By Bill DeBaun, Editor & contributor to DCBeer.com
“How many people can say, and genuinely mean, ‘This beer changed my life?’” asks Great Raft Brewing co-founder and president Andrew Nations.
For Nations, that life changer was a lager: Downingtown, PA’s revered Prima Pils, and it set him and and his wife, co-founder Lindsay Nations, on the path to opening their own brewery in Shreveport. Southern Drawl, the brewery’s pale lager and one of three flagship beers, was envisioned from the start and written into the business plan, and it has been the bestseller since Great Raft first fired up the brew kettle in 2013. Conventional wisdom urges us to “dance with the one who brought you” and advises “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but complacency has never been a feature of Great Raft’s founders or their team. That is why in May of 2017, Southern Drawl will change from a classic pale lager to a Pilsner with a Louisiana connection.
Beers, especially flagship beers, often reflect the values and tastes of their producers. The vision for Southern Drawl, Nations explains “was to create a crushable, all-German-ingredient lager as a bit of a revolt against ‘imperial aged [read: boozy] this and that.’ It’s our expression of, and emphasis on, subtlety of flavor versus intensity of flavor. The latter is much easier to achieve and not something we wanted for a flagship.” Hoppy pale lager is a thirst quenching fit for northwest Louisiana’s often brutal summers, but it also serves as an introduction to craft beer for an area and community that was without a local brewery until Great Raft solved that problem upon opening. “It’s a very approachable beer and the one we stress out about the most,” confesses Nations.
Why the anxiety over beer, which is supposed to help us unwind? “There really isn’t any room for deviation or poor brewing practices. There is nothing to hide behind here and consistency is paramount with any of our beers,” Nations explains. Bigger, bolder styles can more easily conceal imperfections, but in something brewed within a narrow set of parameters as Southern Drawl is, there isn’t a lot of forgiveness for mistakes.
Those parameters for Southern Drawl are German barley and wheat malt (that lend flavors of biscuit and cracker), Tettnanger and Perle hops (flowers that add floral and spicy notes; think pepper more than heat) fermented with a house lager yeast that lends a crisp, clean profile to the 5.2 percent finished product. “Our lager is brewed to be complex and flavorful,” says Nations. “The end goal is not to create a soulless watered down commodity brewed to be consumed 30 at a time. The challenge is to keep it simple but not too boring. We accomplish this with a fairly unique-to-the-style dry hop addition.”
It is a tough decision to change a beer that is complex enough to satisfy aficionados but not intimidating for newcomers, but nature forced the Nations’ hand. It can be easy to forget that beer is an agricultural product. “Like every other brewery, we are dependent on raw goods. When those raw goods change, we have to adapt,” says Nations. In this case, a poor 2015 European hop crop had consequences that trickled all the way to Louisiana in 2017. Not only was the yield of hops low, but those hops that were harvested had lower alpha acids, which are key to providing bitterness and balancing out the sweetness of sugars obtained from malts that are eaten by yeast and converted into alcohol.
Great Raft’s contracts were large enough to cover the decreased volume of hops but not also the decrease in alpha acids. As the brewery team started thinking about workarounds, they realized they had an opportunity to change things up.
First, they asked why there was nothing “Southern” about Southern Drawl. Second, they asked how the beer could be more sustainable. The answer to both queries came from something they had done in 2015, the same year whose poor hop crop raised the challenge in the first place. Great Raft collaborated on a chef-driven and charitable beer series, Provisions and Traditions. Chef Brian Landry of Restaurant Borgne in New Orleans challenged them to make a Kolsch featuring Cajun Country rice grown in Crowley, LA. Great Raft accepted the challenge and answered the call with the series’ first volume. Kolsch, a crisp, thirst-quenching German beer that is fermented warm like an ale but conditioned cold like a lager, was a perfect place to showcase rice, which lightens up beer’s color and creates a crisper mouthfeel.
“We loved the results and have had this idea in the back of our mind’s since the release. Our employees often ask us to brew it again, so jumping back to this idea for our new pilsner seemed to be an obvious choice and one we all are excited for,” Nations says.
Rice is frequently villainized by beer fans who decry macrobrewers’ use of it in in their lagers. Craft breweries employ barley, wheat, and rye with far more frequency. “We have all been told as craft beer consumers that rice and adjuncts are fillers and big (bad) beer uses them to save a marginal dollar to pay for their multimillion dollar ad campaigns, some of which are used to attack craft beer,” says Great Raft’s Chief Brewer, Harvey Kenney. “What if we turned that philosophy on its head and made the rice in our beer regional, independent, small, and desirable in flavor? The last one is the hardest to believe, right? Big beer hides its rice flavor. We want to showcase it.”
Nations is not concerned about making the transition from the old Drawl to the new. “The move from a Pale Lager to a Pilsner is not a huge leap,” he says. The similar flavor profile will hopefully retain current fans while also bringing on new ones. An additional hook for America’s hop-frenzied craft consumers? Dry-hopping with American varieties like the grapefruit-forward Cascade and fruity and floral Mosaic. “The goal is to create a delicate but hoppy nose without the typically associated bitterness,” says Nations, likely to the relief of those turned off by some hop-forward styles because of the bitter finish. “Most people like the aromatic qualities of hops but not the bitterness and often confuse the two. This beer challenges that perception.”
Recipe tweaks and reformulations like this are fairly common among craft brewers, but any change to a flagship beer, let alone a brewery’s top seller, is significant. Nations says that being open and honest about the process and the logic are important to him and Lindsay. “It happens with a lot of breweries. Some change and are vocal about it. Some aren’t. We have always been a very transparent company and plan to continue that effort.” That said, he does not see the changes as so drastic that the Southern Drawl brand needs to retire with the old recipe. “We don’t have a big marketing department telling us about trends and what beers we need to brew,” Nations muses. “I get to make decisions about what tastes good first. We know that the Pilsner will be an improvement, and we think the current Southern Drawl loyalists will enjoy the Pilsner even more.”
Pilsner is a classic, historic style that conjures a specific image. Notably, that image features neither rice (Louisiana or otherwise) nor dry-hopping (American no less). Asked about whether he thinks that’s something he’s concerned about, Nations was frank about the new endeavor that his whole team is excited about. After all, this is the style of beer that changed his whole life. “This beer is not a brewed to style Pilsner. Who cares though? Putting beer into a stylistically perfect box is boring. Crushable hoppy lager is not.”