We spoke with two brewers about what they’ve learned from brewing with specialty ingredients and what special measures they take to ensure that the ingredients stay as fresh as possible.
Working with Fruits and Nuts
Travis Camacho, Barrel Program Manager, Drake’s Brewing Company, San Leandro, California
At Drake’s, we try to get most of the ingredients we’re going to use as fresh as possible and use it right away. We use a lot of fruits, and we’re lucky when we can source them fresh and locally from the valley. Depending on the recipe, we try to start processing whole fruit as quickly as possible, but sometimes it can take a few days to process, so we have to be on the lookout for anything that doesn’t look good and then toss it.
We know it’s not always an option to use fresh fruit right away. For instance, we make a barrel-aged beer called Cult of the Sun with yuzu fruit and Buddha’s hand (fingered citron). The flavors go really well together, but the fruits aren’t harvested at the same time. In addition, both of these fruits, as with other exotic fruits, can be hard to find. So just for this beer, we invested in a few medium-sized chest freezers that let us hold onto the fruits for long periods of time and even use the ingredients year-round.
From May to August, we get in the Buddha’s hand, we process it, and then we vacuum seal it in bags and store it in the freezers. That works because the fruit shreds easily and stores really well until we’re ready to use it (typically up to 4 months), and it tastes great. We just add it to the beer with the yuzu when that’s ready. We have used nuts, and with those you need to be careful. They are a lot like coffee. It’s not that they necessarily will go bad or moldy, but with the oils, they will go rancid pretty quickly, so you want to make sure they don’t get too much oxygen while you’re waiting to use them. We like to get them minimally processed so we can do the chopping and roasting ourselves.
You need to spend time learning about the ingredients. For us, coconut is a perfect example of that. You can buy coconut already shredded and toasted, but it might not give you what you want. Once you realize that it’s not that hard to toast coconut yourself, you can get the exact flavor that you want. It takes patience and time, but the end result of doing it right and treating the ingredients right is worth it. The bottom line is that you want to make sure you treat everything well. You want to be cognizant of how you store and care for these ingredients because often they aren’t cheap. And we like to control as much of the processing as possible.
The biggest thing for me is the relationship with the suppliers. That’s really what most of my job is. I’ve been in charge of the barrel program for 4 years, and I’ve grown the program from the ground up. Because we want everything fresh, being top of mind with people is important. A lot of the ingredients that have gone into the beers have come from going around, meeting people, and making friends with winemakers, farmers, and coffee companies. It can be something as simple as telling folks you’re on the lookout for a specialty barrel or just asking what is exciting in their world.
Working with Coffee and Cocoa
Jordan Schupach, Director of Brewing Operations, Epic Brewing Company,
Salt Lake City, Utah
Here at Epic, we’ve learned a lot from brewing Big Bad Baptist and its variants such as Double Barrel and Big Bad Baptista when it comes to coffee and cocoa. It used to be these beers were annual, but now we do some of them year-round.
When it comes to the coffee, we have local roasters who crush the beans for us because we don’t have the specialty equipment for that or the means to store all that coffee fresh. So we have to work closely with them to make sure we’re getting things on time and that we’re ready with the beer when the coffee comes in.
It’s all about time management. We don’t want the coffee around for more than 3 weeks, 4 at the most. And because of the amount of coffee we use, we couldn’t manage that if we didn’t have the relationship we do with our local roaster.
One of the fun challenges is when we barrel age our own coffee. We have Blue Copper, our coffee partner, roast up a batch. Then we split the batch and add half to a wet whiskey barrel. Every 2 weeks, we take a small portion of the beans out and roast them: When they start to smell a bit like banana bread, that’s what we want. Then we take the beans out, grind them, and store the ground coffee in those bags with the one-way valve to make sure no unnecessary oxygen is getting into the coffee. It’s a method that works for us, and over time, as we add the ground coffee to the batches of beer, you can taste a slight difference between the first batch of coffee we use and the last, but it’s not something that most people notice.
When it comes to cocoa, we do cuppings, just as you would with coffee. You’re able to really taste the different nuances and roasts and better picture how it will relate to the beer. That kind of sensory analysis is really important with every ingredient. The ability to put a magnifying glass to every part of the process—specialty ingredients included—makes all the difference in the world.
We’ve learned a lot over the years using all kinds of ingredients, but perhaps the biggest lesson is sanitation. We can never forget that these are food products and that proper handling is very important. When brewing beers like these, we need to think of the facility not only as a brewery but also as a food-handling plant.