This part two of a two part story
It’s an obvious statement but one that still is worth making: craft beer has tipped and not just in popularity. It is a Thing now, with expectations and pro- and con- sides and subcultures and vanguards. It has become part of our culture in a way very few things have in the last 50 years. This presents a particular challenge for new breweries, one that wasn’t an issue for breweries opening even five years ago: defining a style.
There was a time until recently where brewers had the luxury of throwing beers on tap until they discovered what stuck. This is still possible at some level with some business plans, especially in areas where the population to brewer ratio is significant enough to support it. Rubber Soul, however, has a novel approach and a novel problem. It will rely much more heavily on distribution right from the beginning. Moreover, according to brewer Jesse Prall, Rubber Soul will begin canning almost immediately, using 32-ouncers and a hand canner to produce early batches, and maybe later and special batches, depending upon demand.
A different kind of lucky
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles on the matter, Jesse is among the rare birds who started as a professional brewer and made his way into homebrewing after years in the business. Part of this was the Wild West nature of the industry: there was plenty of opportunity to exercise his brewing creativity at Dogfish Head, but part of it was the nature of brewing as a legitimate business. It hasn’t been something he aspired to do, so much as it has been what he does.
From those two points of view, Jesse is among the luckiest of the new batch of beer entrepreneurs. He already has brewed 60-plus hour weeks professionally; he already has dealt with productions snafus and ingredient shortages and battling with salespeople and distributors. In short, Jesse is familiar with the part of the brewing business that still takes new brewers by surprise. He doesn’t have any false expectations and understands the challenges he’ll face as a new small brewery from a very practical point of view. What he’s reacquainting himself with is the fun part of brewing.
He’s been involved in scaling up beers at Dogfish Head, so making large batches from small recipes isn’t going to be a problem. What will be interesting is his ability to make small recipes from notions.
Two lemmas, no problem
Among the craft subculture are people who like to try out the test batches at the brewery, people who want to be able to talk about having tried beers that, for one reason or another, never made it to market or were (for some reason) renamed or reformulated. Jesse said he wasn’t taking too many big chances on his distribution beers. His Amber will be Amber-flavored, as will his IPA and his Shandy (although the Shandy is novel in its existence at all). In all, Rubber Soul expects to open with five headliner beers and grow or shrink from there.
In a world of increasingly educated consumers, making straightforward beers for restaurant distribution is a great bet. Providing the waitstaff and bartenders with a solid beer to recommend will, by its nature, increase recommendations. In the brewhouse, however, Jesse will be able to take chances in a way that people expect. And it is this, as much as anything else, that separates the newer breweries from the older ones, and puts Jesse in a particular position.
While there is no question that tourists and locals alike walk into Dogfish Head and order a 60 Minute or into Evo and order a Lot 3, exclusivity is the reason people visit small local breweries. Five years ago, the common exchange between a patron and the bartender at a craft brewery was, “What kind of beer do you have?” People know the answer now without asking; instead they want to know what’s new or what’s different.
Rubber Soul is well appointed with room to grow and the sense to please both aspects of the emerging craft beer market.