Beer musings….and Happy IPA Day!

I’ve been meaning to update this blog/website with some useful information about the brewery and our progress lately, but time spent typing away on this computer is time spent away from helping to keep this brewery a well oiled machine, right?

One of the things I’ve been wanting to write about and address are some concerns people (and we) have had lately about consistency and quality here at NCBC.  Both are very important to us, and things we take very seriously. Since it’s National IPA Day I can’t think of a better day to discuss this in regards to our own County Line IPA.

IPAs are the most popular style of craft beer; there’s no debating that and the sale numbers prove it.  Breweries are literally graded, elevated, and hyped on their ability (or inability) to make a quality IPA.  Some have even been elevated to levels of notoriety completely on their ability to make this single style, almost to the point you may not have even heard of the other beers they make.  You know the names: Russian River, Ballast Point, Ale Smith, Green Flash, Hill Farmstead, etc.  For the most part, all of these breweries are on the West Coast, and for good reason; they make great IPAs, and the West Coast style has come to dominate our perception of what an IPA should be. They’re bitter, they’re crisp, they’re pungent, they’re citrusy, they’re dank, they’re IPAs, and every other IPA out there will always be judged against the Pliny’s and Sculpins of the world.  I’m not arguing that they should or shouldn’t, or that craft beer drinkers are wrong for doing so.  It’s just a part of craft beer that you’ve got to take for face value and as a grain of salt at the same time.

Our IPA, County Line IPA, has been a challenge to make since the day this brewery’s doors opened in June 2012.  For starters, we haven’t been able to get the hops we wanted/needed to brew a proper West Coast styled IPA, which has always been our intent.  When I say we couldn’t get those hops, I’m mainly talking about certain varieties and getting those hops in quantity.  Brewing 558 gallons of IPA at once requires a lot of hops, especially late addition aromatic hops.  County Line’s last hop addition at knockout is 11 pounds, and only one of six hop additions throughout the entire 90 minute boil.  Had we decided to go with a smaller brewhouse/system we would have had a bit more luck in securing the hops/quantity we needed in the spot market, but it quickly became pretty obvious that this wasn’t going to happen for us at the size and scale we needed when we opened our doors last year.

2012 was especially frustrating because we opened in the middle of the year, and hop contracts, for 2012 for any brewery that was under contract, were signed in early 2011, effectively locking us out of many of the highly sought after IPA hops: Chinook, Simcoe, Citra, Columbus, Amarillo, and Centennial to name a few.  We actually knew this in the Fall of 2011, so we started looking for substitutes as best we could early on, and that’s pretty hard to do.  Hops like Simcoe, Amarillo, and Citra are very unique, and give West Coast IPAs the qualities that we’ve come to know and love, not to mention, expect in an IPA.

So, the search began, not only for suitable hops to substitute for those we couldn’t get, but from someone to source them.  Since our original 20 gallon pilot batches of County Line IPA were all Warrior, Chinook, Simcoe, and Citra we had a pretty difficult task ahead of us; three of those four hops were absolutely going to be unavailable to us when the brewery opened.  The Internet is loaded these days with Stub Hub-esque shysters selling hops to naive brewers willing to pay $32 a pound for hops, but when you’re brewing on something larger than your average home brewer’s setup, jacked up hop prices just don’t work (on a smaller scale, it certainly does, but not when you’re making 1000+ gallons of a beer).  Seeing people trying to abuse the hop market pains me greatly as well, especially when they’re more than likely getting those hops at a quarter of the cost.  Brewers like Sam Adams, who, almost annually, sell their remaining hop stock to fellow brewers at cost (which is lower than a small brewery like this could ever negotiate) show the true spirt of the craft brewing movement in this country.  We were lucky enough to receive some of Sam Adam’s Citra stock, albeit only one 44 pound box, last year.  Unfortunately 44 pounds doesn’t really cut it.

Our original pilot batches of Warrior/Chinook/Simcoe/Citra IPA evolved into a Warrior/Zythos/Simcoe/Nugget IPA that, while ‘adequate’, was never what we wanted it to be.  Through brewing friends in our own back yard like Yards, and Chicago’s Half Acre (who have Delaware Valley roots) we’ve been able to source Simcoe pretty consistently, and for that we can’t thank them enough.  We were also able to source substitutes for Chinook and Citra in Zythos and Nugget rather easily, but honestly, those hops gave our IPA a character that was certainly different than pretty much anything out there that we’ve tried, not to mention our original pilot versions.  It was close, but not really. At the end of the day those were the hops we could get, so that’s what we went with.

Here we are in middle of 2013, on IPA Day, and I can say now that County Line IPA is finally the IPA we’ve wanted to make.  We haven’t been able to source all the hops we want/need even though we’re under a hop contract for 2013 (we signed our 2013 hop contract in August of 2012 and were still locked out of Citra, Amarillo, and Simcoe), but are able to get enough of the hops we really want to use to finally be satisfied with this brew.

So, have you noticed a difference in our County Line IPA?  I sure hope so, because it’s been the most difficult and inconsistent beer we make.  Yes, I’m being quite frank about it.  Our IPA has been all over the board.  Those statements may surprise you, and maybe that’s because a lot of people like to put brewers on a pedestal, that we’re infallible, don’t make mistakes, rock stars if you will.  We certainly are treated that way from time to time.  The reality of the situation is that we’re more than fallible, that we do make mistakes, and working with natural ingredients like malted grains and hops (which change from year to year) as well as a very fickle single celled fungi in yeast make our job very challenging; sometimes outright mind-numbingly confusing.

The challenge of being a Head Brewer (or Brewmaster, although I could write volumes as to why I don’t feel that title simply applies to anyone brave/stupid/naive enough to start their own brewery) is to learn from these challenges, as well as our mistakes and missteps so we don’t make them again.  While I’ve been brewing as a ‘professional’ for six years, I’m constantly reminded that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and if you’re not trying to learn something new everyday you’ve chosen the wrong path in life.  This professional has a way of reminding you of that almost daily.  Sometimes it just doesn’t matter; we choose to work with ingredients that, on their own, don’t naturally want to make beer (but will, with varying degrees of success). People genuinely loose sight of that, especially from the outside, and while we do tend to avoid the online and social media sites/apps, we do read them from time to time, and the ridiculousness that comes out of people’s mouth is bewildering, at best. Collective humanity gains nothing from the intellectual feces that’s spewed from those outlets, not to mention the sheer close mindedness that is counter to this movement in the first place.  Haters are gonna hate, right?

Whether it was the hops we could source from batch to batch, brew house efficiency (that we estimated about 10% higher than it actually was at the beginning), whether or not we were dry hopping (we started dry hopping County Line with the abundance of Nugget we could secure about four months ago, but have since switched to Columbus), yeast attenuation and stricter temperature regimes, our water profile (which has absolutely no Sulfates, something very important to making a quality IPA), County Line IPA has been easily the most challenging and frustrating beer we’ve made over the past 14 months.  I do truly believe that the current version, which is hopped with Warrior, Chinook, Columbus, Simcoe, and Centennial (and dry hopped with Columbus) is by far the best County Line IPA we’ve been able to make and one that we’re truly finally proud to call our own; one that we have no plans in altering or changing from this point on.  If you’ve had it in the past, and didn’t like it, we hope you’ll give it another go and see for yourself what I’ve been rambling on about over the past 1300+ words.  We feel like the time to get to this ‘version’ was well worth it, and we hope you agree.  Sometimes beers just come to you.  Sometimes they take weeks or months to show their true identity.  Sometimes you finally have all the pieces of the puzzle that you need and things fall into place.  Sounds a lot like life, right?

Wow, that was a mouthful.  That being said, it’s time to leave you to celebrate all that is hoppy on this glorious, unofficial holiday.  Happy IPA Day everyone!  Thanks again for you continued support.  Without you we wouldn’t be here!  Please stop by and visit us in lovely Croydon sometime soon.

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