Fremont Brewing operates with the slogan “Because Beer Matters.” But now the fast-growing Seattle craft brewery, which is undergoing a major expansion at a new facility in the Ballard neighborhood, is establishing that technology and science matter more than ever.
While the 7-year-old brewery’s original home and Urban Beer Garden will remain just minutes away in Fremont, construction crews and brewery workers are busy building out an 80,000-square-foot production space in what used to be McCallum Envelope & Printing.
For a brewery that produced 24,000 barrels in 2015, using 8,000 square feet, the new space will allow output to double in 2016, with an expectation to grow to about 60,000 barrels.
Matt Lincoln, director of brewery operations, recently gave GeekWire a tour of the giant new facility which is slated to be up and running in August. He spoke about the tools that will continue to ensure the quality and consistency of Fremont’s craft.
From a mostly empty second floor full of offices and meeting rooms, there is a view down to the production floor where a large mound of dirt remains from a 9-foot-deep excavation to install drain lines. Workers are building a new brewhouse, where Fremont’s signature beers will be brewed. A giant boiler is being installed in another room, and barrels, kegs, and pallets full of cans fill a warehouse area.
“We kind of took it to the next level here,” Lincoln said of the brewhouse and control room going in at the Ballard location. “This brewhouse is essentially fully automated. It’s a totally different ballgame going to this kind of brewing versus what we’ve been doing over [at the first location].”
Lincoln said Fremont’s original 15-barrel system was very low-tech. “It was super hands on — brewers flipping valves, no automation, no actuated valves, nothing like that.”
A 30-barrel system improved on that and added some automation, but nothing like what’s coming. And the size of the building alone, compared to the home-brew mystique of tiny breweries dotting the surrounding neighborhood, makes one ask, “When does craft beer become less crafty?”
“There has been a lot of talk about breweries growing up and going to that next level,” Lincoln said. “Is it still craft if there’s all this technology and automation and stuff? And I think craft is your attitude towards beer — using natural ingredients and local ingredients and making the best possible beer that you want to drink. Automation is simply a tool to make better beer.”
Lincoln points to Sierra Nevada, a solid, 37-year-old craft beer that has always delivered what he expects, “because it’s really good and tastes the same all the time. And that’s what we try to do, too, to make sure customers are going to keep coming back and they know what to expect.”
On the ground floor in the Ballard location, Lincoln shows off of a large room which will be home to the brewery’s new lab. It’s here where the science will be applied by workers who test for potential contamination as well as beer specs including color and bitterness. They also monitor yeast pitching and check for diacetyl.
“It’s basically collecting lots and lots of data,” Lincoln said. “There’s definitely a dedicated science, and there’s a lot of different parameters that we check during the brewing process and during fermentation.”
That process is already a daily part of the operation at the Fremont location, where Robert Fulwiler oversees a lab he started there. A University of Washington graduate with a degree in chemistry, Fulwiler started at the brewery five years ago on the bottling line before becoming a brewer and eventually quality manager.
In a tiny room above the production floor, Fulwiler directs a couple of understudies as chemistry and microbiology are applied to beer making on a weekday afternoon. Beer samples, scientific equipment and a computer running various spreadsheets and data calculations are squeezed into the room.
Fulwiler can’t wait to spread out in Ballard, mentioning expensive new toys that he hopes are coming in the months and years ahead, as well as the continuation of enhanced sensory and tasting panels he instituted.
A big part of the lab program is testing for diacetyl, which Fulwiler said can taste and smell like butterscotch candy or movie popcorn butter. “We like to make a lot of super crisp, refreshing IPAs and light pale ales and real hoppy beers. That flavor doesn’t mesh at all.”
Fulwiler shows off data points on his computer and says it’s not super common for breweries this size to get so invested in the diacetyl test. Larger breweries use a gas-chromatograph which is more automated and doesn’t rely on the manual conditions such as shaking and heating that Fulwiler and his helpers are engaging in that day.
But he believes the value of the lab lies in more than just quality control checkpoints. Fulwiler said process improvements come from the science they apply and that leads to a more efficient brewery and better tasting beer.
Much of the testing is designed to knock down a problem before it can creep up, Fulwiler said. It helps the brewery dial in cleaning processes and quality control related to packaging. In fact, Lincoln stresses that “you can make the best beer in the world, but it won’t matter” if it goes to waste during the packaging process.
The celebrated yellow, blue and orange cans rolling off lines at the Fremont brewery, and eventually Ballard, will still have a relatively small distribution. Co-founder Matt Lincecum told Brewbound this month, “The way I like our business to grow is to go deep rather than wide. … As an organization, it just takes time to uphold your name and build a sense of integrity.”
And when you sit out front in the beer garden it’s interesting to imagine that sophisticated science and quality control go into producing a product only available in four states. Smaller breweries still possess a bohemian air, where it looks like dudes with beards who like to drink beer determined one day that their garage was getting too small and the number of friends who liked what they were making was getting too big.
Fremont has no hopes or plans to be Budweiser or Miller, massive breweries with what Fulwiler calls “phenomenal” lab programs staffed by large teams conducting the testing Fremont does with one person. When you walk through Fremont Brewing, clipboards hang on tanks for workers to manually record assorted measurements. Fulwiler, whose job is to re-enter and chart that data, simply hopes the collection of it might eventually be transitioned to tablets.
“This is a big change in the craft brewing movement over the last five or 10 years,” Fulwiler said. “The guys that traditionally care about this stuff are the big beer manufacturers, who are producing 100 or 1,000 times what we do, because they’re dialed into that consistency.”
And consistency doesn’t necessarily equate to good taste, especially in a beer town like Seattle, where perhaps only coffee comes under greater scrutiny.
“If you make a good beer and you don’t have a way to make it again, you didn’t really do it on purpose,” Fulwiler said. “In a brewery like ours, we have these core brands that people like and it’s important to keep those consistently good. And there are a lot of different things to look at.”
And that’s not just import to Fremont’s customers. It’s important to the industry. Co-founder Sara Nelson said the brewery takes seriously how the beer it makes reflects on the craft industry as a whole, especially in a time when major breweries are either buying up craft makers or using expensive air time to knock them down.
“You’re only as good as your last beer,” Nelson said. “So we are investing a lot of resources into assuring that our beer is consistently at our high standards. And that’s not just important to our brand, but it’s important, very much, to craft beer. As craft grows in market share, people fall in love with it and they expect it to be great the next time they have it.”
The Brewers Association, whose purpose is to promote and protect American craft brewers and beers, has stressed in recent years that breweries have got to invest in quality control because “reputations are on the line,” Nelson said. “As far as our new facility goes, we’re going to make sure that we continue to invest in not just great ingredients, but the science behind consistent quality.”