When starting out a new brewery most people assume the best thing to do is to get your product to marketed as fast as possible. Adroit Theory Brewing Company out of Purcellville, VA is taking a different approach. They have developed a public taste testing system to develop and refine their beers before coming to market -- currently on track for a late fall 2013 opening. I was able to catch up with CEO Mark Osborne to discuss their strategy and breaking into the complicated, even overcrowded, world of craft beer.
As a taste tester I know you use Untappd and surveys for feedback from everything from the label and packaging to the actual beer. Here at BeerGraphs, we use the Untappd data to develop our rating system and conduct our research. How to you use the data you receive from Untappd and how does it influence the actual beers you produce?
Mark Osborne: At the end of the day we are going to do whatever we want to do, but we do look at it. I do look at Untappd both from a consumer perspective and a business perspective. I use it as a consumer. Every time I have a beer, I rate it, take a picture of it, and upload it. That’s one of the reasons I like Untappd. But from the business side I can’t believe the other businesses out there that don't post label art, the descriptions, the IBUs, and everything on there. People are using it so you might as well get out in front of it.
We look at feedback every couple of days; we log on to see who drank what and what they rated it. We also look at our own survey, which is obviously more important due to the specific questions we ask just about the beer: What do you think about the label? What do you think about the name? Where as with Untappd, the feedback is normally just, “This beer is awesome, four stars.” If you go to our website right now, you’ll see it‘s a piece of crap. But we are actually in the process of building out a website and are planning on using the Untappd API to tie in with each beer so when you go to the beer description page you would have a list of who drank it on Untappd and what they rated it.
It seems like that's a no brainer right there to get who is actually drinking it and seeing the people around you drinking it.
Osborne: Exactly. Firestone Walker I know does that and it’s just really cool. We are super small so it isn't going to have the constant check-ins like Firestone Walker, where thousands of people are checking into your beer every hour. Maybe one day. But in the short run, I think it's cool to get other people's comments and feedback up rather have to log in to a ratings website to see what people are saying about the beer. With Untappd, if someone rates a beer and creates a beer with a different name we can go in on the admin side and consolidate the reviews and correct the beer information. We can also interact with the reviewers as the comments are being made.
You actually did that to my post with the cork on Sacrificial Ram and you got right back to me. That thing was evil.
Osborne: When we made our first beers we didn't do cork and cage. It was with bottle caps and for the first batch we sent out, about a third of them leaked so people were upset and wanted more beer. The reality was we only made 100 beers and that was it. You’d have to wait two months for another run. So when we did that first cork, we made sure they were in there. There was no chance of leaking at all.
The Evil Cork
You seem to be going a totally different route than many other local breweries, is that something you saw due to industry trends, a niche for the specialty beers you have been producing?
Osborne: Yes and no. Yes, in that I'm looking at everyone else and everyone is making the same beer. They make an IPA, they make a Pale Ale and a Brown Ale. Unless you are the top dog, unless you literally have the best IPA, why are you competing with what everyone else is doing? You might as well make something that not everyone is making or take a different spin or twist on it. We said, listen, if you want an IPA go to Lost Rhino they make a great one. We want to make beer that is not being made or do a different take on it. That is definitely part of our strategy.
Then the other part of it is that the only way to make any money in this business is to scale up very quickly and we don’t want to do that. We want to be more hands on, more artisanal, and to take some of the risk out of it. I would much rather make one barrel of a weird quirky thing and sell that and call it a day versus 100 barrels of something that is just a total train wreck and I can't sell it. We want to take it slow. We know we are going to run out of beer, just based on how much demand, “likes,” and followers we have so far. When we finally open, it’s going zoo there in the beginning but we want to build our fan base. We will buy a bigger system later, expand later, and do all those things and maybe one day we will be as big as Lost Rhino or Port City. In the mean time we are not interested in that. We want to make the best beer we can make, package it as cool as we can, and sell it just to the people that would appreciate it.
Adroit Theory seems to be very much inspired by Lost Abbey, from the size and shape of your bottles to your attitude regarding how and why you are making your beer. Is this something that influenced you and are there any other breweries that helped shape what you wanted to do as a business?
Osborne: Without a doubt Lost Abbey had a huge influence. We use their exact bottles and the artwork is similar. I’m not trying to copy them, but they are a huge inspiration. Another inspiration for us is Jester King who does a ton of just weird stuff and it’s all barrel aged. Another influence is 3 Floyds, the artwork and the crazy concepts. Those are the breweries we look up to and try to emulate. I'm not saying we are even remotely close to what they’re doing because they’re obviously well established and are just doing word class stuff. But that is definitely the direction we want to head in.
Jester King is very well known for putting out excellent sours. Is this something you would like to do?
Osborne: In the future, definitely, but in the short term, definitely not. There is just too much risk. Maybe when get a little bit bigger we can get the dedicated area just for a sour program. There is just so much else we can do with barrels that I don’t think we need to go down that path at this time. I don't want to pull a Blue Mountain and have all kinds of infection problems.
What influenced you to get into the craft brewing business? What was your personal gateway beer that got you into craft beer?
Osborne: For me it was a three-step process. At first in college it was just drink everything that was around. But I had an opportunity to do a study abroad in England and that is where I got exposed to cask-conditioned beer and really got a taste for it. I really liked that even though it was low-alcohol it had a great flavor profile. Once I got back from England I started drinking the quasi-micro stuff and found Fat Tire, which really opened my eyes.
But what ultimately pushed me over the edge was when my wife took me to Stoudt's in Pennsylvania about five years ago. We were there drinking beers and we sat next to a guy and started chatting him up. He just lambasted us for not drinking local beers, not drinking fresh, and it turned out to be Ed Stoudt, the owner of the brewery. So we stayed there for hours and hours and he really motivated us to seek out local, fresh craft beer. For the next five years we traveled in our RV visiting breweries and buying everything we could buy and just lived the lifestyle of sampling craft beer.
Follow me on twitter @rhefter and on untappd: rhefter