Birth of a Microbrew

One of the great things about going to a brewpub or perusing the microbrews at your favorite liquor store is the jaw-dropping variety of beers that are available. However, although many local microbreweries boast mighty impressive arrays of beers, brewers don’t just come up with a new beer on a lark.

Marc Gottfried, brewmaster at Morgan Street Brewery, St. Louis’ most award-winning craft brewery, said most breweries produce three types of beers: flagships, seasonals and specialty brands brewed for specific events. Morgan Street currently has 17 beers in production, so they’re rarely coming up with additions. But, when they do, they follow a process. “The first thing I look at is our brand program and ask myself if there’s a hole, and where,” Gottfried explained. 

He used his brewery’s latest entry, Morgan Street Vienna, as an example. Despite the fact that this lighter beer is currently in demand from the pub’s convention and ballgame clientele, it’s still important to keep your finger on the pulse of all of your customers, because sometimes tastes change unexpectedly.

“Our clientele is drinking a ton of stout right now,” he said. “I’ve been here for eight years, and they’ve never drank stout. I had to make half batches of stout or it would just get too old. But recently it’s selling out, so my next brew is going to be a full batch of stout, and that’s never happened before. So you not only have to look at the program and say, ‘Am I missing this style that’s really hot right now?’ but also, ‘Times are changing; I’d better conform to that.’” 

He said that the physical limitations of the brewery operation also determine what can be brewed. For example, the vast majority of brew pubs only use one type of yeast, because it takes a lot to store and care for. Gottfried also said that most brewpubs produce ales, since ales take a week or two to make, while lagers can take upwards of a month. (Morgan Street, however, is an exception to this rule. Since it’s a competition brewery that competes on a global scale, it focuses on German lagers, although some of its offerings, such as stouts, are ale styles fermented as lagers.)

Personnel is also a consideration in what can be produced and sold. Morgan Street has a 17.5-barrel brewhouse on site, but since Gottfried is the only brewery employee, he does a limited amount of hand-bottling, with most of the product sold as draft-only in the restaurant.

If the brewery has been around for a while, coming up with a new beer is a little less daunting; after all, brewers know their customers and what’s selling well in their area. But what about if you’re starting from scratch? That’s what Fran and Tony Caradonna faced when they started their microbrewery, O’Fallon Brewery, in 2000.

The Caradonnas had been microbrew distributors for most of the 1990s, so they did have a leg up when they started, knowing what was in the market and what niches there were to fill. They used their knowledge to develop their flagship beer, O’Fallon Gold. “We based it partly on where we were located and where our initial core market would be, which is St. Charles County,” Fran Caradonna said. “We looked at the prevailing tastes and sales of other brands.”

They decided a full-flavored, smooth beer, not too bitter or hoppy, would be a good place to start. They came up with a flavor profile, what they wanted the beer to look and taste like, and created the O’Fallon Gold recipe based on that.

But it’s not all about market research when it comes to creating a new microbrew; the creative needs of the brewers are also important to take into consideration, said Mike Kilian, brewmaster for Route 66. For a brewpub, he said, there is a little more leeway in what a brewer can create, unlike some larger corporate brewers who have to be more focused on the bottom line.

“We don’t brew as much or as often and don’t brew as big a batch,” he said. “That allows us to try things that a larger brewery wouldn’t. When we get that creative urge to make something new, we do.” And although some new creations don’t necessarily hit the mark, he said he’s never had to throw out a batch.

“Any brewer is about consistency,” Kilian explained. “But you’ve got a little more flexibility in the small brewing environment. Maybe things aren’t quite as consistent [as a larger brewer], but that’s part of the charm.”

“Not only do I consider what the general public may like, but I also have my own personal favorites,” said David Hyde, brewmaster with Copper Dragon Brewing Company in Carbondale, Ill. He said he’s developing a couple of new Belgian-style beers at Copper Dragon, based in large part on his affinity for Belgian brews.

Once the style of beer has been chosen, it’s time to create a recipe.

“Instead of trying to clone a recipe for a beer that’s already popular, I try to stay within certain style guidelines but also create a beer that has its own unique characteristics that can readily be identified as being a Copper Dragon beer,” said Hyde.

Stephen Hale, chief brewer for Schlafly, explained that the process of developing a recipe is based on experience, study and research. “It doesn’t hurt to have a homebrew background and to have experimented with different kinds of malts and flavors,” he said. “A lot of it is research, looking at other recipes that are already out there.”

In fact, it’s not unusual for microbreweries to share aspects of their recipes with each other. Caradonna said that the microbrewery world isn’t as concerned about secrecy as some members of the larger corporate brewery universe tend to be. As an example, she cited O’Fallon’s Pumpkin Ale, which recently made its debut. She said they got the idea for the brew from Trailhead Brewing Co., another noted St. Charles microbrewery, which had its own popular pumpkin beer. She said that part of the process of developing their beer entailed calling up Trailhead and asking for their input.

“It’s surprising that brewers aren’t terribly proprietary or secretive about their recipes,” she said, adding this may be in part because beer is a pretty simple thing to make and it’s been around for thousands of years, and also because of the number of variables that affect the final product.
“We don’t keep any trade secrets as microbrewers,” Hyde said. “It’s actually a pretty close-knit community. We’ll freely hand out our master recipes for any beer to any microbrewery, because the chances of someone actually being able to exactly clone the beer are just nil. Every brewer’s equipment and system and process vary so much that it’s hard to recreate.” He said any competition is usually directed at getting a bigger market share against larger corporate breweries.

Given past experience, Kilian said he knows how much alcohol a particular beer should have and how many pounds of grain should be used, but beyond that there is lots of room for creativity. His experience as a home brewer comes in handy when he’s figuring out the details of a new beer, such as what oatmeal might do to a certain beer type, for example.

Hale said that despite the confines various styles of beer may have, there’s still a lot of room for creativity. “There are shared traits [within styles], but there are lots of variations,” he explained. “For example, an oatmeal stout has oatmeal, a dry stout usually doesn’t have oatmeal, but they’ll both have roasted barley.”

The process is definitely both an art and science, Kilian said. “We look at water chemistry and pHs and things like that, but for the most part, the beers I create are based on my likes and also my understanding of the different beer styles. Basically, what we’re doing is scaling up homebrew recipes. We’re pulling from things we’ve done in the past, and based on what we know of our capabilities brewing-wise and the characteristics of the system we have. We select the grains, temperatures, hops and yeast based on what we want to create.”

Hale compared the process to making soup: You start out with a big pot of water and then add the various ingredients. The primary ingredient for beer would be the base malt, and then the other grains are added, depending on how much flavor contribution you want from them. He said what makes beer brewing so interesting and challenging is that although there are only four primary ingredients involved – water, malt, hops and yeast – the variables derived from them are nearly endless.

Differences in types of water and the geography of where the different grains are raised can yield almost unlimited taste variations. For example, some soft waters are better suited to European lagers, while harder water yields good English ales. Different brewing systems affect taste as well. And all malts aren’t the same, either. “There are a huge number of malts from the different malting companies, and the way they treat their malts are not all the same,” explained Hale.

Kilian said the same goes for yeasts. “If we want to do a Belgian-style trippel, then that requires a certain yeast and a certain character that can only be generated by the yeast,” Kilian explained. “We can make a Belgian trippel with any type of yeast, but it won’t have the character of a real Belgian trippel has.”

And he said even the same types of yeast – for example, ale yeasts – can have different characteristics, from minerally to malty, and can enhance the characteristics of the water used. You can get off the scale on some odd ale yeasts that provide all sorts of over-the-top flavors, such as clove, banana, even bubblegum. “There are a lot of similarities,” Killian said. “Everybody’s using similar yeasts and similar malts, but brewing systems make a difference and brewers make differences based on their understandings and their knowledge.”

To cook pasta, some people boil the water with salt in it. Some people boil the water with oil in it or with nothing in it, Caradonna said. “It’s those kinds of little nuances that make the difference from brewery to brewery.”

Once a recipe has been perfected, it’s time to make a batch. Hale said the process from brew day to serving takes two to three weeks for ales, lagers six to eight weeks or more. “If a beer has a lot more alcohol in it, that means it started with a lot more grain. Typically, a ‘bigger’ beer is going to take longer. It will have barely finished fermenting in two weeks,” he said.

From raw material to the beginning of the fermentation process takes about six hours in the brewhouse, Hale said, then between two and eight weeks for fermenting and conditioning. Filtering can take another several hours, and bottling, if required, also adds time to the process.

Only then is your favorite brew is born, and it’s finally come time for the most important part of the entire process: Tasting. You’ve waited long enough, haven’t you? So grab a few friends, select a variety of brands and enjoy the creativity of our city’s brewers.