The life cycle of craft beer

Head brewer Bradley Zimmerman, assistant brewers Will Moorman and Tony Fleming.

The image of the craft beer brewer is now familiar to most beer drinkers: beard, rubber galoshes, a baseball cap, consuming endless beers on the company dime. This is all, generally, true. But brewery work isn't just one long keg party in waterproof shoes. On brewing days, Tow Yard assistant brewer Will Moorman is on his bike at 5 a.m., pedaling down the Monon from Broad Ripple in the pre-dawn chill and darkness to kick his workday off promptly at 6 a.m. Riding alongside is assistant brewer Tony Fleming (known at TY as "Fernie"), and along with head brewer Bradley Zimmerman they are the three-man team responsible for putting Tow Yard's beer on the map.

By the time I had caught up with Moorman, around noon, much of the day's tasks had been done: restocking Tow Yard's bar, rolling filled kegs to the walk-in, washing empty kegs, checking the gravity of the beers fermenting in one of only a handful of tanks, a test that helps them determine how much sugar the yeast have consumed, (Newtonian gravity, on the other hand, helps the brew team figure out how much more tasting they can do.) True to the stereotype, he crowds the lid of a nearby barrel of sanitizer with a half-dozen snifters filled with modest pours. "We do a decent amount of quality control," he laughs. But the act of drinking what he's brewing is, in fact, necessary for the success his — or any — brewery.

Tow Yard is experiencing the same journey familiar to lots of small businesses in the state: its first year of commercial brewing. At this stage, the pressure is on thre brew team to make a beer worthy of buzz, and to create a stable of house beers that will gain a reliable following.

"I'm trying to make a consistent, balanced beer, in color, flavor, everything. A good beer should be balanced," Moorman says. After all, triple IPAs are fun to make and taste, but you wouldn't buy a keg of it for your backyard barbeque. That's why brewing days start at 6, why the recipes are followed precisely, and why the scrubbing down and sanitizing is never-ending.

"Bacteria creates off flavors. If any of that gets into your beer, you're going to get weird, sour, funky notes, trashy flavors. All sorts of strange, off-putting flavors." Even the hoses that release the carbon dioxide from the fermentation tanks have to be plunged into buckets of sanitizer, creating a simple, gurgling airlock that no bacteria can take advantage of.

Bacteria is continually killed at every stage with the constant application of something innocently named "brewer's soap," which is stored in blue drums labeled "CAUSTIC." It's actually a very basic solution that, to bacteria, is like napalm. Actually, it's a lot like napalm to people, too.

"It hurts a lot, all the time. It's super, uh, burn-y. Yeah," Moorman comments. Next time you down a craft pint, pour a little out for all the skin you never knew brewer's were losing for the cause.So yes, on the one hand, brewers do get to drink at work and they get to leave, some days, in the early afternoon. But many of their days also start way before nine, and some days end long after five, with a lot of steam and chemical burns in between. The work isn't easy, but the payoff is something everyone gets to enjoy. Though the brewery team's job technically never ends, once the beer is in the keg, the responsibility to get it into the hands of consumers falls to Tow Yard's head of marketing, Jim Siegel.

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Jim Siegel has, arguably, one of the toughest jobs in brewing. Sure, he's not at risk of burning off some skin with a sanitizer spill, but he has to find a way to bust through the noise of the exploding brewing market and make an impression on buyers.

"The tap markers, they're like real estate. There's only so many tap markers in the city, so how do you get a foothold on some real estate?" he says. That was the question facing Tow Yard five months ago when the brewery opened its doors. Even as more bars open and more beer festivals are created to meet the demand, small breweries still have to compete with national mega-brands like Budweiser and Guinness. Unless, that is, you brew the perfect complementary beer to blend with a major brand."Nine Irish Brothers, they're mixing Goldie Hops with Guinness and they're calling it a 'Black and Gold' because they're from Lafayette," he says.

When I ask him about the boom in Indianapolis craft breweries, he gives me some perspective on the market as a whole.

"We still have fewer breweries per thousand than many other cities." What looks like a boom to us is merely a product of the growth in such a small window of time. In 2012, Indiana had only 4.2 breweries per 500,000 residents. By contrast, Oregon had 18.3 per 500,000 residents. Though it certainly feels like the market is crowding with competitors, there is actually quite a lot of room for continued growth.

"In a market like this, I think there's definitely room for everybody. There's so many great beers and so many creative people making really awesome beer."

Siegel is helping further that growth by thinking a little bit outside the normal confines of how craft beer is usually served and consumed. By creating beers that have more flexible applications, he hopes to broaden the exposure of Tow Yard to bar patrons.

"Something that's unique for us is we are starting to see a lot of the bars and restaurants using our beer and mixing it with vodka or gin, so it's like a beer cocktail," Siegel says. "And that opens for us a whole new segment in mixology." For both bars and restaurants, using craft beer in their cocktails makes as much business sense as is it does for great taste.

"For bars and restaurants, they want to maximize their dollars. If they can put a shot of vodka in our beer and charge ten dollars for it as a cocktail, that's a win for everyone."

And when asked whether he loses sleep over the growing market, Siegel sees it less as a reason to be worried and more as a change to look forward to. In fact, he's confident that competition would only serve to grow his brand.

"It's like any business: you have to provide a good product or service. If you don't make quality beer, you are not going to survive." Seigel's confident in the quality of his product, and hopes the market continues to grow in order to wring out the lower quality beers. For Tow Yard, he sees the growing market as just another boon to their business, and predicts that Downtown Indy is poised to become a destination and touring spot for craft lovers nationwide.

"What I think it does for us, being located where we are, is it gives people who come downtown to all the breweries a really fun experience instead of just going to one or two."

Creating an open channel of exposure to potential customers, bloggers and insiders is key to Siegel's plan, because in beer, all buzz is good buzz. And good thing, too, because it's part of Weber Grill's Jose Suarez's plan to get the best beer in his taps.

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Jose Suarez, beverage manager at Weber Grill, is in charge of divvying up that tap real estate, and, as part of a nationally branded business, he has to keep some of his beers consistent so Bud Light Guy can always get a Bud Light at any Weber in the world. But Suarez also knows that the beer consumer is getting smarter, more educated, and wants more than just a pint of 312 or Blue Moon to call "craft." And because, like most bar managers, he has to keep Budweiser and a couple other national brands, the space for small breweries to make it into the tap is narrowed even further. So how does a small brewery catch the attention of a guy like Suarez? By making good beer and getting their name out there, plain and simple.

"I do a lot of research. That involves going out and getting to know the community, what exactly is out there," Suarez says about the process of choosing beer for his taps. He's been in Indy about two years, having moved from Chicago. He called Indy's beer scene a "great surprise" upon moving.

"As far as deciding what comes on tap and what we feature, that's something that I listen to our guests about," he said. Not only do the guests have to like it, but it has to be a beer servers can sell well to the guest, as beer pairings and recommendations are an established part of the Weber's menu.

"We're fortunate to have so much out there to choose from. We try to keep it fresh and switch it up—not too often though. Just enough so that our regular guests can still come and look forward to something," he says. That's another factor in the balance bar managers have to consider: how to keep their selection new without pissing off any regulars—the bread-and-butter of bars and restaurants.

"You're always going to have the call for Budweiser and Coors Light. People come in from all across the country all across the world and they have different tastes. And they do have that brand recognition that people will gravitate to. But there's also people who appreciate trying something new." It's those people for whom Suarez stays on top of the craft brewing scene and rotates his taps. After all, craft brewers are not spending too much time trying to convert the Coors drinker, but most try to brew something accessible in case Coors Guy ever decides that maybe he'll be a Sun King guy. In other words, managers like Suarez have to come at it like they're buying beer for a party where they don't know who's coming.

"This is what we consider our backyard," Suarez says of the restaurant. "We are grilling out for our guests and we want them to relax. And we treat out bar program the same way."

Ultimately, it's the social nature of beer that seeps into every aspect of the business, from production to consumption. People who like beer inevitably like to talk about good beer, and word travels from the brew deck, to the festival, to the restaurant. Suarez's research online delves into blogs, social media, and everything in between, searching for the brand that's getting good buzz. It also means he has to visit breweries and meet the people making the beer, making time to talk to brewers about their products and processes. And the cycle begins again.