By Day Bracey
Pittsburgh Current Craft Beer Writer
Feb. 11, 11 a.m: I’m still in Portland, ME. If you read my last entry, you would know this. Try to keep up. Allagash has a sensory panel for quality control. Basically, it’s a white room full of cubicles for you to sit in, like in-school suspension or a call-center hellscape. Only instead of books or abusive clients, they give you beer. There’s a guide that lets you know what you should expect from the beer in terms of color, smell, taste, mouth feel, and even latticing — a fancy word for how the bubbles bubble.
Employees from across the company are routinely invited to this room to test each batch before it hits the market. It takes about 30 employees to get the job done each time. Sometimes, the beer is purposefully spiked to teach folk how to spot various defects. It’s important that your sales team knows when a line at the bar is infected, or when a case has been sitting for too long. I’m given three samples to try. They all pass the test. I sit with Karl to discuss their quality control in depth. I ask him about a brewer that has been serving beer that tastes as if it were freshly “squozen” from a moldy sponge. He explains it is the result of an off-flavor called mercaptan, likely caused by dead yeast or bacterial infection. I now have a new word in my arsenal of extended pinky drinky talk. “Oh captain, mercaptan.”
Feb. 11, Noon: Lunch is a lobster flight from Bite into Maine, Allagash’s in-house lobsteria. The flight includes Connecticut style, just butter and bun – Picnic style, adding some cabbage for texture – Maine style, which is mayo and chives for flair and flavor. I wash it all down with Nocturna, because 9 percent beer at noon is perfectly normal in this industry. It’s Allagash Black aged in bourbon barrels with vanilla added. It’s by far my favorite of the lineup with dark flavors and a light body.
Feb. 11, 2:30 p.m.: I’m invited to what is called the “Tiny House.” The name says it all. It’s a tiny house bought from what I assume is a tiny man and transported to the Allagash campus for the owner, Rob Tod, to entertain tiny guests. We sit at a tiny table next to a tiny fire and drink tiny, 12-oz beers. Tiny compared to the standard 16 oz, or even the soon to be released 19.3oz stadium cans. We conduct a tiny interview for the Drinking Partners podcast, short and sweet to keep the listeners entertained. And he hits me with a tiny bit of wisdom, “What’s good for the environment and good for people, can be good for business.”
Feb. 12, 10 a.m.: My absolute favorite part of the tour is the pilot program. Patrick, one of the brewers, takes me through to show me how it’s all done. Get this. They allow every employee, 150+ total, to anonymously submit beer ideas daily. Each entry is reviewed and rated by a panel. The highest rated beers get brewed, about two per week. Those brews are then sent to the break room for employees to taste and rate. Yes, part of your job at Allagash is to drink beer on your lunch break! So then, the highest rated beers from the break room make it to the tasting room, usually about 8-10 beers per year. And if it makes a big enough splash in the taproom, it can see its way out the door and in the hands of folks across the country. How cool is that? Talk about utilizing the hive mind, and making each employee feel like they have a voice or part to play. If it weren’t for the ridiculously high cost of living in Portland, I’d consider applying for a job myself.
Feb. 12, 1 p.m.: Last but not least I join Mike in the lab. So much science! This is where yeast strains are analyzed and developed, batches are tested for quality control, bottles conditioning is hashed out, and nerds get to nerd out. Chemistry, biology, engineering, it’s all here. Most of the people working in the lab started in other departments and worked their way up. In fact, that seems to be the story of most of the employees here. It’s important and rare to find a company that allows growth in your career and seeks to promote from within. I learn about the devastating impact the beer industry has on water supplies around the country, and steps taken to mitigate their presence in the system. I even got to look at yeast in a microscope.
All in all, it was a very informative and worthwhile trip. In the coming months, as you’re perusing the shelves for an easy-drinking picnic ale that’ll please both the beer nerds and novices, you should probably go with something local. But if you’ve got some room in your budget for exploration, Allagash White is a perfect Portland pour that prioritizes people over profits. Which is a concept that should foreign to no market.