Beer Week, Seen From the Brew Kettle

Eno Sarris, February 23, 2015

Last week, I emailed with the Head Brewer Jeff Hillebrandt at Abandon Brewing Company in Penn Yann, New York. Situated in the old farmhouse you see above, Abandon is a geothermally powered brewery in the middle of a working fruit farm in New York's finger lakes region. Since Jeff wrote so eloquently of beer week from a different perspective than you might normally hear, I decided to let his words speak for themselves with little editing. 

We haven't discussed yet what we're pouring in Albany at the Craft New York Brewer's Festival. It'll likely be Pre Emption Line Porter or Owl's Nest Oatmeal Stout for a dark beer, and either Wild Mustang Farmhouse IPA or Reckless Abandon Double IPA for our lighter beer.

The only real pressure I feel when trying to brew beers for these kinds of events is the pressure to have a 'wow factor.' That typically means the beer needs to be high ABV and have an intense flavor from something like barrel aging, souring, heavy spices, loads of hops, or some other special thing. I wouldn't brew a pale ale for the events unless it was soured or funky.

We also participate in Rochester Beer Week in June, as that's our most local beer week. Brewers love these weeks, as it gives us a chance to throw fun events and parties for our fellow brewers and our local fans. It's a ton of work, though. In Rochester, the beer week is kicked off with a beer fest featuring local/NY breweries. It's a great place to show off new and interesting beers, and to get exposure to new people in the area. The rest of the week features all sorts of great events.

The lead up to a beer week is kinda crazy, though. Local breweries get involved in as many events as possible, usually, and that takes an immense amount of coordination and planning. We start talking to bars and restaurants that we have strong relationships with months before beer week even begins. Fortunately, we brewers don't need to get involved in that too much. Our side of the whole thing is to make sure we plan the production of any special beers that we want to release.

We typically see breweries releasing at least one new beer during beer week. It's fun because it allows us to play around with new stuff, but it also means we need to get moving on developing those recipes early.

I'll start my special recipe development about two months prior. The first batch of a concept recipe will be brewed on my small pilot system, just in case it needs serious work before full production. That means I need to allow two to three weeks for the first pilot batch, then three additional weeks for the larger scaled up batch. A few extra weeks in between helps just in case another pilot batch has to be made to tweak the recipe. Of course, if we're going to barrel age something, that'll require extra time.

In addition to the special release beers, small breweries need to manage their workload well during beer week. Since a brewery our size only has a handful of employees, we get stretched thin between doing our normal sales and production stuff during the week and representing our brewery at all the events. Last year I worked four of our events, so we had to front load our production schedule a little bit and cram a lot more work into the week prior to the events so we weren't overtaxed.

My position is head brewer (though some places would call my set of responsibilities "brewmaster", which is a term I hate). I normally do very few tastings or events, as I spent all of our first year working 100 hours a week and I need time off. During beer weeks, I wind up doing double duty all week on the production floor and out at events. Last year I also had to fill in for other people in the tap room at the brewery while they were away at beer week events. It's a crazy time, but fun.

Beer weeks are fun, no matter which one you're involved with. It's a great opportunity to meet your breweries fans, meet new people and make them fans, and to hang out with people from other breweries that you don't normally get to see on a daily basis.

When we get to Rochester beer week, I'll be looking forward to seeing other local brewers trying our new beers. I've been friends with the guys from CB's Craft Brewing, Three Heads Brewing, and Naked Dove Brewing for a while, so it'll be great to share new beers with all of them.

The best thing about getting up to all the events is that all the local brewers I don't see regularly are out and about. I love catching up with the rest of the brewing community in the area. And unlike some beer fests, the people showing up to events are there to appreciate beer and talk beer with us. It's not a bunch of college kids looking to get drunk quick. The events bring out the best of the beer and brewing communities.

-- Jeff Hillebrandt, Abandon Brewing Company Head Brewer