Some upcoming brewing companies are easier to keep track of than others. Despite the fact the company has yet to even find a facility, Modern Times Beer is firmly cemented on my radar screen. Not surprising when you consider the main guy working to make that business a reality is Jacob McKean. The former social media coordinator for Stone Brewing Company, he knows a thing or two about communicating, and has done a good job of keeping his future patrons informed via messages sent to his email list, which can be signed up for on Modern Times’ official website.
One of McKean’s recent communiqués invited readers to email him back for the chance to come out to a special tasting of the beers he and brewing consultant Michael Tonsmeire (better known in craft beer circles as “The Mad Fermentationist”) are developing for Modern Times. The first ten to respond were given the secret location and the chance to offer their feedback on a small array of prototypes. Not wanting to take an available space, but eager to report on this mode of consumer study, I asked McKean if I could be a fly on the wall. He kindly obliged and, before I knew it, I was on the back patio of Toronado in North Park, watching what, to me, is a very smart pre-open step; one I wish more aspiring brewing company head honchos would employ.
Upon arrival, I was encouraged to see the friendly faces of a couple of craft beer fans I know from the local scene. It really is a tight-knit community, which is something that I very much enjoy about San Diego’s suds subculture. It was nice to have good people to talk to, but more than that, I know that they are well versed where beer is concerned and uncompromising in their pursuit of good product. These were the exact individuals McKean was looking for, having shared with me beforehand that, when it comes to beer feedback, there’s no faction he trusts more than beer geeks.
McKean served the group bottles pulled from an iced-down cooler, starting with a 5.5% oatmeal coffee stout. I wondered how vocal the group would be; if they’d really speak their mind or go easy on McKean’s ego. To my great pleasure, they were completely honest, being blunt but not insulting; talking up the good points while making mention of any perceived shortcomings. While an OK beer everybody agreed showed promise, the stout was a bit low in carbonation, and had a short finish.
A hoppy wheat beer, to which McKean added “a crapload of Citra hops” garnered instantaneous feedback from a particularly outspoken critic (pictured below) who said, “I don’t like it. It’s bitter but like sour bitter. There’s a spike of flavor, but that’s it.” One individual noted an imperial amber had a “numbing nasal quality.” To which a tie-died tee-sporting attendee piped up, “I like that numbing nasal quality.” (Everybody’s familiar with the botanical hops are related to, right?.) Meanwhile, a brettanomyces-stoked IPA scored well with the group, getting high marks for everything except its carbonation. One person deemed it "world class," and several said they would buy it off the shelf right now were it available.
It should be noted that McKean readily admits the beers he was serving were by no means of the quality they will be at when he makes them available to the public. Everything is small batch right now and prime for critiquing so he can come up with optimal final recipes once he has the full scale brewhouse he's working to get up and running.
These days, it seems like most new brewers are opening up without subjecting themselves to much qualified or useful criticism. Many new brewery owners say they’ve made multiple batches of their beers in order to fine tune them, but typically the only people tasting them are friends, family, or sometimes, just them. Many of the first run beers I’ve had from newly opened operations have fallen short of my most basic expectations. Coincidence? Probably not.
Taking knocks on something one pours their heart into is never easy (believe me, I know first-hand). McKean deserves credit for his bravery, which can only help him as forges forward to make Modern Times Beer a reality. Power to the beer geeks!