Friday, December 23, 2011

Construction (and Equipment) Update 12-23-11

I know, I know, I know.  Everyone is getting tired of reading boring construction updates.  Sorry, but it's all I have right now.  The second batch of the Rivertown Brett Stout is aging and I have no time to brew at home anymore so there's no actual beer news to share.  Construction is progressing nicely and still on "schedule".  I say that in quotes because the schedule is more of a personal time frame rather than anything I have meticulously coordinated.  The latest milestone was the hanging of the drywall.  We've been hanging off of a scissor lift 15 feet in the air attaching 12' pieces of drywall for what seems like forever.  There's no way I could have done it all by myself so I owe a huge debt to all the friends and family that have helped me get the 75+ sheets hung.  If I never hang another piece of drywall again in my life, I'll die a happy man...
It's nice to have walls...
 The finisher started mudding it yesterday.  I farmed out that job because if I did it myself it would take me a year.  With any luck we'll be painting in a week or so.  The concrete to finish the trench drain will get poured next week.  Plumbing and electrical are at a stop right now until the walls are done so I need to get moving on finishing and paint.  It sucks that they aren't still working, but as I mentioned in a previous post, everything has to go in a certain order and that seems to be where the most time is lost.

I did receive three conditioning tanks to replace the ones from the deal that I got screwed on.  This time the deal went much better because I was dealing directly with a brewery (Thanks Coal Harbour) instead of a used equipment dealer.  Let's just say that litigation is pending against him and leave it at that.

Also, I just found out that the kettle is being delivered Tuesday!  In my previous discussion about sourcing used equipment I neglected to mention the one new piece of equipment I was purchasing.  A direct fired boil kettle is a tricky thing to buy used.  They get a lot of abuse and are typically the last thing to get replaced in a growing brewery so a GOOD used one is VERY hard to come by.  So I ordered a new one from Pacific Brewery Systems.  It is manufactured in China which I'm not thrilled about, but unfortunately about 85% of all new brewing equipment is manufactured there now so you don't have much choice these days.  Due to the current equipment demand worldwide I had to order this thing back in August!  Nearly all manufacturers have 16-20 week lead times for equipment these days so if you are starting a brewery, better be prepared to order your equipment well in advance (and pay half up front).

Yes, that's a dirt floor and the windows are just holes in the walls.  Gotta love China....
So all in all everything is still full speed ahead.  In the meantime, have a great Holiday everyone!

Christmas Card?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Brewing the Beerfest Brett Stout

Enough construction talk for now (although I did get rough-in inspections done today which was nice, now I can drywall).  I don't think I mentioned it on the blog but back in October I won the Cincinnati Malt Infusers Octobersbest competition with an Imperial Stout aged on Brettanomyces.  The winner of this competition gets to have their beer brewed at Rivertown Brewing Company to be exhibited at the Cincy Beerfest in February.  It's a well run competition and if you are a homebrewer you should enter something in it next year.  I was pretty shocked that it won as sour beers are not everyone's cup of tea.  After the initial joy wore off though much discussion was had about how to pull off a production batch of this beer:

1.  Without contaminating the whole brewery and
2.  Somehow get 6 months worth of aging in a little over 2 months.

Well the answer to the second question is of course that we won't.  The beer will probably not have as complex of a Brett character as I would like by Beerfest, but should be in outstanding shape when it gets entered at GABF in September as a Pro-Am beer. The answer to the first question got easier when it was decided that we would only make a 40 gallon batch using the Rivertown pilot system to make two 20 gallon batches.

The first 20 gallons was made back on November 15th.  Since this is a Russian Imperial Stout it takes quite a bit of grain to make 20 gallons (70+ pounds).  So much that it doesn't all fit in one mash tun so I had to bring in my mash tun in order to fit it all.
Mine's the little one on the right.
We eventually got it figured out and made it all fit.  Sparging was a bit tough though since I decided to run off both tuns at once in order to save time (we got a late start that day).  I ended up sparging unevenly and shorted the run-off gravity from what I was hoping for.  What can I say, my first try on a new system with a split mash...gimme a break.  The boil went off without a hitch and the beer got put to bed about 12:30 in the morning.

Fast forward about 2 weeks and it was time to make the second batch.  This time I decided to leave nothing to chance and brought my whole rig that way we wouldn't be short of vessels (a problem that plagued us on the first batch).  I worked out a better plan for sparging and got an earlier start so that I could run each mash off separately in order to better track the runoff gravity.  We also upped the grain bill slightly in order to compensate for the extract that we lost the first time around.
Two pilot systems are better than one!
This time we hit the numbers right on the money.  We even had enough time to take the second runnings and boil it down to make about 5 gallons of a 1.050 "free beer" that is fermenting away somewhere in the corner of the brewery.  We'll consider it a "present" to the boys at Rivertown for letting me be in their way a couple of nights while making this thing.
Just before boil start...Ain't it pretty?
Now comes the real fun part...the Brett.  Five vials of White Labs WLP563 Brett Lambic to be precise.  Since it needs to age and it would be nice to age the whole 40 gallons together, we need a tank to do that in.  Fear not for it just so happens I have a tank for exactly this occasion.  A specially fabricated barrel with a modified Cornelius keg top courtesy of Mt. Carmel Brewing Company
Batch #1 coming out of the 20 gallon baby conical and into the world's largest Cory keg.
This way the only thing that gets contaminated with Brett is my tank, and not any of Rivertown's equipment.  Since I plan to use it for carbonating Brett beers anyway, it's no skin off my back.  Once the second batch goes in and gets some time on it we will carbonate and counter fill a few kegs for Beerfest and GABF.

This project has been a lot of fun so far, and although we didn't get to make it on the big system, it was still nice to be making a commercial beer.  We haven't settled on a name yet, but look for it at Beerfest in February and wish us luck at the GABF Pro-Am in September.

Now back to construction....for the next week or so my name is drywall...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A quick word on equipment...aka "used equipment dealers suck"

It's hard to tell if you could see it now, but the "bomb range" that I've been working in will start looking like a brewery in about another month or so.  Plumbers and electricians are hard at work and I've finally finished covering the ceiling (4+ days dangling 20 feet in the air and 18,000+ staples later).  As of now I've yet to get into the details of the equipment that will make it actually look (and hopefully work) like a brewery.

There's a couple of ways you can put together the equipment needed to start a brewery.  The first is to find a bunch of investors with more money than sense and order a nice shiny new system that is the equivalent of having a new Winnebago custom built to your exacting desires.  The second is to find a used complete system from a recently defunct brewery.  The first plan is great if you can find said investors and don't mind starting your business with at least $500,000 in capital debt on day 1 (it takes a lot of beer sales to re-coup those costs).  The second plan is nice, but (un)fortunately there aren't too many breweries going out of business these days, and when one does there are no less than twenty buyers lining up to buy the system at (almost) the same price as a new system.

Fear not, there is a third path; the "middle way" if you will.  If you're a little industrious, and a lot patient you can piece yourself together a "Frankenstein" system.  When smaller breweries begin to expand, often times they sell off pieces of their systems.  If you keep your eye out you can find all the pieces to put together a brewery for a fraction of a complete turnkey system.  I have been piecing together my 7 barrel system for about three years now.  Most if not all of this equipment will need some sort of modification to meet your specific needs, but if you're a little bit handy and make friends with a sanitary stainless welder you can pull it off.  Sure it's not a custom Winnebago, but it'll get you to the Grand Canyon nonetheless.  However, just like buying a used car, you have to be careful.  Sometimes that ad for a "like new mashtun" really means "we are tired of screwing with this piece of crap that gets 40% efficiency and are buying a new one so now its your problem".  Alternatively, there are used equipment dealers that specialize in brewing equipment.  Some are reputable and provide a great service, some are just worthless pieces of s*#t.  Which is better?  Depends on the situation, but in my experience buying from an expanding brewery beats the used dealers any day.  I may be a bit jaded though since I am currently dealing with a piece of s*#t used dealer.  Without going into specific details due to the potential for legal action (yes, I finally had to call in the lawyer) lets just say I bought some used tanks from a guy who apparently didn't "actually" own them and now he has my money and I have no tanks.  Fear not, I have found some replacement tanks and they are currently on their way from a brewery in Canada that has outgrown them.  I guess the moral of the story is "buyer beware".

Once construction is done and the equipment starts to go in, I'll document it all for you.  Until then everything will stay sleeping in a dark undisclosed location...waiting...

Monday, November 21, 2011

Construction Update 11-21-11

Sorry.  Sorry.  Sorry.
I've been doing a terrible job of keeping this thing up to date.  My goal of posting at least once a week hasn't been working out too well.  For some reason I don't seem to have much spare time lately (wonder why?).  So here's a brief rundown of what's been cooking the last few weeks.  Unfortunately there's no tanks or anything to look at yet, just boring construction stuff so maybe it's not all that bad that I haven't been posting a lot...

If you have visited the Facebook page lately you may have seen the pictures from the floor cutting fun my friend Todd and I had a few weeks ago.  30 feet long, 14 inches wide and 5 inches deep.  Wasn't as bad as I thought it would be since I rented the "proper tools" for the job.  Unfortunately now I have to dig out about 7 more inches of fill that is almost as hard as the concrete itself was!  Still stewing on the best way to tackle that.  I have the pre-fabbed drain material ready to go so I'm going to have to figure out something soon.  Any suggestions short of renting a backhoe?

When it was time for the saw and jackhammer to go back I replaced it with the next "toy" - a scissor lift.  I need to use this to do some work on the ceiling, specifically fixing all the burned out lights and covering the insulation.  Dangling 20 feet in the air on a wobbly platform stapling a piece of plastic 12 feet wide and 55 feet long to the ceiling has proved to not be as much "fun" as it originally might have seemed.  I'm about 8,000 staples into it but I'm halfway home. Hope to be done by the end of this next weekend.

My brother-in-law Phil spent the better part of a few days getting the new front door put in too.  It's nice to have an "official" entrance and not have to open and close a garage door to get in and out, especially now that it is getting colder outside.

Best of all I got a call today from the electricians and it looks like they are going to start running wire tomorrow! Things will really be moving along quickly once they get going...

Just a door, but it's MY door!

Scissor lift view of the current "mess".

Grandpa's trusty hammer....

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Construction Update 10-30-11

The old saying goes that when planning a construction project you should count on it taking twice as long and three times as much money as you planned....or is that twice as much money and three times as long.  Either way it is a painfully true statement.  I like to believe that I have made appropriate accommodations for the money side of things, but the timing side of things gets on my nerves sometimes.  I started getting the drawings for the brewery together in late July.  Permits were applied for in early September.  After some revisions and a trip back to the architect they were approved a few weeks ago.  Great, now I can get to work doing the modest amount of renovations needed to make the place inhabitable....sorta.

So last weekend we did some framing.  By we, I mean my brothers-in law, with me fetching tools for them.  It took all day but we (they) got it done and I must say it was nice to see something substantial being done in the space.  We also have to frame a new entry door, but due to an ordering snafu on my part, I had to return the original door (special order) that I bought so we did not have it available.  Rather than potentially framing it incorrectly we decided to wait.  So why am I telling you these minor details?  Well it all adds to the "time lag" that is the source of my primary frustration these days.  Even though I have the general building permit in hand, I can't just start swinging a hammer at anything I want.  Everything has to go in a certain order.  Right now the order goes like this:

1.  I can't get the electrical work done until everything is drywalled.
2.  I can't hang drywall until the framing passes an inspection.
3.  I can't get the inspection until the aforementioned doorway is framed.
4.  I can't frame the doorway until I have the door (which I just got a few days ago).

So something as simple as ordering the wrong door has plugged up the whole works.  I've been staring at a pile of drywall for a while now and I can't do anything with it!  Please don't misunderstand.  I don't mean for this post to sound like a rant against the building permit process (I'm not quite to that point yet).  I'm just learning as I go so this is another in what will be a long line of "learning experiences".  However, I am very optimistic that things will jump into high gear soon.  Once the framing gets the OK from the city I'll be able to drywall and work on covering the ceiling.  That will definitely keep me busy for a while.  Plus, the plumber is coming tomorrow so we can lay out the trench drain for saw-cutting.  I can't wait to get the saw fired up!

It ain't much but it's a start!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

All Hail the Coming of Yuengling....except me.

OK.  In my first post for this blog I mentioned that I might occasionally diverge from my ramblings about starting this brewery to other random thoughts on the "state of beer" in this city and beyond.  I've yet to do that so far.  The imminent arrival of Yuengling in Ohio seems as good a time as any to start.

Let me first start by saying that I in no way intend to offend anyone with these occasional diatribes.  If you find something in one of these posts that you feel is a personal affront to your sensibilities then I apologize in advance, as that is not (and will never be) my intent.  End disclaimer.

I don't hate Yuengling.  I've had a few of their beers a few different times.  Any brewery that can survive as long as they have and still be a family run operation is aces in my book.  I applaud their success and careful expansion into new markets when they feel the time is right.  That being said, I can't see what all the fuss is about.  The beer was......OK.  A fine example of what American Lager is supposed to be.  It's a better beer than Budweiser/Miller/Coors.  In the end though, it is still plain old American Lager.  But for as big a deal as everyone is making out of them finally coming to Ohio you would think it is the most amazing beer ever to grace this Earth.  People that aren't even that "into" beer come up to me and say how excited they are about Yuengling coming to Ohio and they've never even tried it before.  I know way too many people that have made road trips to Pennsylvania or Tennessee to fill their trunks up with the stuff and then stash it away and hoard it as if it was Pliny the Elder or something.  I even know a guy who buys it to stock his fridge and he doesn't even drink beer.  He just likes to give it to people when they come over to his house.  He proceeds to rave about how good it is and harps on the fact that you can't buy it here as if he is doing you some great service by giving you this "rare treat".  Weird.

I just don't get it.  Is it the nostalgia of it?  (I refer to this as the "Burger Beer" effect - "My Dad used to drink XYZ beer so now I do too")  Is it the scarcity of Yuengling that has elevated it to this mythical status around here?  Is it the allure of being able to drink a reasonably priced lawnmower beer that didn't come from the big corporate behemoths?  Is it because a Bud/Miller/Coors guy finally has something else he can drink that doesn't "offend his tastes" like other craft beer?  I guess we'll see.  Once the novelty of not having to drive to another state to get it wears off, will it still be the coolest thing around?  Who knows.

Again, I am not begrudging Yuengling at all.  I hope they are very successful in Ohio and beyond.  I'll even drink one myself occasionally.  I just don't get why everyone is going so crazy over it.  If we were just getting Leinenkugel's or Old Style or Iron City into this market would everyone be so damn excited?  Besides, there are a lot of things happening in the local craft beer scene that are getting overshadowed by this "big news".  Just remember there are only so many tap handles in a bar.  Bud and Miller will still have theirs.  Now a third "fizzy yellow water" (to borrow a phrase from Greg Koch) will be on tap at a lot of bars too.  Who's the one who loses out?  That's right.  The tap that used to have that nice local Pale Ale or craft IPA (for example).  Taste diversity is a great thing.  The coming of Yuengling may set this town back a bit in that department.....

ADDENDUM 11-5-11

I was just in a Kroger perusing the beer aisle as I am known to do and I couldn't believe what I saw:

They have actually cleared a space on the shelves in *anticipation* of having Yuengling 10 days in advance!  I really think this has gone too far.  Anybody in the beer business will tell you that grocery store shelf space is a VERY valuable commodity.  And yet here it sits....empty.  Are they purposely trying to drum up more excitement by this ploy?  Couldn't you put some craft beer on this shelf at least until the 13th?  There are a lot of small breweries out there that will KILL for this shelf space...even if only for a little bit.


Sometimes I hate it when I am right....Today I was in a local tavern that I occasionally visit and noticed they now have Yuengling on tap.  No big deal, that's happening in a lot of places these days.  This particular establishment has 12 taps and a relatively OK selection including DogfishHead 60 minute, Left Hand Sawtooth, and a few other good craft beers to go along with the requisite Bud and Miller taps.  They also carry Rivertown and Mt. Carmel.  Guess which tap the Yuengling is now on?  That's right, they bounced off one of the locals.  In this case Mt. Carmel.  So at least for this bar, my prediction came true (unfortunately).

Of course the bar has the right to do what they feel will sell the best, and maybe Mt. Carmel was the slowest moving beer there.  Still, makes me a bit sad.  I'd rather drink a Mt. Carmel than a Yuengling anyday.....

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bureaucracy is a four letter word.

So I haven't posted in a while.  I've been busy.  Unfortunately I have not been very busy doing anything that I would consider constructive.  Instead of actually building a brewery, I've been dealing with the various bureaucracies involved in building a brewery.  I knew I was going to have to deal with it at some point and I knew it wasn't going to be pretty.  Still, no amount of preparation can prepare you for the mundane business end of starting a brewery.

There are two distinct areas of bureaucracy I'm dealing with at the moment.  The first deals with the whole "making alcohol legally" issue.  Funny how they just don't let you do that on your own.  There are state and federal permits that must be filled out in duplicate.  However, you can't fill out the state application until after you do the federal one.  That's where the TTB comes in.  They used to be called the ATF but after the government reshuffling that took place post 9/11 the TTB was created to handle the tax side of the ATF's functions.  The TTB is more the paper-pusher side of things as opposed to the regular ATF who are door-kicking-in kinds of folks.

So that's what I've been working on....for about three weeks straight (and off and on for a month before that), filling out the TTB Brewer's Notice.  There's a pile of forms asking every form of personal question you can think of.  You have to provide financial statements for every month in which you have spent money on the business, as well as five months prior to that purchase.  You have to get a bond to insure that the government can get their excise taxes even if you can't afford to pay them yourself.  You even have to make statements about how much garbage you will generate and what you plan to do with it (I'm not kidding).  It's a lot of stuff, but in the end it seems pretty straight forward as long as you follow the directions (which are split up amongst several different and not all that easy to find pages on the TTB website).  Thankfully I can say that as of a couple of days ago it's done!  Now we wait about three months (or more) for them to process and approve it...

Less fun so far has been the building permit process.  The brewery is an old warehouse space so of course it needs a little work.  Electrical and plumbing upgrades as well as a bathroom need to be added.  The walls need drywall.  All in all it's actually not that much work...but you still have to get a permit.  To get a permit you need stamped drawings from an architect...done.  You also have to be a city registered contractor in order to get a permit for a commercial space in Cincinnati.  That one I wasn't expecting.  So rather than pay a contractor to put up the drywall that I can put up myself, I ended up paying the fee and voila!  Blank Slate is now a city registered contractor!  Just don't call me to put an addition on your house.  I'm too busy.  Now we can finally get a building permit application filed...but then it gets rejected (which is apparently common on the first try).  So now its back to the architect for some very minor revisions.... 

Oh well, like I said I knew it was going to be this still sucks though....
                                           TTB application.  Over an inch of fun fun fun...

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What's your hook?

I know (or know of) a lot of people that are in various stages of starting a brewery in and around Cincinnati right now.  Sure some may be all talk, some are ready to launch, and some are someplace in between.  The most common question I get asked by people familiar with the brewing "scene" is:

"So what's your hook?  What's going to make you different from all the other guys?"

Good question.  In the craft beer world marketing isn't about football and Swedish bikini teams and "frost brewed" and "triple hopped".  It's about telling a story and finding your niche.  So what is Blank Slate's niche?

Well of course handcrafted quality beer is a must.  This is the starting point for anyone in this industry (or at least it should be).  Beyond that everything is wide open.  I brew what I like to drink and I hope everyone else will enjoy it also.  I like to drink seasonally and a big focus of the brewery will be to rotate beers as the weather changes.  Very few people like to drink a Russian Imperial Stout when it's 100° outside so why bother brewing it until the winter?  (I only say this because now that it's 50° outside I am drinking a RIS and thoroughly enjoying it.)  Sure there are a few styles that are good year round and we'll have some of those too.  There will be some "big beers" but I am also a believer that the session beer has become a lost art in American craft brewing.  Sometimes it's nice to sit around and drink two or three pints and not worry about having to drive home afterward.  Oh yeah, barrel aged sour beers are on the agenda too.

So all this may sound a bit scattershot, and yeah, maybe it is.  On the surface it doesn't really seem to answer the original question of "what's your hook?"  Well maybe that's the answer.  Maybe the hook is that there is no hook.  Maybe being a small self-distributed operation doing whatever feels right is a hook in and of itself?  Maybe the answer is right there in the name.....

I'm starting this thing with an open mind and a Blank Slate.....We'll see what falls out of it...

Friday, September 2, 2011

The backstory....part 2

So what makes me think I have what it takes to be a successful commercial brewer?  I've asked myself that question many times over the last few years.  There are a great many homebrewers around here that brew amazing beer.  I am by no means the most decorated homebrewer in this town but I have won my fair share of medals.  The truth of the matter is that's just not enough of a resume to run out and start a brewery.  So I started studying.  Reading brewing textbooks that remind me a little bit of my old organic chemistry book has become the norm around my house.  I've taken some classes at the Siebel Institute which is America's oldest brewing school.  A couple of years ago I became a certified beer judge (yes there really is such a thing), and earlier this year I became a Certified Cicerone (the beer equivalent to a wine sommelier).  I've volunteered, consulted with, downright pestered and learned a lot from some of the other local brewers along the way.  (Thank you Mt. Carmel and Rivertown).

Does any of this mean I've got what it takes to do this for a living?  Who knows.  I haven't even touched on how much "fun" learning the business and accounting side of things has been, let alone dealing with state and federal licensing bureaucracies, city building permits, or my least favorite part, preparing to make sales calls.  Thus the "scary" part in the tagline of this blog.  What I do know is that I have a passion and desire to do this that has been building inside me for years and it isn't going away.  I've been learning and working my way to this point for quite a while now and there's no turning back now.....

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The backstory....part 1?

I had my first "good beer" when I was a sophomore in college.  I was going to school in Cleveland Ohio at the time and my roommate and I were out celebrating something that was probably not very important (since I can't remember it).  A Friday night for us usually consisted of splitting a case of Busch Light Draft or something similarly watery.  Iron City Light anyone?  Instead, on this night we had a Great Lakes Dortmunder on tap at a local establishment (it had just won its third Gold Medal at the World Beer Championships).  We both took a sip and looked at each other and simultaneously said "where has this beer been all our life".  We soon learned that you could get just as drunk on a 6 pack of decent beer as you could a 12 pack of Busch and you wouldn't have to pee as often!  Sure we were getting laughed at when we showed up to parties with ONLY a six pack, but we managed to convert a few others to our way of thinking along the way.  We found a cool little beer store near our dorm that had all kinds of great imported (and a little craft) beer and we were off and running.  Old Peculier became a particular favorite of mine...

Fast forward a few years.  Somehow I got into a discussion about beer with my boss at my co-op job (now back home in Cincinnati) and he said I should come to one of his homebrew club meetings.  Another co-op and I accepted and we attended our first meeting of the Bloatarian Brewing League at the Brew Works brewpub in Covington Kentucky.  There were many tasty homebrewed libations to sample, but it was all downhill after the Brewmaster Tim Rastetter put a half barrel of Velvet Hammer in the middle of the room and said "Have at it boys"...Man I miss that place....I started homebrewing the next day.

Many batches later (some good, some bad) and after a brief hiatus from brewing to renovate a house, I got serious about starting something beyond the basement.  I started researching everything I could about the industry from equipment to licensing.  I figured there had to be a reason why there were no small craft breweries around (at that time), and I found plenty of reasons.  It's a whole different world brewing commercially.  I have become partial to the mantra that "you have to be able to make good beer in order to go pro, but just because you can brew good beer doesn't mean you should go pro".  I quickly learned that this was not an endeavor to enter lightly so I took a few years to learn everything I could.......

to be continued....

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What's all this about then...

I've been homebrewing for about a dozen years now.  Like most homebrewers who have brewed more than a couple of batches, I have thought for quite a while about doing it professionally.  I started brewing in college and quickly had a "great" idea about how to start a side business selling my beer (until I figured out there was about a dozen things in my plan that were illegal).  Fast forward about ten years and a few more false starts later, and now I'm in the process of starting a small production brewery in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.  I want to use this blog to chronicle this adventure (or maybe disaster) while letting everyone in on my philosophy about the state of the beer world here locally and nationally as well......