Quick. It’s your company’s birthday. What do you make? Cake? Cookies? Brownies? What about beer?
Twisted Pine Brewery in Boulder is celebrating its 18th anniversary in July, and according to Justin Tilotta, who manages logistics for the brewery, Twisted Pine will have up to 40 different beers ready — a pretty huge number, even for a brewery that’s among the larger in Boulder County.
The Twisted Pine anniversary celebration points to a larger issue that faces Boulder County’s bigger breweries: striking a balance between experimentation, adventure and rarity on the one hand, and reliability, smooth operation and constant production of the classics on the other.
For the county’s bigger breweries — Twisted Pine, Avery, Left Hand, Boulder Beer and others — there’s no single answer. Some breweries get a pilot system to let employees test new ideas, some ask their brewers to try things at home and others break in new brews with a bang, dedicating their whole production line to a new recipe.
Twisted Pine’s approach just might be the most aggressively creative. Each employee involved in brewing is required to bring in a new beer each month. The 2012 decision by brewery President and CEO Bob Baile has seen some interesting results, yielding beers based on the flavors and aromas of vegetables like carrots and cucumbers.
“We’ve gotten some really weird stuff out of there,” Tilotta says of the ideas that they receive, many of which are made on brewers’ homebrew kits.
The brewery has a less than organized way of stor ing the beer during the fermentation process. The trial beers are kept in kegs and containers next to or on top of packaged beer that is ready to be sent to restaurants and distributors, often on pallets that stand 20 or 30 feet high.
“It’s nothing pretty,” Tilotta says, “but it gets the job done.”
Twisted Pine goes with the no-holds-barred method of creating new ideas, but fellow Boulder brewery Avery Brewing Company has a much more conservative approach to creating new beers. Joe Osborne, marketing manager for Avery, says that it takes the brewery almost two years for a beer to get from just a concept to a fully produced product.
Just to get to the lineup Avery has now, Osborne says, took nearly two decades.
“We have a very large assortment of beers that we package and release,” Osborne says. “It’s taken us 20 years to come up with that assortment.”
The company’s national marketing director, Darin McGregor, says the brewery embraces its large lineup. He says another model might be easier but wouldn’t be as satisfying.
“We’d probably make about five beers and make them well and market them like crazy, and that would be the easiest way to go,” he says. “But that’s not where we’ve ever come from. For [President and Brewmaster] Adam [Avery], it was about what the possibilities were, making sure we were more of a brewery than we were a factory.”
Osborne says that the guiding idea behind where their new ideas come from is to ask, “What am I not tasting in my beer?”
“We are looking at what part of our palette is not getting hit yet,” Osborne says. Osborne adds that many of the brewers at Avery also work at home on their own home brewing kits to figure out what they would enjoy making. But McGregor says it’s rare for an Avery beer to be any one person’s project.
“One thing we’ve discovered is any one of our brewers could sit down and sketch out and make a really good beer,” he says, “but when we get a roomful of people, we go from a really good beer to a great beer.”
The process at Avery not only takes two years, but several hundred batches before it goes into mass production or presentation in the tap house. McGregor says the brewery doesn’t employ a pilot system, instead relying on two things: brewers’ ability to imagine a recipe and a willingness to bail on a failure.
“Some of the proudest moments are when you open up and dump something out,” he says. “I think it can be really hard for some people, financially speaking, to do that. But it’s important. We don’t ever try to blend anything back. … If we decide to make that commitment and it doesn’t turn out as good as we expected, we dump it out.”
Longmont’s Left Hand Brewing Company goes pilot-less as well, PR Coordinator Emily Armstrong says. The smallest batch Left Hand can make is 60 barrels, which makes experimentation a little tougher.
“Right now it seems to be, if we have room in our production schedule then we go for it,” she says, noting that Sawtooth and Milk Stout do take up the bulk of the brewery’s production. Armstrong says experimentation at the brewery comes down to the brewers’ skill and experience.
“It honestly starts with extra ingredients,” she says. “St. Vrain, that was our 22-ounce limited offering, we had that Belgian yeast strain and did not want it to go to waste. … We do have beers that, from creative conception, came straight from the head brewer [Ro Guenzel]. Fade to Black Volume 1, our head brewer did not do a test batch, and that beer, at the Great American Beer Fest 2010, won a gold medal for export stout. We are incredibly lucky to have brewer talent, so we are able to take risks that way.”
Armstrong says brewing a beer and splitting it up into different casks or aging vessels is one way Left Hand can generate small-batch variety even on its large system.
Twisted Pine’s Tilotta says that the beer-a-month program has been beneficial because it makes coming up with recipes further down the road a little bit easier. It also helped to create what the brewery will present as their anniversary beer, an employee-created ESB, or extra special/strong bitter.
“That’s the real payoff of the program,” Tilotta says. “We don’t always have to draw up a new recipe from scratch. We just have this thing in place where we have been constantly experimenting.”
Meanwhile, Boulder Beer, Boulder’s oldest microbrewery, keeps its pilot system available to its brewers, who turn out beers that are featured as “brewer’s choice” beers in the taproom.
“Our brewers have free reign over the pilot system that we have,” the company’s marketing director, Dan Weitz, says.
But Boulder Beer’s policy does include a relatively controlled process if a brewer’s choice beer is popular and the brewers decide to bring it back.
“We always have a beer in our pub called brewer’s choice. We’re usually stacked up with them, our brewers are doing it several times a month,” he says. “If it’s hugely popular, we make it again. As it maintains its popularity, we kick it up to the next level, which is considering it a seasonal or a special release. Then we introduce a brand to the market in the form of a 22-ounce bottle.”
Like the other breweries, Boulder Beer’s brewers focus primarily on what they wanted to drink. The pilot beer system at Boulder Beer produces about three kegs per batch, and then they are brought out into the tap room.
“Our brewers drive our innovation,” Weitz says. “If people like it, we are going to make more.”
Weitz added that one of Boulder Beer’s more popular concoctions, Hazed and Infused, came from this pilot program.
Then it’s Googling time. With 2,000 breweries in the U.S., one of the hardest parts about creating a beer, Weitz says, is finding a name for it.