Allagash Brewing Company's brewmaster Jason Perkins is smart enough to know that he doesn't have all of the answers. That’s why, in pursuit of new beer recipes about nine years ago, Perkins and Allagash founder Rob Tod installed a pilot system that would enable any employee to engage in supervised experimentation.
When visiting Allagash in Portland, Maine, this winter, I was at first shocked to see this contraption—a 15.5-gallon home-brewing system made of three modified half-barrel kegs—surrounded by millions of dollars' worth cutting-edge brewing equipment. Allagash does have a soft spot for some of the simpler brewing techniques, though. It is, after all, the first in the US to build a "coolship" to spontaneously ferment beers the way Belgian lambic brewers have since the Middle Ages.
Much more important than the mere integrity or purity of the apparatus, however, is that it allows all employees to contribute new beer recipes—even those without a bit of brewing experience. With its installation, Allagash has established a truly collaborative environment that inspires a constant outpouring of creativity. In fact, nearly every new beer that the brewery has released in the last five years started out on the brewery's pilot system.
I spoke with Perkins specifically about this unique program.
Does Allagash proactively encourage employees to brew on the pilot system?
Absolutely. Our Pilot Team—which includes myself, several brewers, one of our maintenance guys and one of our quality-control folks—makes sure the equipment is running well and chooses which staff member gets to brew next. Almost everybody who submits an idea gets a chance to brew at some point. It could be [an experienced homebrewer], or it could be someone on the administrative, warehouse or sales staff.
How does an employee who's never brewed before do this?
The pilot team will work with the individual depending on how much assistance they need. We'll ask, "What kind of flavors are you looking for? What other beers does this remind you of?" We'll help to develop a recipe, and then the individual brews the beer [with a] pilot team member by their side so that they don't blow anything up. But they're doing it! They're milling the grain, mashing the grain…the whole experience.
It must be great for getting everyone invested in the brewery. Do employees weigh in on other employees' creations?
For sure. Everybody has the opportunity to try each beer, and we even have forms for people to fill out and say, "This is what I like about the beer; this is what I would change." Those [notes] are always interesting, but in the end, the best [indicator] about [the quality of] that beer is how long the keg lasts. Sometimes it's gone in a day, other times it lasts a week.
Allagash's Patrick Saville having a little too much fun with some blood oranges for a pilot batch called Invisible Orange.
What was one of those great successes that only lasted a day?
Session Brett is a fairly new 4.5 percent [ABV], 100 percent Brettanomyces-fermented, hoppy beer that I think might hold the record for fastest consumption.
Any giant failures on the pilot system? Anything you could never allow to see the light of day?
Yeah, for sure. I hesitate to name them, because they're all tied to individuals. I'm sure the individuals would probably agree, but… (laughs) Yeah, the nice part of the pilot system is that you can try really wacky things and not worry about failing.
How does each individual come up with his or her beer?
Mattina Rossa [for example] came from Greg Devito, another of our longtime brewers. We've used raspberries in finished sour beer, but Greg had a crazy idea to brew a beer with raspberries in the mash itself. So the first raspberry addition with the grain is for color, mouthfeel and a little bit of flavor, and the second addition in the barrel is for big aroma. That beer was [initially] called Red Dawn because of our love for the Patrick Swayze '80s movie, but…because of copyright, we changed it to Mattina Rossa, which is Italian for Red Dawn, since Greg has Italian heritage.
Fluxus is a new beer every year that always comes off of the pilot system. Even Rob, the founder, gets down on that pilot system. So we worked his pilot idea into the Fluxus for this year, Allagash's 20th anniversary. Rob has Sugar Maple trees on his property and makes maple syrup every year, so we worked some maple syrup into the recipe. He's also a huge fan of Duvel, so he wanted to work in the yeast strain used in the [Belgian] beer.
Last year's Fluxus was a collaborative effort between two employees: Karl, who runs our sensory program [in the lab], wanted to do something with spruce tips. And Erin MacGregor-Forbes, our
controller [accountant], is a master beekeeper who keeps hives on our property here, so [we had the] opportunity to brew with our own honey as well.
Have any pilot beers become year-round offerings?
Things happen slowly and organically here. So the first time our brewer Patrick Chavanelle brought in a bottle of his home-brewed saison, I said, "This is fantastic, let's brew it on our system." We must have brewed five or six different pilot batches [of that beer] and then, over about two years, slowly sized it up to make a year-round release.
Considering the rate at which you're brewing and how great the brewery is doing, do you think that there will eventually be a point where you guys will be too large to have this pilot system?
I think it'll always be here—at least, as long as I have a say in it! I mean, it might have to alter a bit here and there, but I think the premise of it—the basic core of all people involved—I can't see us ever getting rid of that. It's just too much a part of who we are.