Monday, January 26, 2009

A Lesson To Be Learned In Listening

First. As you may know, Madison Beer Review distributes an audio show called "Beer Talk Today." Well, if you didn't know, Beer Talk Today is a radio show that runs on University of Wisconsin student radio station, WSUM. It used to run on Saturday at 5pm, but it has moved and is now on in the more convenient Tuesday at 9pm time slot. I mention this because tomorrow is Tuesday, and I assure you that you will want to tune in. Next week we are running an entire week of content about contract brewing – we are going to look at what contract brewing is, who in the state is contract brewing, and some of the debate and consternation that surrounds the contract brewing issue. But tomorrow night's broadcast, which will be released as our podcast next week contains the core of what this is all about. To some extent, I'll clue you in: 1) contract brewing is not inherently bad, beer that is contract brewed is not inherently worse than non-contract brewed beer; 2) contract brewing is bad when there are not sufficient quality control mechanisms; 3) contract brewing is bad when those involved are not honest about it because it deceives the public as to the source of the beer; 4) there are breweries in Wisconsin that contract brew their beer but are not entirely upfront with this fact to the public. Tomorrow night, we'll let you know one of them – and you may find it somewhat surprising.

With that plug out of the way …

I don't know how many of you follow Tomme Arthur's Brewer's Log (blog). For those of you unaware, Tomme is the head brewer at Lost Abbey. Known for being particular, he makes some of the best beers in the world; and, in a point that we will follow-up a little more next week, you could argue that he is a contract brewer (Tomme's Lost Abbey project is brewed by Port Brewing Company; Tomme happens to be head brewer of Pizza Port, but Lost Abbey is considered a distinct entity; can you be a contract brewer when you brew your own beer at your own premises? Tune in next week and find out). [ed note: see the comments, but I confused a lot of things, and made some assumptions that weren't necessarily true. Port Brewing is a distinct entity from Pizza Port, though that relationship is a bit of a mystery as there appears to be a lot of cross-over between the two; Lost Abbey is a brand line of Port Brewing and not a separate brewing company; thus, while, if Tomme is brewing some of Pizza Port's beers it would be a contract situation, it definitely appears that Lost Abbey/Port is not a contract situation. Oh. And Tomme is not the head brewer of Pizza Port, he is the head brewer of Port, though he used to be the head brewer of Pizza Port; Pizza Port's head brewer is Jeff Bagby. Sorry for the confusion.] In the meantime, Tomme also has a blog that he posts to infrequently, but I wanted to cut and paste from parts of it because I thought it was interesting.

"We're in the midst of a serious expansion here.  I just got word that the two used 120 bbl Fermenters we bought from Bert Grant's old brewery are on a truck in Portland and should be here tomorrow. … We purchased these tanks to go along with our new (albeit used) bottling line. … It will be such a huge boost in our production to get this piece of equipment up and running.  We have out grown our little bottling "system" and very much need to get better with this part of our operations. … As part of our new packaging operations, I met with a label company this week about purchasing a new labeler.  We're hoping this will make us much more efficient and cut down on our waste.  We discussed some options for the labeler and it would appear at this time that we'll be installing some sort of coding system for the bottles as well.  In an ideal world, we would have coded our bottles from day one but that just wasn't part of the system we've been running."

So, the gist here is that Lost Abbey (or is it Pizza Port?) is expanding. Tomme will be making and bottling more beer. With any luck some of it will make it here to Wisconsin. Although, I have to think that the odds of that happening any time soon are pretty slim. But, as most any brewer will tell you, bottling is a huge pain in the ass. Bottling lines are expensive. They have a lot of small moving parts. They break down frequently. While the mistakes are relatively infrequent, even one mistake can take hours to troubleshoot and undo. But, there's a point in here and it's this:

"Lately, I have received numerous emails and complaints about some of our bottles and the "lack" of fizz.  It's probably one of my least favorite things to do but answering emails and complaints about our beers is something that comes with the territory.  I tend to take it harder than I should but at the same time, I cringe when I read about flat beer.  It's our job to ensure that they aren't lifeless.  The challenge is that I can't taste every bottle and "guarantee" that they are good to go.  That part sucks. … As a process, we are committed to bottle conditioning and the flavor gains that come with it.  It just sucks when the process doesn't go as well as planned and there is deviation.  I, for one, am hoping that our new packaging line and our new head brewer can help us find stability in this area.  We have to get better at this.  We're growing and looking to expand markets.  As such, we need to be better."

Listen to your customers. Tomme Arthur makes bottle-aged Belgian beers. Depending on style, the carbonation, even in a properly carbonated beer, can be quite low (e.g., a Belgian Dubbel or Tripel or Quad). Tomme could have just written his customers off as idiots. He could have said "HA! You don't know what you are talking about. This beer isn't Budweiser; if you want something highly carbonated go buy a PBR." There are some brewers, including some here in Wisconsin, who have this attitude. They believe that the customer is beneath them and the process they've set up. "I have brewed this same beer the exact same way for the last 11 years, if there's something wrong with it, there's something wrong with you." But that isn't what Tomme did. He acknowledged that the brewing process isn't exact; there will be some batch to batch variation, and to some extent that is expected and welcome. But, if something is wrong, then something is wrong. If the bottling line is unreliable and it results in beer getting to your customer that is not the best representation of you or brewery, then you need to do something to fix it. Sometimes, it's as simple as being honest with the customer: "Hey, we just got some new equipment, it doesn't work exactly like the old equipment, we think our beer is still good, but we're still working with the system. Even though we use the exact same recipes, we are still trying figure out some of the fine-tuning we need to do to perfect it on this new equipment." But, sometimes you need to buy a new bottling line and put in a batch-numbering system so that you can troubleshoot problems from your customers.

Ultimately, it's about accountability. And the producer is always accountable to the customer. Whether directly, in terms of respecting your consumers enough to be honest with them; or indirectly, where your customers will stop buying your product if they feel you aren't listening to them and addressing their issues. Look, I'm the last person to trot out the cliché "the customer is always right." Because, you know what, we aren't always right. But it takes honesty and public discourse to address these issues and at the end of the day, the customer is going to go the producer that treats them with respect and provides them with a quality product. Like Tomme, don't be afraid of customer complaints, take them as an opportunity to learn something about yourself and your consumers and use it as an opportunity to make yourself and consumers better producers and consumers.


  1. Just a few of points of clarification:

    1) Tomme is NOT the head brewer at Pizza Port. That honor belongs to a man named Jeff Bagby.

    2) Pizza Port and Port Brewing are not the same. While sister organizations (Vince and Gina Marsaglia own Pizza Port and a Majority interest in Port Brewing), they have separate brewers, brew operations, employees and make entirely different beers.

    3) Tomme can't be a contract brewer for Lost Abbey as Lost Abbey is merely a brand of Port Brewing -- the same way Oreos are a brand of Nabisco, or Buick is a brand of GM.

  2. Thanks for the corrections Sage.

    I misread the Pizza Port Brewers page. Although it appears that at some point, as late as 2003/2004, Tomme was the (a?) brewer at Pizza Port and perhaps it was this knowledge that caused me to read it wrong. In any event, my hearty apologies to Mr. Bagby and Mr. Arthur for the confusion.

    As for Tomme being a contract brewer - I meant it only in the most technical of senses. From the text, "Tomme remains the Director of Brewery Operations for Port Brewing and will oversee the brewery operations for The Lost Abbey serving as the Head Brewer for this entity as well.", it appears that The Lost Abbey is a separate entity, a distinct business, of Port Brewing. Your explanation certainly makes sense as well, though without the additional knowledge it's not immediately obvious that it's the case. I'm not saying you're wrong, I'm only justifying my own mistake.

    In any event, there definitely appears to be quite a bit of cross-over between Pizza Port and Port Brewing with Port Brewing appearing to brew some of Pizza Port's beers. Or maybe Pizza Port just distributes Port Brewing's beers then has a few of their own?

    It's all very confusing. I'll shut up now before I make it worse.

  3. Not a prob. Both Pizza Port (PP) and Port Brewing (PB) are guilty of not updating their websites very often, which makes things even more confusing. (Some of the stuff is almost 3 years old.)

    To add to the confusion, both PP and PB brew some of the beers Tomme created when he was director of brewing operations over at PP (Wipeout, Shark Attack and Old Viz come to mind). However, the PP and PB versions are now different as over the years the two companies have different brewing staffs and headed off in diverging directions.

    Also, as a "brewery", PB is the only one bottling and distributing. PP is a "brewpub" which means it's beers are sold only out of the PP locations (i.e., no distribution). So if you come across a bottle of a Port beer, you can be sure that it's PB, not PP.


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