It’s a common refrain in the craft brewing world that brewers make the kinds of beer they want to drink. And if the public likes it too, great.
Brewers stick to this theme like a political party staying on message during an election year. As disingenuous as it might seem sometimes, though, there’s a ring of truth to it.
But the other side of a successful beer is its resonance with the public. And any growing brewer will tell you—if they’re being honest—that the market is as big a driver, if not bigger, in what beers get brewed next. Goses took the country by storm a couple years ago, and on the back of that proof-of-concept, Sierra Nevada just released their own year-round national, Otra Vez. After that, Session IPAs put the west coast squarely back in charge of hops (as if they ever really lost their grip). Pilsners took over in 2015 thanks to beers like Firestone Walker’s Pivo Pils plowing some fresh dirt. And expanding breweries all across the country have the luxury of extra capacity right now, so the craft lager situation will likely continue into 2016 with gusto as Cigar City did in Florida last month.
Brewers love to drink these beers. Consumers are rewarding them with great sales because they love to drink them, too. But it’s the forecasting of these kinds of styles, and their likely success in the market, that’s really driving the decision to put them in to production.
Which brings us to Deschutes’ Fresh Squeezed.
When Deschutes’ head brewer Veronica Vega first started making Fresh Squeezed, it was just a number. “For at least 10 years, we’ve been using experimental hops that the growers have for us to test," she says. "Through their hop breeding programs they’ll have certain varieties each year that the agronomists think are looking good so they want to start getting feedback. A lot of these hops they’re just a number at the time, and there’s only 20 pounds of these hops around, so it really only works at the pub level. So what we do is come up with a standard, experimental hop recipe, and then we test all these different hops at the same rate so we can compare apples to apples and get a sense of what that hop does in the brewhouse. The analysis that brewers do when they’re looking at hops is just rubbing them—it’s just different when you brew with it.”
And so Fresh Squeezed began, like any other test off the line. Some pale malt, caramel malt, and a standard bittering hop together created the small stage for hop #394 to sing its little unproven heart out. By the time it went on at the pub, the citrusy character earned it the internal name, Fresh Squeezed. It was an instant hit, of course.
"A lot of our experimental hop beers are popular," Vega says. "I mean, they’re IPAs you can’t find anywhere else, so it kind of fits what the craft consumer is looking for. But this one definitely was very popular."
Fresh Squeezed was exclusively brewed at the pub for a few years as the hops gradually became more and more available, and the name of the hop itself was eventually commercialized as Citra, in the process of becoming one of the most sought-after and famous hop brands in the world.
But that popularity nearly limited the beer’s future prospects, too. Deschutes is one of the most successful craft brewers in the country, expanding to produce more than 300,000 barrels last year, and sends beer from one coast to another as their plans for an east coast brewery slowly take shape. For most breweries of this size, being nimble and responding to consumer demand are a lot more challenging than it was in their early days. So while experimentation may continue to occur, it’s a bit like a duck paddling below the water’s surface. On top, it’s all steady.
After first brewing Fresh Squeezed in 2009, Deschutes continued its march across the country, attempting to lead with their flagship duo of Black Butte and Mirror Pond as they had in the past. But as they opened these new faraway markets, a curious trend continued. At the time of the Craft Brewers’ Conference held in Portland last year, Fresh Squeezed had become their best seller in 22 out of 28 markets. And that was a major problem.
“The demand was at least 50% over what we’d forecasted," Vega explains. "We were limited on the raw material end. With seasonals or new products we typically predict pretty conservatively. It was definitely a surprise to everyone. That’s when we started looking at Mosaic. It’s another juicy, fruity, citrusy hop, so we just played with percentages of Citra and Mosaic.”
With hops shifting in their yields, flavor, and aromatic profiles from year to year, crop to crop, and with demand for Citra spiking, producing Fresh Squeezed with a blended hop profile was critical to its future. But that’s the obvious move. The rest is math and science.
“With Fresh Squeezed, we didn’t just rely on our purchasing manager to hammer down on trying to get the hops anywhere she could," Vega says. "In production, people started getting creative with process: how can we better utilize them? What form of these hops—pellets or leaf?—and where in the brewhouse? Bringing our sensory panel in on testing different trials—the creativity on that side was pretty awesome. Getting folks in production that are responsible for our hop inventories thinking of creative ways to test, process-wise, how we could increase production levels—that was one of the coolest things that came of that. In the end, we learned a lot about our process and our brewhouse and how we hop.”
These are the adult situations in beer production that we rarely talk about. Creativity is prized in craft brewing, but sustaining that creativity through nuts-and-bolts problem solving is critical to future opportunities. It’s the kind of ethos many of today’s craft brewers bring with them from previous careers in science and brewing at the macro level. Trials, efficiencies, panels, resourcing—these are not the vocabulary terms of a revolution. This is the language of a new—albeit still extremely small—establishment working hard to maintain its territory and forge ahead with a lot on the line. In this way, brewing Fresh Squeezed was more than a typical creative brewing exercise—it was an opportunity for Vega and Team Deschutes to tap into different parts of their collective brain under pressure. And that will pay dividends in future efforts.
“I’ve definitely seen a change in how we develop new brands,” she explains. “Like you said, for many years we had a luxury of just doing whatever the heck we wanted and putting that beer in front of folks and saying, 'What do you think?' Now, we really have to look at what hops are available and ask those questions out of the gate. Otherwise, you’re testing certain materials, and if they’re not available you’re wasting you’re R&D capacity and your time. You can make great beers for your pub, and we still do that, but anything that has a focus on scaling-up, we’re already asking forecast questions and looking at what we can secure. And then creativity comes with it. So it’s still highly creative, it’s just a different animal.”
When research and development becomes more than a creative outlet, and actually starts impacting the prospects of the business, it becomes highly investible. At Deschutes, that was an a-ha moment.
“We’re in the middle of bringing a pilot brewery online," Vega says. "It won’t be online until the end of next year, but it’s exciting in the R&D world because it will help with bringing plans to production. It will be in our production facility, so not only will it help with new product development, but it will help with any process testing. Think of Fresh Squeezed, and all those tests. The amount of effort it took to create the blends and test within a beer we were needing to keep consistent. That was super difficult. So I think it will be exciting for the production brewery to do these tests on a small scale and come up with answers a lot quicker without having to juggle our whole cellar and everything to make sure we’re still creating a consistent product.”
So does all of this make Deschutes a market-driven brewery? Or do they make beers they like to drink, damn-it-all? Vega seems to be content to balance the two, always being mindful of the line between true authorship and clickbait.
“It’s funny because we have a little bit of stubbornness against doing exactly what the consumer wants," she says. "I think we’re evolving to allow an open mind. Like maybe this isn’t a beer I want to drink, but obviously people want to drink it, so we’re going to move forward with at least testing our version of this. But with Fresh Squeezed, that’s a really good example at the time and still today—many, many IPAs are very dry, resiny, and very bitter with a lack of balance. There’s a point to that. I think that’s because the consumer generally likes that, and that’s why breweries do it. We found a hop that had really unique, fruity hop flavor and sweetness, and there’s a lot of caramel in that beer. That’s really not like many IPAs, so it’s unique in that way. And it shows the types of beer we do want to make. I guess it’s just showing that we didn’t have to copy the IPA profile that was out there. We could stick to our guns and create a beer that we all liked. So to get the public to enjoy it as much as they have? That’s exciting. But on top of that, we still couldn’t get away with not making a resiny, west coast-style IPA. So we have Pinedrops out there for those folks.”