Urban Chestnut’s Pilot Brewery is Turning Customers into Makers

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Urban Chestnut’s Pilot Brewery is Turning Customers into Makers

On a deep level, craft breweries are ultra-sensitive to the tastes and desires of their audience. Sure, some take a stance of “We’ll make what we make, and if you like it, you like it,” but that can only work out for so many Hill Farmstead-type examples. Much more often, it’s a matter of finding the synthesis between brewing creativity and what the consumer truly wants. Because in the end, it’s the consumers who decide what kind of beer you make—if you want to stay in business, that is.

And yet, with that in mind, one could say that the process is awfully inefficient most of the time. A brewery designs a new beer from the ground up, jumping through state registration hoops to get a new name, label art, etc. It sinks months of time, effort and money into designing and releasing a new beer without any real idea of how it will be received, beyond “our brewing team likes it.” With resources invested so deeply, anything other than acclaim can’t help but be disappointing.

This is where St. Louis’ Urban Chestnut Brewing Co. has hit on an idea. Across the street from their flagship “Grove Brewery & Bierhall,” the brewery is constructing a second small brewhouse. This new “Urban Research Brewery (U.R.B.)” will be dedicated entirely to creating new beers in a setting where they can be directly sampled and assessed by the public. The entire point of the brewery is to bring consumers one step closer toward being Makers, which immediately caught our eye for this February issue of Paste Monthly.

It helps, of course, that Urban Chestnut is a great brewery, and a standard-bearer for the craft scene of St. Louis, which exploded back in 2011-2014 after two decades of Schlafly and others laying a foundation. With former Anheuser brewmaster Florian Kuplent at the helm, they excel in brewing beers for two distinct families: Authentic, classical German ales and lagers, and more experimental twists upon that basic structure, divided into their “reverence” and “revolution” series. Their classic styles are fantastic—just look at the hefeweizen Schnickelfritz, which placed #2 out of 39 in our ranking of American-made wheat beers. It’s the best thing you can buy on a visit to Busch stadium, and it costs the same price as a Bud. These are easy decisions.

And yet, on some level, success also makes experimentation much more difficult, which is something Urban Chestnut has come to discover. When demand is sky high, you can’t often spare fermenter or bright tank space on new, unusual beers that aren’t tried and tested. Thus, the U.R.B. was conceived as a playground for the company’s brew team to run wild.

“The experimentation previously has really been nonexistent because of cost and the needs of production,” said Urban Chestnut co-founder David Wolfe. “We didn’t roam too far off some of our styles. A lot of what we do is based on Florian’s expertise and the fact that he knows how to write a good recipe, so I know that with the U.R.B. we’ll be exploring a lot of new ingredients and processes.”

As I pushed further for what that might mean or what kinds of beers he’d like to see the brewery make that it hasn’t in the past, Wolfe racked his brain.

“Well okay, one that jumps to mind immediately is why not try something like Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin?” he said. “Something where you’re certainly going in a big direction, that fruit-dominant flavor rather than being defined by traditional ingredients. What I’m saying is that we’re prepared to explore outside of traditional ingredients.”

And for the consumer, the process of supplying feedback couldn’t be simpler, as a trip to the U.R.B. will be totally structured around it. Drinkers will pay a mere $1 for a “test flight” of four 2-oz samples of the most recent experimental beers from the two-barrel brewhouse, with a single caveat: They must provide feedback via “an interactive digital platform,” such as their phones or tablets. After that, regular-size pours will be available at standard prices. There’s even pizza by the slice.

“We want the U.R.B. to be a place where anyone; homebrewers, beer aficionados and beer drinkers in general, can easily provide qualitative and quantitative input on our experimental beers,” Wolfe said. “But we also want the U.R.B. to be a place where these same folks can hang out, drink beer, grab a slice and engage in conversations about brewing or anything else.”

Of course, this means Urban Chestnut will also be experimenting with exactly how to present its new beers to the tasters. They might label exactly what they’ve made and provide details—Wolfe used a (hopefully hypothetical) “cherry jalapeno” beer as an example—or conversely, such a brew might simply be labeled as just “beer #1” in order to get the purest data possible. In this case, tasters would be giving their feedback and perceptions before finding out exactly what they’ve been drinking. Discussing the concept, Wolfe’s enthusiasm for everything that will be possible at the U.R.B. is palpable.

“We can host tasting panels there, or who’s to say we couldn’t do a pro-am competition on the system with homebrewers?” he mused. “It just gives us so much flexibility. We could have a write-a-recipe contest and produce the winner. That’s what’s so neat about it; we’re engaging folks on a level that is so early in the process and such a small amount of production that we’re totally free. I think this will also bring some fun back to the job for everyone at Urban Chestnut who is a former homebrewer.”

Currently, Urban Chestnut produces around 40 different beers per year. Depending on the capacity and number of tanks in the completed U.R.B., an additional 50 different experimental batches per year might be possible once the research brewery gets up and running in late spring/early summer. So in effect, for regular visitors or St. Louis residents, the presence of the U.R.B. could more than double the number of individual U.C. brews they’re able to sample in the course of a year—and the best of those beers would presumably then find their way into year-round or seasonal production at the bigger brewery across the street.

That’s a whole lot of new beer, enough to potentially change our entire conception of their identity as artisans. With so much of that beer reflecting the will of the consumer, who can say how this will transform Urban Chestnut’s lineup, down the line? It will be fascinating to find out.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor and beer proclaimer. You can follow him on Twitter.

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