Blank Slate Brewing Company joined the Cincinnati brewing scene in Spring of 2012, and I sat down with him in the fall of that year. Realizing it’s been three years since then, we sat down for another interview recently. Scott and I talked for a long time, this is a long post please bear with it, it’s worth it. Also, hang tight for later this week or next when I’ll post part 2. Today, though, it’s all about Blank Slate Brewing Company!
I’ve edited what follows for grammar and flow.
What’s changed in the past three years?
Damn near everything. We had the dubious distinction of being the only brewery in Cincinnati without a taproom; we rectified that in November of 2014. It’s a growing and learning experience dealing with the retail side of things and inviting the public into your space. Having people touching your stuff so to speak. So it’s different, and it’s good.
Now that it’s more of the retail side of things it’s a different world for me personally. My entire existence was in manufacturing and behind the scenes, not on the front line. Now I have to deal with the ups and downs that come with it, some weeks are good, some weeks are bad, some weeks you think you’re going to do terrible, and you do really well. You kind of got to ride those waves and realize it all balances out.
It’s also been good because it allows us to start slowly producing some other beers, smaller quantities, and not worry how we’re going to get that out in the market. That allows us to play some more, our capacity constraints prevent us from doing as much of that as we’d like, so we’re only running through 1 or 2 oddball things at the taproom every couple of months because we can’t physically keep up. When we started the tap-room we started with eight taps but only had 6 to 7 on tap. Very rarely we could fill out all 8 of them, as of this weekend if I had two more taps they’d all be full.
As far as other things that have changed, we make more beer; we sell more beer than we did three years ago. I’m proud to say we’re pretty much doing things the same way. We have added more fermentation space and added things along the way to get us to where we are, which is still not very big. We’re in the process now of finally setting forth the expansion we’ve been underway on for over a year of basically tripling our capacity.
With the expansion, are you getting a new brewhouse or just fermenters?
We are not getting a new brewhouse; we’re making some additions and modifications to our current brewhouse. We have a 7 barrel brewhouse, and we brew into a 7 barrel tank and then 15 barrel tanks, so we do double batches. With our setup, we have to do the double batches over two days since we have hot water limitations. We’re going to make infrastructure upgrades that will take care of that so we’ll be able to double batch 15 barrels in a day. The tanks we’re getting will be a couple of 15s and some 30s.
We’re not going to expand our brewhouse just yet, over the next couple of years we’ll need to revisit that. Right now we brew 7 barrels at a time 2 to 4 days a week. There have been weeks where we’ve only brewed once due to tank space. When we have more tanks, that’ll obviously change that.
What capacity were you at three years ago?
We started in the middle of the year. Our first full year we did right around 300 barrels. Our second full year of production we went from 300 to the 450 range. For our third full year, we’re at almost 600. Now, switching to the calendar year 2015, we’ll do about 700 barrels. This expansion will take us to between 2,000 and 2,400 depending on the product. If people quit drinking so damn much IPA, we could make more beer, but that’s all right. [Ed. Note: He said this with a chuckle.]
Last time we talked you had mentioned plans to start bottling in 2013. With the upcoming expansion are there new plans for packaging?
The expansion will take us until the spring before everything is up and running. We’ll be tripling capacity, from 700 to 2,000 – 2400 barrels, we’re also going to build the infrastructure to grow on top of that fairly easily. We’re projecting over the course of the next seven years to push to 7,000 barrels. With that, there’s a lot of boring stuff like utility upgrades, new electrical service, a new chiller for our glycol system, several more fermenters and capacity to add more. We’re also adding in a packaging line. With that increased capacity about half of that will go to the draft and the other half will go to packaging.
We are going to do 6-pack 12-ounce cans of our regular beers, we will also be doing special one-off large format bottles. The first thing we’ll do in bottles is Ryesing Up, corked and caged and carbonated up to the level that a saison should have. There will also be some Brett variants of it.
First beer in cans will be Fork in the Road. Our volume, capacity, and capabilities for that will be pretty small in the beginning. We’re looking to start out with about 1,000 cases a month. Which puts it in the mom and pop small chain bottle shops, in the beginning only Hamilton County. The second beer to go into cans, cause it’ll most likely be pushing into spring, will likely be Out and About.
We are going to employ a bit of a novel solution to the canning process as far as. Though the first thing we’ll do will be Fork In The Road, we will be in a position where we can do 100 cases of something else if we want to and it’ll mean not needing to get a whole truckload of cans.
When it comes to the cans will you stick to the seasonal rotation?
Well, that’s another thing that’s changed in the past years. We haven’t really changed that, but we’ve diverted away as necessary. The whole idea was to come out of the gate without a flagship. I looked at is you can go one of two ways, you can not do a flagship, you can rotate, you can do seasonals, and it’s going to become apparent to you that people like this and you need to make more of it. Fork in the Road started as a fall/winter beer, and now it’s basically a year-round beer on draft. There are a couple of other things that are sorta year round, but due to capacity, they’re not always on tap. In the back of my mind I always kind of thought this wasn’t going to last forever. But doing it this way lets people dictate to you what should become a flagship or year round beer. I still hate the term flagship.
You recently announced you were pulling back distribution into Hamilton County only. Can you tell us more about that?
When we originally signed with Stagnaro, we signed for their entire territory which is Hamilton, Butler, Warren, Clermont, with Montgomery, Brown, Adams County. Also, Boone and Kenton counties which got us over to KY, which we had people wanting us into KY. We never pushed anything to Dayton and never made it a focus, but we sold a few things there. What I found was the sales we were making in outer territories, and NKY weren’t what I would consider quality sales that I could support. We started running into problems where the bar down the street couldn’t get us on tap because the distributor was out of things.
I ran through the numbers, and 85% of our sales were in Hamilton County. We made the decision to pull it back and help our capacity by bringing that back into Hamilton County. When we’re ready to service Dayton and NKY fully then we’ll go in there and make a considerate effort to do it the right way. We had things going everywhere, and I had no idea where it was going, and the guy down the street couldn’t get a beer, that’s running counter to our local focus.
Did tap-room demand impact that decision?
Not a lot. Because the tap-room is so small, the volume that we go through here in the course of a month doesn’t affect the market.
People love sours; you had Mother Lover for a while, It’s not on now, where did it go? What’s the long-term plan?
When we came out with Mother Lover, it was essentially the R&D stage of an interesting variation that we want to start doing with sour beers. It’s kombucha fermented. The tricky thing with the kombucha mother is you have to keep feeding it. Once you take a batch out you, have to put another one back in the next day. After our second batch, I thought we could stretch that to a week because brewing schedules we couldn’t make the next day work. We did not love our mother enough, and she turned on us, so we lost that culture.
We’ve decided to let that project rest for a little bit, but it will be coming back. It will come back in a different method because what we were doing was just the very beginning experimental stage. I thought it was a very interesting, unique experiment, it was sour as fuck. It was proof of concept so to speak. We were taking malt based wort and fermenting it with Kombucha culture which is something that it’s not supposed to be able to do. All the shit I’ve read is that it will not do that, but I proved that it will. The ultimate goal of it was that we’d have this mother culture creating this super sour that we’d start blending into other beers. I like to think of it as our Sam Adams Kosmic Mother Funk, a base that you blend into other things. We haven’t decided exactly the styles and things we’re going to do with that. It’s a project that we aren’t going to restart until the summer of next year, and if we can put something simple though it’ll be the end of next year before we will start bottling some of these things.
Once we finish our expansion and we get settled back in we’ll do some traditional sour beers. I’ve got a very interesting idea I want to do with some cabernet barrels and basically a Flanders Red solera type project.
Last time we talked you weren’t officially with Stagnaro yet. How has that changed for you?
Short term was an immediate growth to get beer out. I was doing distribution, sales, deliveries, picking up empties; that was 2 ½ almost three days of the week. The rest of the week was brewing, cellaring, doing everything else. The problem was even though we had minimal brewing capacity I was not filling that because I wasn’t here all the days. I was able to start brewing more. I don’t want to say it’s hurt us, but it has put us behind the eight-ball a bit that we don’t have our own brewery rep. Each year I make it one of my goals that this year I’m going to get back out in the market, doing some sales calls, unfortunately, that never happens. As we grow a little more, we’ll get to a point where we can support that.
@MrFriendlyBeer asked Why is Shroominus so good?
Hell, I don’t know. Why is anything so good? Why is the sky so blue? We put a lot of work into that beer. It takes a little more effort than some of the things we do. It’s a brown ale, but it’s a brown ale made with nine different grains. Which, especially on a professional brewery level, there are guys who run really big systems who say if you do any more than 4 grains you’re a dumbass. So I flip it back on them and say for certain beers that’s fine, but if you believe that as your focusing philosophy that’s why all your beers taste exactly the same. So there are 9 grains in that beer, there’s the alcohol content to deal with, and then there are the mushrooms.
We infuse the mushrooms in 2 different places, which is what I think really gives it that extra little bit. The first half go in the hop back, so it’s making a tea that’s being infused with it, so it comes through really well. During fermentation, you lose some of that through blow off. At the end of fermentation we actually steep mushrooms, we boil some water, deaerate it, and steep the mushrooms in that to make another hit of broth. The fact that we split that up, you get some of the earthy characters in the malt that’s hot extracted through the wort. Extracting it through moving wort vs. sitting in water, it’s a different extraction and a different flavor. I don’t know if that’s why it’s so great, or if putting mushrooms in beer is just a great idea to begin with. It’s a beer that I’m very excited to package this someday because it’s a beer that to me… to be able to pour a glass of it at home, let it sit and warm up, then have it with a nice meal that’s when the beer does what it was designed to do.
@OsbornBrewing asked What is your favorite beer of yours to brew?
One of my favorite things in the brewing process is the smell of the mash. When you’ve got everything mashed in, doughed in, temperatures all right, you stick your head in it to the point that nothing but the mash is encompassing your entire head. That to me is what I love almost as much as, if not more than, drinking some of these beers. So my two favorite mashes are Movin’ On and Fume. When we’re brewing those beers, I love to just sit there and huff the fumes. Just the smell and aroma of the mash of that. I wish I could can and sell that like the canned air from Spaceballs.
What else should I be asking?
It’s hard to say. We do keep a fairly low profile, we don’t have a big advertising budget, we don’t have a lot of marketing. We’re just a logo on a tap handle. We’re going to work on that. Especially on the packaging side that’s going to expand into a lot of other stuff. For this Opera Cream release, we’re having a poster done. That’s the first time I’ve had commissioned artwork done for this brewery other than our Logo. We’re going to work slowly on that, but for us we’re all about the beer. If I’ve got an extra $100 to spend at the end of the month and I can spend it on advertising, or I can spend it on something to make more beer or better beer? 100 out of 100 times it’s going to go towards the beer side. Now I’m trying to swing that to 99 of 100 times it goes to beer and that other 1-time branding or marketing.
What else should people know? I dunno. We’re here [4233 Airport Rd, Cincinnati, OH 45226], come visit us, come on down to the East End. We are 7 minutes from downtown, outside of traffic. We’re not that far away.