another post in and of itself.

I see this lesson illustrated all over the place.  A good restaurant group opens a new spot in an area where there isn't name recognition, and it's a struggle.  Meanwhile a neighborhood bar with decent food and beer continues to be packed because it's been around for 20 years.  

One of the easiest ways to set yourself up for success is to find a niche.  Destination breweries, urban breweries, and brewpubs continue to do well.  In a mature market, you have to create a compelling answer to the question "why are people coming here?"  That answer could actually be as simple as "for the beer" if you're putting out incredible liquid, too.

This is a good segue to my next topic, which is the developments we have made with our beer in the past year.  I think 2019 represents the biggest jump in quality and complexity of our beers.  Let's break it down.

Lagers: The more lagers I've tried, the most I've come to realize we have a good thing going on with Coast, our flagship pilsner.  Previously, it was hard to fit anything in the schedule other than Coast.  Now that we have a new tank for IPAs, we have a dedicated tank for other lagers.  So far, we've released two new pilsners, a helles, a light lager, and a schwarzbier this year.  The helles had a lot of potential but picked up some diacetyl which we couldn't shake.  I was super happy with the other beers.  The new trend in lagers is pilsners and pale lagers made similar to NEIPAs, with relatively large whirlpool and dry hop additions, and low bittering charge.  The second emerging trend is styles that are traditionally more malt-balanced, but with a higher level of bitterness.  Think dryer and more bitter festbiers or other amber lagers.  It's a very slight rebalancing that makes these beers more drinkable.  We're releasing a decoction mashed helles bock soon in this vein.

IPA: We've started rebrewing IPAs instead of making so many new ones.  We're still struggling with some of our IPAs, particularly DIPAs, but I hope to have everything smoothed out in 2020.  We've had some decent ones lately, mostly based on reliably good hops like Mosaic and Citra.  One real surprise was the return of our west coast IPA, Storm.  We first started brewing this beer in 2013.  The new, improved Storm is similar to the more modern west coast IPAs that some breweries across the country have been brewing.  Lower bitterness, higher dry hop, no crystal malt.  We use Kolsch yeast to get it nice and dry and give a more expressive yeast character.  It's really very nice and has been selling quite well.

Sours: Oh boy.  This is by far the greatest area of improvement.  Our kettle sours continue to be reliably good, but it's the mixed ferm side I am talking about here.  Thanks to the continued efforts of our team, we're putting out some much more polished mixed ferm beers.  I first felt we were onto something when a colleague tried Aronia, our golden sour with chokeberries, and told me "this is one of the best sours produced in the state."  The development of some house yeast cultures combined with higher hopping rates with aged hops to keep lactobacillus-derived acidity at bay in our coolship beers, has really upped our game with these beers.  I really can't say enough.  Arcadia, our coolship saison co-pitched with our house saison strain, reminded me of something from the best saison makers from Belgium.  Orange rind, minerality, slight tannins, super faint acidity...hell yes.

Barrel-aged beers: This was my passion project.  Starting with Spellbound in October, we've been killing it with BA stouts and barleywines.  Our first efforts were a bit shaky, but we've improved exponentially.  After some advice from some friends who do QA for some larger breweries, we made some changes in our fermentation regimen in order to ensure that our ABV listed is accurate.  It's also had some very beneficial effects beyond this.  I can't get into it here, but it's been a critical development for this program.  It's been really cool to see our brewery actually get some hype for these beers.

I was speaking with one of my colleagues about how to get peoples' attention in the craft beer world.  I was telling him that no one ever cares about a product that is just as good as the originator.  For us, that's been IPAs.  We have some really strong IPAs coming from some other VA breweries, so it's hard to get noticed.  I saw much more space in lagers, mixed ferm sours, and stouts.  You ultimately choose what you are known for, and I'm pretty happy people are starting to appreciate our diverse offerings.

So, what are our goals for 2020?  Here's what I'm looking forward to:

Nailing down IPAs.  It's the most popular style in craft.  While ours aren't bad, we have some work to do here.  I'd like to learn more about the nuances of the style.  The top producers obviously know a lot more than the rest of the industry.  There's no reason we can't get within striking distance.

Collabing with some more esoteric breweries.  I want to get out more and get into doing some more creative and involved beers.  For example, we have a collab that's being released in a few months that is a saison made with herbs, estate grown wheat, and conditioned with brett in the bottle.  More stuff like that, please.

Pouring at some more interesting festivals.  We'd really love to do some sour or lager-focused festivals.  There are a lot of festivals where I don't want to bring any of our mixed ferm beers since that isn't what attendees are looking for.

Visiting Europe.  We want to attend a festival in Europe and brew with some folks there.  I personally have never been, and I really want to see what the terrain of European beer is like.

2019 was a good year, no doubt.  We finally feel like there is a solid foundation to work with, and are excited to explore beer even further.