Thursday, December 18, 2014

Can Mavericks Brewing Ride the Wave of Low-Alcohol Craft Beer?

The Mavericks "brew trust" of James Costa (l) and Shane Aldrich (r)
(photo by Kristen Loken)
It’s been two years since Mavericks Brewing paddled out into the turbulent sea of craft brewing with the idea to brew low alcohol craft beer. Now they’ve selected their wave and are paddling hard to position themselves to ride the wave of low alcohol beer that’s been quietly rising in the craft beer industry.

The Mavericks Story

Mavericks came from idea brewing industry veteran Pete Slosberg, best known as the Pete of Pete’s Wicked Ales, had at the end of a long bike ride.  “I would go on 25-40 mile bike trips, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and eventually stop at the Marin Brewing brewpub in Larkspur," he explained to me a couple years ago when we first talked about Mavericks. “Problem was, after stopping there for a beer or two, I didn’t feel steady enough to get back on my bike and head home.  Instead, I’d take the ferry.” And with that, he realized the potential market for low alcohol, yet flavorful beer for people with active lifestyles who wanted to rehydrate with a cold one or two, but not get slowed down by the alcohol. 

At the time, Slosberg’s idea for Mavericks was bucking a trend.  “All the new breweries were coming out with extreme this and extreme that.   There’s a time and a place for that, but we wanted to do something different, and more like something I’d rather drink.” Slosberg partnered with Half Moon Bay Brewing to launch the Mavericks line of low alcohol beers, naming the brewery after the huge waves crashing off the coast of Half Moon Bay that test the world’s greatest surfers. Today, Slosberg remains a trusted advisor and partner to Mavericks Brewing having passed the baton to others after the project got up running. 

The Brew House at Half Moon Bay
Mavericks has three beers in their line-up checking in at a low 3.75% abv, a Belgian Wit, a Porter, and Rye Pale Ale. Then there’s the wildcard of the line-up, Tunnel Vision IPA at 6.8% abv and 100+ ibu.  Tunnel Vision seems like an anomaly in the low alcohol line, but more on this later. All are sold in cans, more portable than bottles and more easily taken to places where bottles can’t or shouldn’t go, such as into backpacks or to the beach.     

The brewing team at Mavericks includes Shane Aldrich, Head Brewmaster at Mavericks who’s brewed at Lagunitas, Marin County Brewing and Devil’s Canyon, winning a few Great American Beer Festival Awards along the way. He’s joined by James Costa, Brewmaster at Half Moon Bay Brewing, who started as the first assistant brewer at Bear Republic and aided in the development of their iconic Racer 5 IPA before various stops at Sonoma and Marin County breweries. He came to Mavericks as a consulting brewer two years ago and now works full time. 

Brewing low-alcohol beers people find enjoyable is a far more complex brewing feat than just tossing less grain in the brew kettle. There are a number of challenges in brewing these beers, which James Costa took a few minutes out of his busy day to discuss during an afternoon visit I made to Half Moon Bay's brewpub. “One of the biggest challenges were the brewing systems we used were not suited to brew these beers,” recalls Costa of his early days at Mavericks. “The thermometers were too high for the amount of mash in the brew kettle.” Half Moon Bay Brewing has a 15 barrel brewhouse, too small for any significant distribution, so Mavericks brews under contract at nearby Devil’s Canyon in nearby Belmont and Uncommon Brewers down the coast in Santa Cruz. 

It was not easy finding the right recipe. “It took quite a few recipes to dial it in”, explained Costa.  The difficulty in finding the right recipe involved “consistency, adjusting the recipes to get more body to the beer, more residual sweetness so they have a lot of flavor to them, but they’re still low in the alcohol”.

Costa is especially enthusiastic about Tunnel Vision. “It started as a special release to celebrate the opening of the tunnels at the Devil’s Slide,” referring the Tom Lantos Tunnels opened in March of 2013 to bypass a treacherous portion of Highway 1. “We had a big party at the brewpub and everybody thought it was great.   We blew right through it.”

An Industry Veteran with Big Plans

For Mavericks CEO Steve Morgan, cans are the way to go
(photo by Becky Ruppel)
CEO Steve Morgan started at Mavericks just this past spring and is pretty bullish on Mavericks as it ramps up distribution.  When I ask why he decided to lead Mavericks, he jumps at the question. “I think the high flavor-low alcohol concept is really good, there’s lot of growth in lower alcohol craft beer.” Prior to joining Mavericks, Morgan  spent five years as the President of Napa Smith Brewery and Winery. He knows a thing or two about drinking beer after a workout as an avid open water swimmer who’s completed the Golden Gate Swim and the Alcatraz Swim multiple times. Morgan also runs and lifts weights when he isn’t swimming.

Morgan declares “If you look at the ten fastest growing craft beers nationally, two of them are low alcohol. Stone Brewing’s Go To IPA and Founders All Day IPA. There are plenty of times and places where craft beer drinkers want to drink something with lower alcohol.”

Despite the fact that higher alcohol IPAs, Double IPAs and Imperial Stouts dominate the beer rating sites, Morgan identifies low-alcohol beers as quietly becoming popular craft beers. “IPAs are the large piece of the craft beer market.  But look at all these introductions of lower alcohol IPA’s like Stone Brewing’s Go To IPA, Founders All Day IPA, Lagunitas DayTime IPA, Sierra Nevada Nooner IPA and a few others.  All of these products were introduced in the last couple years. It’s a smaller category, but growing much faster.” 

What about Tunnel Vision? Doesn't brewing a 6.8% abv IPA run counter to this low-alcohol strategy? Morgan explains that’s where the idea of Mavericks comes in. “A Maverick is an innovator, a risk taker, unwilling to compromise. So we weren’t going to limit ourselves to a single alcohol level or type of beer. Most IPA’s have about 60 ibu.  It isn’t until you get to Double IPA’s, which have about 7-10% abv that you’ll find beers with 100 ibu. With Tunnel Vision, by using a lot of newer hops and innovative dry hopping, we achieve over 100 ibu at 6.8% abv and it still tastes in balance. We see Tunnel Vision as blurring the line between a single and double IPA.”

Morgan also thinks selling Mavericks in cans is also a big part of the key for success. “A big part of Maverick’s is that the beer is in a can.  You can take it to the beach, take it on the trail, or take them where ever you want to go. Besides, take a look at the artwork on the Tunnel Vision can. You can’t do that with a bottle.” Morgan also notes that canned beer is one of the fastest growing sectors of craft beer. “If you look at the Nielsen ratings of craft beer sold in cans, it was up 54% last year.  For the first six months of this year, nationally craft beer has been up by 21%, and the canned segment of that is up 79%. And cans provide fresher beer with a lower environmental impact.”

If that weren’t enough to guarantee Mavericks success, Morgan also raves about the skill of his brewers. “Shane Aldrich and James Costa have 32 years of experience in the craft brewing industry.  It’s rare to find that much experience at a craft brewery. What I’m continually impressed by since I came here this spring is their use of hops in beers that taste balanced. That takes real talent and is hard to do. Not to give away tricks but one of the keys is to create mouthfeel. With the Belgian style wit, there’s a lot of yeast left in the beer and we use coriander and orange peel to give it body. In the Rye Pale Ale, the rye creates the mouthfeel and we use a lot of dry hopping that gives the flavor sensation. At 53 ibus, it’s higher than most Pale Ales, but even at 3.75%, it tastes balanced.”

How successful will Mavericks become?  We’re all about to find out. Prior to June of this year, Half Moon Bay Brewing self-distributed Mavericks and struggled to gain traction. One of the first things Morgan initiated was a distribution program that includes BevMo!s, Costplus, Total Wine, and Lunardi’s in Northern California. You can even find Mavericks beers at San Jose’s SAP Pavilion. 

Tasting the Beers

Mavericks may have a hit on their
hands with Tunnel Vision
As for tasting the Maverick’s beers, the flavors are there, but despite their best efforts, I still find them a bit thin. The Belgian Wit is rather light, with the requisite coriander, orange peel and a noticeable tang from the wheat. I can see this being rather refreshing after a run.  The Porter is rather dry, with a direct, uncluttered taste of bitter chocolate.  Then there is the intriguing Rye Pale Ale. At 3.75% abv and 53 ibu, you’d think it taste like undrinkable hop water.  Instead, it’s a rather lively brew. The peppery character of the rye melds nicely with the floral and citrus flavors from a blend of four different hops. As much as I like the Rye Pale Ale, it leaves me wondering if it would taste even better if they just jacked up the malt a little bit to say, 4.0 or 4.5% abv to support more bolder flavors.   

Then there’s Tunnel Vision. I can see why everyone at Mavericks is pretty excited about it. I don’t have a strong nose, yet still picked up lots of great floral aromas as it poured into a glass. Tunnel Vision has this great big tropical hop punch, with flavors of mango, and some floral character. It’s amazingly smooth drinking for all of its 100+ ibu. If you ask me, it stands up to the best West Coast IPAs.

An Uncertain Future?

Numerous new craft breweries are popping everywhere, but most of them fit neatly into two groups. First, there’s the small niche’, lifestyle breweries. These are usually some brewpub or a taproom producing at low volume, which have a loyal local following but no grand plans beyond a passion to make great beer and make some money at it. Thousands of small new breweries like this all over the United States can peacefully coexist. 

Then there are new breweries like Mavericks led by those equally passionate about beer, but with clear ambitions of growth. I think these types of breweries are more fun to watch, because while the craft brewing industry can sustain its remarkable 15% growth for at least another 4-5 years, pretty soon all these breweries with ambitious plans are going to start thumping into each other. And of course, the major players like Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, and New Belgium are all growing too, leaving less room for upstarts.

What does that means for Mavericks?  We'll just have to see. They've picked out a wave, maneuvered into position and getting up into a crouch on their board. Ought to be an interesting ride to watch.

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