Part 1 - New Beer Recipe Development: The NoCoast Way
By Chuck Crabtree (Head Brewer) and Aaron Ostrem (Brand Ambassador)
Is brewing good beer an act of intelligent design or is it a matter of pure luck? We at NoCoast strongly believe that truly great beers do not become great by accident. They are designed, refined, re-refined, and re-re-refined by extremely skilled brewers who know how to manipulate the subtleties of beer color, flavor and aroma. However, the truly great beers, when conceived and initially brewed, were a shadow of what they evolved to be today. You may not have noticed the changes in your favorites over the years, but I am confident that there are adjustments being made every time a beer is brewed, if, for no other reason than the quality of the ingredients is constantly changing. But every great beer had their beginning at some point in time. As a result, brewing new beers has to be a love affair with experienced predictability and pleasant surprises (and sometimes unpleasant surprises). We believe strongly in intelligently designed beers, but we are not afraid to embrace accidental evolution so long as the result is tasty and reproducible. So, what does this process look like at NoCoast?
What to Brew
The decision on what to brew is simple and complex all at the same time. Simple, in that we brew what we like! For example, I love stouts so we brew a great stout. John loves saisons so we made a saison. Mindy loves wine so we aged that saison in a wine barrel. Aaron loves coffee so we make a great coffee porter. These are all examples of how simplistic the decision of what beer to make can be. The complex decision involves many more variables. What beer styles will sell? Who will buy them? How much do we make? Our personal preferences and the market do this kind of tango in our heads and among the team, forward and backward, until they end up in an embrace in the middle of the brewery floor that blends our preferences with market demand. That is the best way I can describe it. No spreadsheets, no exhaustive market analysis, no personality tests. We just make it happen and enjoy the dance.
A new recipe for us always starts with a little history. Every beer style has its own unique story of how, when and where it came into existence. Then we decide if we want the beer to be a competition beer or if we are going to put our own creative twist on a classic style. This critical question helps us define our recipe and list of ingredients. Side note: There are many excellent beers that will never win awards simply because they do not conform exactly with a specific style (this will be the subject of a future blog post so stay tuned).
Like most breweries, we use software to design our beer recipes. There are a number of them on the market but they are all designed to model the recipes ingredients and processes in order to predict the ABV, color, IBUs, OG, FG, and other metrics of the finished beer. So we start by inputting the ingredients and processes for a true-to-style recipe based on our research, then we may, or may not, add our own touch to the style. These “touches” may include more hops, different hops, dry hopping, yeast variations, malt selection, or process changes that can influence mouthfeel, ABV, or color.
Along with the basic recipe as described above, we also do a thorough analysis of water chemistry. We believe that in order for a beer to be truly true-to-style, it must be made with water that is similar to where the style originated. We do this by defining a water profile that includes concentrations of calcium, magnesium, sodium, sulfates, chloride, and bicarbonate. We compare our existing filtered (activated carbon) water profile with our target and we add brewing salts to approximate our target profile.
Brewing the First Batch
Once the ingredients, processes, and water chemistry are set, we brew it! The second-best part of being a brewer is brewing new batches of beer (the best part is tasting it!). At NoCoast, we brew all of our batches on a 1 BBL (31 gallon) nano system. Our nano system is designed to mimic our larger brewhouse to the extent possible. This helps us ensure scale-up to our large brewhouse produces beer that is relatively similar to those brewed on our nano system. It takes about 5-6 hours to brew a batch of beer, 2 to 4 weeks to ferment it (depending on the style), and 2 to 30 days to age/carbonate the beer. If we are brewing an ale, we are looking at 3 weeks before we can see the final result, but for a lager, it is more like 6 weeks or longer. It is a long time to wait so see if all of the planning pays off, and it usually does.
The Day of Reckoning
Although the flavor of the final product is no huge surprise, having been sampled regularly throughout fermentation and aging. Still, the first sip of the fully aged, carbonated, and chilled beer is something to be savored. Thoughts range from:
- “What are my first impressions?”
- “Are there any off flavors?”
- “Is it too malty/hoppy?”
- “How is the hop flavor and aroma compared to the bitterness?”
- “Is it true to style?”
- “How is the head retention/color?”
- “Is the yeast character correct?”
- “Can we sell this?”
- “Should we sell this?”
- “What needs to be done to improve it?”
That is a lot to process in a sip or two, but that is what it is like. This whole thought process is taking place with every one of our team members at the same time as we all quietly sip and sniff. Finally, someone speaks and the discussion is on.
At this point, there are only 3 conclusions to be made:
- The beer is awful and we should just start over (rarely happens). ACTION: Dump it!
- The beer is good, but not great, and requires some recipe modifications. ACTION: Rework recipe and try another nano batch.
- The beer is awesome. ACTION: Test market the finished product.
Obviously, #3 is our goal and this is where we will start part 2 of this process in a future brewers blog as we walk through the process of scale up, marketing, packaging, and distribution.
So, next time you go to enjoy a NoCoast beer, keep in mind how much goes into making each sip perfect. Cheers!