The Beer Comes First (usually)

We have a saying around here, “The Beer Comes First”. This was an oft-cited mantra during startup, when we were in the throes of trying to open, with a million things to worry about. There was the website, our communication plan, staffing, merchandise sales, what music to play, how to handle account sales, how to handle accounting, etc. Then there was the beer: Are we proud of our opening lineup of beers, and are we ready to keep making more? Are they true to their styles, and are they flavorful and without flaws? All of the above items were important, but The Beer Comes First (TBCF). We will forgive ourselves if we don’t have a website on opening day, if we don’t staff adequately, if we have unforeseen circumstances force us to close the tap room early (and all of these things did happen); that’s okay, as long as we manage to get the beer right.

Looking back, this mantra was critical for us. Perhaps it allowed us to overlook details that we should have noticed – for example, it would have been nice to have the website in order on opening day. But, we were willing to live with some mistakes because the alternative – insisting on perfection in every aspect – would have made us go insane.

Since then, we’ve gotten our house a little more orderly. TBCF is still used, but its meaning has changed. Rather than an excuse to ignore responsibilities, it’s a mandate to put the quality of our product above all other concerns. Let’s say we have a beer that’s almost ready to sell – it could benefit from another two days in the tank, but an account is demanding it now. If we rush the beer, we might degrade its quality. If we don’t, we lose a tap handle. Maybe we lose multiple tap handles. Maybe it is a horrible commercial decision to wait on the beer. But, TBCF. Decision made!

Just to prove to you how much we put the product first, we even mash in extra slow! Here’s a clip from yesterday in real time:


But is it really that simple? Does TBCF have practical limitations? Say, for example, that we’ve got a bunch of 2016 crop year hops, whereas the newest available hops are 2017 crop year. If, instead of using the hops we have, we bought the newer crop to use in our next batch, there is a chance that the beer will taste slightly better. The cost is a certainty – sell the old hops and buy the new hops at a higher price, plus transaction fees, plus the time involved; and the benefit is uncertain – the beer might (but probably won’t) be improved. Crunching the numbers, it would be very, very difficult to justify the expense of buying these hops. But, TBCF, right? Are we not duty-bound to buy the hops, commercial interests be damned? Wouldn’t it be insulting to the product and to our profession to do otherwise, just for the despicable, worldly reason of saving money? Isn’t this precisely what separates us from Big Beer? In fact, if we don’t do it, aren’t we even worse than Big Beer for being hypocrites?

The answer to all of this is disappointingly mundane: As with most principles, TBCF does indeed have practical limitations that we should not ignore. It does not prevail over every other interest without discrimination or qualification. On second thought, that means that TBCF doesn’t constitute a Principle, but rather it holds the lesser, unholy designation of an Interest. So, if we’re being honest, we ought to change our guiding principle from TBCF to, “We have an interest in making sure TBCF”. How lame does that sound?

There’s a narrative that [Insert awesome brewery here] puts their product above everything else, and has no commercial concerns. One of my favorite breweries, Reuben’s Brews, is a great example – they boast that every beer is designed to be as delicious as it can possibly be, with no constraints. Whereas other breweries make beers using what’s available to them (which hops are in the cooler, what grain is in the silo, etc.), they start from a blank canvas, specify what ingredients and process would maximize the beer’s deliciousness, and then, by all means, make it happen. And, damn, if their beers don’t back this story up! They are the best example I’ve seen of TBCF in action.

Adam (Reubens’ co-owner) is a true inspiration to me – he is a recovering accountant who recognizes the evils of “efficiencies”¹. There are measures you can take that make life easier in some way at the expense of an infinitely small, unnoticeable sacrifice in product quality. But, add up a few of these measures and your change in quality becomes noticeable. And, worse, by allowing these changes, you’re signaling to yourself and your staff that the product’s quality may be compromised to a degree. Next thing you know, you’re running a business of trying to make a product as cheaply and efficiently as possible – you’re competing with Big Beer at their own game. Best to avoid these endeavors altogether by taking a hard line: TBCF, zero tolerance!

As much as Reuben’s exemplifies TBCF, I am sure there is still a practical limitation. Would they ever throw a half-bag of German Pilsner malt in as a substitute for 5% of a recipe’s Belgian Pilsner malt (two almost-identical ingredients)? If they did it by accident, would they dump the batch? If so, I give up. I’m not worthy. But I’m going to assume that, on occasion, they do compromise. And actually, the narrative that some breweries refuse to compromise product is really an approximation: These breweries do compromise, but they  do so on rare occasion with minimal impact.

Our objective is to put the beer first in as many instances as we possibly can. We try to foster an environment that encourages it. We have more tank capacity and brewing capacity than we need, so if a batch needs to sit longer than planned or get dumped, there’s not a rippling effect throughout our business. Like Reuben’s, we don’t have a house malt or a house yeast and we have few contracted hops, so we have maximum flexibility on choice of ingredients. Our overhead is low: we don’t have a bank note, loaned or leased equipment, we’re in a small space, and we have 1 full-time employee; thus, keeping the lights on is not the driving factor in very many decisions. We strive to maintain a lean, flexible operation with a strong balance sheet, and this affords us the ability to put the beer first with very little compromise.

And when we must compromise, we must not take it lightly. If we have those 2016 hops, and they were stored properly, we’re going to use them, because it is unlikely to impact the beer, and any such impact would be very minor. But we don’t do it without careful consideration: How can we mitigate this – perhaps we can add a slightly larger quantity to compensate for potentially reduced aroma? Perhaps we could use these earlier in the boil and bring in newer hops to dry hop? Then, how can we prevent this from happening again? How can we ensure that this year’s crop gets used this year? And finally, let’s remind ourselves that compromises such as this must be the exception rather than the norm. Maybe we should even give ourselves a few lashings to make the point (and a good Instagram post).

The phrase “craft beer” has become loaded: it often starts arguments about, “Is [insert beer here] really craft?”. The meaning is often debated, although the most official definition is stewarded by the Brewers Association. Like most brewers and beer enthusiasts, I have my own definition of craft beer: A craft brewery is one whose objective is to maximize the quality of its product². There’s nothing wrong with the objective of maximizing profit, which many businesses (and, by definition, all public corporations) have, but a brewery with this objective cannot simultaneously have the objective of maximizing the quality of its product. Craft brewers, on the other hand, strive to put the beer first as often as possible³.

TBCF is not above compromise, but I firmly believe that the frequency and nature of such compromises is precisely what defines us as craftsmen. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to almost always putting the beer first.

¹There’s an excellent interview with Rueben’s by Good Beer Hunting from December 2017 here.

²This is not exclusive to the stuff inside the can. In my opinion, the product includes the entire experience, including the story, the art, etc.

³I’m not saying that profit is irrelevant or unimportant. It’s necessary for survival. But it need not be the objective, just as the objective of living is not to maximize oxygen intake.

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