Beer, Beer, & Better Beer | HopCat

Beer, Beer, & Better Beer

HopCat co-founder discusses 'un-chain' philosophy on Mashed Podcast
Troy Reimink, BarFly/HopCat webmaster | December 8, 2017
craft beer

If you’re interested in a peek behind the HopCat curtain, our head of Food, Beverage and Cultural Innovation, Garry Boyd, recent sat down for an interview with the Mash Podcast to discuss how our restaurant family – or “un-chain” – has evolved along with the craft beer industry.

Reflecting on HopCat’s beginnings, Boyd acknowledged that the idea of a beer bar focusing exclusively on craft breweries was an outside-the-box idea as recently as a decade ago. “When we started HopCat in 2008 and Mark Sellers – the owner, my boss – told me his plan not to sell Bud/Miller/Coors, I might have been the first person to tell him he was a genius, because everybody else told him he was going to fail epically.”

The title of the episode is “Scaling a Brewpub,” and much of Boyd’s discussion with host Zane DeVault focused on how HopCat has expanded its operation across the Midwest as the craft beer market grew explosively. A respect and passion for craft beer, he said, has enabled HopCat to maintain its guiding philosophies while responsibly joining the craft beer culture of the communities where we’ve opened restaurants.

“We’ve always tried to be stewards for craft beer, first and foremost,” Boyd explained. “We want to be a good resource for everybody when they think of craft beer. I want the brewers to want us to have their beer on draft because they trust us.”

The conversation also addresses some anxieties that have crept into the industry, such as whether craft brewing has reached a saturation point, or if the landscape is too crowded for new breweries to succeed. What ultimately determines success or failure, Boyd said, is whether the beer itself is any good.

“I don’t think there’s a bubble for craft beer. I just think that as there’s less and less shelf space and we’re cutting the pie smaller and smaller for everybody, it better be some good pie," he said. "You can make crappy beer and go out of business, and that’s not going to change. But I think as long as the beer’s good, as long as there’s an authenticity to what’s going on, I think you’ll find that there’s a home for it.”

You can stream other Mash Podcast episodes here.

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Making a case for the kettle sour
Kyle Montgomery, HopCat Madison Beer Manager | November 13, 2017

Flanders Red, Oud Bruin, Gueuze, Gose, Berliner Weisse, Lambic, Lichtenhainer. These are just several of the handful of historic Belgian and German sour beer styles that have seen a massive surge in popularity in recent years among the American craft beer consumer. This newly acquired and widespread appreciation for sour beer in the United States has spawned handfuls of breweries that exclusively produce sour beer, as well as novel and innately American methods of brewing them.

Kettle Souring

Among these methods is a process known as kettle souring, a term that has proved to be rather divisive among sour beer enthusiasts. Some sour beer purists believe that kettle souring has no place in craft beer, and others laud it for its efficiency and affordability.

But what is kettle souring, exactly?

By kettle souring a beer, brewers lower the pH of a beer by pitching a culture of a lactic acid-producing bacteria (namely lactobacillus) directly into the boil kettle and allow it to sour the sugar-rich precursor to beer, known as wort. The brewer’s target pH is generally attained after one to two days, and then wort is boiled, effectively killing the microorganisms and boiling off the unpleasant byproducts of lactic acid fermentation. From here, the brewing process continues as it would for any other brew. (For a brief overview of the brewing process, click HERE).

Souring by Barrel Aging & Spontaneous Fermentation 

In contrast, traditionally soured beer was (and still is) produced by spontaneous fermentation or by aging beer in large oak barrels, also known as foudres. These barrels are home to a community of microorganisms that add both acidity and complexity to the beer over time, often upwards of one to two years. 

Making sour beer by these methods isn’t cheap, or quick, or even safe when you consider the potential havoc that a rogue wild yeast or bacteria could wreak on a production brewery. These beers are, however, objectively more complex than kettle soured beers. With proper aging and conditioning, these beers naturally develop a wide range of pleasant flavors and aromas over time, from black cherry and plum to vanilla and tart apple.

Does this mean that mean that kettle soured beers are definitively inferior to traditionally soured ones? Not necessarily.

Don’t get me wrong... If I order a Flanders red ale at the bar and I’m served a very one-note, kettle soured red ale that just happens to also be tart, you can bet your ass I’ll be less than thrilled. 

When Kettle Souring is Appropriate

Under some circumstances, however, a clean lactic tartness is exactly what you want. For instance, remarkably clean sour beer styles such as Berliner Weisse and Gose are perfectly suited for kettle souring. While both Gose & Berliner Weisse are traditionally inoculated with a lactobacillus culture after the boil (or in the absence of any boil), kettle souring yields a beer acidic enough to make it refreshing, yet simple enough to let other flavors take center stage.

As Matt Miller of states, “[kettle sours] are less complex, but they are very sessionable and make a perfect base for the addition of other ingredients like fruit or dry hops.”

In reference to Gose and Berliner Weisse produced traditionally by a post-boil addition of lactic acid bacteria, he explains, “They are undoubtedly more complex… But to some palates that additional complexity may be a blend of low-level off-flavors. Additionally, from a production perspective, these beers may take longer to age to the point where they are tasting good,” and this extra time incurs significant production costs.

He continues, “To my palate, the sulfur/vegetal/sauerkraut aromas/flavors [that result from a lactobacillus fermentation] aren't pleasant in the final beer.” He explains, “they can be removed by re-boiling the wort in the kettle souring process.”

In Defense of the Kettle Sour

While no one will deny that kettle sours are cheaper, easier to produce, and less complex than traditional barrel-aged and spontaneously fermented sour beers, to say that they have no place in craft beer would be an extreme and uninformed claim. Well established and highly acclaimed breweries all over the country have had great success producing both Gose and Berliner Weisse by this method. In the right setting, and for the appropriate style, a kettle soured beer can be a bright, refreshing alternative to generic light lagers, as well as an affordable, approachable entrée into the strange and beautiful landscape of traditionally produced sour beer.

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HopCat's Parent Company named West Michigan's Sustainable Business of the Year
By Troy Reimink, BarFly/HopCat Webmaster | November 1, 2017

BarFly Ventures -- which operates the HopCat restaurant family as well as Stella's Lounge, Grand Rapids Brewing Company and the Waldron Public House in Grand Rapids -- has been named Sustainable Business of the Year by the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum.

In presenting the honor, WMSBF noted the ongoing waste-reduction efforts at all BarFly restaurants, where we train our employees to separate refuse by what is compostable and recyclable, allowing us to divert about 90 percent of material that would otherwise end up in landfills.

The forum also cited the fact that HopCat is often the first business in its market to open with a goal of zero waste. “All of its food waste, spent grain, take-out containers, straws, disposable cups, and paper waste is currently composted as new soil for local farmers, 3,870 cubic yards in 2017.” HopCat’s partnerships with local sustainability nonprofits in each market we enter also was a factor in the honor, according to a release on the WMSBF website.

Autumn Sands, BarFly’s Sustainability Manager, said in a statement: “We are honored by the recognition and so grateful to be a part of the Forum, surrounded by the growing number of business and community leaders working tirelessly to make a positive impact within our community.”

The WMSBF awards Sustainable Business of the Year based on a vote by among its members and affiliated organizations. BarFly’s team accepted the honor last week at the Triple Bottom Line Bash last week in Grand Rapids.

Click here to read more about BarFly’s sustainability efforts. 

[Photo courtesy of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum] 

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