Grimm Ales Celebrates One Year of Gypsy Brewing
Susannah Skiver Barton
Last year, Lauren and Joe Grimm pioneered what may become the next trend in craft brewing when they launched Grimm Ales, a commercial "gypsy brewery" focused on single-batch artisanal beers. We checked in with the husband-and-wife team at home (where they're aging beer in two wine barrels) just after they'd celebrated 12 months of success with a special re-release of Bees in the Trappe, their bière de miel. Here's their perspective on what it takes to run a gypsy brewery, the challenges they've overcome, and possible future projects for Grimm Ales.
How has the past year been a learning experience? Lauren: We've been homebrewing for almost a decade now and we definitely had a lot of knowledge over time that we got from reading blogs and books and brewing forums and then obviously from our own experience. Now that we've started a commercial brewery, it's been a learning process in certain ways, but in other ways it is more like refining knowledge that we already had.
Joe: It's the same as homebrewing -- it's just bigger. If you really know what you're doing as a homebrewer, you should be able to make great beer on any commercial system because you should already know what kind of adjustments to make for their water and for the size of the tank, all these things.
Tell me how it works to go to other breweries and use their equipment -- what makes it different from contract brewing? Joe: We try to be as transparent as possible. We put it right on the label. And whenever we talk about what we're doing, we talk about how we're gypsy brewers and we make beer in other breweries. One of them's called Beltway and it's in Northern Virginia, right outside D.C., and the other one's called Paper City and it's in Western Mass. We're always talking to other facilities as well, just to try to have as much flexibility as we can have.
It's really important for us to be really hands-on. That's a difference between what a gypsy brewing company is versus a contract brewing company. We always travel for our brew days and oversee the whole process from start to finish.
Lauren: It's fun working with other people at breweries. I feel like everybody comes with different set of knowledge. At the brewery that we work with in Northern Virginia, they have someone on site that's a microbiologist and he's always doing cell counting and Joe and I are like, "Can we come in and learn how to do cell counting with you?" And he's just like, "Yeah, totally, come on." It's a lot of fun working at breweries and meeting people and learning from them and also teaching them some things that they didn't know, or learning together.
What sort of things have you learned, and what have you been able to teach some of the brewers? Lauren: With the kettle soured beer [we recently made], Joe and I had been doing pilot versions and we had done a lot of research into how to do a kettle soured beer and then when we went to the brewery, they were like, "We've never done this before, so this is a learning experience for us." We would send them information that we had found online that they might be interested in that would teach them a little more about kettle soured beers and how to do it.
Joe: And then the guy there who's a microbiologist was doing his own research and spinning off of us. It's fun; it's a collaboration. Everything we do is a shared project with the people that we work with.
Lauren: But they definitely do laugh at us, like when we told them that we were going to be juicing almost 300 pounds of oranges.
Joe: These are not normal things to be spending your day at the brewery doing.
Have you had any particular challenges over the last year? Joe: I feel like there are so many moments, not necessarily brewing moments, just in general, that with starting a company are moments of having to overcome one issue or another. On a daily basis, we're troubleshooting and trying to figure out the best way to go about things.
Lauren: Joe and I make a different recipe every time we brew, and we also bottle some of each batch, and you have to submit labels. So we're coming up with recipes for the beer, then we're making the beer, and we're also meanwhile making labels, then submitting them to the TTB for approval.
Joe: Usually they bounce back for some reason or another and you've got to resubmit them. And we like to brew weird beers so a lot of the time we'll be putting ingredients in that are not considered traditional so they have to approve a formula -- that takes three months. And then the label bounces back, and again, and again, and again. And then after that, you have to submit the label image with the formula and that takes another month. So a lot of it has to do with being way, way ahead of the game and knowing exactly what we're going to do months ahead of time so you can get those things in before you need them to be ready. That's our biggest headache.
What advice do you have for someone who aspires to become a gypsy brewer? Joe: Everything depends on your partners -- good communicators. Choose them carefully. The people outside of your company that you're going to be relying on: the distributors, the breweries that you might be working with, and the people you use for logistics -- they all have to be on point. And that's one of the hardest things to find.
Lauren: Don't go into it lightly. Like any other business -- there are just so many different parts of it that take over your life and you have to be willing to completely give yourself over to it. Do a lot of research and make sure it's something that you are going to continue to be invested in over time. I do think that gypsy brewing is an easier way than having to find investors but you still have to form a network of people that you're working with and there's so many different aspects. You have to be ready to take that on.
What lies ahead for Grimm Ales? Lauren: Right now, we're actually barrel-aging half of the batch of Bees in the Trappe that we made at Beltway, so we have 22 brandy barrels filled with it. We're really excited about getting more into barrel aging.
Joe: We're also really excited about doing cuvees and blends. So we're going to reserve some of that [of the barrel-aged Bees in the Trappe] and if we make a sour beer that we like, we'll blend it with a certain amount of the brandy barrel-aged honey beer to get to a special blend.
You make a new beer every month. Do you have any plans to re-release old favorites? Joe: It's always an ongoing conversation. We have so much that we want to do right now that we haven't had a lot of time for revisiting older beers.
It would be nice to get there. We're not trying to make more beer than we can sell right now, but it would be nice to be able to have all these back catalog beers also be available, or selected ones that we like, and then continue making one-offs and rotate them back in if we especially like them.
Lauren: We've been talking about creating more layers because right now we only have one beer available at a time. We brew once a month and put it out into the world and the batch is pretty much gone within four to six weeks. When people ask us to do events, they're like, "Oh, can we do a tap takeover?" and I have to say, "We only have one beer right now."
Maybe we would have some limited edition beers but then have some more beers that were available seasonally -- maybe a for a period of three months you would be able to find a certain beer. Because I think a lot of people who drink our beer do say, "Oh, I loved that beer, but I can never find it again." So I think it would be nice for people to be able to find things again.
Is there ever a chance you'd open a brick-and-mortar brewery? Joe: We're keeping our options open. It would be fun in a lot of ways but we don't have the access to that kind of capital right now in order to do it right, and we would need to feel like we're doing it right.
Lauren: I don't think that we have any plans to open a brick and mortar brewery but it's always something in the back of my mind. At the same time, I really enjoy gypsy brewing and I think that we'll probably always continue to gypsy brew in one capacity or another.
What's so appealing about gypsy brewing that you would continue to do it even if you had your own brewery? Lauren: You can brew anywhere! And it is much more of a social experience. As of now, we've worked with two breweries but at the same time we're talking to other breweries about brewing there, and on top of that we talk to different breweries about doing collaboration beers.
I think as gypsy brewers there's much more of a community of breweries saying, "Let's do something together. You can come in and we'll work on a recipe and put out a batch that we're both excited about." With gypsy brewing there's a lot more freedom in that way.
Joe: It gives you the flexibility to do things that could be really small or to do things that could be really large.
The other thing that's a secret benefit to gypsy brewing is that it's really expensive. What it does is it just totally changes all the incentives for a person who's being a gypsy brewer. You have to cut in a whole other set of people -- it's like adding another tier of markup. So what that does is it changes the beer that you can make. You can't make a pale ale and then expect to sell it at a gypsy-brewed beer price.
It's kind of cool to have to deal with a situation that's forcing you to make something that's special enough that the cheapest somebody can get it is like $11 on the shelf. It changes what's possible.
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