Guys Most Likely To Change Your Mind About Big Brewery Beer – The SandLot Profile

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The heart of Denver’s popular LoDo District plays host to an unlikely brewery whose brewers are quietly challenging beer conventions in unlikely ways. Tucked away deep in the right field corner of Coors Field, the Sandlot Brewery has won almost as many Great American Beer Festival medals, including the Small Brewery of the Year Award, as any other craft brewer. At the brewery’s helm, co-brewmasters John Legnard and Tom Hail find themselves in an interesting position. The Sandlot is famously known as the birthplace of the juggernaut Blue Moon brand. Coors’ brewmaster Keith Villa developed Blue Moon Belgian White at the Sandlot in 1995. When it proved with the public, Coors took the brand national where it exploded onto the better beer scene. The brand’s success has led parent company MillerCoors to rebrand the brewpub as the Blue Moon Brewing Company at the Sandlot.

Sandlot’s story would be impressive if it ended with Blue Moon, but that is just the beginning. While appreciating Blue Moon and its success—the brewery continues to brew the brand, its seasonals, and test batches—Legnard and Hail have struck their own brewing path. The brewery, which is operated separately from the adjacent pub, “flies below the radar,? according to Legnard. Or as Hail, a master of entertaining analogies, once described the corporate relationship to me, Sandlot is the “Puerto Rico of Coors,? owned by the brewing giant but in some manner distinct from it.

“The higher ups know who we are and appreciate what we do and leave us to create and brew what we wish,? says Legnard. This independence allows the guys to brew some of the nation’s best small batch lagers in an impressive range of styles, including the sharp Barmen Pilsner, named after Adolph Coors’ hometown. Many of the lagers fall under the Brewmaster’s Special series. In contrast to trendy barrel aged alcohol bombs, Sandlot is a place to find well-executed traditional styles. In a timely Olympic comparison, Hail suggests that “[w]e don’t invent the moves, we just try to perfect them.? In addition to its outstanding lagers (the appreciation for which Hail compares to “pretty girls who don’t need makeup?), Sandlot also produces a flavorful Scottish-style ale, an ESB, and a stout, among others.

Despite their success, the Sandlot brewers have failed to receive the public acclaim accorded to other award-winning brewers. In fact, they’ve occasionally been subjected to the derision of beer geeks, including journalists, who summarily dismiss their beers due to the big brewery affiliation. After firing back with beers named “Clueless Beer Writer? and “Most Beer Judges Are Bone Heads? and occasional chiding on Internet websites, Legnard is ready to let the beer speak for itself. “We always tell people, ‘judge us by the beers we brew not who owns the place.’? Cheers to that.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue VIII of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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A 2008 Great American Beer Festival Preview…

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The 27th annual Great American Beer Festival will be held October 9-11, 2008, at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver. More than 46,000 beer enthusiasts from around the world will attend the event, where they can enjoy 1969 beers from 432 breweries around the country.

As of this writing just three short weeks out from the festival, the Brewers Association is reporting incredibly robust ticket sales for the sessions. The Thursday night session is 57% sold out, a few tickets remain available at select outlets for the Friday session, the members-only session is sold out, and the dread Saturday evening session is 83% sold.

As I did last year, I wanted to provide attendees and other interested parties with a preview of things to come at this year’s event. As I’ve written elsewhere, my first visit to the GABF had a great influence on my development and interest in craft beer. And it all happened by dumb luck. I was in Denver to visit a friend and on a lark the friend decided to surprise me with tickets to the fest. At the time, I was just beginning to acknowledge and appreciate the difference between certain American beers. Entering the beautiful environs of Currigan Hall (long since replaced with the mildly soulless Colorado Convention Center), I had a transformative experience, the effects of which have lasted to the present day. As much as I enjoy the festival and Denver, I’m having a hard time believing that this will be my thirteenth visit.

GABFThe Brewers Association’s cornerstone event well-serves the general public and generates a huge amount of revenue for the association itself (an issue for another article entirely). The association has some changes in mind for this year’s event (hopefully they will include banishing beer pong tables from the convention floor). It has added a Beer Enthusiast Bookstore, which will sell beer-related books, several state brewing guilds will be pouring local beers to showcase their state’s breweries, and the “You Be the Judge Booth” will allow consumers the chance to sit down with a trained beer judge one-on-one to learn about judging beer styles. The association is also returning its popular “Beer and Food Paring Demos.” The association will also return its “Inside the Brewers Studio” interview series, which I hope will be audio or video taped for future viewing on the association’s website, as was done with the panels at the SAVOR event in Washington DC. As someone who participates in a number of beer educational events through the BeerAdvocate festivals and others, too often some interesting debates and discussions get lost to history, a real shame in our multimedia world where they would be all too easy to preserve.

Here’s a look back at my coverage of the last half-decade or more of Great American Beer Festivals.

The 2007 Great American Beer Festival”
GABF At 25 – The 2006 GABF
A look at the 2005 GABF
Revisit the 2004 GABF
The 2003 GABF
The GABF Turns 21 – The 2002 GABF

And for good measure, a detailed discussion about why beer writers shouldn’t participate in the Brewers Association’s well-intended Beer Journalism Awards.

And it won’t be all fun and games. After eyeing the program for a few years, I’ve finally signed up to attend the Siebel Institute of Technology’s Sensory Analysis Seminar. So while others are drinking beer for fun, I’ll be going to school for four hours…Overall, I look forward to seeing how the event further evolves as it becomes more of a business event for the industry. I’m also interested to hear about when the Brewers Association plans to dump its big brewery corporate sponsors, including Anheuser-Busch, SABMiller, and Molson Coors (remember, this is the Great American Beer Festival and I’ve heard more than a few grumblings on these international entries). I think it’s all about trying to stop those SandLot guys from winning all of the lager awards.

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The Full Sail Interview with Jamie Emmerson…

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Based in the heart of the beautiful Columbia River Gorge, the Full Sail Brewing Company of Hood River, Oregon, is one of America’s oldest craft breweries. The brewery is an interesting mélange of personalities and attitudes, ranging from assertive American-style ale lovers to hard core Germanophiles. Backed by its powerful flagship, the Full Sail Amber Ale, and its slogan, “stoked to brew, brewed to stoke,? the brewery produced more than 120,000 barrels in 2007. Full Sail also proudly touts its status as an employee owned business. Full Sail is also known for the introduction in 2005 of its excellent Session Premium Lager, a pre-Prohibition style beer bottled in the classic stubby container. The brewery also produces a line of limited edition lager beers, called LTD.

In a break from the ordinary craft beer experience, Full Sail struck an agreement with the Miller Brewing Company in 2003 to contract brew the iconic Henry Weinhard’s brand for the Milwaukee-based company following the closure of the Tumwater, Washington, brewery in 2003.

I recently visited Full Sail, where I met with Executive Brewmaster Jamie Emmerson, who showed me around the place before sitting down to a tasting panel of the brewery’s beers.

Andy Crouch: How did you Session lager product get developed?

Jamie Emmerson: Session came about because of the stubby bottle. The last brewery to use it was Tumwater and they closed and we spent three years talking about what to do. And one of my neighbors down the street used to be a lineman for the University of Oregon and when I invited him over and offered him a beer he would say ‘no thanks.’ I figure he didn’t drink. Later on I thought that this style would be a good one for that guy that could go against a continental pilsner. It’s done in that style, all malt, so no corn or rice. It’s a bit hoppy and as my dad says, “it’s just beer.” Low sulfur. It’s lagered start to finish in three weeks. It’s a warm ferment and you get a little bit of fruit. You rack it down very cold and it ages about two weeks and four days.

AC: That doesn’t put you guys out much in terms of tank space.

JE: It didn’t really improve with any extra age in fermentation and that’s what we found in our taste panels. All ales are the same yeast and the lager yeast is used across all the lagers.

AC: How did you get involved with the Harborside site in downtown Portland?

JE: The Harborside Restaurant used to have a dance club called the Shanghai Lounge and it was the meat market of its time. It’s right in the middle of all of these nice condos and people got tired of the 3 a.m. yelling and they we’re told to cut back their hours. They called us and asked us if we would be interested in brewing there. In basically six weeks they tore the dance floor out and we put our old brewery down there, encased in glass, so you get the brewpub feeling but it’s actually two separate entities. They can have alcohol and anything you can get at the brewery you can get there. So what brewer John Harris did originally was to make the Amber when we were short and he was cranking out five to six thousand barrels of Amber out of only 800 square feet. So when demand settled down and we sat down to figure out what we wanted to use the place for, then we decided on the Brewmaster’s Reserve series. It has become an entity of its own. The Brewmaster’s series are all high gravity beers, very interesting, and the people who like those beers really like the bourbon barrel beers are tremendous. All of the bourbon barrel beers have to be made here, however, because he doesn’t have room.

One of the nice things about growing is that we can afford really good equipment, the top equipment. For a long time, we we’re on a shoestring and you just had to make it work. I think beer quality in general has approved across the board no matter where you go. Back in the day, it was a little sketchy. We’ve had a lab for a long time and back then no one had a lab. We also have taste panels which a lot of place doen’t have.

AC: What is the genesis of the LTD program?

JE: I started here in April of 1988 and we were doing a golden ale. The first specialty beer we made was imperial porter in June of 1988. Then we did a Christmas beer and then Amber came. The next we made was maibock and the bartenders called it ‘Mindblock.’ It’s 6.5-percent alcohol so it’s strong. When we were looking at bringing something back later, we started looking at seasonal beers and how part of the problem was that you were so tied to one particular time frame. If you’re short in production in Octoberfest season, then you have Christmas beer on the shelf. We wanted to make a seasonally appropriate beer but one that if it rand long it wouldn’t matter. We’re trying to figure out how the next one will work with our three LTD beers, like whether they will run for longer periods of time or even in order. Our brewers are given some freedom to create their own beers with their names on them. If John has something odd going on at Harborside, they can use that. They can use Full Sail yeast and session yeast. They can use hops we have in inventory and we’ll buy specialty malts. It’s more of a challenge to them. People who come in here have already been filtered a bit. It’s not the Bud light guy coming in. With that group in mind, I ask them, “Where do you fit in?” I think this ESB, Extra Special Barney, named after the brewer, is particularly interesting because when you compare that with the Amber, a Northwest-style ESB, and it’s very English. Set them up side by side and it’s very interesting.

AC: When did you start working with Miller?

JE: About five years ago.

AC: Tell me about the connection with Miller and how that came about.

JE: Tumwater was closing and they wanted to keep some of the production here in the northwest partly because with the hefeweizen, which is very popular, Miller doesn’t due live yeast post-secondary. They bought beer off the shelves at Safeway and brought it back to Milwaukee and tested it. They were looking at all of these things. They wanted to bring the brands they had trouble managing. At one brewery they make our annual production in three days. SO to have a brand, such as Amber Light, that is perhaps 400 barrels a month, they couldn’t do it. From the lab back in Milwaukee we got the green light. It’s been very nice to deal with them, they are very pleasant and knowledgeable. It’s been a very good relationship. We’ve come to a certain point where the only knowledge I can gain anymore is from books or technical journals. And here you have guys who live and breathe that stuff all the time. Miller has guys who only work on efficiency and that’s impressive. Henry’s is not micro beer but it’s a high quality regular beer. We’ve talked about recipe formulation because I think there may be a few things, such as hop usage, that we may know more about than they do. With the four brands we manage, we’re up to about 40,000 barrels of production.

AC: Are they doing high gravity brewing?

JE: Everything is high gravity and that is real standard. We’ve talked about why they use syrup. I don’t think it’s cheaper any more due to the cost of corn. We could convert that and I don’t think anyone would notice the difference. There is just something missing in the palate and I think it’s a malt thing. You can’t put your finger on it. A couple of them are 20-percent adjunct. If you go back in brewing history the reason that adjunct was brought in was to bring the soluble nitrogen levels down to the level of the malt in Europe. The nitrogen levels in the malt in Europe was lower. It’s strictly a condition like growing grapes in California versus France, things are just different. SO all these brewers were German and they are trying to make beer like back home. The nitrogen palate was something you had to deal with. So you add some adjuncts or low nitrogen material to balance it out. And you can make some excellent beers and I think that is what they are doing here, just old school. I think you could do the same thing here, only with malt. But I’m trying to make it my beer and it’s not.

AC: Any thoughts on the recent announcement that the Magic Hat Brewing Company intends to purchase Pyramid?

JE: From a business standpoint, you can go on the web and see their financials. Then you have to ask why you would spend that kind of money on a place that has never made any money. Then you look at the main pub in Seattle and its located right next to the stadium. That alone is worth a lot of money. If you are coming in and want production, that’s one thing. If you want pubs, that’s another thing. If they haven’t figured out how to make money yet, I just don’t know. It may not be a dumb deal, but what survives the cut? Whose beers are made when it’s all done? When you look at Portland’s portfolio and that is really shrinking. MacTarnahan’s really was the big hitter there so that was an easy one as Pyramid didn’t make it.

We’re independent and employee owned and it’s a little odd when you’re competing with these larger breweries. When we started, we built our brewery for a lot less than other people with a high capacity so now we don’t have to do what a lot of other people have to do. If you look at the IRI’s, we have three beers in the top twenty. We’re not a one horse pony and I like that. When people come in the door and ask, ‘what do you have on tap?’ The answer is, ‘what do you like?’ We have a broad enough selection that are all solidly made and we have something for everyone to like. The trick is to find that out. What I find a lot of times is that we’ll do tastings and we’ll be pigeonholed in one way or another. And I offer something else and they’ll be surprised by it.

AC: What are your thoughts on the recent price increases consumers are seeing in the marketplace?

JE: I think $4.50 to $5 pints are going to be the norm. We’ve been lucky that we’re not in debt so we don’t have to go up as much. Now some other breweries are different. I heard that Widmer spent $32 million on its brewery. That’s more interest than my debt payment. That’s a lot of beer.

AC: What are your thoughts on the future of extreme beers?

JE: Everyone here wants to think they are normal and I think, ‘Dude, you like a 100 IBU beer?’ You may be one of a hundred or more. The other people don’t like it. It’s not like they’re going to try it and suddenly the skies will open up. It’s just not going to happen. I like a nice firm pilsner and I like IPA’s but it’s not a beer I’m going to pick all the time. We’ve gotten into a habit locally, one that I think that is a cycle that will come and go. When we started, everything was very bitter. And now, we’re the ones who are the most bitter and then it will be back to bitter again. It’s a cycle and all of a sudden we may not be the beer of choice. I mean, Pabst sells more beer in Portland than all of the micros combined and no one talks about that. But that will flip again eventually. Right now, we look at some of the one note beers out there and people say, ‘ok, I’ve had it. Show me something else.’ It is what it is. I think we have a good house character and it’s a Full Sail product. We had some brewers visiting from Norway and one of them said, ‘none of the beers are extreme but they are all very good.’ And I though, ‘that’s a good way to put it.’ The dichotomy is that in Germany there is a constraint of style but it doesn’t mean that those beers are bad. And that is frustrating for me because if you look on, you see that Full Sail is the world’s best premium lager and then someone gives it a two. I understand the guy likes barleywine but it’s a style that you have to judge it by.

–Article appeared in the August issue of Beverage Business Magazine.

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The Myth of Handcrafting…

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When it comes to craft beer, perhaps no word is tossed around as casually and as often as ‘handcrafted.’ From the earliest days of better beer to the present, craft breweries big and small have loved to up the romance of their brands with allusions to the by hand nature of the brewing process. The reference conjures up images of a keen eyed, lone brewer stirring a heavy mash rake over a smoldering copper cauldron of boiling brew. At just the right moment, the master craftsman brewer carefully and delicately adds a pinch of hops. The brewer in these fairy tales is part artisan, part custodian who gently ushers his product through the brewing process.

The colorful fable lasts for many consumers until they take their first brewery tour. The lands of hop pixies and malt elves are quickly replaced with snaking hoses, puddles of water, gurgling buckets of foamy particulates, and the occasional stench of caustic in the air. The notion of handcrafting is also quickly challenged. While American brewers in the earliest days of the craft brewing renaissance may have fit the cheerful description above romantic, today the brewing process is more akin to an industrial factory or sometimes even a computer programming suite.

It’s time that brewers and consumers let go of their dated, fanciful notions of the brewing process. When applied to model ship building, pottery making, or log cabin construction, the phrase handcrafted seems apt. When referencing the modern production of beer, handcrafted seems an overly romanticized and even misleading descriptor, even when applied to America’s smaller breweries. In the classic European sense, a handcrafted brewery was one where every part of the brewing process was indeed managed by hand. Brewers lugged heavy, dusty bags of malted barley to their mash tuns and dumped them in, only to shovel out by hand the spent grain after a few hot hours stirring the mash. Without the benefits of fork lifts and other systems, brewers then filled and rolled wooden barrels, which they sometimes made themselves, around the brewery and to horse-drawn carts for delivery to local pubs.

Let’s keep one thing straight, those romantic good old days sucked for the brewer. Brewing under those conditions was backbreaking and dangerous work and it did few favors for the beer. As craft breweries grow from mini-micros to small regional players to large national operations, their systems should match their improved business practices. Automation is a friend to both consumers and brewers. While part of the romance may be lost when breweries transition to all stainless steel breweries run by computers, you can rest assured that stable temperature controls and accurate brewing and fermentation conditions will improve the quality of the pint in front of you. That a brewer lugging fifty pound bags of grain has been replaced by a computer nerd watching the sparge represented in animation on a glowing screen is a positive thing for everyone involved.

At its best, brewing is part art and part science. Where the calculus lies between the two is the true beauty of beer and it’s where the magic lies for consumers and brewers alike. But make no mistake; brewing is both science and industry. Without these two components, art simply cannot produce consistent, clean, and consumable pints.

And for those consumers who refuse to let go of the romanticized notions of handcrafted brewing, there will always be a seat at your local brewpub. And when you see your local brewer hauling heavy grain bags and toiling in tough, challenging conditions, feel free to offer a hand. Then you’ll know what handcrafted really feels like.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue VII of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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