FLEX®, OSKAR BLUES AND THE CONSTANT PURSUIT OF CONSISTENCY
Recently we sat down with Tim Matthews, Head Brewer for Oskar Blues in Longmont, Colorado, to discuss the one-year anniversary of Oskar Blues’ switch to FLEX®, Haas’s new flowable bittering hop product.
First off, tell us a little bit about what makes Oskar Blues unique?
Oskar Blues started out as a restaurant and brew pub in 1999. We existed in a somewhat small way until 2008, and then went big. A lot of that was fueled by the culture of craft beer in a can, we were the first craft beer in a can in 2002. We’re located right at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park—mountain biking, rafting, fishing, hiking—that’s the lifestyle. The can brought craft beer into outdoor activities. That was a big aspect of the spirit of Oskar Blues.
As brewers, we’ve always been pretty irreverent. We won’t adhere to traditions just for the sake of adhering to those traditions. We have a motto in brewing that nothing is sacred, but it will be evaluated, and it will be given a fair shake either way. That means we’re always open for experimentation and evaluation, and that’s one of the things that led us to FLEX.
We’ve been talking a lot about the increasing need in craft to balance experimentation and quality with operational efficiency—is that something Oskar Blues wrestles with?
Everyday. Operational costs have to be kept in check, especially in today’s landscape. Between 2010 and 2015, it was all about low-hanging fruit. Now we’re in a new kind of climate—and it was a climate that we asked for, by the way—and it’s more and more competitive. We’re trying to expand through sales and to make sure that profitability is maintained. At the same time, we look at the efficiency of our personnel… the quality of their workspace, the quality of the products that they’re using. Efficiency is one thing, but how things affect the overall workday and the quality of the process—and the execution of that process—that’s what matters, too.
What brought you to look at FLEX?
FLEX came to our attention right at the time that we started to evaluate CO2 extracts in general.
Prior to using FLEX, we’d always been straight Type 90 pelletized hops for all applications of hopping, for everything from bittering to late kettle additions to dry hopping. I believe it was 2015 that we started to evaluate CO2 extracts.
We were looking at consistency of alpha. We had found that over the years, we had to adjust the amount of pelletized hops we used because of the degrading alpha value that would happen while they were in storage. CO2 extract is known to be much more stable, so we get more value out of using a product that will not degrade and cause us to increase the amount we use over time.
Yield was also a big part of it. We realized that, because of the vegetative aspects of pellets, you’re losing some of the wort product by using the pelletized hops. By using a product that would dissolve, rather than just sit there like a tea bag, we were going to gain on yield.
We had just begun trials with Haas’ standard CO2 product, and had gotten some feedback from the crew that it was becoming difficult to use. FLEX came along and the minute we tried it, it looked like it was a perfect fit.
When you started testing FLEX, what was your reaction?
In the end, we noticed that there was a higher utilization than with other CO2 extract products and we were able to be more precise and…dare I say flexible [laughs]…based upon how much we added each time. The crew preferred it a lot more. CO2 extract was just cumbersome and messy. I remember the first time we ever introduced the CO2 extract cans into the brewhouse for trial, it was just a bloodbath—extract everywhere, all over the brewhouse. I had a very disgruntled crew. Transitioning to FLEX was really easy because the crew preferred using it so much more.
Are there specific beers you use FLEX for?
Every single beer brewed at Oskar Blues is brewed with FLEX in the bittering addition. Lagers, stouts, IPAs…you name it, we use FLEX. It’s now a ubiquitous product for us.
I was going to ask if it affected the flavor at all…but I guess, if it did, you would have had customers storming the gates!
The flavors have actually gotten more consistent. If anything, it’s enhanced the flavor profiles, but it hasn’t changed anything. We’ve actually improved the stability too. When you work with an agricultural product, you always have change; you’re always dealing with constant deviations—it’s a sine curve [of quality] almost—and you want to level that out and have a straight line. We actually might disappoint some people who are used to a degraded product. We’ve been there before…we’re always working to get our beers fresher and fresher, but people are actually used to drinking old, aged beer. [laughs]
Were there other quantifiable benefits or drawbacks you saw with FLEX?
You know, it’s hard to quantify but only because we’re constantly tweaking things and always making process improvements, so you really can’t get a clean data set. You could take your average yield and compare your previous yield…I think we saw a 1.5% increase. But the consistency of the yield is more important. The variation [with FLEX] is a lot less—more tight and more predictable. We did see significant space savings for storage, which we expected, and it did free up some cold storage by not having the pellets…and, for us, cool space storage is always at a premium. But, ultimately, the benefits that we saw in quality and ease of use, that’s what mattered.
Some brewers are purists—traditionalists, if you will—and nothing but whole hops or pellets, for instance, will do. Did you ever worry that FLEX was too untraditional?
You never want to lose something by moving to a product. But you have to weigh what you gain and what you lose. You look at it in an objective way: A) what do I want from this hop? B) how am I going to get it? And C) is there anything the product may additionally contribute? You can take a traditionalist point of view and want to keep things status quo, but that’s never been our culture, and we’re going to use the best product we can—and what we want from hops, we’re getting from FLEX.