No April Fools’ Day jokes. They’re rarely even jokes and even more rarely funny. If I feel like taking a potshot at macro brewers or goofy beer trends, I’ll just write a cantankerous blog post on whichever day I’m running low on coffee. Like today!
People seem excited about Modern Times. I get lots of emails from eager strangers, and we’ve amassed an impressive number of Likes, Twitter followers, & email newsletter subscribers. Embarrassingly, I even get recognized at some local beer bars now. All without having beer to sell!
During tours of the Lomaland Fermentorium and at our pilot tastings, folks have told me that they like the transparency, honesty, and self-deprecating humor with which I’ve talked about the ups-and-downs of starting the brewery. So I’m going to keep doing it.
But here’s something I will never, ever do: hire an ad agency or marketing firm. This is not totally unique to Modern Times, of course; I was eager to work at Stone in part due to Greg’s longstanding and noble disdain for beer advertising.
I could explain my carefully considered reasons for making this choice, or I could just include a link to this article, which inadvertently—but very effectively—communicates why the entire advertising industry should be sold for scrap.
Let’s make a list of the obnoxious and suicide-inducing elements of this article, which are plainly indicative of the ad industry’s odious fetishization of communication.
- Fundamentally worthless product? Check
- Attempt to differentiate said product with groan-inducing clichés? Check
- Trade journalism that treats a morally bankrupt attempt to differentiate a fundamentally worthless product using groan-inducing clichés as a noteworthy event? Check
- Nauseating and profoundly far-fetched use of buzzwords “upcycle” & “disrupt” (pukes in hat, jumps off bridge)? Check
Rereading that article one more time will be too much for me, so I’ll stop the list at 4.
Anyway, we’re never going to advertise.
Something totally face-meltingly awesome happened the other day: someone poured me the very first homebrewed variation on a Modern Times Beer. Consider how remarkable that is given that Modern Times doesn’t even exist yet.
My goal for open source brewing is to create a community of tinkerers that are perpetually pushing us to evolve and improve. Publishing our recipes will certainly allow homebrewers to attempt clones if they want—and there’s some value in that, as far as dialing in your process—but modifying our recipes is the far more stimulating path, to my mind.
The actual beer I got to try was fascinating. The brewer, Will Unkel, decided on a modified version of Blazing World: he replaced Nelson with Motueka, and Palisade with Columbus. He’d attended the first Modern Times tasting, so he had a chance to try the original version of Blazing World.
The beer was a window into what Blazing World would be if it were intensely fruity with a vibrant lemon zest note. While delicious, I don’t think we’ll end up swapping Nelson for Motueka, but we’re definitely going to find a way to use it in something else. I’m going to invite Will to help us formulate and brew whatever that is, and we’ll make a delicious Motueka-centered beer as a result. See how everyone wins in this scenario?
Perhaps we’ll even occasionally release modified versions of our beers based on the open sourced batches, just to let a wider audience have the same experience.
All of our recipes can be found on Mike’s blog here. If you’re thinking of brewing one of the recipes, here are some problems you might consider tackling:
1) Fortunate Islands is an incredibly tasty beer & we’re very happy with the recipe. Problem: Amarillo is really hard to get. Is there anything we can replace it with that will make a beer that is every bit as good or better?
2) What is the best coffee profile for Black House? Mike has been using a dark roasted Mocha Java blend. How about a Tanzanian peaberry? A Guatemalan Huehuetenango? Something from El Salvador?
3) We haven’t settled on the third hop variety for Blazing World. Ahtanum’s citrus-qualities didn’t seem to integrate well, and Columbus somehow ended up being too fruity. Palisade’s floral character has worked the best so far, but I’m not completely sold. Is there a better option?
The most helpful answers to these questions will come in liquid form.
An interested observer recently emailed me with a few questions about what I have planned for Modern Times in the short and medium term after we open. With his permission, I’ve chosen to answer here on the blog since others might be interested in the answers too.
Our inquisitor starts off by saying, “I’m rather curious where you foresee Modern Times after the honeymoon period,” which immediately made me think, “We should be so lucky!”
I’m constantly amazed and flattered that anyone cares at all about Modern Times, especially at this stage, and that some people even care enough to show up at a bar on a weeknight to taste a few homebrews or a construction site on a Saturday afternoon to hear me ramble about the build-out. So if we are indeed graced with a “honeymoon period” after opening, in which we’re quickly forgiven for our inevitable slip-ups and beer moves briskly out the door, I’ll be immensely grateful and utterly relieved.
So I don’t want to get to far ahead of myself, but at the same time I think it’s important to have some dreams. Dreams, of course, are different from plans, which at this point, consist of nothing more than getting the damn place open.
1) Are you planning on one-off annual releases?
There’s something nice about the ritual of an annual release, but at the same time, I’m hesitant to create a rigid schedule for special releases. My guiding motto for all our beer releases is this: “No clunkers.” I want every beer we put out to meet an unreasonably high standard for deliciousness, which in my mind requires lots of test batches, recipe revisions, and a willingness to write-off ideas that don’t pan out. So while no firm decisions have been made on this subject, I’d say I’m inclined to just release things whenever they achieve the requisite level of dankness.
2) Are you going to initiate a program like The Bruery’s Reserve Society?
I’ve talked to Patrick about the Reserve Society, and he’s a big fan of the model (clearly, since he’s expanded it repeatedly), but he also cautioned that it takes a lot of work and planning to get right. Since I’m generally a fan of under-promising and over-delivering, I’m definitely not going to do the full Reserve Society model right from the get-go because there are too many unknowns at this point.
However, I really want to start building a core group of folks who are deeply involved in Modern Times. I’m not so much interested in just creating a subscription service for special releases as I am in creating a group that’s part of our internal process. So while there’ll undoubtedly be a consumer component to the group, I’d like for folks to offer feedback on our test batches, help us evaluate new hop varieties and whatnot, and participate in decisions about special releases. Obviously, I’m still thinking this through, so feel free to let me know what you think in the comments. Also, it needs a name.
3) Seasonal beers?
Yes. The plan is to have 4 rotating seasonal beers in cans (meaning we’d have 5 total beers in cans on the shelf at any given time). Not sure exactly when we’ll roll out the seasonals though, given that the minimum can order is 11 pallets.
4) Are you going to branch out to a brewpub or similar hybrid type?
The restaurant industry frightens me because so many restaurants fail. I also have no real experience in the restaurant business. So there’s a reason I’m opening a production brewery and not a brewpub, but I also deeply love food and cooking. I’m a longtime vegan, and I think it would be really cool and unique to do some kind of brewing/food thing. But I have no idea if that will ever happen, and if it did, it would have to represent a small capital risk. It’s just not worth it to me to risk the whole business in order to sell food. I’d much rather open a small facility just for sour/funky beer production than a brewpub.
5) Or a can/bottleshop separate from the tasting room that showcases Modern Times, but also highlights other breweries?
Probably not. There are already a bunch of really great bottleshops in San Diego, and for whatever reason, this idea just doesn’t light my fire.
Now, a little sour brewery up in the Laguna Mountains surrounded by orchards, with a coolship and a barrel cave carved into the hillside…that’s something I daydream about.
Note: some people seem to be confused about the tone of this blog post and are taking it entirely too seriously. Travis is a friend of mine and this is just me giving my friend shit because that’s how friends amuse each other sometimes.
So my blog post from two blog posts ago, “What Will Make Modern Times Different, Pt. 3”, has caused a small kerfuffle on the series of tubes. After the world discovered that we’ll have pretty cans, my friend Adam Nason over at Beerpulse.com decided to repost my earlier blog post about brewing ingredients and processes.
Responses were split: Twitter was all “Fuck yeah, right on, duder”, while the Beerpulse comments section was all “You’re a horrible person and no other brewery will ever help you ever” (actually, a few people defended my point on Beerpulse, too). Results were similar last week on BeerAdvocate.
My buddy Doug, co-owner and brewer at Societe, then texted me that he wanted to debate the “handmade” issue over beers at O’Brien’s. Since it seemed like a good opportunity to try the O’Brien’s Anniversary beers from Societe and Alpine, I offered to humor him with my presence (the beers were excellent).
Our in-person debate was similar to the blog response from Travis—Doug’s manservant at Societe—except we did a lot more gossiping and complaining. Since Travis responded to my post line-by-line, I will offer the same service here.
“It is easy to see why someone who does not/has not make beer on a professional level would think that all a brewer does is turn valves and flip switches.”
I do not think that, nor did I claim it. However, I don’t think it is necessary for someone to be a professional to have an opinion about something. I have never held elected office, and yet I have opinions about political policy and how it should be made. I believe those opinions are valid despite my not being a pro at policy-making. Etc, etc.
“But a good brewer, like a good chef, is going to be making adjustments based on observation; something automation cannot do. It is not a matter of just opening a valve and turning on a pump. It is a matter of when and how much to open a valve, and when and at what speed to turn on a pump. You can set your automation to do these things to be the same every time, but the beer, like any natural product, will be different and will require special handling with variances in the raw ingredients, processes, and even the weather; things that are outside of the control of robots.”
I think Travis might not see the full potential of automation. A truly automated system is not one that repeats the same steps every time, it’s one that creates the same product every time. With enough sensors and the right software, an automated system could account for all of the variables Travis lists. Such a system is just out of our price range.
“Do you think top chefs should be replaced by automated machines? This has been done. Machines make great and consistent microwave pizzas, but do you think a machine can make a $50 plate of food as well as an experienced chef with his hands? It may take robots to make the most consistent beer possible, but it takes skill and experience to make the best beer possible.”
Yes and yes. It’s unknown if robots will ever have the creative potential to make a world class plate of food without being programmed to do so, but again, an AI machine that’s able to process enough variables is every bit as capable as a human—more capable even—of replicating a world class plate of food. It just comes down to building the right hardware and software.
“How can you say there are no grades of ingredients? Of course there are. The beef sourced by McDonald’s is lower quality than the beef sourced by The Addison at the Grand Del Mar. It is fine if one prefers the beef at McDonald’s; I do not judge someone for that preference. Likewise, there is a range in quality of malt, hops, yeast, and water. Selection based on preference is an absolute must, but higher quality ingredients will make better beer than lower quality ingredients.”
This is a bit of a straw man; I made sure to say “there are no grades of brewing ingredients,” but I’ll play along anyway. In blind taste tests it’s often impossible for people to tell the difference between “high” and “low” quality ingredients. But as it relates to brewing, Travis admits preference is subjective but then insists there are objective standards for quality. Doug gave the example of small kernel malt with inconsistent color versus plump kernels with consistent color.
The standards that value the plump, consistent (i.e. chemical-filled and malted by robots) malt over the inconsistent, small kernel (i.e. organic and malted traditionally) malt, are as artificial as any other standard. So if you prize consistency, say, over environmental responsibility and traditional methodology, then by all means, call the robot kernels “the finest” and the organic kernels “the less than finest.” But just realize that other people would look at it the other way around, and their opinion would be valid.
“Beer is and should be a natural product. It historically has been made from natural ingredients (grain, hops, yeast, water). It goes through a natural process of fermentation. Fermentation is a natural anaerobic metabolic process the yeast use to create energy and reproduce. If you want to use artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, or preservatives in your beer then it is not natural. It would be what I call a ‘malternative’ and I probably wouldn’t drink it.”
What exactly is ‘natural’ about massive industrial barley farms that have replaced the largest and most biodiverse prairie system on Earth with a chemical-fueled monoculture? Ditto for hops. And what is ‘natural’ about piping Colorado River water to San Diego so people can make beer with it? And what is ‘natural’ about isolating and cultivating uniform yeast strains? And is the hop extract used at Societe not an “artificial flavor”? Is fermentation any more ‘natural’ a process than nuclear fission?
Beer does not make itself. People do. And what we do is every bit as natural as what any other animal does.
Our beer will not be brewed with the finest all-natural ingredients, nor will it be made by hand. These are meaningless clichés trotted out when a brand has nothing to say. There is no “natural” or “unnatural” malt. “Finest” doesn’t mean anything. And the notion that commercial beer is made by hand—or that “handmade” is a positive attribute in beer—is a fallacy.
Let’s take it one word at a time.
What is gained by using “finest”? Nothing is gained. It cannot possibly make a positive impression on a single shopper. And the absence of “finest” does not lead one to assume that a product is made with shit ingredients. There are no grades of brewing ingredients, there are only the personal preferences of the brewer.
“All-natural” means nothing. It’s not even a phrase that was once meaningful that now means nothing, like “local.” The entire notion that some products are natural and others aren’t is absurd. At what point does processing make an ingredient “unnatural”? There is no meaningful answer to this question. Malt is processed. Whole leaf hops are processed. Your poop is processed.
No one makes beer “by hand.” At a production brewery, hands might be used to open and close valves or turn on and off a pump, but under no circumstances are they better than the automated version. In fact, manual process controls lead to more mistakes, which leads to less consistent beer. And I have yet to hear anyone comment on a beer’s rough-hewn, handmade quality because it tasted different than the last batch.
We will use whichever ingredients lead to the tastiest beer and the most efficient workflow, in that order. That might mean we use the cheapest malt, or it might mean we use the floor-malted heirloom shit imported from a castle on a scenic European river. It makes no difference to me.
It only matters that the beer taste mind-bogglingly delicious, and I will use any tool available to reach that goal: downstream hop products, enzymes, Fermcap, whatever. I could not care less about tradition.
In my ideal brewery, everything would be automated and our beer would be brewed and packaged and shot straight into your mouth by robots; it would taste better that way, which is the only thing that matters.
By now you’ve undoubtedly read the San Diego CityBeat cover story, “19 Places To Keep An Eye On In 2013”, in which Modern Times is listed #3 (above City Hall, as one commenter noted).
When I was contacted for the story, the email asked “What will set Modern Times apart from the other breweries springing up?”, to which I responded with a lavish five point dissertation on the brewery’s future specialness. Sadly, none of that brilliant content made its way into the article, so I will subject you to it here in serialized and expanded form.
1) We’re going to make some complex, tasty, uncompromising sessionish (~5% ABV) beers. There’s no reason why lower gravity beers have to be entry level or “transitional” craft beer—a condescending notion to begin with—and there’s also no reason why you should have to leave the bar in a wheelbarrow after drinking several pints of world-class beer.
Towards that end, our core beers will likely include: a vibrantly fragrant hoppy wheat beer (~4.5% ABV) with an emphasis on tropical aromatics; a food-friendly saison (~5%) bringing the rustic yeast character and nuanced malt flavor you know and love in the classics; and an oatmeal coffee stout (~5.8%) positively redolent with coffee aroma layered atop a full, creamy, roasty malt backbone.
We’ll brew plenty of higher gravity beers as well, including a year round ~7% ABV amber IPA loaded with hella dank Nelson hops. But one of the primary challenges I will put to our brewers will be to extract as much flavor and complexity and excitement from as little alcohol as possible. The goal isn’t to reduce alcohol per se, but to make every point count.
Reason #2 will be revealed tomorrow. And so on and so forth.