“Modern beer consumers are grazers; they’re always looking for something new,” says Lester Koga of San Francisco’s Barebottle Brewing. His sentiment is shared by many brewers with whom I spoke about the commercial realities of today’s brewery tasting rooms.
Long gone are the days that a brewpub could thrive on the strength of its core lineup of a pale ale, an amber ale, and an Irish stout. Today’s beer fans demand an ever-shifting menu of disparate flavors. But we all have that one friend or loved one who—try as we might to get them on board the haze train, join the pils parade, or at least try that totally “not-beery” kettle sour—is just not that into beer.
Koga doesn’t want those drinkers to go thirsty at Barebottle; he wants them to be excited about being in the tasting room, too. “It’s a fun case to tackle,” he says. “If we can’t get them to like beer, we want to give them something to drink.”
Over the four years that Barebottle has been open, Koga’s approach to the taproom has changed. What began as a space to showcase the brewery’s wares has evolved into a destination. He now considers Barebottle to be more of a hospitality company than “just” a brewery, and it has expanded into soda, wine, and even coffee to meet the demands of the regulars and travelers who fill Barebottle’s two taprooms. It’s a more common approach than I’d first considered, and many brewing companies that rely on taproom sales are looking beyond beer to meet the shifting consumer demand.
Hard Seltzer: Flavor & Polish
The most obvious example of this trend of breweries looking beyond beer is hard seltzer. Consumer demand has soared, and the runaway success of national brands ate into beer’s market share. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs), on their face, appear antithetical to the craft-beer ethos—yet their production is trivial for most craft breweries. A clean fermentation of sugars and a good dose of flavoring are all it takes to quickly turn out a high-margin, in-demand product—no special equipment required.
So, why wouldn’t brewers looking for the next recipe to tinker with begin playing around with FMBs? Some brewers told me these drinks were “lacking soul” or “less artful” than beer—but they weren’t complaining about the challenge of perfecting their own methods or about the sales figures of their experiments. Often made with just a sugar source, a pitch of ale yeast, and some yeast nutrients, it’s a low-risk endeavor for brewers. (See “Hard Seltzer: We Can Do This the Easy Way, or …”, beerandbrewing.com.)
The goal is to produce a base that is as neutral in flavor as possible, but brewers have yet to settle on any standard operating procedure to get there. “A lot of brewers are scrambling to figure this whole thing out,” says Stephen Reeves, head brewer at MacLeod Ale Brewing in Van Nuys, California. “Look at pro-brewer blogs, Facebook groups, and online seminars involving this topic lately—it’s crazy,” he says, referring to the various approaches and techniques that craft brewers are trying out to crack the hard-seltzer code.
MacLeod Ale originally dedicated itself to British-style cask ales, but as the tasting room developed into a destination for the relatively underserved San Fernando Valley, demand for more “modern” styles and flavors increased. In 2020, the brewery launched a sister brand called Van Nuys Beer Company to release brands that fall outside the British-style rubric. “Breweries are not just in the beer industry but are actually in the ever-changing beverage industry,” Reeves says.
“It was a trend that couldn’t be ignored,” says Jason De La Torre, cofounder and head brewer at three-year-old Ogopogo Brewing in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley. Hard seltzer is just one part of the brewery’s beyond-beer strategy.
Like MacLeod Ale, the only special process that Ogopogo uses for its seltzer is an additional filtration step using activated carbon, to strip any lingering color or off-flavors after fermentation. Existing plate-and-frame filters and cartridge-based filter units can be adapted to the sometimes fiddly activated-carbon mediums, which do a thorough job of clarifying the seltzers.
The other tricky bit, De La Torre says, is the canning of flavored seltzer—the high carbonation levels need a colder-than-usual canning temperature, which did not play well with the brewery’s glycol chiller and the San Gabriel Valley’s 100°F-plus (38°C) summers. It’s these little process tweaks that each brewery needs to address when shifting production to FMBs.
Fruit Fermentations: Wine & Cider
Hard seltzer isn’t Ogopogo’s only non-beer beverage. In the brewery’s first year of operation, it was already planning an expansion into fruit fermentations. Ogopogo’s cofounder, Ryan Edell, wanted to produce cider alongside Ogopogo’s beer, which in California requires a license separate from the typical small brewery license.
Beyond a separate license, California law at the time required separate facilities for making beer and wine or cider. “We couldn’t even use the same forklift,” De La Torre says. After a year of dealing with delays from county and state bureaucracy, Ogopogo received their winemaker license in early 2020—and by that time, state laws had changed to allow a brewery and a winery in the same building.
A lot of work to keep the two production lines separate was rendered moot. Ogopogo began making cider, partnering with a winemaker to lead wine production under a sister brand called Hartlam Wine. Today, beer, seltzer, cider, and wine are all available in the Ogopogo tasting room.
De La Torre says that he is thrilled by the response to the wines and ciders and that these options take some pressure off of him to fill the taps with beer styles. Apart from the costs and delays from bureaucratic red tape, the main expenses for the brewery were a few pieces of winemaking equipment (a hand press for cider and a small destemmer for grapes) and dedicated fermentation vessels for the wine. The brewhouse was a DIY endeavor; De La Torre and Edell did much of the build-out work themselves.
“We probably shouldn’t have spent all that money on [wine and cider making] at the beginning, but we did,” De La Torre says. However, that investment has paid off with a diverse menu of drinks that bring people—even those who don’t like beer—into the tasting room.
In San Francisco, Barebottle’s Lester Koga took a different approach to expand the brewery’s capacity beyond beer. “Do you have wine?” was a frequent question in the taproom; after seeing the demand, he took the dive. “I’ve been into wine as long as I’ve been into beer, and I’m a maker, I love making things,” he says. He remembers thinking: “How hard could it be?” It was a natural expansion for the brewery. Once it secured the license, he worked out the problem of how to fit winemaking into a busy urban brewery.
The equipment needs are relatively minimal: a grape destemmer/crusher to liberate the juice from the fruit, stainless-steel vessels for primary fermentation, and oak barrels for conditioning. However, any space given to winemaking would have had to be taken from the tasting room—the brewery’s most valuable asset. Instead of bringing all that new gear in-house, Koga turned to a friend at Windchaser Wine in Berkeley, California. Koga uses Windchaser’s facility to crush the fruit, and much of the fermentation also occurs there.
The relationship not only provides access to equipment and space but also to knowledge. Working with an experienced winemaker allows Koga to learn on the job, getting those tips and tricks that you only pick up from an expert.
That’s a model Barebottle had used before—for coffee.
Beans & ’Booch: Non-Alcoholic Options
As Barebottle’s tasting room gained popularity, the team expanded its hours of operation—first from a few days a week to all seven; then the opening times lengthened, too. Soon, the tasting room was opening in the morning for travelers stopping by for beer to-go.
Koga had experimented with home-roasted coffee beans in the past, and he decided to bring coffee under the Barebottle umbrella. However, coffee-roasting equipment is either sized for batches of a couple of pounds at a time, or else it requires huge, expensive, dedicated roasters. So, Koga turned to the co-location idea, and to Berkeley’s CoRo coffee-roasting facility that provides hourly rentals of commercial-scale equipment.
“I love the experimentation of it and the immediate gratification,” Koga says about roasting coffee, which takes only about nine minutes compared to the weeks or months for finished beer and wine. The staff brew freshly roasted beans in the Barebottle tasting room for the daytime co-working crowd. Sodas of Koga’s design and house-made kombucha round out the brewery’s non-alcoholic offerings.
Kombucha—the fermented tea that’s gone from health-food specialty to widely available soft drink—is an increasingly common way for brewers to go beyond beer. The drink is first brewed like tea and sweetened before a “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast”—known as a SCOBY—is added. The SCOBY’s yeasts ferment the sugars in the tea while bacteria metabolize most of the ethanol produced, creating the acetic acid that gives kombucha its signature tang. It’s a process easily adapted to the brewery—pro or home—and kombucha (even “hard” kombucha, with an ABV greater than 0.5 percent) can be made under a brewery license.
At Sage Bistro and Brewery in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, brewer Kimberly Rice makes kombucha for all four of the restaurant’s locations around Southern California. The hard version, called Boozy Booch, often outsells the house beers. “We couldn’t keep up with the demand,” she says.
Originally, they brewed it on a one-barrel pilot system, fermenting it in dedicated wine tanks. But to keep up with to-go orders during the pandemic, Rice scaled up. She moved the kombucha-making to the brewpub’s five-barrel system, dedicating a 10-barrel cylindroconical to its fermentation. She also transitioned from a typical SCOBY fermentation to the use of an acidifier—basically, a mature kombucha that’s developed intense levels of acetic acid. It still has all the necessary microorganisms of the SCOBY, but it lacks the cellulite structure that gives the SCOBY its gelatinous form. This speeds up production time and increases the consistency of the product.
The Boozy Booch goes through a two-week primary fermentation and is re-dosed with sugar, taking another 10 to 14 days in secondary to hit about 6 percent ABV. The only other equipment required is a place to store the mother SCOBYs, of which there are a selection with different “personalities.” Rice calls her solution the “SCOBY hotels”: two-barrel stainless fermentors from Blichmann. She labels each with the name of the SCOBY, plus sensory and quantitative notes from recent batches (and, maybe, the occasional affirmation to keep the SCOBY in a good mood).
“It’s been a learning process,” Rice says, “a lot of trial, a lot of error.” Finding good information about the process on a commercial scale is one area of kombucha brewing that’s more difficult than brewing beer. There isn’t the same culture of knowledge sharing and collaboration in the kombucha space as there is in the brewing world, and the kombucha community isn’t as organized and connected as brewers tend to be.
More than a Brewery
When I speak to brewers about pushing into these new realms, the search for more capability and new methods is a theme that surfaces often.
They may have the facility and the equipment to make soda, or wine, or kombucha, but the knowhow lags behind the capacity. When you’re running a business and trying to keep up with demand for core offerings, the seemingly simple task of research—and acquiring the necessary skills to make something new—is a difficult obstacle to overcome.
I don’t run into a lot of underworked brewers. But the rewards of expanding beyond beer, and retaining customers who are not beer drinkers, can outweigh the extra work and extra equipment required. No business owner wants to leave money on the table, and no brewer wants anyone to leave their tasting room thirsty.
This article originally appeared in the April-May 2021 issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®.