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Q & A with Yards Quality Assurance Brewer Frank Winslow

Alex Fossi, January 08, 2014 -   

I was lucky enough recently to get to speak to Frank Winslow, one of the brewers over at Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia. He currently works as Yards' director of quality control, so he was able to give me some insight into what goes on behind the scenes as a brewery tries to bring the highest-quality beers to the table. He also gave me some previews of upcoming expansions to the brewery and new beers they're excited about releasing in 2014. Without further ado, here's what he had to say!

Q. How long have you been at Yards? How did you get into the brewing business?

A.  I've been at Yards since 2007. I worked for Flying Fish and Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant before that. Before brewing I was doing Cancer, HIV, and Anthrax research. I enjoyed it, but I found I always had more of a passion for beer and brewing.

Q. What's your role at the brewery? What does a quality assurance brewer do?

A. It's my job to ensure the quality of all of the beers that Yards produces. I take care of everything from testing ingredients and materials as they come in, to following up with packaged beer testing months after it has gone out of code to make sure it maintained desired specifications throughout its shelf-life. The bulk of my job is testing beers along the process to make sure there are no problems before we package and release them, but I also help trouble-shoot as issues arise along the way. I work with the departments to adjust their process, catch and fix equipment issues, and improve and develop recipes. I also do a little R&D on the side with new ideas like gluten-free products, sour beers, and sustainability initiatives at the brewery.

Q. Do you get involved with distribution/planning at all?

A. Other than making sure the beer will stand up in transit and once it reaches the market, I try to keep out of those sorts of decisions. I am pushing to get beer into North Carolina where I've still got a lot of friends and family, though. At the end of the day, it's still Tom's brewery, so I'll leave distribution up to him and the sales team.

Q. I understand you work in the lab a bit -- what kind of work do you do there?

A. I used to work in cancer research and diagnostic research labs, but it's a little different here. In our lab at the brewery I'll be looking at different ingredients, evaluating test batches, and so on. [Note: Frank showed me the relatively small lab he's in now, but they're working on a brewery expansion which will include a pretty substantial increase in lab space, as well as some new equipment to improve their testing capabilities.]

Currently, we’re testing a lot of the basics like the pH, carbonation, gravity (sugar concentration), dissolved oxygen levels, and colors of the beer. We even just got our hands on a little gizmo that will allow us to check the carbonation, oxygen content, and even the nitrogen content of a beer all at the same time to help us with nitrogenated beers like Love Stout. With the expansion, I am hoping to be able to begin testing for more specific chemistries like the flavor-active molecule diacetyl (a flavor that is natural to fermentation, but in high concentrations can make a beer taste like buttered popcorn). I’ve also got plans to streamline our cell-counting abilities with more automation to improve our control over fermentations. I’d really just like to improve the accuracy and efficiency of the measurements we are taking, and continue to add to that list as we are able. One great example is simply updating our spectrophotometer. Our current machine is so art deco it looks like it came from one of those old gangster cars in the 30’s…I mean it’s ancient. The new one just arrived, though, so I’ll sell you one if you need it.

Q. How has the Philadelphia craft beer scene changed in the past decade?

A. Philadelphia has had a really great brewing scene for many years. Over the last 10 years it has been great to watch the craft brewers that started back in the mid-90's really grow into industry leaders. With inspiration from breweries like Yuengling and The Lion that have been around forever, Philly was already ahead of the game when the craft beer movement began. That, and aided by great venues like Monk's and Bridgid's that provided exposure to a wide array of beers, I think the stage was set for the beer scene to explode. Looking at the places opening today, we seem to have gone from bars with one craft tap handle that rotated, to bars that only have one premium lager tap. The best part about it is that the breweries all tend to share the wealth and help each other out. From what I've seen, that's not necessarily true in other markets.

Q. People talk about a craft beer "bubble" -- have you guys noticed any changes in the field with so many new breweries popping up every year?

A. I would say that the market has definitely become more competitive, but that if there is a "bubble" building, we've got a long way to go before it bursts. As long as you're bringing a good product to market, the people are thirsty.

Q. Any thoughts on the copyright disputes that are popping up more and more in the brewing industry? There was a case with Tired Hands out in Ardmore (about a half hour away from Yards) where they were asked to stop using the name "Farm Hands" for one of their saisons, even though that's a fairly generic term with saisons.

A. You have more breweries, more beers now -- there's a finite number of ways to put words together. You have to protect your trademark but you also feel for a small brewery that's not looking to send their beer far from home. Honestly, it'll probably continue to get worse, but hopefully breweries can find good ways to resolve their issues -- look at Collaboration Not Litigation, for example. [Note: for those unfamiliar with Collaboration Not Litigation, check out this link for info]

Q. What's the process of creating a new beer like at Yards?  Do you guys throw out a lot of recipes for each one that actually makes it to the market?

A. It's different for every beer. Generally, we'll make a few test batches of a beer before we get a final product.  We all contribute, but Tom's still calling the shots -- most beers start off as his ideas. He'll give us an idea or a flavor profile to shoot for and we'll figure out how best to get there. As far as throwing recipes out, we don't often throw out an idea entirely. We'd rather tweak it and figure out a way to make it better, make it more like what we were envisioning.

Q. When you're putting together a new beer, do you usually start with a style in mind, or do you determine what label a beer should have at the end?

A. We don't brew to style. Take Pynk for example. It has sour and lambic characteristics as far as the taste goes, but it's not really either of those styles. So what would you call that? We made it with brettanomyces in the past, but our new version doesn't those yeasts, even though the final product has some similar characteristics. We have an idea of what we're going for with a beer, and we're more interested in nailing that than fitting any particular style.

Q. Do you use data from Untappd, BeerAdvocate, or other similar sites when you're making decisions about what beers to make and where to send them? Do you find user review data to be a useful tool for evaluating your beers?

A. We don't look at those that much, and probably should pay more attention to them, but we do use a lot of in-house information. We generally know what we're shooting for with a beer, so we're not going to modify that too much based on web reviews. We make a lot of beers that aren't necessarily the most popular styles, low ABV beers especially. Our Philadelphia Pale Ale is 4.6%, and Brawler is also relatively low, so we expect a certain degree of opposition to that. If there is a beer that's getting poor ratings, we'll be hearing about that from people and look into where there might be a problem. We really appreciate input from drinkers, both positive and negative. Every case and every bottle has its own code so people can call in and tell us specifically what bottle they're drinking so we can figure out if there's an issue with a particular batch or series of bottles. Everyone has opinions about how a beer should taste, but I, at least, am more concerned with making sure that you're getting our beers as we intended, with no problems or flavor issues.

Q. I was looking at the beers on the Philly scene and it seems like we're far less IPA-centric than a lot of West Coast cities. Obviously you have your Yards IPA, and Cape of Good Hope (which is referred to as an "epic ale") would fall somewhere on the pale ale/IPA spectrum, but compared to breweries like Stone or Green Flash it seems like you guys are working on more non-IPA projects. Is that an intentional decision on your part to have more of a Philly identity or are those just the beers that you guys feel the best about?

A. With Cape of Good Hope, we call that an "epic ale" because we didn't want to lock it in to any particular style -- it's a beer that is designed to highlight the hops, so we use different recipes every year to make the best beer possible around the hops we're using. This year it's a double IPA, but last year it was an Imperial Red and next year who knows. Our Ales of the Revolution series is less hoppy because we use historical recipes, and since hops were hard to get (or entirely unavailable) they were historically not that focused on them. We really believe that hops aren't all there is to beer, so we try to highlight other aspects as well. 

Besides, Philly drinkers demand a lot more variety in their beers. In the bars you’ll find everything from the West Coast hop-bombs to old-world, European styles. I think Philly drinks more Belgian beers than any other city in the world outside Belgium. Obviously, we want to have variety and balance in the brands we offer, too. Since the beginning, our Extra Special Ale was designed to emulate ales with an English character, and even though it's not the hoppiest, we're pretty happy with the beer and the reception it's received over the years.

Q. Any additions to the Yards lineup coming soon?

A. Old Bart is back this year, but that’s not an addition, per se. We're working on a rye that will come out in the beginning of January sometime -- that will be a hoppy, rye ale. Cicada just came out in September and is one of the newest additions to our line of 750mL bottles.  It's made with a lot of local ingredients, including local honey; it's a cleaner Belgian-style pale ale, a little bit darker than most IPAs, and uses an experimental hop from the Hopsteiner breeding program that doesn't actually have a name yet. We’ve also been working with the folks at La Colombe to create small batches of Coffee Love Stout, so keep your eyes peeled for that. We'll definitely continue to try new ideas on Yards 1, the original Yards brew house. Those will be available around the city, but definitely in the Tasting Room. I also just got clearance for a hush-hush sour project. We'll see what happens with that over the long haul.

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