Brewmaster Russell here. As you can see, there was no ‘Summer’ post. Goes to show just how busy we are during Summer! For day to day updates, like us on Facebook. But many great things happened: beer festivals, brewers nights, beer releases, music, fun and friends. Not a whole lot of sleep or Not Brewery happened. We call that ‘Summer’! Days were basically brewing or festival/event, short crabbing break, taproom, repeat. But I’ll do a recap of a few of the bigger events
In early June we added a shiny new 20 barrel fermenter. Last year we added our first expansion tank right before Summer and it saved our bacon. This year was no exception; due to our growth we’d have been totally out of beer without it! Since one US Beer Barrel is 31 gallons, this tank has an operating capacity of 620 gallons, or just shy of 5,000 pints. To the trained eye the tank looks…weird. Metalcraft Fabrication, who made our brewhouse and 10 barrel tanks for us, patented a new design. Instead of welded legs, the tank’s outer cladding actually supports the internal glycol jackets and yeast cone. The result is a tank that looks more like a brite tank, a standard cylindrical tank, than a traditional ‘cylindro-conical unitank’ fermenter. We got one of the very first non-prototype tanks they made, and I’m reasonably sure we were the first to actually put beer in one! It’s always fun to work with them and we’re quite happy with it. If you’ve had an Eagle Harbor IPA or a Kommuter Kolsch lately then you’re tasting the fruit of this tank’s labor.
The biggest news of the Summer is that the new tank allowed us to produce more of our two biggest sellers, our fantastic Kolsch and IPA, and at this volume we finally made the decision to sign with a distributor. For anyone in the craft beer world, this is not a decision made lightly. We ran numbers, re-ran the numbers, talked to our accounts, and thought long and hard about what it would mean for the brewery.
For the past two years we’ve been self-distributing. Self-distribution is great for new breweries because nobody knows who you are, so why would a distributor even bother to talk to you? Also, you get the full markup: production plus wholesale. But you also have to do the legwork yourself. For us, this meant half a week trying to sell beer all over the place, half a week delivering beer all over the place. Ultimately, being out on an island as we are, it was more work than it was worth. We were spending the profit on a keg just to take the ferry back and forth to deliver the kegs, and 12 hours days running from Seattle to Tacoma to Bremerton to Port Townsend.
So in June we signed with Alpha Distributing. They now distribute us as far up as Bellingham and we’ve been on tap down around Vancouver, WA, by now. By spreading the load we’ve been able to sell 33% more beer than last summer, with the headache of our weekly sales and delivery substantially reduced. The Alpha crew are great. A small distributor, obsessively focused on craft beer, with a great reputation in the trade. It’s an excellent partnership. We did reserve certain territories for ourselves, namely the Island and nearby Poulsbo. We sell a lot of beer to the bars and restaurants of the island, and due to our location we can offer unbeatable service. Plus, we like to keep in touch with our neighbors!
And The Medal Goes To…
It seems every weekend there’s a beer festival during the Summer. And while we had to be choosy, we never miss the Washington Brewers Festival! It’s fun. It’s exhausting! It’s three days long. And it’s also the award ceremony for the Washington Beer Awards.
There are literally dozens of national and international beer competitions that have sprung up in recent years. There are respected, long-established ones like the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and the World Beer Cup. And there are others that are also respected. There are also a ton that I, a brewmaster, have never even heard of. So when breweries brag, (as I’m about to do!), take it with a grain of salt. Can you really say that an IPA that won gold out of 300 entries is categorically better than the next 5, 30, 100, 299 entries? Conversely, if there were just four entries, should they award Gold/Silver/Bronze? Whether this matters in the long run to the industry is perhaps another question. Suffice to say, I’m a “ribbons and trophies are no comfort on your deathbed” kinda guy and we don’t enter many competitions.
What I like, though, about the Washington Beer Awards is that it’s Washington only. The playing field is limited to my friends and friendly competitors. If I win a national medal, yay, but if the other beer is from Vermont and I’m never going to try it, it’s a bit of a hollow victory. Whereas beating someone across town, well…
This year our Bainbridge Blonde Ale, a Belgian-style blonde that we brew for the start of Summer, took Gold in the Washington Beer Awards for Belgian Ales. Our neighbors Valholl Brewing took Silver in the same category, and Propolis up in Port Townsend took Bronze. West Sound for the win!
But the big surprise and joy came with the IPA category. Eagle Harbor IPA, our little beer, beat forty-one other Washington IPAs to take Silver! Being bookended by Old Schoolhouse is no small feat either, as they took Gold last year, and Gold and Bronze this year. And that’s the joy of a competition like this: friendly rivalries amid a celebration of Washington’s great beer. Though I do admit to a “We’re going to need a bigger boat…” moment after putting on the medal!
Harvest Beers Are Coming
The joy of brewing in the Fall is in the ingredients. Fresh hop beers. Oktoberfest beers. Pumpkin beers. All some of my favorite styles, which all, frustratingly, come good at once. So it presents a logistical challenge. Brew enough of the seasonals, which hit all at once, to last just long enough. The fresh hop window is so short, a couple weeks, and making a ton won’t do you any good since the beers are so fragile. (Don’t hoard your fresh hop beers, drink them ASAP!) Meanwhile Pumpkin Ale is amazing and a clear part of Fall. But nobody, nobody, drinks one after Thanksgiving. So the trick is to make just enough, and it can be tricky. Very tricky. Oktoberfest Maerzen style beers are some of my favorite of all beers. But a full lager can take ages in a tank that you desperately need to produce the beer you’re flying through during the summer. And Oktoberfest, being a harvest festival on top of a Bavarian king’s marriage celebration, hits right at peak pumpkin/fresh hop season.
So we do what we must with what we can! Our Oktoberfest party on Friday the 19th of September will coincide with the release of SMaSHaSS: Amarillo Fresh Hop. Autumn Ale is already out, though we may run out for a bit before more comes online. Sol Patch Pumpkin Ale will come out about October 1st. We’ll try to keep Autumn Ale on until Thanksgiving then transition to Wing Point Winter Ale. These beers are labors of love for us, and they will run out. SMaSHaSS is the most expensive beer we make. Hands down. More expensive than Hoptopus IIPA. There was 12.5 lbs of fresh hops per barrel in it this year. Which we had to drive out to Yakima and pick up. It’s also amazing. And a total PITA to brew and we love it and you all love it too. So enjoy these beers while you can!
We’re also starting a fun new project: Bainbridge Pale Ale – Single Hop Series. We wanted to explore new areas but didn’t have the ability to fit in a new seasonal. So we decided to revamp the Pale Ale and start a year long project. For two months each over the next year the beer will showcase a new distinctive hop. First up is a Japanese hop called Sorachi Ace. It will then be followed by four as-yet unnamed experimental varieties. Then we’ll finish the year with a really fun new hop. We’re also making this an audience participation kinda thing in the taproom. We know what we think these hops smell and taste like. We want to know what you think. Particularly on these new unnamed experimentals. We walk into this with no preconceived notions, no prejudices. If these hops blow everyone away, they could be the next ‘it’ hop. But only if we can brew some batches and tell the farm what you all thought about them first! So look for the release of Bainbridge Pale Ale: Single Hop Series – Sorachi Ace at the end of September.
Brewmaster’s Corner – On Pumpkin Ales
I don’t claim to be the expert in brewing pumpkin ales. If anyone can lay claim to that title, it’s probably Dick Cantwell at Elysian. But I’ve brewed more than a few of them by now. Here’s some tips:
- Use Pumpkin. This may seem obvious, but there’s a lot of commercial “Pumpkin Spice” ales out there that don’t have any pumpkin in them. LAME. It’s the spirit of the thing. And the connection to our dirt-poor colonial terrible pumpkin-swill drinkin’ forefathers. Use actual pumpkins or squashes and buy only pumpkin beers that have actual pumpkin in it. You can easily make a great pumpkin ale by adding pumpkin pie spice to a low hop American Pale Ale. But don’t be that guy or gal.
- When to Pumpkin? This should be a harvest beer for harvest time. I also think it’s got a serious sense of time and place about it. Our Sol Patch Pumpkin Ale is brewed with pumpkins grown on the Island by farmers I know and who take our spent grain. Those pumpkins are roasted in the ovens of a local restaurant that we sell our beer to. Think about Thanksgiving. Pumpkin Pie is about friends and family! So make an event of it. Roast some local pumpkins, or other roasting squashes. Red Kuri works great, as does Hubbard. Due to what I call Pumpkin Creep, to hit the shelves earlier and earlier many commercial pumpkin beers are made with frozen pureed last year’s pumpkins, or dried, or powdered, or canned pumpkin. If you see a pumpkin beer out, and pumpkins are not in season yet, it is either using last year’s frozen pumpkin, or worse, no pumpkin at all.
- How to Pumpkin? More the merrier. Some breweries add it everywhere: mash, boil, fermenter… BUT, adding pumpkin to the mash can stick your mash. And that sucks. Also, pumpkin, frankly, is useless as a fermentable. There’s so much water and fiber, the carbs are 1/6 or so of what barley would be. You want pumpkin flavor, don’t try too hard to get sugars. And adding it to the fermenter is a mess if you can’t filter. But you can solve some of these problems and concentrate your pumpkin goodness by roasting it. Steams some water off, caramelizes some of the sugars, gelatinizes some starches. We typically add it mushed up into the boil, in a bag, seeds and guts and all but without the bitter, tannic skin. This year we’re going to try First Wort Pumpkining, with the idea that maybe the enzymes still active in the first runnings will convert some of the pumpkin. We’ll have to wait and see.
- Side note: it’s Music To Our Beers tonight and downstairs I just heard the band: “It’s mushroom season right?” The crowd: “YEAAAH!” I love this island. (And it is mushroom season, got the first chanterelles a couple days ago.)
- Spicing. On the homebrew scale I recommend a schnapps. Take the guess work out. Soak a 1/4 cup of pumpkin pie seasoning in a cup or two of vodka while you ferment. Strain it through a coffee filter, dose the batch to your liking at kegging or bottling. Any leftover, add some bourbon and maybe whole milk. But we can’t do it that way legally, so we add our spice to the whirlpool. About an ounce of pumpkin pie spice per barrel is good. It should be there but not blow your tastebuds away. We use Pumpkin Pie Spice from Seattle’s excellent World Spice Merchants.
- Ooomph. I like mine to have a bit of a kick but not knock you on your ass. 6-7% ABV is the sweet spot I think. Unless you’re making something specifically nuclear.
- Malt/Style. If the Great Pumpkin Beer Festival teaches us anything it’s that the limit of pumpkin beer is your imagination. But the classic one is basically a bigger English ESB with pumpkins and spice added. I find the fruitiness and malt accentuating character of English yeast works better than American, YMMV. Keep the hops low, and I like neutral varieties, like Willamette. Or don’t, Pumpkin IPA might be the next big thing. (Ok, probably not.)
Russell Everett, Brewmaster, Bainbridge Island Brewing