Craft Dream: Brewing the First Beer

After a year of hard work and a $45,000 investment, Michael Bryant’s Dunedin Brewery was ready to roll.

All the permits were signed and approved, inspections completed, local government types satisfied, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents happy, equipment purchased and hooked up for the first brew, and the ingredients were sitting by the kettle. Dunedin Brewery Beach Tale Brown was about to make its first appearance.

But there was a hitch.

Unfortunately, Dunedin Brewery did not have a distributor, and because of Florida’s three-tier system, Bryant could not sell beer without one. The three tiers of the alcoholic beverage distribution system are the manufacturer (Dunedin), which ships its products to the wholesaler or distributor, which in turn sells them to the retailer. Bypassing the middle tier is illegal in most states.

The dilemma for Bryant: Find a wholesaler large enough to build distribution for his product yet small enough to pay sufficient attention to a fledgling brand.

“Legally, once you are connected with a distributor it’s very difficult to break away if you’re unhappy with their service,” he says. Bryant decided to look for a small distributorship run by a homebrewer. “Most of the bigger distributors really have no concept of the homebrewing mentality; they are disconnected from the craft beer concept,” he says.

From a distributor’s standpoint introducing a new product is always more work than pushing an established brand. Furthermore, many distributors in Florida are already committed to representing the larger beer brands and feel that representing a smaller, competing brand might jeopardize their position with their larger clients, according to Bryant.

While the search for distribution went on, Bryant decided to forge ahead with his first official batch of microbrewed beer.

The First Time

On the first brew day the activity in the brewery was kinetic. A table in the middle of the floor was cluttered with laboratory equipment. Bryant moved between the brewhouse and a computer, entering a stream of information onto a spreadsheet.

One of the volunteers who was on hand for the first brew recalls, “The smell in the kitchen during a batch of homebrew is always a treat, but this amplified that 100 times. The nutty aroma of the malt mixed with the pungency of the hops was almost overwhelming.”

With the first batch came the first boilover. “It’s refreshing to know that stuff happens even on the grand scale,” says the volunteer.

“I want my beers to be complex,” says Bryant. “I want people to be able to experience a variety of tastes with each glass. In that way they’re sure to find something about the beer that they like.”

Still, the first brew presented some challenges. “There were some problems,” admits Bryant. “We had trouble with the solar hot liquor tanks, but we got around that. We had a mash-in water temperature problem, but we solved that by heating the mash water in the kettle like you would do with a small system.”

The Beach Tale Brown had a light but nutty taste with a good dose of hops. Eventually, it will become one of the brewery’s standard brews. He also plans to brew Helles Gold Ale and several specialty brews, including pumpkin ale, heather ale, a wheat beer, and a Christmas brew.

217-Gallon Batches

A typical batch at Dunedin will require anywhere from 400 to 550 pounds of grain, depending on the type of brew in production. For the first brew Bryant used about 150 pounds more than that, because he simply multiplied the amount he would have used for a five-gallon homebrew. But he didn’t take into account the better equipment he was using as a commercial brewer.

“With the first batch the mash tun was so efficient that we came out with about 8 percent beer,” says Bryant. A recipe used at home may have a mashing efficiency – the percentage of fermentable material extracted from the grain and thus added to the wort – of 67 percent under the best conditions. The same recipe used in the microbrewery with better, more efficient equipment and more controllable brewing conditions can have a mashing efficiency of 82 percent or better.

“We’re playing with the amount of grains because we want to keep a lot of taste in the beer,” says Bryant. “We have to mash in at a higher temperature so we won’t get as many fermentables and we won’t get as much alcohol, but we’ll still have a lot of flavor.”

Instead of opening little packets to add an ounce or two of hops to his homebrew, Bryant now dumps six to seven pounds of hops into each brew. He prefers hop pellets in this process to avoid clogging the small pipe lines, which can occur with whole-leaf hops. He also uses 380 gallons of water per brew and one liter of liquid yeast for each barrel.

He estimates the direct cost of a batch at this level at $200 to $300. Indirect costs, factoring in everything from rental space to electricity, fall in the $800 to $900 range.

A Homebrewer at Heart

The whole brewing process is not that much different than what Bryant did as a homebrewer. After the cracked grain is brought into the brewery, it’s dumped in a small hopper. It’s drawn into the mash tun by a grain auger. The mash is heated, recirculated until it clears, then piped into the kettle for boiling.

After the boil the wort is pumped through a heat exchanger to cool it. Next it’s moved into fermenters, where the yeast has already been pitched. Oxygen is added into the wort before fermentation to make up for the loss during the boil. After seven days or so in the fermenter, the beer is piped into holding tanks in the cooler before kegging.

Most of Dunedin’s ingredients are supplied by The Brew Shack, a homebrew supply shop in Tampa, Fla. “Working with a homebrew store for my supplies assures me of fresh materials. I can also get whatever I need at a moment’s notice,” says Bryant.

“We have hop guys trying to sell direct, we have yeast guys trying to sell direct, we have grain guys selling to the brewery. That’s good if you, as the owner of the brewery, are an expert in all things brewing,” he says.

“While microbreweries are on the leading edge of the equipment field, a homebrew store is on the leading edge of brewing innovations because it is exposed to homebrewers, who are the leading edge as far as brewing science goes. They are the risk takers. I did a pumpkin ale and other experiments as a homebrewer. You start talking to someone about doing a pumpkin ale on a 30-barrel system and they’re going to decide to use a little essence of pumpkin and put it in the serving tanks. That’s not leading-edge technology.”

Bryant also likes the free advice. “If you call individual manufacturers, they will recommend their own products. I want to know what’s the best. At a shop where you have a relationship, you’ll get the best you can.”

Another reason Bryant shops at a smaller retailer is the special attention. “When we go to a big maltster, we’re small; we’re bottom of the barrel. With John at The Brew Shack, we’re the big guys. Everyone else he sells to is a homebrewer,” says Bryant.

To Market, To Market

Perhaps one of the most frustrating things about not having a distributor was the fact that people wanted the beer. During the early stages of the project, marketing had been by word of mouth. A few articles about the brewery appeared in some local publications, and the brewery had a float in two local parades.

According to Bryant, many of the local restaurants and pubs were anxious to begin serving the brewery’s products. He was even approached by a few potential clients for contract brewing – and all this before the first pint was even brewed.

But Dunedin did find a home for its first beer: The Scottish Highland Games. “It’s legal in Florida to give away beer to non-profit organizations. We hosted the VIP tent at the Scottish Highland Games. It cost $700, and we got our name in all the advertisements and on all the fliers and banners. You can’t always get exposure like that, particularly since we want to market the beer to this community,” says Bryant.

“The community’s acceptance and enthusiasm for the brewery is profit in itself,” he adds. “With the city’s name on the logo, it’s almost like it belongs to the people and I’m just the caretaker. I really enjoy that.”

That Pesky Distribution

Four months after brewing that first Beach Tale Brown, Bryant still hadn’t found a distributor to sell it. He brewed a few batches, donating the first to the games and using the process on the others to attract the public for brewery tours, which Bryant considers good marketing. “Because it is a side business for me, we could afford to have everything ready to go without being able to sell,” he says.

Just as things looked most bleak, Bryant found a distributor. More precisely, he created one. “The man who owns our building was really impressed with how we put it all together. He decided to get his distributor’s license. In the meantime we found no one else to distribute, so we were able to wait for him,” says Bryant.

“In my mind,” he says, “I wanted to open a microbrewery, so I was going to do it. I knew I’d get there, it was just a matter of time. There’s a lot to do; it’s really a lifestyle change. You have to be mechanically inclined, you have to see things three dimensionally, you have to be able to stay with it.

But it’s worth it. You don’t make a tremendous amount of money, but you don’t need a tremendous amount of money when you have that kind of energy. When people consume your product, they smile. That’s the most satisfying thing.”

Issue: September 1996