Making the leap from home to pro brewer is something I, and probably every other homebrewer, dreams about. I know James Burge from Pure Order Brewing was dreaming about it long enough to do it. So too have my friends Ryan and Shaun Smith (with their father as their third partner) been dreaming.
The brothers and father team has finally made their dreams manifest, as Institution Ale Company opened on Wednesday to the public in Camarillo.
Now that we’re not talking about dreams anymore, we can talk about facts. One undeniable fact is that the leap from home to pro brewer is a difficult one. Forget about the fact that it’s hard enough to raise the kind of capital necessary to start any business, let alone one that requires a lengthy government permitting process and expensive brewing equipment. There are many issues that the pro brewer faces that homebrewers don’t. Each batch of professionally made beer has to taste consistently good. One bad batch can ruin the perception of a brewery.* A successful commercial brewery also has to be able to sell its beer. A world-class IPA doesn’t make any money wasting away in a brewery’s cold room.
With those challenges in mind, I did a little mental evaluation of Institution when I visited over the weekend just prior to their opening.
The first, and most impressive, thing I noticed was how professional everything looked. The brewery never had the feel of a beginner’s place, but more like the kind of spot a veteran brewer would open after a career of brewing for others. Everything was built by Premier Stainless, and quality-control elements were on full display. It’s so reassuring to see newcomers with glycol-jacketed stainless steel fermentation vessels instead of plastic barrels. Obviously it’s a bigger initial investment, but a worthwhile one.
Institution’s professionalism went well beyond having good equipment though. Even the little touches, such as custom kegs with the brewery’s name stamped on them, and printed keg collars (as opposed to sticker labels attached to generic collars) stood out. They are certainly small touches, but ones that give the perception of professionalism and experience rather than a hayseed start-up.
Those flourishes and details are important – maybe even crucial – but nothing matters as much as the beer. In that regard, I was very pleased to see that Ryan Smith** and Institution have nailed it. We sampled three beers on our brief visit – a Pale Ale (Batch 1), an IPA (Institution IPA) and a Red Ale (Sedation***). Batch 1 was the first batch brewed on the new system, and it had some rough edges, but was still a rather enjoyable Pale Ale. It came out a little more bitter than expected (each system is different, and pro systems often get much better hop utilization than homebrew setups), but there’s always room for extra hoppiness in today’s market. Institution IPA, on the other hand, was already a masterpiece. Brilliantly clear, yet unfiltered, it was also incredibly balanced. There was a delicate sweetness that was just subtle enough to let a glorious bouquet of hop aromas and flavors steal the show. We tasted Sedation right out of the fermentor, so it was a little flat, but I also found it to be incredibly well balanced and thought it had a delightful hop presence without being bitter. Shaun suggested that even though no bittering hops were used (the first hop addition comes during the whirlpool), he felt it was still too bitter (the whirlpool process is longer and hotter at the commercial level, and thus extracts more IBU out of hops than a homebrew setup). I disagree. I felt it was a beautiful example of a Red Ale, but I understand where Shaun was coming from. Most of Institution’s beers are hop-forward, and Sedation is meant to be a beer for a malt-loving crowd.
Whatever changes are made to recipes in the future, I’m confident that they will result in equally impressive beers. Shaun impressed me with his meticulous nature through every step of the brewing process, and that dedication is reflected in the finely-crafted finished product.
I do have one concern, and it is regarding this:
That is Institution’s 5-barrel brewing system. I already mentioned how much I loved their equipment, and this system is no exception. It is well crafted, and should make excellent beer for many years. The question is, will it make enough? Breweries need to operate with a certain level of profit in order to succeed, and that can be hard to do on a smaller system. My guess is that Institution may need a strong tasting-room crowd to drive enough revenue, as the profit margin on beer poured on site is much higher than on kegs of beer at bars.
However, I must add that Shaun and Ryan already have an eye on expansion. There is already room and infrastructure in place to double fermentation capacity, and Shaun suggested that a new system may be in the works after three years.
In any case, I have nothing but faith in Institution Ale Company. I was thoroughly impressed with every aspect (even the tasting room design is simple and elegant), and I feel like it’s going to be a regular pit stop on trips between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles (it’s not too far from the Lewis Rd. exit in Camarillo – maybe a mile or so in easy traffic). I’m proud of the efforts thus far, and can’t wait to burn through some of my homebrew kegs so I can get their IPA on tap in my home.
*I once had a spoiled six-pack from Southern Tier, and I never purchased another sixer from them again – I did buy some more Iniquity though in bombers.
**Ryan runs the brewing operations, while Shaun handles the business and marketing side – although in a small start-up like Institution the roles aren’t necessarily rigid.
***Institution’s name is a play on the former insane asylum in Camarillo, so many of their beer names play with that theme.