From the blog

New Belgium’s pilot brewers: The most interesting job in beer?

Oct 08, 2015

If you want to know the most efficient way to cut, grill, and puree pineapples (because, you know, that’s important stuff), Cody Reif is your man. Earlier this summer Reif, who heads up New Belgium’s pilot brewery, spent a total 20 hours isolated in his kitchen, focused on nothing but pineapples for a beer collaboration so limited in volume, only one keg made it on tap in New Belgium’s Liquid Center.

Over the course of two very long 10-hour sessions, Reif distracted himself with the audio-book of Steven King’s “The Dark Tower,” while he jumped from different work stations set up in his kitchen: One for cutting, another for laying slices out, a third for grilling and a fourth for pureeing.

“There’s like 400 hours of content in ‘The Dark Tower’ series, so I was able to listen to about 5-percent of it,” jokes Reif. Not exactly the kind of work that comes to mind when you picture a brewer. But that’s partially why Reif and pilot brewer Ross Koenigs have arguably two of the most interesting jobs in beer.

If creativity’s fueled by a fiery passion for experimentation, the pilot brewery’s a virtual furnace, playing a part in all-things-beer, from experimental one-offs to collaborations to year-round beers to top-secret recipes in development. And it’s appropriately nestled in the belly of New Belgium’s Fort Collins brewery.

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Reif brewing the pro-am beer with guest homebrewer Coleman.

On a Wednesday morning a few weeks later—early, I might add—I caught up with Reif and Koenigs as they rolled up their sleeves inside the pilot brewery with guest homebrewer Geoff Coleman to begin work on New Belgium’s entry into the Great American Beer Festival’s Pro-Am category. The beer, called Merovigian Saison, was designed to be a chardonnay oak-aged saison, although at this early hour in the morning it was little more than hot wort.

This particular morning, the pilot brewery’s a perfect juxtaposition of high tech and DIY culture. While Coleman scraped spent grains out of a shiny vessel, with a brightly lit control panel spitting out readings next to him, Reif walks into the pilot with a heavy bucket. Inside is about five gallons of chardonnay with oak spirals floating inside, soaking up the wine. These spirals will eventually get tossed into the saison to impart the desired vinous, oak flavors; a clever, quick way to mimic actual oak barrels. After all, Reif and Koenigs have more beer to brew after this.

Before this summer, on a given week, the duo would brew roughly two different beers, which rose to four with the recent equipment expansion, raising the pilot’s capacity from 1,000 barrels of production a year to a targeted 2,500. This brewery inside of a brewery is crafting about the same volume of beer as start-up craft breweries popping up across the country. 

These one-off beers are the real fun stuff—playing with new ingredients, collaborating with other brewers; a time when Reif and Koenigs can kick around out-of-the-box ideas—and fills up about 20-percent of the duo’s time, with New Belgium’s assistant brewmaster Grady Hull checking in throughout the day. The other 80-percent, while a little more restrictive, is equally as interesting: perfecting New Belgium’s next big beer releases. 

Koenigs gathering up spent grain.

“Our job is, first and foremost, developing recipes, which will mostly be brewed on the larger system,” says Reif. Case in point: leading up to the 2014 marquee launch of New Belgium’s year-round Slow Ride Session IPA, the pilot brewery went through 13 different versions of the beer before the final version was approved for the main system. “The last four or five, your casual drinker would be hard-pressed to tell them apart,” jokes Reif. For New Belgium’s 2015 marquee launch—super top-secret stuff—just as many versions were brewed before final approval. Other times, the two will nail it on the first go.

So how does that approval process for large-scale launches work? It starts with a team of upper-management at New Belgium. Reif and Koenigs brew a few prototypes of a proposed beer, present them to the group, and record the feedback. Then there’s New Belgium’s analytical lab, which provides numeric-based feedback. And, of course, the brewery’s sensory analysts, who put together a description and rotate in samples during daily taste panel sessions with New Belgium co-workers.

That is to say, what happens in the pilot brewery doesn’t stay in the pilot brewery: Lots of New Belgium co-workers have the opportunity to taste developing recipes. For those not on panel, the four taps inside the pilot are always stocked with the newest one-offs and test beers (yep, the pilot has its own little bar, too). Most recently, the Liquid Center dedicated a tap line exclusively for pilot creations, called Liquid Center Surprise, so guests can taste what’s happening behind the scenes.

“I love it,” says Reif. “It’s great to see people enjoying your beer. For us, it’s opened up some creative avenues. We’re so focused on large-scale, that sometimes we don’t get to make the small-scale stuff, which would have an engaged, enthusiastic audience. It let’s us let our enthusiastic inner-selves out. If we want to brew a Brett IPA, we can do it.”

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Which brings us back to pineapples. About a month after that cutting, grilling and pureeing session, the one keg of that beer, a Beers with Vrienden collaboration with Miami’s J. Wakefield Brewing called Grilled Pineapple Berliner Weisse, went on tap in the Liquid Center. But Reif wasn’t there to drink with New Belgium fans in Fort Collins. He was in Miami for the official release (about 23 kegs total), and to brew a reciprocal collaboration beer with Wakefield. While there, he even managed to flex his social muscles with a live Periscope video at the party.

“On any given day, I could be cleaning the floor, or meeting with the CEO—sometimes I’ll go from one to the next,” says Reif. Interesting jobs, indeed.

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