Small Beers Brewing from Cismontane
By Evan Weinberg
Co-Owners of Cismontane, Ross Stewart and Evan Weinberg (photo – Nagel)
It’s not often we do something different as brewers these days. With so many brands and everyone trying to push the envelope of sour, hoppy, high gravity, barrel aged, cloudy and whatever else captures the attention of the consumer, it’s hard to keep up. Shit, it’s hard to care. This may be an artifact of us being a “transitional” brewery in size and tenure.
We aren’t the new kid on the block, we aren’t rich, we don’t have branding, a beer or a tasting room that blown up on the beer scene. This makes us both vulnerable and a bit more stable at the same time. Strange but true. For instance: All the new brands will chip away at our handles because everyone always wants the shiny new toy on tap. We aren’t quite big enough to enjoy volume insulation by having permanent handles, inexpensive packaged beer to keep volume, and multiple sales reps on the ground to keep our foot in the door of accounts with constantly changing lineups. On the other hand we aren’t doing this from scratch, we have accounts that do support us no matter what, and have since the beginning, some chain account merchandised through our distribution partners, and enough volume to keep the lights on. This along with a host of other issues like lacking economies of scale and having a wholesale to retail ratio that is skewed to the much lower margin is what makes us what I like to think of as “transitional” small brewery. We are on the larger end of the “long tail” of the beer world. This is the plight of the small brewer. We know it better than most.
This is part of what inspired this brewing project. The other part of that was having to brew again, A LOT. One of our brewers was hired away from the company so I had to step into the brew house again. It wasn’t a ton of brewing but, I had the mash paddle back in hand. It felt good. Nothing like climbing in a Mash Tun at 120 degrees and 100% humidity to remind you what you like about this job. We were cranking our core beers, some seasonal, and a few specialties here and there. Then came the next phase in my brewing schedule. It was brewing D-day. By that I mean “Dad day”, our head brewer, Scott Holden, had a new baby. This is the point when I embarked on a three week brewing marathon that resulted in creating what I like to call Small Beers Brewing.
A bit on Small Beers: Small beers are a style that most people don’t know about. This is because most brewers just don’t make them. It can be a fair amount of extra work and unfamiliar territory. Generally, made from the second runnings of a very strong beer’s mash. Small beers typically end up lower alcohol and are traditionally simple flavor-wise. To clarify, the runnings are the liquid that comes off the grain (or grist or mash – depending what term makes sense to you) into the kettle that will be boiled to make a beer. The second runnings are the liquid leftover in the mash once you get what’s needed for the beer you were intending to brew. If that beer is very strong the second running can be strong enough to make a beer with an ABV anywhere between 3% – 5% pretty easily. I find that we get about 2/3 of the total volume of the primary with the seconds. I know what you are thinking, “No one wants to drink a 3% beer in this market. Didn’t you read your first paragraph?” Yes, your average consumer wants bigger, badder and funkier but, I (and many beer vets I know) want to drink 3% and 4% beers! We are burned out on over hyped and pallet smashing whatever’s. This doesn’t mean we aren’t thirsty as the next guy! When I have a beer after a hot and exhausting brew shift, I drink that fist beer in about 30 seconds!
Speaking of hot and exhausting, let’s get back to the brewing marathon… our brewery is set up as a manual brewing beast. Every bag of grain is lifted multiple times on a brew day. When you brew a beer that has 1,000 pounds of grain you lift it at least 2 times not including taking it out of the mash tun. If you brew a double shift it turns into about 4,000 pounds of lifting, two hot-ass grain outs, 14–16 hours on your feet, a steamy sauna like kettle scrub, and ice cold beer at the finish line! Oh, and if you are doing it again the next day you have to mill all that grain so pick up every bag 2 more times! Two doubles back to back and you are lifting 8,000lbs!
To add insult to injury, when we brew Double IPA or Imperial Stout the amount of grain is the max we can use in the brewhouse and for double IPA you have to brew an extra batch to get the volume up. Not cool! That’s when I looked at the schedule and there it was, 30 barrels of Imperial Stout and 45 barrels of DIPA. Shit.
I got wise…. by brewing small a beer I could turn my 14 hour day into a 12 hour day, brew almost as much beer (Small beers have less volume) and only mash in once! Not to mention I get 2 different beers out of each mash!
Keep in mind this didn’t exactly make my work load lighter, it added 45 bbls to the production schedule and about 2 full shifts of labor. What it did was spread the heavy lifting out, add volume with no new grain or water, give me a chance to have some fun making beers other brewers pour down the drain (as do we most of the time) and use my equipment in ways I never get to use it. For me this is what it is all about! Creativity with the brewing process.
The first beer I made was Hop Dumpster. This is a 1400lbs grist monster of a brew day. The Small beer, which on the brew sheet is called “Small Dump”, is blond as can be, about 10bbls in volume was going to come in around 4.8% ABV! I decide it would be best to dry hop it to the beeeeeJesus with Mosaic and Simcoe! That would hold true to the fact that it came from a DIPA. For the final name… Hoppy Seconds. Ya, it’s crass, so what, we aren’t the first to use it. Also, that ties the name in with Hop Dumpster and the fact that it is in fact brewed from the second running, it’s perfect. So take your prissy, my turds smell like roses attitude and have a boring ass life with no sense of humor. (Thanks to Jordan Smith the originator of Hop Dumpster for being gross, and for me in allowing him to use company money to tap into his lowest self, XOXO). Boom, 3 days and 70 barrels later. I felt alive again.
Next beer(s). Black’s Dawn Imperial Oatmeal Stout with Coffee on Nitro. It’s a mouthful of a name and at 8.5% the same when you drink it! Love this beer. The grain bill isn’t quite as brutal as the Dumpster but still a significant deal more work that a 5%er. The second running was about 9bbls and the finished beer about 3.7% ABV. The color and aroma were the most interesting factor of this beer. Black’s is, well, black. The small beer was a dark brown, almost black but has an incredible clarity. The roasted notes on the nose are brilliant and very unique for a beer of this gravity and color. I know this will not be for everyone but I really love the complexity and depth. No point in adding anything to this puppy. Now what to call it…. No coffee, no nitro, and it’s not black… hmmmm… Side of Toast! Black’s is a coffee beer dedicated to early morning surfs at Black’s Beach in La Jolla, who does’t want a side of toast with their coffee?! 50 more barrels and done!
By the end of week three I was pretty fried, my last brew day was a Saturday if I remember correctly. I had another event that Sunday and then Scott called, “Dude, I have to come back to work. I’m going nuts”. Thank god I thought, and proceeded to sleep for three days.
I hope you enjoyed the story. Now come one down and enjoy the beers! We will be tapping them both this weekend at both tasting rooms.
Official Release: 10/15/2016 this Saturday at opening!