The Evolution of a Recipe

Victories tend to get lost in the endless swirl of stress that characterizes the brewery start-up process. There is such a constant need to solve major, project-threatening problems that lingering on the rare successes isn’t really an option.

But Modern Times had a major success recently, and I want to dive-in to how it happened. The success: we brewed a really great beer. A beer that I think is going to be huge for us. A beer that will likely be a big part of our identity.

From my earliest days as a beer geek, I’ve thought about the beers I would make if I ever started a brewery. It’s the subject of near constant threads on BeerAdvocate, and I played the game almost every time. My lists have evolved as the hardcoreness of my beer geekdom has intensified: from introductory-level craft beers, to high-gravity sledgehammers, to complex sessionish beers, which is where I am now. When I actually started working on the brewery, I used my most recent list to decide what we’d brew. Near the top of my list was a hoppy wheat beer.

As you’re probably aware, soon after leaving my job at Stone, I recruited Mike Tonsmeire to work with me on recipe development. Since that major victory (now almost a year ago), Mike and I have exchanged 807 emails, the vast majority of them hashing-out recipes (the two in-person visits we’ve had probably spared us at least 200-300 additional emails).

It typically works like this: I give Mike the concept for a beer (in this case, “a hoppy wheat beer with loads of Citra, kind of like a cross between Gumballhead and Zombie Dust”) along with a few recipe suggestions (“around 50% wheat and a touch of some medium crystal; Hopshot for bittering”), and then Mike comes back to me with a specific recipe. In this case he suggested Amarillo along with the Citra/HopShot and perhaps hef yeast, to which I responded with the unfortunate idea of replacing Amarillo with Calypso and splitting the batch to try out both yeasts.

Mike then brewed the beer and sent me 6 bottles of it. The Calypso didn’t work out, either because it’s a weird hop or because the hops we got weren’t good quality. I tasted a fantastic sample batch of Stone IPA dry-hopped with Calypso, so I lean towards the latter (something I’ve learned from working in the beer industry is that homebrew hops are often terrible by comparison). We haven’t ended up experimenting with hef yeast.

After we agreed to ditch the Calypso and return to Citra/Amarillo, Mike made some changes to the crystal malt and began using the HopRocket (a homebrew hopback) I sent him, an apparatus I’ve been pushing hard. Unfortunately, the second batch ran into some fermentation issues, and ended up finishing too dry. The resulting beer was thin and a bit astringent and also lacked the vibrant burst of hop aroma we both wanted.

For the third batch, we agreed to up the crystal a bit (Mike was hesitant but preferred more CaraVienne to the Melanoidin I suggested; he won since that was all he had on hand) and increase the already heavy hop bill.

When I tasted the resulting beer, it was immediately obvious that this concept was worth all the back-and-forth. I had been a little discouraged when the second batch didn’t seem any closer to my original vision than the first. The third version, though, is outstanding.

Mike called it “a real beer nerd session beer”, which is exactly what a Modern Times beer should be. The beer isn’t 100% final, but it’s almost there; the HopShots I’ve been pushing don’t seem to produce a totally satisfying bitterness. A dash of Columbus should fix it.

Nonetheless, tasting such a successful beer feels like a real vindication of the collaboration between Mike and I. The recipes really are the product of us both, along with many influences from the great commercial beers we love.

So far, it seems to be working. I can’t wait to produce enough of this beer to share with a wider audience.

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