Monday, February 25, 2008

Brewery Profile – Furthermore Beer, Part II

Furthermore Beer. Ready. Fire. Aim.

Furthermore Beer is Head Brewer Aran Madden and business partner Chris Staples. Aran brews the beer and Chris finds people to buy it. Last week we looked at their backgrounds and what brought them to Spring Green, Wisconsin. The last item of note was Chris' preference for balanced, as opposed to "big", beers. Aran showed a surprising preference for the Bud Chelada, a "weird colloidal mix of pink tomato plasma suspended in a Budweiser."

For years Aran's sister had been lobbying for him to set up a brewery in Spring Green. Coincidentally, American Players Theatre, the spring-to-fall Shakespearian theatre company nestled in the woods of Spring Green, were interested in putting their name on a private label beer. The initial discussions weeded out a true "white label" option as too transparently gimmicky. Instead, Aran saw this as a great opportunity to launch the Furthermore Beer brand. Thus, "Proper" was born out of the desire to honor the work of the theatre with a summer-time ale that is both elegant and refreshing. The spring board of American Players Theatre also offered a tie to the area for Furthermore; "Spring Green is a cultural Mecca with a history of odd ideas coming to fruition. Thus, keeping Furthermore based here seemed like the right combination of 'in the mix' and 'out of the way' – Low country, high art."

Aran and Chris had a name for their brewery, a recipe for their first beer, and a contract to sell it. What they were missing was a place to brew it. Of course, they had two options: build a brewery or contract with a separate brewery.

Aran (A): Sand Creek was one of four breweries that we looked at to help us get beer in a bottle for the APT release while we cobbled together a cheap brewery (recall the lessons from Church Brew Works, Mr. Sean Casey, from last week's interview) in Spring Green. Sand Creek just happened to be the first ones to say "Yes" to us. The most notable of the declining breweries was William Kuether Brewing in Clear Lake. William Kuether hadn't been open long, but the day I decided to call them, I saw their equipment for sale on the web. That was the reality check for Furthermore. The Kuether website transmitted rays of enthusiasm and love of beer, but the sales couldn't pay for the build out. Chris and I decided to assume that those guys were smarter than us, and we made a dumb-man's pact to constantly reexamine how our choices to grow the business might lead to its demise. When Sand Creek said yes, and we realized that they could do more for us than just two batches, we shifted our plan to stay with Sand Creek for the first year of getting product to market. As the first year was coming to a close, we reevaluated and again pushed back plans to build. Each time we decide not to build Chris and I feel like we can breathe again. We just don't have the resources to build a brewery, and I've seen too many equipment auctions to assume that stick-to-itiveness or dumb luck or black pepper is going to make this work.

Chris (C): There seem to be two primary pitfalls inherent to a brewery build-out: building too small or bankrupting yourself by building at all. We're doing our best to avoid both pitfalls. Sand Creek has been key in allowing us the flexibility to change our plans every five days.

Contract brewing just describes a relationship whereby one brewery has another brewery brew beer. It can be very hands-off, where the contracted brewery gets the recipe and runs with it; it can be very hands-on, where the contracting brewery is actually present during the brewing process and directs the brewing – in this case, the contract is really just to merely use the equipment. In other words, contract brewing can mean many different things. With minimal financing and high flexibility, contract brewing offers the best options for the fledgling brewing company. The biggest wrench in the contract relationship, however, is the relationship itself. A bad relationship can sink even the best recipes. The relationship requires constant monitoring; monitoring the recipes, monitoring the standards, monitoring the malt and hops and water quality, monitoring the final product, monitoring the brewers and the assistants.

C: We wanted to work with somebody who was geographically proximate, who had done contract brewing before, and who wouldn't look down their noses at the size of batches we wanted to brew initially. But we also were looking for somebody who would benefit from our growth if we were to be successful and not be just another brand coming off of their bottling line. Most importantly, we needed for Aran to be brewing our beer. Todd at Sand Creek is willing to let Aran touch his equipment, if you know what I'm sayin' …

A: I want to be as hands on as I can, but there are times when Todd (Sand Creek's Brew Master) is doing so much juggling that I just step in when I can. Other times I get the brew house to myself. I go up for every brew (although I have missed a couple) … Missing the occasional brewing is generally not a big deal because, who steps in? The guy who has been running the brewery for eight years. Where I feel my role in the brewery is critical is in ensuring that the practical end of brewing is in step with the concept of the beer. So the Proper can lean towards lighter if we were, say, correcting for letting too much run-off collect in the kettle. But the Knot Stock can't be under-peppered, even if one were to dump a quarter of the needed pepper on the floor because a pump broke and Knot Stock rushed out of the fermenter into the "pepper dose-tank" rather than the other way around, overflowing the dose tank and the pepper contained there within. That's the kind of stuff that I want to be around for since the beers are my babies. Todd's got enough of his own babies to worry about. It's not really his job to make nuanced decisions about the direction of Furthermore beers.

The relationship has also been very successful. With this success, Furthermore has since purchased some land in Spring Green.

A: We want to build on our newly acquired land, but the brewery part will be phase two or three. We first need an office, storage, a bigger cold room, and a dedicated test batch space—more of a commercial kitchen than brewery. Brewery would likely be phase two, and we're looking at 3,000 barrels as a reachable volume within a short time of build-out. We don't think we would build if we were not within striking distance of that mark.

C: Specifically, all site planning is dependent on the size and shape of the site. Part of the hold up (phase one/phase two issues aside) is that we would like to add to the site and are waiting to find out if that is possible, and if so, if the price is right. What we already have is enough, but we'd benefit from some flexibility. Neither Aran nor I care to be in the restaurant business, so our intent leans more toward the tasting room/beer garden end of the visitation spectrum. Our primary identity is as a commercial brewery.

Aran mentions that 3,000 barrel per year is the short-term target for production in order to build-out the brewery. Currently, Furthermore sits at about 700 barrels and they are currently growing through expansion into more markets. Chris predicts that 2008 will bring somewhere near 1200 barrels. "I think we'll continue to be on or above target this year, but it wouldn't surprise me if we experienced a growth-dip in year four or five. It goes against my cheery, optimistic instincts to say so, but the combination of natural plateaus, market conditions and general economic malaise causes me to be cautious as I predict our growth." Thus, predicting when Furthermore will be within striking distance of 3,000 barrels, and fit for that brand new brewery, is difficult at best. Having plans for growth, adding new beers, expanding into new territories, differentiating income, are all reasonable ways to ensure that the brewery continues to grow. Of course, another reasonable way to supplement growth would be to contract out some of the excess capacity. Growth in a competitive industry and trying times for luxury goods like beer can be difficult.

The trying times we are all facing economically has been in spades for a brewing industry faced with hops shortages, barley shortages, and shortages of purchasers. "It looks like we are going to be okay. No hurtful substitutions thus far. Most of the problem is in the beginning-of-year crunch to buy what we need. Hops-wise, we look good. Cash flow wise, we are feeling the pinch like everyone else." But the pinch isn't just economic. We are at a time of unprecedented interest in the environment and ensuring that business continues in a manner that will, if not improve, at least prevent further erosion, of our environment.

C: Both Aran and I believe that humanity strains the Earth's resources horribly, that global-warming is a problem, that virgin forests should be preserved, that maintaining biodiversity is critical, that the Euro is over-valued, that the situation in Darfur really sucks, that Berlin has better nightlife than Madison, that Telecasters are superior to Stratocasters, that Capitalism has its pros and cons, that America is not ready for a Mormon in the White House, that we must reduce our carbon footprint, that the Slow movement is where it's at and that the way that Furthermore Beer can best act on its beliefs is to be economically healthy and to stay true to its mission. Because from financial strength and clarity of vision comes the capacity for acting out of compassion. From acting out of compassion comes our radiant humanity. From our radiant humanity comes a hypo-allergenic beer, all proceeds of which will be donated to the River Valley Schools and 4Petesake (look it up). And I'm not kidding. Sure, we'd like to build green and employ green practices. We're about 235 decisions away from really wrapping our brains around how we can mitigate the resource-intensive nature of a manufacturing operation. But yeah, we take environmental and civic responsibility seriously.

The Beer

We've already talked a bit about the Proper; it was developed with APT in mind. But, it existed only after the idea of Furthermore Beer existed.

A: The seed of the business was the beer, which when reworked, would become the Knot Stock. Equally important was the idea of the Proper, making it specifically for the particular experience of attending a performance at American Players Theatre. There were a few other styles or ingredients that I felt could lend to a distinguished line-up, but the rest of the beers didn't come into clear focus until, well, the last possible moment.

The beer development process is an interesting one.

A: Bringing a beer into focus begins with a match between a workable concept and a sense that the beer would do the culture of craft beer some good.

A: Then we test batch.

A: Then we let our adrenaline build as we approach a self imposed, but publicly stated deadline and BOOM!!

A: We get government approval for our label, and we can proceed.

Some beers are a little easier than others. For example, brewing with apple cider can be very difficult and inexact. "The first Fallen Apple was a work in progress all the way up to packaging. I had made a similar beer before, but differences in cider, brewing water and yeast all amounted to a lot of tweaking along the way." The test batch phase also presents some fun and interesting opportunities for friends, family and Chris.

A: Three feet deep took a sharp turn in the test batch phase when the data came back from our unfocused group (friends and family drinking bloody marys, eating biscuits and gravy). We were comparing the sire of the present beer with one that was quite a bit thicker. The feedback we received was varied, but the sentiment that struck a chord with us was that there are a lot of big stouts out there, why not try to make a ballsy stout that isn't thicker than ketchup.

And some beers are born out of desire not to be unemployed.

A: Boombalatty was a test batch winner. I did two tests with high temperature fermentations that were failed miserably. When Chris started looking at the want ads, I knuckled down and put together the Fatty. Didn't need to change a thing for production.

While the current culture likes to refer to anything in combination as a "mash-up" but in the beer world there seems to be two contravening forces that drive development: the desire to push the envelope and the desire to make some drinkable. Thus any beer that both pushes the envelope and is drinkable must be a "mash-up" of sorts.

A: My method of recipe formulation grew out of the need for balance, and I tend to start in the middle of the spectrum, abstractly – numbers on paper, and push the malt and hops around until things are out of balance to the degree that I want them to be. That becomes the basic template. If there is an odd ingredient that brings a particular element to the beer (i.e. tart apples, prickly pepper) then the recipe flexes to ensure that that flavor is a welcomed addition and not an irritation to the palate. That's how drinkability and edginess coincide.

Unfortunately, there are some in the beer community that judge to style. There's an attitude that beers are to be judged by how closely the beer comes to some defined style guideline. This community shuns the non-reinheitsgebot ingredients as not genuine and off-style beers as not authentic. But Furthermore couldn't be further from this class:

C: There are so many fine examples of beers of a particular style that instead of trying to re-make them, you should drink them! Hell, we don't even know how to classify our beers, which is one reason they have such funky names. The modern domestic brewing scene is largely unconcerned with history, and I think that is its strength, and in a larger sense, very much in keeping with America's strength. The downside of that is the notion is that because something is new or different it is better, which ain't necessarily so. In the end, the consumer decides what has merit at the check-out counter and when the Barkeep asks "What'll it be?" And while we try to pay attention to what the geeks say, what the Average Joe buys and what the barkeep suggests, our offerings only have to pass one test: can Aran and Chris get behind this beer? Can we offer it in good faith?

A: We really do see it as our responsibility to create beers for the consumer that are, if not unique, at least rare. The Proper is the exception to the rule as far as bending style goes, but the reason for brewing and the beers place in the artistic community is certainly right up there with rare/unique. With respect to brewing's past and its sanctity, I think that someone is missing the point if they think a Knot Stock is a break from tradition. It is simply the next line in tradition. I can't believe heather has made it as far as it has in brewing tradition when there was pepper to be had. [editor's note: heather was used in some brewing traditions because of a lack of hops; heather provides a flowery aroma in place of hops] If someone thinks fruit doesn't belong in beer, and therefore won't drink a Fallen Apple, then they are missing out. That's not to say that everyone who drinks it likes it, but to handcuff your pleasure potential in such a way seems silly.

Otto Dix - Triumph of Death, 1934

So where does the inspiration come from?

C: The films of Atom Egoyan and Hal Hartley. The prose of Walker Percy and James Joyce. The music of Miles Davis, of Marc Bolan, of Mike Watt, of Odetta, the street art of the graffiti culture and the fine art of Otto Dix. The poems of. Of. Of…. Oh, well, whatever, nevermind (just kidding.) I can find something to appreciate in any personal expression. I love the human form and its physical, spiritual and emotional contortions. It makes me a shitty and indiscriminate critic, but distinguishes me as a wide-eyed enthusiast.

A: Jiminy Christmas, Staples! Tone it down a little. Its no use having a conversation with this man without being able to Google whatever the hell it is he is talking about. Of course I can't own up to not knowing what the hell he's talking about because it would break the poor boy's heart to know that he went into business with someone whose reading list consists only of "assignments." So dull and common am I. What I do have on Chris is formal training in visual arts (BA, University of Pittsburgh), as well as rods and cones that can still distinguish between green and black. Sometimes when he is making me feel like an imbecile in concocting a one sentence description of a beer that I created, I will simply tell him that such vocabulary just doesn't look good printed on an off-white background. All he can do is throw his hands up and curse his visual imparity.

Of course, it would be impossible to talk about Furthermore Beer with talking about the Furthermore Beer labels. Acclaimed as triumphs in graphic design, the labels are instantly distinct and recognizable. While the wine world seems to have caught on that the labels themselves can be art, beer labeling tends to be very functional. Not so with Furthermore.

A: In terms of label influences, I would have to give a lot of credit to Erin Fuller of EF Graphics. With my art background, I had a natural desire for Furthermore's visual identity to look as though it came right off the gallery wall. When we were doing our graphic pow-wows, Erin would often describe images that I liked as looking more like a wine label than a beer label, or more like Soviet propaganda than a beer label. In the end, Chris and I came to the realization that we wanted our imaging to be different, but not misdirected. It shouldn't not look like a beer label.

C: Aran and I spent lots of time talking with Erin about what we wanted. She showed us what we said we wanted and then showed us what she thought we should have. Wow, did we suck and wow, is she ever awesome. "Print" magazine honored her work in their annual design review. So I know there are the "they contract brew and have pretty packaging, so they're just a marketing company" musings out there. Well, we don't own a brewery and don't believe that packaging has to look like an afterthought. We also know that people choose to try things for less noble reasons than the quality of the product, so it would have been obnoxiously self-defeating to have put anything but our best design foot forward.

C: There's an internal logic to our packaging: The year-rounds have a single label style – the kitschy representative image; the seasonals have a style – the abstract-ish use of arrows; the single-batches have a style – the black & white photograph. It means we have a good starting-point each time we need a new label, but have sufficient flexibility and variety to keep things visually interesting. Our philosophy is that nothing is sacred: not the beer, not our business plan, not the package. The two elements of design which are relatively constant, though, are the red circle with the "F" and the use of the arrow, however abstracted. The arrow is, to us, indicative of movement, of progress, of direction. It is a mandate.

Progress. Unique. Exception to the Rule. Movement. Edgy. Balanced. All describe Furthermore Beer.

"The norm for us will be beers that are off-beat, because that's our civic duty."


  1. Great job on the brewery profile! I'm looking forward to more.

  2. Hadn't heard of these guys before, but I'm going to hit it now. Awesome write-up.


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