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Cross-brewing: Big beer’s not-so-dirty little secret

Breweries owned by Anheuser Busch-InBev are brewing each others' beers at facilities hundreds of miles from one another. And you'd never know the difference.
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Four Peaks head brewer Andy Ingram discusses his cross-brewed batch of Golden Road Point the Way IPA

Four Peaks head brewer Andy Ingram discusses his cross-brewed batch of Golden Road Point the Way IPA

That glass of Golden Road Point the Way IPA you’re drinking? There’s a good chance it wasn’t brewed at Golden Road’s facility in Los Angeles, but 380 miles away, at Four Peaks Brewing Co. in Tempe, Arizona. Could you tell?

Probably not. And that’s the point of a process called cross-brewing, which involves one brewer recreating another brewer’s recipes on his own system—the hope being that the beers brewed at either facility are indistinguishable from one another.

Cross-brewing is what occurs when two breweries connected through business concerns each have problems the other could solve. In this case, Golden Road was near its brewing capacity and didn’t have the tank space to house its next batch of Point the Way IPA. Four Peaks, meanwhile, recently installed some new fermenters and was still ramping up brewing to fill them, so they had some extra room. The two breweries, which are connected via Anheuser Busch-InBev ownership (the beer giant purchased both breweries in 2015), decided a cross-brew at Four Peaks would be beneficial for both of them. You could say it’s like contract-brewing without a contract; because the deal’s between breweries that exist within the same family, there’s no need for fine print. In practice, it’s more like giving your neighbor some sugar so he can cook a batch of your grandma’s secret recipe brownies for you.

And inside the conference room overlooking Four Peaks’ sprawling production facility last week, that neighborly handoff is about as scientific as the process seems. Andy Ingram and Victor Novak, the respective head brewers at Four Peaks and Golden Road, sit casually at a large table, a couple pitchers of golden IPA between them. Novak takes a sip. “Yeah.” He nods. “That tastes like Point the Way.”

A simple taste-test isn’t all that goes into this process, of course. Once the beer is finished, laboratory tests ensure the beer stays within the acceptable range for bitterness, alcohol and other compounds. But this is the final and most important step before packaging—also known as the “flavor match.” As with any of his beers made at another facility, Novak has the last say on whether this batch of Point the Way will go into kegs or not. If he doesn’t feel the beer made at Four Peaks is as good as the original, down the drain it goes.

“I don’t always have a control sample to go off of, so I’m doing this more from memory,” Novak says. “I try to match the color, that light copper and hint of amber, and the heavy hitters for hops—that beautiful Cascade, Simcoe, Amarillo, a little Centennial.” He takes another sip. “This is it.”

But cross-brewing isn’t as simple as handing over a recipe and asking a brewer to recreate it, Ingram says. Before Four Peaks even attempted to brew Point the Way, they had to adjust for all the factors that would make their version of the beer taste different, from the size of their brewhouse (Four Peaks brews beer 60 barrels at a time; Golden Road does 50-barrel batches) to the shape of their fermenters and their ingredients. Both breweries purify their brewing water via reverse osmosis and add minerals back in as needed, so there was no problem there. Hops can vary in acid and oil content between years and farms—a Cascade grown in the Willamette Valley might taste entirely different from the same variety grown in Idaho—so Golden Road shipped the hops they selected for use in Point the Way to Four Peaks. Even the methods each brewery employs for dry-hopping had to be considered.

“I had complete trust in them,” Novak says. ‘I’ve worked with other brewers and worked on different systems, and once you know you’re talking to knowledgeable, world-class brewers, handing over your recipe is easy.”

Not only did the cross-brew solve problems for both brewers, Ingram says, but getting to bring in new ingredients and attempt to replicate a beer was a fun challenge.

“It’s a new chance to see what kind of brewers we are,” Ingram says. “We can brew our own recipes all day long, but can we take someone else’s and nail it?”

This isn’t the first time a beer from one of the breweries in AB InBev’s “craft” portfolio—also known as The High End—has seen its recipes recreated. (Anheuser-Busch famously dumped five batches of Goose Island 312 when first attempting to scale the beer up for national distribution.) Batches of Golden Road’s 329 Lager and Wolf Pup session IPA have been cross-brewed at Anheuser-Busch facilities in Van Nuys and Fairfield, California. But Four Peaks’ recreation of Point the Way is the first cross-brewing venture between two High End breweries themselves.

As far as I can tell, it was a success. The beer in the pitchers has a golden glow, and sips contain bursts of lemon with hints of honey and stone fruit. It tastes like Point the Way. But it’s also been many months since my last glass of the beer, so I’m obviously not the most qualified taster at the table. I wonder aloud to Novak: How close would a cross-brew have to be for him to be okay with it? How much deviation is allowable before a cross-brewed batch is deemed a failure?

“I would say it would need to be 90 percent accurate at least,” Novak says. “That may seem lax, but we have some deviation even in our own brewery. The beer does not come out exactly the same every time. We can’t ask Four Peaks to make exactly what we do because even we can’t make the exact same beer every time.”

To decide to dump the batch, Novak says, something would have to go horribly awry. Not that he wouldn’t.

“I think we’re both willing to take the financial hit,” he says. “If it’s not Point the Way, why put it out there? Why sacrifice your reputation for one batch of beer? One thing I’ve learned in 20 years of brewing is that you’re only as good as your last batch. If you start putting out some things that cause people to lose trust in you, you’re going to have some major issues.”

This is why Novak still flies out to perform the flavor-match in person, he says. He cares about what has the Golden Road name on it, whether he brewed it himself or entrusted that task to someone else.

“You’re dealing with craft brewers, with guys with integrity,” Novak says. “We love what we do. Nothing has changed. The integrity of the beer is still there. We’re beer drinkers. We want to make sure we put our name and reputation behind the beers that are going out, and when they are cross-brewed at the larger breweries that it’s still our lots, our malts and our flavor and quality.”

One Comment

  • Jason says:

    Not just big beer, but I wonder how many people know that that pint of Pliny they have drank the last couple of years could have been brewed at Firestone Walker instead of Russian River

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