A growing number of greenhorn breweries are offering a sudsy, sans-garlic scapes spin on the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model as a way to finance and build their young operations.
This non-vegetable variation of the CSA, dubbed either community-supported brewery or community-supported beer (CSB), replaces kohlrabi with kölsch (#corny) and blurs the style guidelines between bierè de garde and bierè de garden (#cornier) by enabling people to pre-purchase shares of a brewery’s upcoming liquid harvest from the source, usually at a discount. Each subscription is an upfront payment for locally grown beer, but more than that, it’s an intimate investment of faith in that brewery and those who tend it. The members, in a way, become apart of a beer crop’s water, sunlight, and nutrients. That’s pretty cool.
At Transmitter in Long Island City (the Queens neighborhood that coincidently houses the only two breweries in New York City to offer a CSB; Big Alice is the other), this faith has enabled Anthony Accardi and Rob Kolb to finance raw materials, upgrade equipment, and “keep more attention on the most important thing at the end of the day, the quality of our beer,” Kolb says. “The more beer we sell through CSB, the less time we’re out there knocking on doors to sell it.” Kolb and Accardi opened Transmitter last June, also the same time its first CSB launched; they immediately sold 100 shares.
A program’s specifics can vary in price, length, and method of delivery. Its member benefits can also differ. Evanston, Illinois’ Sketchbook Brewing, for example, makes one beer exclusively for CSB members each year, while Vermont’s Burlington Beer offers a pair of CSBs, The Barrel Reserve Society and The Growler Club. The concept is the same, however: subscribers pay upfront for a certain amount of beer, which is received periodically within a certain amount of time. That guaranteed money is a tremendous help to an upstart business. “We recently figured out that, from the day we buy grain wholesale to the day we earn our money back for that grain, it’s 120 days. That’s a long time,” Accardi says. “But CSB allows the opposite of that. As a startup, we’ll gladly give you beer on Tuesday if we can get the money on Monday. When we were building the brewery, we didn’t make a penny in five months. This helped us get going.”
Transmitter opens enrollment to its six-month CSB every three months. Each is limited to 200 shares and costs $175. Members receive two 750-milliliter bottles per month (12 bottles total), glassware, and a T-shirt. There is also a 10 percent discount on any additional bottles purchased during the period.
The brewery’s latest CSB, for spring, started on March 01 and will finish on August 31. I met with Kolb and Accardi on a recent night and we sampled four new beers planned to debut during this time.
NY2 Oat Grisette
AA: NY is one of our newer series. Every beer in it will have 100 percent New York State ingredients. The SMASH beer we made for New York City Beer Week sparked the idea and if we have the opportunity to use local ingredients more regularly now, we have no interest in using them as small components of other beers. So we’re making all-New York beers. This way, we have the chance to truly discover the character of these ingredients.
RK: NY2 was the first beer we brewed on our new system. January 8. We used Valley Malt for the SMASH like every other brewery. Then shortly after we were contacted by a maltster in Rochester called Pioneer, so that sparked NY2. We went with a light, low-alcohol, and refreshing table beer; the grisette is essentially a saison but lower-in-alcohol, lighter. This beer features oats—about 18 percent of the grain bill—and pale malt. All of our saisons are fairly similar in the grain bill, mostly pilsner, and so the yeast is usually the catalyst for differentiation. But here, we went a different route because of the local grains.
AA: Working with New York grains is a great story, but it’s also a crapshoot. Having not brewed with any of these before, we had no idea what the result would be. The NY1, we loved the beer and the response was great, I heard Beer Culture sold out of their bottles in like nine hours. And the amber rye from Valley, it has such beautiful and distinct character to it. We loved its earthiness. But I think the amount that we used was too much. It was a little too chewy. That’s just part of the learning process.
RK: We used Willamette and Cascade hops from Pedersen Farms in NY2. This is the second time we’ve used their Cascade hops, and saying that, we approached them with the same delicacy we used with the grains. New York Cascades aren’t going to give you that dank West Coast vibe. I’d describe them as effusively citrusy, not startingly grapefruit-pithy; it’s more orangey than grapefruit. And I think that combined with the oats, it helps round out the beer. This has a really smooth mouthfeel, which you don’t normally get with most low-alcohol beers. You tend to get a watery taste. But the oats and the hops prevent that.
AA: Some beers, you just have a good feeling about when you’re making them. NY2 was noticeably good-looking coming out of the mash tun. Super clear wort. I knew it was going to be a good one and it is. This is a perfect “summer is approaching” beer to me.
H1 Zinfandel Harvest Ale
AA: This is another one of our newer series, but we haven’t released anything from it yet, even though we brewed H1 in August. We’ve been tripping over H bottles for forever it feels like.
RK: For us, ‘Harvest’ signifies fruited beers. We always wanted to do a series of fruited beers, it was just a matter of getting to it. They take longer, considering a secondary fermentation is coming from the fruit. But we always knew this was going to be a series. H1, or any of the H saisons, could very well fall under the S category. But early on we knew that if we were going to just label everything saison-ish with an S, we’d eventually run out of numbers. So that’s why we decided to create some subsections with tighter definitions, even though on a broader scale, it could fall into two categories.
AA: We brewed this beer in August and its recipe is identical to H2’s except for the types of grapes we used. Here, we used 160 pounds of Zinfandel grapes. Months later, this beer still tastes grapier, or jammier, than H2. I get a lot of strawberry notes in it. It has a beautiful golden color. Another beer that screams “Summer is here!”
RK: The base is primarily pilsner malt, with a touch of wheat because we like the mouthfeel. But that’s about it. It’s a straightforward recipe to really let the grapes shine through. We brewed the beer and immediately transferred the wort to red wine barrels from Long Island. It’s probably the third time we’ve used them. We inoculated the wood with a Brettanomyces yeast strain before adding the beer, and then they sat in the barrels with the grapes for about 100 days. Then we moved it to our conical fermenters to let the yeast sediments sink to the bottom, and then we bottled it. It’s been sitting at the brewery ever since.
AA: This is probably the third or fourth time we’ve tasted this beer since we made it, and it’s interesting to see how much it changed. That’s actually one of my favorite things about our brewery—we’re not really worried if a beer is going to change over time because that’s the beauty of fermentation. Like I said before, H1 is jammier than H2. But this was even more jammy in the beginning. It has mellowed out a lot, though there’s still a perceived sweetness there.
H2 Chardonnay Harvest Ale
RK: H1’s recipe was used again for the second H, except now we filled the two red wine barrels with 160 pounds of Chardonnay grapes, so about a pound per gallon of beer. We actually got the grapes for both beers at a large specialty shop in New Jersey. It’s no joke, the fruit shows up in the back of huge trucks there. For H1, we had no idea that they crushed grapes in the basement so we brought the Zinfandel grapes back to the brewery and sat for an entire day, de-stemming them and lightly crushing them. I remember it was a fairly hot day in September, and we were fighting off tons of bees that were swarming around us. Once we realized they could crush them on-site, and it would be like an extra $9, we knew what we were doing with H2.
AA: This is a lot more funkier than H1. Very vinous. I like the subtle Brett that you get from it, too; a slight kiss of it. And the oak is nicely integrated. A lot of dryness. It’s funny how just using different grapes on a beer makes a completely different end product.
T3 Triple Ale
RK: Anthony makes all the inverted sugar syrup for our beers. It’s basically like a simple syrup. It can give some nice color and flavors to the beer, and it can also increase the alcohol content without making the beer heavier. It also helps increase a beer’s shelf life. That’s essential with some of the Belgian styles.
AA: The process of making inverted sugar syrup is pretty straightforward: I heat the sugar about 30 minutes with water and then I add some base chemistry to it. Raising the pH of the sugar allows it to cook for a long time without giving it a burnt acrid flavor. The flavors develop slowly, sometimes taking as long as four hours if I want a deep color and flavor. Because this is a light beer, the sugar was inverted and very lightly caramelized; about a 30-minute process. We did a Belgian quad last year that had BLACK inverted sugar, like molasses. When it gets that dark, you get bitter chocolate and cocoa as well as rich cherry and raisiny flavors and that telegraphs through to the beer. But for this one, we stopped at a light color to boost the alcohol and lighten the perceived mouthfeel. If we had used only malt to achieve that boost, the beer would have been too thick and heavy.
RK: T1 is our American tripel, really hop-forward with all American hops. T2 is a richer tripel with over-the-top hoppiness; it has an amber color, a lot of residual sweetness and body that a Belgian tripel wouldn’t traditionally have. We did that so we would have a foil to contrast the even larger dose of American hops coming from T1. I’d say T2 is more like a Belgian strong ale meets a double IPA. For T3, though, we brought it back to more traditional terms. We used German noble hops to get some subtle spiciness. The body is lighter here than the other two Ts and you get more phenols from the yeast than the other pair.
AA: It’s a boozy beer, no doubt. But it’s very light, easy to drink. And you get the noble hop character in the background that Rob mentioned. I also get a little bit of soft pear. In a lot of ways, this is the simplest of the four beers we’re discussing, but it’s still so complex. That’s the beauty of all farmhouse ales.