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Fresh makes a difference.  As a homebrewer, I am spoiled by easy access to freshly kegged beer.  Since we brew about once per month, fresh is usually the rule, with the exception of an occasional double batch (seriously, 10 gallons of beer is tough to consume, even with abundant sharing with friends).  

But if you haven’t had the magical experience of brewing your own beer at home (and I recommend getting started immediately), you have no idea what fresh beer tastes like.  Maybe you have been fortunate enough to be at a brewery within a few days of kegging a new beer and know what I mean by fresh. Our friends at Elk River Brewing did just that on Friday, so I hope you were there to enjoy it (I missed it due to a trip to Bavaria, land of lagers...more on that in another post).  But otherwise, you just don’t know how amazing fresh beer is.

Beer is a not a static substance.  Like other wholesome foods or beverages, age impacts the flavor, aroma, and color of beer.  And some beers are impacted significantly more by age than others. A russian imperial stout gets better with age (at least until oxygen ingress overcomes the packaging robustness), but IPAs are especially sensitive to aging.  Crisp hop flavor and aroma just don’t stick around that long. You’ve probably had an amazing IPA from a can….but I assure you that IPA was significantly better the day it was canned. #truth So check the date on that IPA before leaving the store!  

So why haven’t humans figured out how to maintain beer freshness?  We’re pretty smart as a species...

Simple.  Physics and the laws of energy that govern the universe are working against us here.  Entropy is always increasing (in a closed system). Hence the cryptic title of this post.  All the awesome (but delicate and fragile) flavors and aromas we build up through the brewing and fermenting process are continually at war with the slow, yet inevitable, degradation due to light, temperature, oxygen, etc. (with etc. being the general bucket of entropy).  Everything on earth is breaking down over time, including our own selves. Beer is no different.

Fresh homebrewed IPA (by a proficient brewer) vs. Canned IPA from brewery XYZ

Without getting into the technical differences in grain make-up, final gravity, hop selection, etc., the homebrewed beer almost always wins.  The average corporate brewer can’t get it into your hands fast enough! Sure, maybe I’m biased because I know the homebrewer, and there’s a personal connection which definitely counts for something.  But I stand by this observation until someone proves to me otherwise. [And you’ll need to bring lots of supporting evidence to have a chance of influencing my opinion]  

This is why Autumn Arch is a small brewery!  The latest batch of IPA may be gone in a week, and that’s a beautiful thing because loads of people got to enjoy it at the peak of freshness.  But fear not, we’ll brew another one! And it will be fresh as hell.

Jimmy Vennard

This past summer, Dan and I teamed up with our extremely handy father to construct several rustic/industrial looking tables.  The first prototype turned out simply amazing, so we built 8 more (with a few more to come this month).

And I must say, the tables are looking particularly badass.

We used white oak boards that we procured from a sawmill outside of Dover.  The proprietor of the mill said most of his white oak boards get sold to cities to lay underneath buried pipelines as the oak (in the absence of oxygen) provides a solid underground support for up to 70 years.  It also happens to be the material of choice for most American wine barrels.  We plan to use American white oak barrels extensively in our sour beer program, thus, we felt it would be neat to have our served beer “sitting on oak” just like our future fermenting and maturing beer.

This was a fun project to do.  I was not very familiar with the art of woodworking at the start, but building these tables was a good introduction to the discipline. Not too complex, but plenty of exposure to the basics.

It was also neat to be making such a basic article of furniture by hand (okay, and maybe with the assistance of some 21st century tools) and realizing through each time-consuming step how civilization has completely automated this process to the point where we don’t even think about it. So I have a lot more appreciation for my cheap kitchen table which is a lot more level, smoother, and more uniform than the 8 tables we made so far….but it also has exactly zero soul, so I may go back after all of this and make a table for myself (just kidding, I’ll be brewing too much to have time for woodworking :)

We’re almost finished, and I think I’ll be a little sad that project is over. Luckily, I have plenty of beer brewing and shameless self-promotion activities to keep me occupied for the foreseeable future.

Jimmy Vennard
December Progress

December is coming to a close, and 2019 is only a couple days away.  We made enormous progress on the brewery construction this month. Here are a few highlights:

We assembled the 250 sqft walk-in cooler early in the month.  We had the cooler pieces since June, and I was dreading the assembly effort ever since.  We started bright and early on a Saturday morning. I began with prepping the area that was going to be the cooler footprint - clean floors and walls, appropriate tools at-the-ready, helping hands on deck.  But we were missing one critical component - the assembly instructions. When I asked Dan if he had them (perhaps in a convenient electronic form), he replied with a wry smile - it didn’t come with any. #letthefunbegin

It was like putting a giant puzzle together.  There was no mystery around what pieces fit together, and in this regard, it was like a puzzle for 4 year-olds….except all the pieces weighed > 80lbs.  Wall panel, ceiling panel, wall panel, lock them together, repeat. Over and over. The assembly actually turned out to be one of those projects that is mildly difficult, but nothing insurmountable comes up, and everyone ends up having a good time joking around and getting it done.  Zero trips to Home Depot also contributed to the overall level of fun. And in the end, there was an enormous cooler to gaze upon - a monument to our hard work and future cold beer.

But building a brewery is not all roses and butterflies.  We made a few mistakes. Some were made a while ago and we just realized them as we began installing equipment.  We planned for a few pieces of equipment to use 480V because that was what the builder said was going into the building...well, when the structure was finally erected, it turned out to only have a 220V feed.  We didn’t realize this until the point where we were about to hook up power to our controls.

We ended up having to swap out some motor controls. Bummer. Not a delay to opening, but these types of things dampen the overall efficiency of our work, and thus I generally try to avoid these hiccups with careful planning and coordination.  This won’t be the last problem we run into during the construction, but I hope the next one is resolved just as easily.

The holiday week afforded us lots of time to dive into some other meaty projects around the brewery - like painting.  We painted the entire space (almost). This was a task that no one looked forward to with any pleasure. 5000 sqft, 20 ft ceilings.  Even with an army of help, it was going to be a grueling few days. Except it wasn’t because we wisely borrowed a paint sprayer and that thing absolutely crushed it.  One day = done.

Overall, it was a good month, but I’m glad that work is behind us and we’re close to finishing the construction.  We might even turn on our brew system in January!

Jimmy Vennard
Asheville and the Start of an Idea

The origin of Autumn Arch Beer Project was the first homebrew that my brother and I made back in 2014, but it took a trip to Asheville, NC the following year for one of us to utter the words “we should start a brewery”.

Kathryn and I had heard that Asheville was a great beer town, and there happened to be some stellar mountains in the vicinity (and the Biltmore too), so we picked a gorgeous spring weekend to head down there for a few days.  And we loved it.

We were totally floored by the vibrant beer scene - I had never been to a place where breweries outnumbered people (only a slight exaggeration). I distinctly remember walking into the first brewery that day, High-Wire Brewing, which occupied what looked like a small airplane hanger.  Kathryn and I were two of only a handful of customers on a Thursday afternoon, but just off to my left, the brewer was raking grains in a horizontal dairy tank.  All the doors were open since the day was warm and pleasant, but there was still a strong malty aroma emanating from the brew area, which was literally right next to where I was sitting.  We ordered a flight and proceeded to opine on the beer quality and plan where we wanted to head next.

All the breweries in Asheville had their own unique atmosphere, but the ones that really impressed me were the places I could drink my beer directly next to the tank in which it was made...as in, I could touch it if I wanted to (which of course I did).  

Later, we found ourselves just down the street at the Wicked Weed Funkatorium, and this is where we had our first truly great sour beer - Genesis.  Think what you will of Wicked Weed’s departure from the world of independent craft beer, but the quality of their sour beer program was top notch.  As we were sitting among happy strangers enjoying tart and subtly fruity beer, we asked ourselves “why the hell isn’t there something like this near us?” An informal setting with a strict focus on the art of brewing - I couldn’t think of anything like it nearby.  We should do this in Delaware. An idea was born.

We booked a walking brewery tour around Asheville the next day.  Our tour guide was a Cicerone and Asheville native, both of which complimented his tour since it felt like a beer and history lesson all-in-one.

I asked the guide how so many breweries could sustain themselves in town, and his obvious reply was that they all make great beer and bring in out-of-towners like myself.  He also mentioned that a brewery recently went under, but the likely root-cause was poor beer quality. Good to know.

I think this is one of my favorite parts of Asheville - all the breweries in town absolutely have to bring their A-game, respect the art of brewing, and focus on quality product to the point of fanaticism.  Otherwise, the the place next door will put them out of business. That’s a victory for the beer consumer.

We reluctantly drove home the next day, but a good portion of the nine hour drive back was consumed with discussion on what it would take to start our own brewery.

Jimmy Vennard
The Brewhouse Continued

We spent a few years planning this brewery, and early in the process we had to decide on the equipment we would acquire.  Especially when it came to the brewhouse capacity. And we churned on this one for months.

So what is the brewhouse anyway? It’s where the initial work of converting the grain into a sugary-water mixture occurs. The brewhouse consists of two tanks (larger breweries have up to 4 tanks in their brew house to maximize efficiency) - a mash tun and a boil kettle.  Think of them as two pots - one for soaking, and the other for boiling - and both are needed to brew beer (although a clever home-brewer can use the same pot to do both of these things). There is a substantial increase in cost as you increase the size of the brew house tanks, so obviously, we wanted to get this right since a good portion of start-up capital would be tied up in this equipment.

The first draft of our business plan had a 1 barrel brewhouse (31 gallon batch size), but we quickly realized that we would literally kill ourselves brewing all the time if the brewery was even slightly successful.  When we considered the 10 barrel system (310 gallons), I determined that the overall utilization of that huge asset ($$$) was going to be really low even in our best case scenario.

For context, Neshaminy Creek Brewing supports a tasting room and distribution around the Greater Philadelphia area with a 15 barrel system!  They are brewing around the clock to meet demand (and thus utilizing their assets extremely well!), but that gives an indication of how far a moderately sized brew house can go. Large macro breweries take the same approach - size the equipment such that you are working it as much as possible.

The flip side is over-sizing, and that’s a waste of money to have an expensive tank sitting idle several days a week.  (yes, there are long term labor costs associated with smaller systems that we considered, but I’m leaving that out of the blog post for the sake of brevity).

We quickly realized that the question of equipment size is actually the wrong question to be asking at the start.  The real question any brewery should be asking is this - who’s your customer and why are they going to buy your product over some other brewery?  After all, there are quite a few breweries making fine libations without us in the mix.

Here’s our answer:  Autumn Arch endeavors to serve Newark locals, craft beer enthusiasts, and the occasional wayward individual looking for something different.   The experimental nature of our brewing will yield a wide variety of beer styles, and for some reason, that’s hard to come by in Newark these days.  We want these folks coming to our brewery because of the broad selection of authentic and interesting craft beers served in a relaxed atmosphere where one can literally sit adjacent to the tanks where the beer was made. And if that’s not enough, there’s a ton of parking at the brewery, so it won’t be a pain in the ass to visit (bonus: Midnight Oil Brewing Co. is a short walk from our door).

So what brewhouse enables us to execute this vision?

A sexy 5 barrel brewhouse.  Big enough to support the volume in a moderately busy tasting room and a robust sour beer program, but small enough to brew unique beers without worrying about them sitting around for months.  When you force us to be brewing around the clock to meet high demand, instead of lamenting about not getting the bigger system, the engineer in me will put on a wry smile and be happy about the 100% equipment utilization.

Jimmy Vennard
The Brewhouse

One of the largest investments we made in three years of planning Autumn Arch Beer Project was the brewhouse and fermentation vessels.  There are a lot of brewing equipment manufacturers as we discovered while attending a craft beer expo two years ago, and this makes sense because the craft beer industry is booming (I had to go back and specify “craft” in that statement because beer as a whole has been relatively flat in recent years).  

One company that stood out to us was Deutsche Beverage Technology.  The company was only a few years old but had been making top notch brew houses at competitive prices.  And they were willing to work with us to make a few custom improvements. In researching all the different brewhouses, Dan accumulated a few good ideas and insights, and he brought these to the table when we kicked off our project with Deutsche.  

To do that, Dann and I took a trip down to Deutsche in Charlotte, NC.  Since it was just Dan and myself, we were able to keep the trip expenses low with a couple rare finds on Airbnb.  The first night, we slept in a really nice shed somewhere between Greensboro and Charlotte, and we were completely unaware of the chickens on premises until about 5am the next day.  Those feathered fiends helped ensure we made it over to Deutsche in a timely fashion, but for future Airbnb stays, I may inquire about barnyard animals. The shed was otherwise delightful.

We spent the following day at Deutsche and had the opportunity to use their 10bbl, 4 vessel brewhouse to push around a few batches of warm water.  We also talked through our brewing equipment design with the engineers. Dan took the lead on the P&ID reviews to make sure we were getting the best system for Autumn Arch Beer Project.  The order was placed and our work was finished for the day.

Afterwards, we decided to descend upon the vibrant craft beer scene in Charlotte.  We stopped by Wooden Robot Brewery and caught up with the head brewer and owner, Dan Wade.  This is a great little brewery in downtown Charlotte. They had a nice mix of IPAs and a couple sour beers.  

Dan talked about how he brews/ferments clean and sour beers in the same brewing area, and this is something of interest to us since we plan to do the same at Autumn Arch.  The critical part of the entire operation is keeping the “clean beer” in that clean state when transferring from the boil kettle to the fermenter. Assuming the fermenter is superbly clean (a low risk assumption), the beer ferments as expected.  After fermentation, the beer is transferred to a brite tank or keg, and at that point, the liquid is chilled to <38°F, which makes it extremely difficult for any wild yeast to take hold and affect the flavor of the finished beer.

Our brew house and fermenters arrived in August and we plan to have everything hooked up later this month.  This is happening while construction is occurring in the rest of the brewery, so no beer until everything gets finished.  We’re looking forward to the first batch and we hope you are too.

Experimental Nature

I thought mother nature was going to continue her wet ways and rain out another weekend. But alas, the hurricane weekend turned out to be fairly nice in our area. So I took the opportunity to repair some small engines (mower and chain saw) and close down the pool for the summer.  This is actually the first time I closed the pool during the astronomical summer (i.e. before the fall equinox). It took me four years to confirm that no one swims in October, even if the day is warm. But when all was finished, I realized the late September afternoon was the perfect time to open up a Kellerbier recently delivered by a German associate of mine.  Now I would love to say that I’m no stranger to new styles, but I actually cannot say this - I have tried nearly every style of beer out there. So new styles and me are strangers indeed!

But what is a Kellerbier?  I actually had to look it up after the first taste (which was delicious).  Apparently, Kellerbier is an unfiltered Helles lager or Kolsch ale, usually enjoyed in beer gardens during the summer months (and my backyard is a sufficient beer garden for about 4 weeks out of the year).  The BJCP style guide was vague on defining this style, but it was smooth and clean, typical of a German lager, and very cloudy. So why the heck haven’t I had this before?*

One of the reasons we are starting Autumn Arch Beer Project is so that this particular event isn’t left to random chance and a German friend.  We think it’s quite nice to have a brewery with new and different beers every week, and this is where Autumn Arch delivers something unique. We love trying new things - this is the experimental part of our venture. We’re engineers, so the experimentation is not shooting from the hip, but instead a purposeful effort to craft the highest quality beer. We’re small, so there’s no pressure to make the same four beers every week (I loathe the very thought of doing this).  And we’re human; meaning we love sharing stories with friends and family over beers.

And thus, we can conclude (because this blog is composed by an engineer**):

Autumn Arch Beer Project = Experimental, Small Batch, Communal Brewery

*Actually, I have not had this beer for two reasons.  1. my brother and I have never brewed it at home, but we probably should have, and 2. I have never been to a brewery daring enough to have it on tap (and I fully acknowledge the ones that are daring enough only do so in the summer time, so there’s a timing component to this as well).

**Apparently, nearly all the owners are engineers, which I had not thought about until writing this post.  I think this makes us incredibly exciting and boring at the same time.

How Things Start

Autumn Arch started with a small idea four years ago.  It was just after my family moved into a new house, just down the road from my brother Dann back in August 2014.  

I figured that since we now lived so close to each other, we were obligated to share a backyard hobby together.  I wanted something that could be conducted year-round and had a tangible output, which eliminated gardening and most sports.  We could have built a clay pizza oven together, but it would have been difficult for the visiting brother to transport the output home (although, I am still keen to do this myself one day when time allows).  

Several of my co-workers were into homebrewing, and being engineers, they were really into the science of the hobby.  So naturally, my thought process drifted to beer brewing, and Dann had some experience in this endeavor from his early career days when he occasionally brewed with a high school buddy.  I liked the idea of my new hobby involving cool equipment and tools (not coincidentally, I was also into climbing, cycling, and computer building at the time), so I proposed that we start brewing together. 

It was at that point that Dann’s eyes lit up, and he gleefully skipped over the horizon, returning a few weeks later with a highly engineered (but mostly cobbled together) home brewing system, with which we created our first beer - a delightful porter.  We called it Left Shark...a tribute to the left shark on Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime show back in 2015 (the left shark did his own dance out there instead of whatever choreographed routine was planned...and I respect that).  I wish I still had a bottle of that beer to do a taste test against.  There was so much we didn't know about recipe development back then, so I wonder how it would stack up against a porter we brew at Autumn Arch.  Regardless, Left Shark was zestfully consumed by family, friends, and colleagues.  And you can still find it on Untappd along with Dann's original label.  Look for 841 Brewing.

We were not aware of it on that cold December afternoon, but the Autumn Arch Beer Project began that day.  Dann and I are looking forward to sharing our project with you later this year.