Returning from break
Hello everyone! After taking a long break from writing, I'm back! It's been nearly a year since my last post. There were a few reasons for the hiatus--a very heavy workload tied to the opening of our new restaurant Daybreak, an aversion to revealing as much now that the market is more competitive, and a feeling that my posts were getting redundant.
Well, the restaurant has been up and running for a few months now, and things have calmed down. The entire process was incredibly trying, but we made it. We are still learning a lot and fine-tuning and developing the concepts, but things are getting easier and more predictable.
I had also stopped writing because I did not want to give away secrets related to our processes or plans. As I related in some of my posts towards the end, the market is saturated and can be really difficult. Now, however, I really don't mind sharing some more of what we are doing. Our businesses are secured, thanks to our overarching plan of creating a destination that is more than a brewery. Our new combined Sterling location, with 14k square feet, two restaurants, and a complete bar with beer, wine, and cocktails, makes it highly unlikely we are going anywhere.
Another change over the last year is that we went from struggling to sell our beer in distribution to not having nearly enough. We were early to market with a lot of styles. Our customers always were into what we were trying, but a sour IPA with raspberries was a hard sell for accounts in 2017. Now, we can't make enough Empress. We've also expanded into Maryland and the rest of Virginia, which has been helpful as a smaller brewery selling more specialized and expensive beer. With a greater demand and a solid reputation, I'm not as worried about elbow room in our market, and I feel like I can be more open about what we're doing.
Concurrently, I was starting to feel a bit burned out after six years. Brewing can be repetitive, after all, and sometimes it feels less like a passion and more like a job. Fortunately something else started slowly happening. We started releasing more mixed fermentation sours and lagers to good effect. I noticed the sales were great, and the ratings were pretty good as well. For the first time in a while, we sold out of one release in less than a weekend. Aronia was a mixed ferm barrel-fermented sour with chokeberries. We all loved this beer, with its brett jamminess, present but restrained acidity, oaky sweetness, and pleasant tannic finish. By Sunday, we were all glad we had saved some bottles, since it was sold out. Considering it's sold by the bottle, not four pack, and the bottles sell for $14 a piece, that was pretty impressive for us. People talked about it, and were asking for more.
I started thinking that maybe we were going about this wrong. Maybe we weren't going to make a name for ourselves brewing hype beer. (Hype beer. Noun. A beer, usually a hazy IPA, fruited kettle sour, or imperial stout, sold mainly at breweries. Often times the same beers with different labels and slightly different ingredients.) One thing that has stuck with me for years is some advice I got: find your niche, and don't try to be something that you're not.
We had always brewed a lot of adjunct beers, so what we have been doing has felt true enough to my values, but we always wanted to brew more nuanced sours and use locally-sourced ingredients. I started thinking that maybe we should do that. The name Crooked Run comes from the stream that ran behind my mom's little house in the country that I grew up in. The first beer Lee and I brewed together was a brown IPA with spruce tips I cut from my yard. My best beer I made as a homebrewer was a sour brown fermented with lactobacillus and brett with mulberries that I foraged. I made that beer when I was 23, at a time hardly anyone was brewing anything like that. What we are right now is somewhat in line with what I envisioned when I was 25, but definitely not what I thought we would be.
While these thoughts were creeping into my head, we also had started talking to some other breweries about doing some collabs. The first was a hoppy pils we brewed at Bluejacket. Bluejacket is Neighborhood Restaurant Group's (the top dog of the DC beer scene) brewery in Navy Yard. Ro Guenzel , their head brewer, has decades of experience and knows how to brew a lot of different styles well. Their staple Citra hazy IPA, Lost Weekend, is near perfect, but there's so much more on the menu. When we went out there for the brew day, we had a fantastic time sitting around and drinking pils, Kolsch, cask bitter, open-fermented hefe, and lots of other really simple but polished beers. It's pretty trite to say you only drink that stuff as a brewer, but it's kind of true. We all wanted to stay longer, enjoying these sessionable beers and small plates of food.
The other brewery we talked to is Wheatland Spring. Wheatland Spring is a farm brewery that opened up outside Waterford, where I used to live. I met their brewer Austen at our Leesburg location and again over at Ocelot before they opened. I was impressed with what they were trying to do. The rest of our guys went to visit a few months later, and got to see the execution. We all started talking about brewing some beers together, one using some of the 20,000 pounds of wheat they grew and our farm partner's chestnuts and honey, and another in some of our barrels along with their herbs. I'm very excited about both of these collaborations. At their brewery, they have similar beers on tap, some featuring their own ingredients, and some that just stand on their own. Another similarly inspirational brewery is Pen Druid down in Sperryville. We've enjoyed their beers and talking with those guys for years, and they are pretty much the definition of brew-what-you-want.
Seeing these breweries that kind of just did their own thing made me start to think. Up in New England, you see a similar attitude of brewing more restrained, nuanced beers. Since most of our sales come from on premise beer sold by the glass, it would make sense to have more sessionable and varied beers on tap.
At our quarterly production forecast meeting, I made my appeal. What if we started brewing these beers we all like, but maybe are a bit neglected? We had done plenty of non-hype beers (our pils and hefe are pretty exemplary if I do say so myself, and they're nearly always on tap) but it was always hard to fit them into production. With our new tank arriving, we could brew more of what we like, though. Our mixed ferm stuff, thanks to the relentless passion and exploration of our production team, was starting to get really good. Our advancement in that area involved taking modern and scientific approaches to brewing these traditional styles with European roots. What if we continued to do the same with other beers? Table beer, bitter, saison, wheat beer, porter--we could bring these back to the discussion, and really try to dial them in.
This is hardly unprecedented. Suarez and Fox Farm are tremendously sought after and respected. Maine Beer Co. achieved success without a single adjunct. Allagash and Oxbow make practically zero IPAs. And the name Hill Farmstead continues to sit atop the U.S. beer scene.
We all agreed that this was where we wanted to head. I hadn't seen as much interest from everyone in a meeting in quite a while. I think we all had been thinking the same thing, and we needed to make a change.
Workplace morale is important, but part of this new direction is based on calculation. Already, our pilsner is our number one seller in our taproom. After years of hearing that lager and mixed ferm were set to take off, we are now seeing it. We've also had years of massive ridicule of the beer industry coming from consumers and brewers alike. Beers made with Buffalo sauce, hamburgers, unfermented fruit...we've all been trying to outdo each other for years, reaching new heights (or lows). Beer releases centered around FOMO are not having the same effect anymore. And the looming trend above all--beer sales continue to go down nationwide.
Maybe the pendulum is going to swing back the other way, to simpler styles of beer made well. The new wave of taproom releases disrupted craft beer at the start of the decade because the larger craft breweries were complacent and weren't improving their product. A wave of homebrewers-turned-pro came in with years of experimentation and brought beer that was more creative or well-crafted, snapping up tremendous acclaim and selling incredible amounts of beer through their taprooms. But $16 four packs can't last forever, and I'm not sure if being the brewery known for double dry hoppped IPAs with marshmallows is going to beneficial in two or three years.
To be clear, we're still going to offer new can releases of Berliners and IPAs, but I want to start exploring more. I'm continually reminded that our small size can be a real blessing sometimes, since we're really free to get into whatever we want.
The other trend that I could see is a move towards more flagships. If changing beers all the time is producing worse beer just for the sake of new, why do we keep doing it? We're one of the few breweries I know of our size that actually does flagships, and if the market starts changing, we always have the ability to be more distribution and flagship-focused.
It's a pleasure to be writing again, and I'm very excited to see what lies ahead. Our new canning line comes in this week, and a new tank the week after that. Here's to the future!