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The Importance of Beer Education in Western New York

Note: This is an article that ran in the 2018 Buffalo Beer Week Guide, as written by Matt. The focus topic of Buffalo Beer Week in 2018 is beer history and education.

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To the general public, it might seem like craft beer is everywhere these days. As a brewery, even we are occasionally surprised at the bars, restaurants, and retailers that are interested in our beer. We’ll get often get comments like “Hey, my favorite bar X just got your beer on, I drink it all the time!” and so forth.

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. According to the Brewers Association, craft brewers experienced 117% growth from 2011 (11.5 million barrels of beer produced) to 2017 (25 million barrels produced).

Of course, Western New York isn’t immune to this phenomenon. According to the Buffalo Niagara Brewers Association, WNY could claim five local breweries in 2011 (Buffalo Brewpub, Ellicottville Brewing Company, Flying Bison Brewing Company, Pearl Street Grill and Brewery, and Southern Tier Brewing Company). Today there are 29 in operation, with 7 (at least?) in planning. These local breweries continue to experience growth as well; according to Buffalo Business First, local breweries produced about 134,985 barrels of beer in 2016, versus 156,390 barrels in 2017, or 16% growth.

Despite this growth, the surprising part of the story is that craft beer is still the minority preference for most beer drinkers, as craft beer only represents 13% of the market on a volume basis (23% by dollars). For every craft beer you drink, there are 7 to 8 people drinking a “macrobrew”.

For craft brewers, the challenge has been, and continues to be: how do we convert macro drinkers to micro drinkers? For myself, and for the BNBA, we feel the path lies through education, which is the theme of this year’s Buffalo Beer Week.

“But,” you’re preparing to argue, “it’s beer! How much could there be to learn? And besides, I don’t want to think about my beer, I just want to drink it!” For sure, there is a time and place for drinking, we won’t argue with that. But, craft beer is so much more of an experience: from the tasting, to the process, to the stories behind why your local breweries opened, we’d argue that drinking craft beer is just plain better for your mind.

For someone new to the journey of craft beer, it helps if they have a knowledgeable and reliable tour guide. As brewers, our jobs must be more than just combining water with grains, and dissolving hops and yeast into wort. We must be these beer Sherpas, guiding our guests with colorful stories about our beer, our brands, and our history.

For most new craft beer drinkers, beer falls into three categories: IPA = bitter, Dark = Guinness, Lager = Blue. However, according to the Brewers Association, there are over 150 different styles of craft beer. How would a novice even begin to navigate the differences between all of these? This is where the brewery can provide value. Guests will sometimes tell us “I don’t really like beer.” We usually reply with “You don’t really like beer yet.” I’d say we’re successful in finding a match about 99% of the time.

In addition to beer education, we must tell the stories of our history and brand. Every brewery brings a unique perspective and style to the art and science of making beer, and all of those stories are driven by a passion to create something great. These stories make drinking the beer fun, interesting, and memorable.

A final word to breweries, and perhaps even more so, to beer drinkers. Brewers must continue to innovate and break the boundaries of what beer is; and drinkers must continue to be open minded about these styles. The IPA “haze-craze” has resulted in excitement over a single style of beer; but craft beer has so much more to offer than a single style, and if craft brewers produce only one style of beer, we’re not much different than macro breweries that only produce adjunct lagers. Local breweries like 42 North (with their Barrel House), Resurgence (with their Kegs and Eggs series), and Community Beer Works and Thin Man, who both frequently collaborate with other breweries, are good examples of the spirit of innovation alive in our local beer scene. Beer drinkers: let go of your expectations and learn to appreciate the range of flavors beer is capable of. It’s one of the best things about beer, really!

We’re truly living in a golden age of craft beer, where there are an amazing number of choices available to the consumer. Personally, I dream of a time where locally crafted beer is the only choice at every bar, restaurant, and retailer; funny enough, this used to be the case hundreds of years ago. However, as long as our breweries continue to lead the way by educating, I feel confident my dream will become a reality.

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Fun new toys

So: this is going to be a real technical brewing type of blog.  Brewers, homebrewers, or tech geeks – tune in.  Hopefully the rest of you find this interesting as well.

To start: we had a really crazy summer of 2017.  

In May of 2017, we began selling beer in Rochester.  In June, we launched our first seasonal beer in cans: FC, our “fantastically crushable” summer session IPA, which began as a collaboration with FC Buffalo.  At the end of June, we released the second batch of Packet, our first Lock IPA Series beer, which people keep asking us about to this day (yes, we will make this again, and sooner rather than later, hint hint).  

By July, it became hard for us to keep up with demand, even though we just completed an expansion to triple our capacity the year before.  While things have slowed down a bit (not a lot – just a little bit) during the winter, we were concerned that we’d have another even more chaotic summer this year. 

And so, after analyzing our operation, we decided to add some efficiencies to maximize the amount of beer we could get out of our brewery.  

It started with more fermenting vessels.  We added two more 60 barrel tanks.  We actually wanted to add a total of three tanks, but with the space constraints in the brewery, there was just no way for that to happen unless all of our brewers got a lot smaller!  We named them FV12 and FV14, pretty boring names, but, y'know.  There are no tanks named "13" in our brewery.  You don't want to anger the voodoo beer gods.

 One new tank in front, one in the back

One new tank in front, one in the back

All things considered, the new tanks went up pretty quickly – it only took 10 minutes (or a little over 2 minutes at 4x speed) to get FV14 into the building and lifted into place!  

Installation of a new 60 bbl at the Big Ditch Brewery in Buffalo, NY. From 3/15/18.

However, we knew the new tanks on their own would not be enough to maximize our capacity.  One area in need of improvement was the time it was taking to carbonate our beer, which was typically about two days.  Because this process took so long, we could only fill a few batches a week because we were constantly waiting for beer to carbonate.  Luckily, there were tools available to allow us to carbonate beer faster.  We purchased a small but effective inline carbonation system that allowed us to carbonate our beer in about 5 hours.  This allowed us to move beer through our system a lot quicker, without sacrificing any quality in the process.  

 Doesn't look that impressive - but gets the job done.

Doesn't look that impressive - but gets the job done.

We were also hoping to get more yield out of every batch of beer we brewed.  How would we do that?  Well, for one thing, we had pretty poor control over the flow from our mash tun, where the water and grains mix, to our kettle, where the wort (the sugary precursor to beer) was boiled.  The better the flow control was, the more contact time the liquid in the mash tun would have with the grain, and the better our yield would be.  

We wound up installing a flow meter between the two tanks, so we could monitor and control this flow.  This control improved our yield about 2% for every batch.  Now, 2% doesn’t seem like much – until you remember that an extra 2% yield is a whole week of production we gained for free!  (well not for free – but the price paid for the flow meter was well worth it!)

 Mash Tun - Kettle Flowmeter

Mash Tun - Kettle Flowmeter

We didn’t stop there though.  We had other features of our brewery that were making things difficult.  Our water supply was one.   Our water was split such that we could either brew beer, or wash and keg beer, but we couldn’t do both at once.  When we first opened, we never imagined this would be a problem, but we’re making about 20x more beer now than we were making back then!  To solve this problem, we had to pipe a brand new set of water lines from our brewery to our packaging area and connect them into a new water filter dedicated to that area.   Now we can brew and keg to our hearts content!

All of these changes should result in about a 20% improvement in our capacity, which means we now have the capacity to brew a bit more than 17,000 barrels of beer.  That’s about 4.2 million pints of Hayburner, if anyone is keeping track.  

 Ain't it purdy?

Ain't it purdy?

In summation: all of this means that we can make more beer for you, Western New York!  Thanks, as always, for your support!

Finally, you might be asking yourself: well, what’s next?  One thing is for sure – we’re done adding equipment to the brewery.  This was the fourth expansion project we’ve done in 3.5 years.  What’s next is not for sure – but we’ll be sure to tell you about it when we have it figured out, so stay tuned.  Thanks again for reading!

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Year in review: 2017

It’s always enjoyable to take a quick look back at our year in beer.  

In some ways, I’d say that 2017 was our slowest year.  Well, it was supposed to be our slowest year anyway.  This was the first year we didn’t undergo an expansion project.  

In retrospect, I don’t think any of us would have called this year “slow”.  

Let’s start with Hayburner.  Way back before we started this thing, we knew that it was important to brew a great IPA.  We thought we had a good one when we won a gold medal for the American IPA category at AWOG back in 2013.  Little did we know how far that beer would go.  With your help, Hayburner has now become one of the best selling craft beers in Western New York.  

We also added on a lot of new beers in cans to our portfolio.  Priority #1 was Deep Cut Double IPA, which we brew about once every month or two.  We also added on a seasonal line of cans, beginning with FC Session Wheat IPA for the summer, followed by Cinnamon Apple Amber Ale this fall, and concluding with Fresh Baked Winter Ale this winter.  

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Last year we also kicked around the idea of canning more limited availability IPAs, since people seem to like those quite a bit, and we’ve received great reviews on our Lock IPA Series – first Packet, then Fip.  People frequently ask us when we’ll make Packet again – truthfully, probably not until next year.  However, we will almost certainly brew Fip again in 2018.  

 Photo via The Beer Photo Project

Photo via The Beer Photo Project

Because of all of these new canned beers, the canning line we added in 2016 wound up being used a lot more than we thought in 2017.  We run the canning line about 4 days a week currently and have a staff of 3 full time and 1 part time people that are dedicated to packaging.  They do a great job keeping your beer fresh and ready to drink at all times!

There were several other cool beers launched this year as well!  Some of the highlights:  Short Cut Session IPA, Electric District Pils (our first true lager!), GP2H (triple IPA anniversary beer), Penalty Kill Kolsch (this was AWOG winner Kevin DiTondo’s beer – our fastest selling pilot beer ever), Meloneweizen Watermelon Hefeweizen (man, that was a lot of watermelon), Make Me Wanna Stout coffee cream stout and Chocolate Milk Stout.  And some other special collaborative beers: Gin Barrel Aged Beautiful River with barrels from Tommyrotter, BDU Collaboration IPA with Upstate Brewing Company, and Rivalry Pale Ale with Harpoon Brewery.  All in all, we created about 25 new beers this year – about one new beer every two weeks, which is about the rate we’ve produced new beers ever since we started brewing.  Look for about 25 new beers next year as well!  

 Upstate collab!

Upstate collab!

Our launch into Rochester also kept us busy!  Rochester has gone even better than we hoped in 2017, and it’s obvious that Rochester beer drinkers really know good craft beer. I expect 2018 will be an even better year for Rochester and Big Ditch.

Rochester Sign (8).JPG

Let’s not forget our tap room! We hosted some pretty cool fundraisers in 2017 with Hunter’s Hope and the Eric Wood Fund, amongst others.  We opened on Mondays. We celebrated our 2nd anniversary!  We hosted several weddings – and we hope to host quite a few more next year.

 Congrats Jessica and Stephen!

Congrats Jessica and Stephen!

Also, did you know we were the second largest brewpub in the Northeast per the Brewers Association in 2016?  Neither did we!

BA Brewpubs.png

Out of anything we did in 2017, we were most proud of our Big Difference volunteer group, who went out into our good city and did good things.  We cleaned up the waterfront with Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, we landscaped a house with Habitat for Humanity, we biked for cancer research as part of Ride for Roswell, and decorated Child and Family Services of Buffalo for Christmas.  We love doing these events and are excited to do more for our community in 2018.

 At Habitat!

At Habitat!

So, what else do we have in store for 2018?  Let’s start with new beers.  Expect to see some additions to our Lock IPA series.  Currently, Lock #3 is just a few weeks away, Lock #4 is looking like spring time, a Fip repeat is sort of end of springish, Lock #5 should be this summer, and after that, who knows?  

And what does Double Dry Hopped mean anyway?  I guess we’ll find out later this year.  Ahem. THAT’S A DAMN HINT.

Other canned beers: Beautiful River Belgian-style Saison anyone?  Planned for this spring’s seasonal.  Maybe some others, too early to tell.  

Will we sell beer in your village/town/city/state?  Probably not.  Well, maybe some small amounts.  In limited quantities.  Of your favorite beers.  ALSO A HINT.

Variety packs?  Maybe.  Too soon to tell.  We’re thinking about it though.  

More sours?  Man, we’d sure like to make them.  I hope so.

How are we going to make all of this beer?  Well, believe it or not, we’re planning ANOTHER (smaller) brewery expansion this spring where we’ll add two more 60 bbl fermenters.  It will be really freaking tight in here.  But, absolutely necessary to make more beer for you, our loyal and much appreciated Western New York beer drinker.

That will certainly be the last of the expansions we can make to the brewery – we’re just out of room.  So, what’s after that?  I am sure we will let you know as soon as we know.  

Finally, as always, a rundown of great beers we’ve had this year.  Let’s stick with last year’s trend of all New York State beers – because we love NY!  Nonlocals: A2 Dubbel from Transmitter (maybe my favorite dubbel ever?!?), Sno Klouds by The North, Riot in Upstate by Upstate Brewing and Prison City, East vs West IPA (v5) by Iron Tug (blown away) and DDH Mylar Bags by Other Half (blown away again).  And locals!  Urban Samurai by Sato, Funky Vintner by Flying Bison, THEE Barleywine by NYBP, Vagabond by 42N, and B(lac) Magic by CBW – these guys are sure to make our list every year with something.

Here’s hoping we make someone’s list next year!

And, as always, thanks so much for your support – we appreciate our customers and guests more than you know – the smiles on your faces are the reasons we come to work every day.  Have a happy 2018, Western New York!

 THANK YOU!!!

THANK YOU!!!

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Continuous Improvement

I gave a tour to a group of prospective brewers during the last weekend via the ECC Brewing Science program.  There was a question about scaling beers up from a small scale (ours is 25 gallons) to a large scale (ours is 620 gallons – if we triple batch a beer, it could be up to 1,860 gallons).  

Usually if a beer is dialed in at pilot scale, it will be about 90% of the way there for the first production batch, 95% for the second, and should be totally there by the third batch.  But, I also shared with them one of the keys to making excellent beer at any scale: being able to objectively critique your own beer, deciding that you want to improve it, and then knowing what changes to make to achieve the desired result.

Continuous improvement is at work in everything we do here at Big Ditch.  Even when things are going pretty well, we usually know that they could still be better.  This applies not only to the beer we brew, but for just about everything else we do here as well.  We are still a very young and new company, and we still have a lot to learn.  

An example of this is our flagship IPA, Hayburner.  As of this writing, we’ve revised the recipe or process for making Hayburner 83 times in the 3+ years we’ve been making it.  Every single time we changed it was with the intention of making it better.  The changes are usually pretty subtle, so hopefully you haven’t noticed that the beer is 83 times different than the first time you tried it!  However, I suspect that if you put a glass of Hayburner from 2014 next to glass of Hayburner we just filled this week and drank them both, they would be somewhat similar, but pretty different also.  

And, to be honest, not every change we make to a beer makes it better, at least in the short term.  Sometimes the changes we make just don’t work out all that well.  We have “broken” beers before with the goal of improving them.  If that happens, we learn from it, reverse the changes, and move on.  

So, when you taste a new beer from a brewery, or even when you taste any of the beers from a brand new brewery, you should cut them a little slack.  If you don’t like something about the beer, let whoever served you the beer know what you liked and didn’t like about it, and make a mental note to come back to it after a few months.  It will probably be better.

This brings us to the story of Deep Cut.  For many of our brewers, our Deep Cut Double IPA is amongst the best beers that we make.  Deep Cut has also won a few awards for us along the way, so undoubtedly, there are others who feel the same way.  But for sure, it’s had its share of changes made as well.  Since the first batch was brewed, we decreased the amount of specialty malt used, then added more adjunct grains, then decreased the bitterness, then added more late kettle hops, then found out this affected the appearance, then adjusted the water chemistry, then changed how the hops were added.  In this latest batch, we’ve used more oats in the beer.  

We think this is close to the best batch we’ve ever made of Deep Cut in terms of overall performance: appearance, bitter/sweet ratio, hop aroma and flavor, and mouthfeel (which is particularly creamy in this batch).  And, if you haven’t tried it in a while, we think you should return to it and try it again.  However, I think we’ve made 2 or 3 other batches of Deep Cut this year that were also the best batches of Deep Cut we’ve made.  

This batch is even better than those, in our opinion.  

Deep Cut Dec 2017.jpg

That’s not to say we won’t still try to improve it the next time we brew it.  

Thanks for sharing this journey with us.  We hope you’re having as much fun as we are.  

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Production vs. Innovation

To simply call this summer “busy” doesn’t quite explain it well enough.  

This was our first summer brewing and selling canned beer.  We were told that cans sell better in the summer, which makes sense, since you can bring them to parks, beaches, and other places where you can’t bring bottles.  And, that was the trend we observed – but the magnitude of the demand was much, much larger than we expected.  

And so, we buckled down and made beer.  Lots of beer.  Between 90-95 % of the beer we made was our annual (Hayburner, Low Bridge, and Excavator) or seasonal offerings (which for the summer, was FC, our our “fantastically crushable” summer session wheat IPA we brewed for FC Buffalo).  That’s not to say we didn’t have anything new going on – this was the first time we canned FC, and we did release the second batch of Packet, our inaugural Lock IPA series beer, right before July 4th (to some pretty nice praise I might add).  

But, innovation certainly took a backseat to production this summer, without a doubt.  In order to run a production brewery at full capacity, it takes a lot of concentration and saps a lot of creative energy; when the left side of your brain is working at 110%, there isn’t much room for the right side to do much of anything. 

But, as a craft brewer, we want to – or rather, we need to keep innovating.  It’s part of what makes us who we are.  So, after a few months of very little in the way of innovation, we’re proud to present several beers that we’ll be releasing over the next several weeks and months:

Gin-Barrel Aged Beautiful River.  When Bobby from Tommyrotter Distillery told us that the oak barrels he used for his award winning Cask Strength Bourbon-Barrel Gin were available for reuse, we jumped at the chance to fill them with beer.  We had already been kicking around the idea of adding brettanomyces (“wild yeast”) to our Beautiful-River Belgian-style farmhouse ale; brett in saisons are not only historically accurate to some degree, but the brett helps to dry out the beer and provide wonderful complexity.  So, we added a pitch of both Brett bruxellensis (which produces classic brett funk flavor) and Brett claussenii (which produces more fruity, pineapple aroma) and let that sit for several months.  Finally, we decided to dry hop with both Galaxy and Motueka hops, to give the beer a bit of a tropical and citrus aroma pop.  The result is incredibly complex; you get the brett in the aroma, with a touch of lime from the hops; the flavor is fairly gin forward, which lends some citrus and pine flavors, followed by a mellow oakiness.  The beer is dry but not overcarbonated, allowing the flavors to cascade on the palate.  I’ve tasted this beer four different times now and got something different every time I tasted it.  

The beer is 6.6% ABV and will sell for $14 per 16oz bottle, limit 2 bottles per person. Only about 200 bottles will be for sale. We'll be serving a limited amount of 1 oz pours at our tap room as well for $1.  Tommyrotter will also help us create some nice craft beer cocktails to serve during the day as well (cocktail list still TBD).

Meloneweizen.  Most new beers we make at the brewery get differing opinions from our brewery staff – maybe a few love the new beer, a few think it’s solid, and maybe a few think the beer could warrant some improvement.  This was not the case when we brewed a beer for a wedding we hosted at the tap room in July.  The couple wanted something light and fruit forward, and our brewer Todd had suggested a Watermelon Hefeweizen that he had brewed in his past.  The couple, guests, and all of our brewers loved it – enough that we decided to scale the recipe up and brew a production batch.  No good beer is easy to brew, and this beer is no exception – it will contain over 1300 pounds of freshly juiced watermelons.  The delicate clove and banana flavors from the yeast are complimented with a spritz of fresh melon flavor resulting in an extremely refreshing summer beer.  It will be tapped around August 18th and on through the rest of the summer.

meloneweizen.jpg

 

Lock IPA Series #2 – Fip.  The second installment in our Lock IPA series Fip, is named after a coin worth about six cents that was used during the days of Canal construction.  A fip was commonly used to purchase a glass of grog, or ale, after a hard days' work.  Fip is brewed with Mosaic, Citra, Amarillo and Simcoe hops, resulting in an IPA with a burst of citrus, honeydew, and tropical punch flavor.  It will come in at 6.8% ABV and cost $14 for a 4-pack of 16 oz cans.  Expect to see this on sale at the brewery on or around August 26.  

 

Plenty more innovating has been going on as well!  Here are some other Innovation Series beers you'll see soon:

  • Corey will show off the return of Jalapeno Cream Ale in the next few days, which features slight sweetness from the flaked corn used in the mash, and subtle heat and spicy tanginess in the finish from the use of jalapeño peppers in the fermenter!  
  • Devin will be bringing us an Elderberry Wheat Ale, which features fruitiness from the wheat and ale yeast and some tartness and mild bitterness from the elderberries added – an interesting summer beer indeed! 
elderberry wheat.jpg

 

  • Dave will be bringing us his Vermont-style IPA, which is brewed with Hallertau Blanc, Amarillo and Simcoe hops, for more orange and grapefruit hop flavor mixed with grape and passion fruit overtones.  Could this be the next Lock IPA series beer?  Stop down for a try when it’s around and let us know what you think.  

We’re excited to be serving some new beers for the first time in a while, and we hope you enjoy them.  See you soon.  

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