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On Tap: Larger Brewers Think Small to Keep Innovation Flowing

The R&D lab where Long Trail brewers perform their experiments is inside a drafty old farmhouse about a five-minute walk from the main brewery in Bridgewater.

It is an unpretentious little facility and the brewers like it that way.

“This is about as free form as it can get,” said Brandon Mayes, a Long Trail brewer. “Any ideas that the guys have, they should be free to pursue.”

The “pilot facility” was a small white room where four stainless steel kettles sat on burners, and bags of grain were stored nearby in the barn. Head brewer Dave Hartmann was standing inside with his colleague, Sam Clemens, who was hand-cranking a mill filled with malted barley.

On this particular Tuesday, Clemens and Hartmann were making two different batches of beer. One was a wheat IPA. The other was a black walnut dunkelweizen.

Black walnuts?

“Some guy who grows them contacted us and said, ‘Think you could use them in a beer?’ ” Hartmann told me.

Such an idea would have been impractical to test in the main brewery, which is set up to make 1,890 gallons at a time. Experimenting on a beer that may or may not work is a risk few brewers would take. But on this 31-gallon pilot setup, Hartmann was willing to take the chance.

These are the kinds of systems that larger craft brewers have begun using in recent years to keep the creative juices flowing. But more than that, as craft breweries get bigger and more mainstream, many have realized they need to retain that sense of experimentation to keep consumers interested.

“The breweries are getting so big that the brewers start getting bored,” said Laura Streets, director of the Vermont Brewers Festival. “Also, everybody realizes that the craft beer industry is about new and different things and to stay competitive, you’ve got to be coming out with new beers.”

Harpoon Brewery, which has a facility in Windsor, has been tooling around with a pilot system for the past decade, said Sean Cornelius, the head brewer. Located at Harpoon’s main brewhouse in Boston, the pilot system has evolved over the years from something even smaller than Long Trail’s setup to a 10-barrel system larger than most brewpubs.

Yet, it remains small enough that Harpoon can have fun creating specialty beers for individual restaurants, such as a blonde ale with sriracha hot sauce that was fermenting when I spoke with Cornelius recently. Sometimes, the brewers just make small batches to drink in-house.

“It gives us the chance to try new things,” Cornelius said. “Somebody has a fun idea, we’ll test it out and serve it to employees.”

Long Trail’s pilot system is essentially a glorified version of a home brewery, similar to the so-called “nano breweries” that have been popping up around the Twin States lately and driving a lot of the interest in craft beer. Their small size allows them to be nimble and test new ingredients or styles with less risk. If an experiment doesn’t work, there’s relatively little beer to spill out.

Long Trail puts out 90,000 barrels of beer annually, about 40 percent of which is its flagship Long Trail Ale. It is a brewery designed for efficiency and consistency. Much as Hartmann enjoys brewing the Long Trail Ale, he said it can be tiresome to make a dozen times each week.

“What’s great about being a homebrewer or nano is that every batch can be an experiment,” Hartmann said. “It opens up a whole creative world for us.”

Hartmann and Mayes were clearly excited about this pilot system out in the barn, and I wondered whether it was just a fun toy for them to play with. But to get the company management to sign off on the investment, Hartmann had to make a business case for it.

Long Trail isn’t really known for radical experimentation or unusual beers. Its customer-base centers on the standard lineup, he said. But the growth in number of the smaller and more nimble brewers has resulted in more innovative beers being sold on the market. The thirst for them has grown, too.

“The thing of it is, it is a time when people want really different beers,” he said.

Twenty years ago, it was brewers like Long Trail and Harpoon that were the industry upstarts, offering consumers flavors they’d never tasted before. Now, they have become familiar brands, an old standby for some people. Putting out limited edition, experimental beers allows them to stay fresh and capture those customers that are interested in challenging their palates.

The beers brewed on the pilot system are sold at the facility’s visitors center, where Long Trail can get a sense of how well they are received. Those that work will get brewed in the big house for wider release.

I also think it’s healthy for any business to do something like this to stay fresh. Business professors at Tuck often talk about the importance of innovation for companies, to keep thinking about creative ways to disrupt old practices that have become outdated and stale.

As the craft beer industry grows and matures, it will be important to maintain that small-scale ethic with which they began, and which continues to interest so many consumers. Much as their success has to teach the upstarts, there are some lessons for the bigger brewers in the kitchens and barns of small brewers you’ve never heard of, but may one day soon.

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Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.