What the Pros Know About Beer
Long Trail brewer Brandon Mayes mills grain to be used in an experimental batch of beer at the company’s pilot brewery in Bridgewater. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)
“Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life”
— headline in The Onion, March 20
Bridgewater — Several of my Facebook friends linked to the headline above, and as with many Onion headlines, we all found it funny because it was true.
How many gardeners and crafters out there think about turning pro by selling the fruits of their labors at a farmers market? How many accountants, salesmen, attorneys and (ahem) journalists are working on their novels after the kids are in bed?
My guess is more than a few, and as the Onion suggests, the likelihood of turning your passion into a career is an uphill climb. But when it comes to beer, a lot of home hobbyists have been having success doing so.
Nary a week goes by that I don’t hear about some new brewery opening in the deep rural reaches of the Twin States. And many of these efforts, modest in size and often located in refurbished barns or empty warehouses, are being started by homebrewers.
Technological advances in small-scale brewing equipment have made it much easier and cheaper for hobbyists to break into the business. Generally, I regard this as a good thing because I want the variety and experimentation that small brewers bring.
But, as the lines between the “pros” and “Joes” gets blurred, it has gotten me thinking about the consequences of having all these new fresh faces in the industry. More does not always equal better, a fact that has become increasingly evident of late.
There have been several instances recently when I’ve come across new labels and paid $7 or more to taste a beer that should never have been sold. I’ve noted sour tang in styles where none should have existed, stale cardboard-like flavors that indicated sloppy brewing and packaging practices. Some of the small, “nano brewery” beers have been great. Others have been dreadful.
I’ve written previously about the influence that homebrewers have had on the craft beer industry. They spawned the revolution we’ve seen in the U.S. over the past 30 years, and homebrewers have continued to inspire innovation.
But being able to produce a few good batches of homebrew doesn’t mean you’re ready to go into business, despite what your friends suggest. To return to the gardening comparison, just because someone can grow a good tomato, doesn’t mean he or she is ready to start a farm.
“(Homebrewers) are essentially winging it, which is what was cool about homebrewing,” said Brandon Mayes, a brewer at Long Trail Brewing in Bridgewater. “At Long Trail, you’ve got to have that control that homebrewers don’t have.”
I turned to Mayes because he’s been on both sides. Before he started working for Long Trail in 2006, he was cooking up batches of stout and India pale ale in his kitchen in Windsor.
I’d had the privilege of tasting some of his homebrews before he turned pro. His creations won him awards and were as delicious as anything I’d tasted. Indeed, a few have inspired beers that Long Trail now puts out, including his homebrewed coffee stout and double IPA.
Mayes had been homebrewing for 14 years when he was hired at Long Trail and knew way more about beer than most anyone I’d met. But becoming a professional did change things for Mayes.
All of a sudden, he was counting yeast cells, paying closer attention to temperature, the weight of ingredients and obscure stuff like the amount of oxygen in the beer.
He couldn’t just keep “winging it.” Being a professional brewer means knowing what you are doing at every step of the process, he said, and then being able to repeat it over and over.
“I think the difference (from being a professional) is, can that homebrewer brew that beer again?” he said.
It comes down to control and attention to detail. The reason why control matters obviously is consistency. When you buy a six-pack of Long Trail Ale, you can be reasonably assured of getting the same product that you had a week or month or year before. It may not sound exciting, but at least consumers can be comfortable in knowing what their $8 is buying.
Small brewers can’t always afford the fancy bells and whistles that larger companies use to achieve this consistency, and they don’t necessarily need them. But fundamentally, all brewers need to be knowledgeable enough to know where they should invest their limited dollars, and be skilled enough to use the equipment they have to make the same popular beer over and over again. Unfortunately, not every brewer is capable of doing this.
This isn’t to say that consumers shouldn’t buy unfamiliar beers. Quite the contrary. Buy them. Explore. But know the risk that you’re taking and, if you don’t like it, let the brewery know. Be constructive, of course, but honest critiques are one of the most important gifts that a burgeoning business can receive from customers. Indeed, they are important for any business.
If these new brewers aren’t mindful of the little details, they could do harm to the industry by creating cynical consumers who’ve been burned one too many times.
I was mulling this over when I met Mayes at Long Trail to check out what he was brewing.
He told me to put on some safety glasses and we wove between enormous steel fermenting tanks and hoses, then stepped outside to take a walk. He wanted to show me a little experiment that he and some other brewers had begun.
Coming next week: How large brewers are rediscovering their homebrewing roots.
Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-272-3229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.