Ending a Chapter, Starting Another
An update about Quiet Scheme is long overdue. The short version is we have set aside our original idea of a tap room focused commercial brewery. I still have a lot I want to do in brewing, most of which doesn't require a commercial license. I was fortunate enough to end up building my dream pilot brewery, more or less. I have continued to practice my craft and my passion. I will continue brewing, now with more of a focus on sharing rather than selling.
Ending a Chapter
When Andrea and I decided together we wanted to open our own place, the vision was always that: an actual place. We wanted to create a space where everyone could be themselves and would want to share with their friends. The beer I brewed would be a part of that, never all of it. Brewing was going to be a catalyst but what excited us the most was how we would define and sustain a space people would actually want to visit and spend time in. When we started planning in earnest, tap room focused breweries were still relatively new. The very thing we loved about our idea was seemingly just starting to take off in the industry. We weren't being irresponsible, there was a demand for our vision. I want to emphasize this given what came next: we were most excited about creating a social space and the broader interest in tap rooms only fueled our excitement.
After our decision to postpone in the Spring of last year, we put our hope of opening on the vaccine. For a few brief weeks this Summer, we thought we could finally dust off our business plan. I started re-working the financial model to get ready to update the market research for everything that had changed in the previous year. Then our optimism was dashed, along with that of many other people. Struggling with a resurgence of the pandemic, I was running low on enthusiasm and then craft beer as an industry drew scrutiny, rightly so, for longstanding problems involving harassment and discrimination.
I doubted we'd ever be able to create a brewery with the social space we wanted. I was gutted by the unsurprising and deeply problematic aspects of the broader industry. Did I really want to take on considerable debt and sacrifice for this? My family and I have gone through a lot these last few years, even before the pandemic. Without getting too personal, I will say these family experiences catalyzed a good deal of growth for me. Enough to have outgrown the superficial belief that craft beer is "99% ass hole free." Enough to know that the emotional labor required to not only create but maintain and even defend the social space Andrea and I envisioned would be too much. All of that was in addition to the personal sacrifices and financial risks we already knew would be required.
I tried narrowing my focus to the original reason I ever considered starting a commercial brewing: being able to sell my beer. I researched a couple other options beyond the taproom model--contract brewing and licensing my pilot brewery. Maybe I could start modestly, with something like a community supported brewery program. Something with considerably less risk, where we might not need our own permanent location or could brew intermittently to start. We could try the long game on the space, building traction so we could have more options if or when we decided to go back to the bank.
Everything I considered ran into the same fundamental problem: the core aspect of a brewery, exchanging beer for cash, requires a license. The federal agency that issues that license requires a physical location, or site. The very start of the application process prohibits that site from being a "dwelling." That means needing to buy or lease a space which then cascades into questions of scale, efficiency, and break even. By comparison, the utilities for my pilot brewery, as part of a "dwelling", are already sunk costs, whether I brew or not. If I could sell whatever I produced in my pilot brewery, I could sell as much or as little as I like. My priority has never been the volume I could sell, rather that I could sell my beer at all.
I kept chasing these thoughts around for months. Maybe if I could find a low and slow way to cover the logistical side, we could wait out the pandemic and have enough in the emotional tank to do the hard work of building a small business we could be proud of. Especially given the difficult and very necessary conversations that are happening in the industry. Maybe the metrics the state and county use to make public health decisions would stabilize enough for some sort of social space to be safe and responsible. Maybe this time the discussions about inclusion and respect in craft beer would lead to some lasting changes.
I used to say, only partly in jest, that I needed to keep my home brewery in check or start investing some serious thought about opening a commercial brewery. The sincere part of that was related to my brewing setup at the time. The part about going pro was originally only a joke.
I started as a stove top brewer. In college, my then best friend and I made mead in the tiny apartment of our off campus apartment. When I got back into brewing, a little over a decade ago, a friend helped me do so. I helped him make a few extract batches in his kitchen then rebuilt my kit based on that experience. I went from extract to partial mash then finally all grain. I started to reach the limits of what my kit could do so upgraded to a kettle with its own electric element and a pair of pumps. With my old kettle, I used gravity to transfer beer from the mash tun then foolishly hoisted the whole kettle, hot wort and all, onto the range in our kitchen. That wasn't going to work with the new kettle. Those pumps unlocked a series of upgrades with one self-imposed limitation: I did not want to move out of the kitchen.
Originally, that limit had to do with cost. I wanted to stay with electric brewing, it was what I knew and I felt like it was easier for brewing year round than propane. At the time, to upgrade my rig any further would require more power and more ventilation than what I already had in my kitchen. Ventilation, in the form of a custom hood and venting, was too rich for my blood. I didn't even look into an upgrade to 240V. Besides, if I was going to spend more than discretionary money, I thought it made more sense to get serious about a business plan. Which three years ago, with the support of Andrea and a few other really good reasons, that is what I did.
I kept brewing in my kitchen. By the time we decided to work on opening the commercial brewery, I had claimed a small corner of our unfinished sub-cellar. My cellar upgrades had progressed to my first stainless steel, temperature controlled fermentors as well. I used the area of the sub-cellar with a floor drain right next to a set of unused water utility hook ups to help with preparation and post brewing clean up. It was a good spot to work with the new fermentors and glycol power pack. I thought this split arrangement worked pretty well. At least until that fateful winter brew day where the steam and condensation proved too much for the exhaust fan built into our over-the-range microwave. I started looking into steam abatement (happy wife, happy life) and realized some clever home brewers had adapted something urban brewers often include in their brewhouse: a steam condenser.
The idea is pretty simple, whether you are brewing a few gallons or a few hundred. You close your kettle but provide an outlet for the steam. Closing your kettle ordinarily would be a no-no, doing so can encourage a specific off flavor. To the steam outlet, add a small vessel with a way to introduce a fine spray or mist of cold water. The steam condenses quickly and flows with that water out a drain. The resulting very hot water is super useful, especially for cleaning at the end of brew day.
Last year we had the misfortune of needing some electrical repairs. You already may see where this is going. I asked the electrician for an estimate for adding a 240V circuit to our break box, with ground fault circuit interruption. Think of a scaled up version of the little "test" and "reset" buttons common on kitchen and bathroom outlets, there for the same reason: operating in a wet environment. The cost was comfortably within our means and with Andrea's blessing, I went ahead and scheduled the installation. My pandemic project became consolidating my brewery into the unfinished half of our sub-cellar, a room that is about ten by thirteen that we had been using only for storage.
I finally relented on my self imposed limitation, feeling that the pause on the business plan and the pandemic were good enough reasons. I upgraded all of my fittings, the way all of my equipment connects, to the same style used in commercial breweries. I bought my first jacketed fermentor, a substantial upgrade from even the very nice stainless steel "buckets" I had been using. Vessels like the ones I now use are the default in commercial breweries. A jacketed fermentor has a double outer wall inside of which super cooled glycol circulates. My buckets had coils that suspended from the lid for this purpose. A few batches in, even with my little eight gallon vessels, I was impressed enough to purchase a second one.
My home brewery, which became my pilot brewery when I was focused on opening a "big" brewery, was a refuge when I needed it during the high anxiety of the early pandemic. For our brief, "hot vax Summer", when refuge didn't seem necessary, I was still proud to think of it as a kernel of something more. At all events, I ended up creating the exact kind of home or pilot brewery I had been dreaming of before diverting into going pro.
Enter a Ninja
I was reminded of more reasons why I brew towards the end of last year, thanks to an online conversation with my friends Carl and Cory. I co-brewed a couple of beers for Carl, a few years back, around the time I started a brief professional chapter working in the public interest. My early use of free and open software sparked a curiosity that lead me to learn a lot about copyright. I formed a conviction then that I still try to live by, that open access to knowledge is a fundamental right. My professional work in software relies on it as does my passion for brewing.
Towards the end of last year, once it was clear we'd have a Biden administration instead of a second turn for the bloviating cheese puff, Cory started a fresh charm campaign to suggest to the incoming administration Carl would be an excellent appointee, as an "Open Access Ninja." Cory made similar suggestions about Carl as the "Rogue Archivist" to the Obama administration years ago. That name led to a namesake beer that I co-brewed and then to my first collaboration with Carl. I co-brewed "Our Nation's Attic" as part of his campaign to get The Smithsonian to re-consider a copyright overreach they should have known better than to commit.
I leadingly asked what kind of beer "Open Access Ninja" might be. Carl engaged with the question sincerely and after a couple of rounds of correspondence, I set about brewing four batches of beer for Carl, about seven or eight cases worth of beer at my scale. Carl had gorgeous labels made up, then tap handles and four pack carriers. And a bunch of other amazing themed swag. This is what Carl does, among many, many other things. How he does what he does, as a fierce advocate for the public interest, may be what I admire most about him. Even better, he pulled together an amazing film, highlighting the beer and advocating for the very thing it stands for: open access.
I love brewing beers for people ("Rogue Archivist" for Carl, "Majestic Simplicity" for Chris and Cathy, "Yankee Bayonet" for Ashley and Michael, "For the Win" for Cory) and for a purpose ("Our Nation's Attic" and every batch of beer I brewed for Dark Cloud Malthouse to tap at their tasting center.) Even if I am stymied from brewing commercially for the time being, there are so many other excellent and enjoyable reasons to brew, not the least my own enjoyment.
Starting Another Chapter
When I started working on the first batch of "Open Access Ninja", I still thought we might be able to open Quiet Scheme as a local taproom. By the final batch, I had come to the realization that at least the current version of that dream was done. At the same time, I managed to do what I least expected: build a tiny, commercial caliber brewery in my home.
Where does that leave Quiet Scheme?
I honestly don't know what the future may bring. I have given up on the original plan but not the idea of some sort of self sustaining enterprise. I am trying to remain open, to continue scheming if you will. I am disappointed I still cannot sell my beer. I am glad of the reminder that doing so was only ever a small part of my overall hopes for the taproom.
If you are interested in my beer, I am happy to figure out person by person what works best for me to share with you. I have everything I need to can my beer, a much more travel friendly package than the bottles I currently use. I actually have some time and plenty of beer right now to figure canning out before the end of the year.
I want to continue to use this site, to document and share information about what Quiet Scheme the brewery is right now: more than a home brewery, less than a commercial brewery, always brewing in order to improve my craft, open to dedicating beer and time for worthy causes. I have experimented with sharing more or less information about my brewing process and practice on my own social media. Lately I have leaned towards less out of concern it could be overwhelming to friends and followers interested in topics and activities other than beer. My own desire is to share, more and more often. I am still learning, explaining to others improves and tests my own understanding. Quiet Scheme feels like a better place to do that than my other sites and social profiles.
Now that I have brought everyone up to date, I plan to post continue posting here, hopefully on a much more regular schedule. I am also going to share more on Quiet Scheme's social media, especially from brew days and other work I do in the brewery every week. I really enjoyed the few live videos that I did last year and the part I contributed to Carl's movie. I'd like to experiment with more live video from the brewery only more focused on teaching without worrying about brand or marketing.
I'd love to continue to hear from all of you, too. Feel free to do so via Quiet Scheme's social media accounts. All of it goes to me, anyway, except I'll know you'd like to discuss beer or brewing specifically.
I am not sure if I am going to start up another beer or brewing related podcast. For now, I am going to focusing on brewing, writing, and sharing, in roughly that order.
Thank you for sticking around this far and I hope you all decided to continue to follow along.Tags: progress