Brew Biz: Werts and All

Ken Carman is a BJCP judge; homebrewer since 1979, club member at Escambia Bay and Music City Homebrewers, who has been interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast for over 10 years.

Pensacola Bay Brewing
225 E. Zaragoza Street
Pensacola, FL 32502
(850) 434-3353

There’s only one thing I like as well as being proven wrong regarding my more cynical opinions; that’s being proven right when I know damn well what I’m being told is counter-intuitive. Such is the case with Pensacola Bay Brewing. I was told for years that a microbrewery in Pensacola was such a legal nightmare it simply wasn’t possible. I even offered to help, back in my days when my aging back hadn’t smirked and said, “No lifting, no standing, no sitting, no kneeling, no laying in one place for any significant period of time… now have fun, Ken!!!”

A micro in Pensacola?

“Just won’t happen.”

Two guys responded, “Oh, yeah?” …November 4th, 2010.

I was also glad to be proven wrong after my early trek (cue Enterprise music) to the beach festival last year when I tasted the first attempts by Pensacola Bay that September. As I told Mark Robertson, fellow member of Escambia Bay Homebrewers, and head brewer at Pensacola Bay Brewery, “I thought what you offered at the beach wasn’t bad at all, just unremarkable.” He countered with, “I didn’t have the kind of professional equipment I longed to play with yet.”

For being open a couple of months, remarkable indeed. If I had been told they had been opened for years I wouldn’t have thought a thing about it. There seems to be a somewhat unspoken standard I’ve heard whispered amongst those of us who review any new brew biz: usually the first year is the toughest, and often not the best time to review a new brew biz. Another adage proven wrong… and proof that Pensacola Bay is really off to one hell of a great start.

The first beer I had was one “not on the menu.” Mark had been tweaking the IPA. The one on tap at the time, while it would be perfectly fine for those who would prefer a lower hop threshold IPA, was… searching for that term again… somewhat unremarkable; though it did impress me more as I tasted what was left of the old batch later on. I even left with a growler mostly filled with that and a smidge of Porter.

Couldn’t have been all that bad, right? Exactly my point.

But the final version, with Centennial and Amarillo, was absolutely “remarkable.” The new Lil’ Napoleon is everything an IPA should be and more. More body-sense, but not so much as to mask the hop focus: a bit of caramelized sense that fills out the malt flavor. So many brewpubs miss that kind of complexity when they just go for carbonated hop soup. Yet, the hops? There. Dominant. Pleasing. The hops seem to add a strong, hophead pleasing, citrus tone, yet a decent spice under current that adds the kind of hop complexity longed for by those of us who aren’t interested in just any hop whack to the palate. Ditto with the malt sense as it swirls around the hops, comforting them with a firm, caramelized, base and just a hint of roast.

Perfect? Well, as I’m guessing Mark would say, “that doesn’t mean there will never, ever, be room for some tweaking.” Not that I think the brew needs tweaking. I think they have a winner. Not dry hopped, though with the nose you would think so. Mark attributes the aroma to whirlpool.

The first day I stopped by, after talking to the assistant brewer, I chatted with Mark’s business partner, Elliot Eckland. Short, dark hair, thin, even perhaps a bit shy and winsome, he warms up to the conversation. We know each other from brew festivals, but mostly in passing and gumbo making matters, if I remember right. (I made one of their gumbos for the competition over at the Seville a few years ago. We did well.) I have met Mark many times. A third was added to the twosome, a second brewer: Rogers Conley… short, thin, brackish hair, young, horns on his head, cloven feet, red tail, breathes brimstone laced fire… Wait, except all before “horns” that was the guy I met after I left the brewery: “InBev” and a Bud logo on the side of the truck he was driving. He was mad about “even more %$#@! competition in Pensacola…”

Joking.

Mr. Conley was the first to greet me as I wandered into the back of PBB, my initial visit. Bouncing from tank to tank, working as he spoke, Rogers showed me the equipment as I took rather poor pictures with my very unpredictable camera. Believe it or not the two you see here are the best, and I’m guessing some of the “curve” added to the metal work up high was my camera’s “artsy” add. Before I even met him, Mike Helf and I were chatting about Rogers over at McGuires. Very dedicated to the craft. Quite the talent.

At PBB you buy glasses, growlers: no higher than 32oz except a 64/gallon oz… that’s by Florida law… you can buy beer in those or a sample platter. Their sample platter is a neat, well crafted, wooden, tray that you can buy. Warning! Warning, Will Imbibe-inson: over $30 each, but worth it.

They have a Specific Mechanical System they bought from an old pub in Iowa, and have been open, by the time this is published, over two months. Set up to do 6,000 gallons. 15 barrel system. The tap handles are cannons, kind of a historical motif in Pensacola. Indeed Elliot said many of the names of the brews will be based on Pensacola history and they specifically wanted a downtown location to help with revitalization.

Elliot suggested that anyone who thinks they might want to start a micro make sure they do their homework before hand: know what they’re talking about. And he advised homebrewers to do all grain. Mark simply recommended Dave Miller’s book: Designing Great Beers, Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing, and Chuck Papizan’s Joy of Home Brewing. I told Elliott I didn’t need to know a specific amount. He did say this was about a million dollar investment.

So much fun, both of my visits. Wow. The second time I visited I sat with Mike Helf and son, Jake: brewer for McGuire’s in Pensacola. No, not Mike. I mean Mike’s approaching one year old son, Jake, is the brewer: stirring wort by running round the inside kettle at super sonic speed while Mike… doesn’t do a damn thing, the lazy creep. Jake: able to leap and pour grain into the Mash Tun with single bounds… I’m kidding! But if there’s even a chance the son might be as brew-talented as his father, I had to give a plug for the brewer’s son who could one day be lending a… Helf-ing… hand?

Ouch.

Mark, the master brewer at Pensacola Bay, was second at the table, but first in the heart of PBB quaff-ers I’m sure. Frank Ballero from the New Orleans Beer Company was the third. I suppose if they were Larry, Moe and Curly, I must have been the least of the Stooge act: Shemp. I’ll let you guys fight over which of the other three roles you want.

Nuke. Nuke.

We sampled PBB beer…

Note: I felt the server did two of the lighter beers a bit of a disservice; he tried to steer me away from drinking what I already thought was the lightest beer first, the one he claimed was not as light as the regular pale. But I had already sampled it and knew it really was the best beer to start with: a Kolsch called Deluxe Extra Pale. I got a light, slight sulfur “pucker” to the palate that reminded me a bit of corn, some of which is basically that odd Kolsch yeast sense. Not at all unexpected or undesired in the style. In fact Mark agreed with my comment in the form of a question, “If someone was a Bud or Miller fan, wouldn’t you start there first?” Their flagship beer, Maiden Voyage, was just a nice American ale, not a lot of hops, body just right. None of these had a hell of a lot of head, especially when it came to “lasting,” but the carbonation was always there in the body: far more crucial.

Lots of head is nice, but great taste and feel are so much more important. Like any good relationship, PBB beers embrace the taster with that, and more.

Yeah, I went there. Whatcha gonna do about it?

Riptide Red was billed as an amber, but I thought “red” was a closer: more specific, descriptive. A bit of caramel to the nose and taste and somewhat chewy. I think this might become a big hit: a great “between” beer. Complex enough to appeal to developing palates, but not so strong or mild that it might bother those offended by either. Don’t expect the more hoppy edge some American brewers are adding to reds. Besides, wouldn’t you rather have the new IPA if you want your tingled taste buds “hopping” around?

Benyan Brown had me speculating about Marris Otter, but when Mark mentioned “Munich,” “Bingo!” Also has Chocolate malt and Carmel. The Extra Special was a bit foggy, seemed unfiltered. Maybe caused by cold chill? A regular pale/perhaps a bit of a “Bitter,” like quaff with a nice light hop twist. Could be wheat, but I didn’t sense any and… wouldn’t there have been more head?

I already mentioned the alternate versions of Lil’ Napoleon IPA, and the last was Lighthouse Porter: could use a few more distinctive malts, or more distinction in the mix, but still quite pleasant. More of an English Porter as to how distinct it seemed hop-wise: very background. But if you’re headed that way then perhaps the malt mix should be just a wee more complex to satisfy American palates: palates always searching for “more” these days.

Once again: I chose some of the Porter to fill my 32oz Grolsch I left with, so I still enjoyed. I find in judging that complex, deep, malt sense is often hard to come by. This had some, I just would like a bit more, personally.

Both mouthfeel and clarity was good on all the beer. The malts and the hops seemed appropriate for each style both in the nose and to taste. It was as if the brewers drew back their bows, aimed and hit their targets: if not dead center… bloody close to the bullseye.

Elliot had a gripe that I think needs to be heard. Florida laws prevent standard growlers from being used. A gallon is a bit big and can be a big waste as well: he couldn’t find any with Grolsch-style tops. That’s important because they work far better at keeping the beer carbonated and less exposed to oxygen, I suspect there isn’t anyone out there making gallon Grolsch-style bottles. Plus it only encourages those who partake to partake faster and more. A Grolsch top, by definition, encourages moderation. An apple cider-like screw top means, “Drink more and faster or beer might get wasted.” The usual brewpub growler is about right, though I do like their 32oz Grolsch. Neat logo.

Besides, if anything is the object here, it certainly isn’t for the beer to get wasted, right?

Chuckle.

It was a joke! Drink responsibly, please.

He also mentioned they have Jack Daniels kegs, so expect some interesting, tasty, kegging of the Porter or, perhaps in the future, a Stout. As a lover of Stouts, especially Russian Imperials, one can hope, right? I’m hoping, at some point, they do add a high octane brew. In the club: Escambia Bay Brewers, Big Bob’s Barley Wine Bash Saturday night at the yearly Emerald Coast Beer Fest in September has become legend. Maybe as a seasonal brew festival time? Of course licensing and laws for their specific business may be problematic. A nice Scotch Ale might be a pleasing add to the lineup too, eventual. Again: a seasonal, maybe?

It’s a littler tough to get there and I’m afraid I’d get you lost. Best call for directions. But please do go. There’s a new brewery in town and I can’t imagine that can be anything but wonderful news for Pensacola.

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Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to review, discuss and comment on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer. Also: reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various homebrew, judging and organizations related to beer. Essentially, all things “beer.”

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Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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