A recent inquiry from a new ale club member regarding some unfulfilled expectations had me thinking of how best to communicate expectations when being part of our inner circle. While being a member gets you the access to our rarest beers, it doesn’t necessarily mean our very finest offerings. Sounds a bit like a conundrum, doesn’t it? The way we set up the agreement in intention is just that, however logistics involved in predicting over a year in advance complicate matters. Please read the exchange below to get a glimpse into an issue that has been a thorn for me in the past and how I feel we’re ultimately getting beyond it. My focus is to ensure that our club members realize that our relationship is mutual; we rely on their support to take the chances that make our brewery exciting, they rely on us to provide a beer experience like no other. In the end, it may not be found in every single bottle they get in their yearly allotment.
Staci, the reason I’ve been delaying in my renewal is that I have opened 5 bottles so far and have concerns with significant off flavors that I have encountered.
The Faerie Tears and Brett Lager were excellent.
The Be Still 2017 was opened at the same time as a 750 bottle of Be Stiil from a few years ago. The older version was significantly more complex .
Recently, I opened a Belmont La Tache next to an older non variant treated La Tache and everyone at the share felt the same way. The Belmont had a significant vinegar taste that suppressed everything else, whereas the older version was still very drinkable with no vinegar.
Lastly, just last night at another share I opened a Raspberry Sahalie and many found it undrinkable due the strong acetone /nail polish taste.
I am bringing this up not to criticize, but to see if you have heard any other similar feedback, or if somehow I have gotten some off bottles.
I really appreciate you reaching out like this. I have included our entire staff at the brewery as this subject is one that is of major importance, one that our brewers and I are definitely aware of. Firstly, I want you to understand that I am not going to make any effort to encourage you one way or another regarding your Ale Club membership. That decision is yours and yours alone! I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on acetic acid production at our brewery, what we are doing about it and some general thoughts on the subject matter you bring up.
I apologize for not knowing if you have visited our brewery before or not, or if you are familiar with our story. Due to my singular vision (or folly, as it may be), we have certain challenges that other breweries do not. The reason for this is very idealistic; I envisioned my brewery as a contemporary version of something that disappeared a long time ago from our normal daily activities: a clear and transparent food chain! It is important to me to connect our customer to the farmers and the process used to create what they are consuming: a 100% natural product. It is also how I envisioned creating house character and an identifiable brand: No bullshit! No hidden secret machines or chemicals used! That kind of thing. Before even the beer, it is this concept that we are diligently working towards. After my career at one of the top craft breweries in the country, I was determined to celebrate the wonderful history of beer by using rustic practices, local ingredients, and our unique process. I was just as determined to avoid the things that I feel are pitfalls to my vision, namely processing aids that would encourage and sustain rapid growth. In a nutshell, these are items like draft beer & a keg fleet, mineral and biologic additives to the brewing recipes, a stainless steel production brewery and glycol system, high overhead, chemical sanitizers, artificial CO2, etc etc. I feel that we have realized this vision, and it’s proved when people walk into our brewery. They remark on how good it smells (no chemicals!) and how it doesn’t look like any other brewery they’ve seen. This makes me very proud.
However, the issue that you bring up regarding acetic acid is my waking nightmare, to be truthful. The reason I tell you about all this stuff is that it is always on my mind. The reason that I include our entire staff (of 7!) on this is because I am hoping that they can help shoulder this burden with me as well as understand how important some of our more recent process changes are. Because while we’ve built the visionary brewery I dreamed of, we are still learning (always learning) about the process that we’ve created. For the beginning stages of my brewery, which began in 2011, I was the sole employee. It wasn’t until just this last summer in July when I feel that we finally had enough people to do the work required. One of the major issues behind your complaint is barrel topping. When I began barrel aging, there was significant information that pointed to not topping barrels and allowing the pellicle to provide defense against oxygen. There are too many details to go into surrounding this, but having a brewery in the high desert of Oregon proves to be challenging due to the arid environment. Prior to last summer, we topped barrels when we could. Now, we have our barrels on a schedule where they get topped up 3 times per year. This, in my mind, is the major issue surrounding acetic acid for our beers: it forms during aging by air slipping into casks. However, we also perform open & wild fermentation, dry hop in puncheons for an extended time, and our bottling process is very manual. There are plenty of places for oxygen to get into the process and we are doing our very best to minimize it, while keeping the unique nuances of our brewery secure. I feel that in the last 6 months we’ve seen some remarkable improvement in this area (which helps me sleep at night!) and I’m very excited to see it continue.
Our Ale Club is the group of people we try to get the majority of our specialty beers to. In order to do this, we plan and we brew. We know about a year in advance which beers will be going to our Ale Club, but I can’t guarantee that they will be our absolute best beers that we brewed in that particular year. They will definitely have the most exciting stories, though. For example, our regular, standard old Sahalie of 7/21/17 was absolutely astounding. If I had only known how good it was going to be, I would have saved it for the club! Part of the agreement that I have with our club members is that I will reserve for you the beers that we are most excited about. Club members get a discount on retail and for this, we must hold each other accountable. I’ll be honest, it is a fine line that we are trying to walk with this brewery! We are promising to do our absolute best to create exciting beers that will engage and entertain our customers. Our story is a huge part of this, and I do expect club members to understand that we are in this together. I can’t promise that your ale club case will contain the best 12 beers you are going to have in the entire year from any brewery anywhere, but I can promise you that we are doing our best on every level to create those beers. That is our intention.
Now, the next subject regarding ‘off-flavors’ is something I struggle with how best to communicate with our customers. We are doing our absolute best to create beers with intention, with an experimental and rustic approach. Our ‘Vamonos’ brew is an unboiled lactic ferment that is higher in DMS than most beers folks are accustomed to. It’s a beer I’d avoid offering someone from a commercial brewery lab, I’ll tell you that! If you go looking for off-flavors in our beer (in any beer, if you have the palette) you’ll find them. We’ve discovered that a little bit of acetic helps pop out other subtle flavors, but, as you know, too much is simply too much. 2017 was the year we experienced the most widespread acetic notes in our brands, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 2015/2016 (when these beers were brewed and aged) was the most strapped and busy time this little brewery has ever seen. Super busy + high desert + no barrel topping = too much acetic acid.
So, to wrap up this essay on various subjects, I apologize that you did not find some of our beers from the 2017 club as exciting or as good as you had hoped. I am very proud of the fact that some of them were favorites (brew 200 was one of Draft Magazine’s best of 2017) and that we had an incredible amount of special beers not available in the club case available at our distribution in November. With our process and dedication to our craft, I cannot guarantee that every single beer will be a winner. If you decide to continue with the club, I want you to know this. Our ale club has the opportunity to get their hands on every single beer that we make, with a little (or a lot) of effort, depending on where you live. I wish that we could somehow know which ones will end up becoming the best so we could ensure that the club got those, but at the end of the day that is the risk we ask our club members to take. Your memberships help fund this amazing experiment!
And, while we might have moments of perfection, we’re not perfect.
Thank you for writing. I will say that I feel like 2018 will see a dramatic decrease in acetic levels and the best use of your membership would be to take advantage of all of our offerings, not just the ones that show up in your case in November. There are many, many things to celebrate!
the ale apothecary
PS: I occasionally blog at www.mountainbrewery.org. I want to simply copy and paste our exchange there, if it’s ok with you? I really thank you for giving me this opportunity to face this particular demon head-on. Last year I just wanted to sweep it under the rug and move on, but this feels much better 🙂
Thank you Paul for taking the time to go into such a thorough explanation of the process and your recognition of the issues I encountered is refreshingly honest .
I always enjoyed every one of your brews that I was fortunate enough to gain access to in the past 5 years and always was excited to share them with others. So it took me off guard to experience some of the issues just discussed.
Now that I know you recognize these issues and are taking steps to deal with them, I plan to stick with the group and excitedly look forward to next year’s offerings.
I have no issues with you using this exchange in your blog.
Thank you for the quick response.
For a small business like mine, trying to walk the fine line of experimentation and unique and individual processing, it is essential that the support provided understands the risk and the concept of reward. We are truly in this together, long-term. This year we’ve been able to increase the membership of our club somewhat and I’m excited to see how we can improve not only on the beer we get them this year, but in communicating our story and providing service and connection unlike any other brewery experience.
Here’s to a fantastic 2018!