Perhaps most famously, in January of 2015, Chicago’s Goose Island announced that they detected off-flavors in their Bourbon County Brand (BCB) Coffee Stout and BCB Barleywine, the result of an infection from a bacteria called Lactobacillus acetotolerans. They quickly offered refunds; some 40,000 bottles had to be returned. Later in the year, they offered a similar refund for bottles from nine different runs of their BCB Stout and one of their Proprietor’s BCB Stout.
Throughout the industry, the monetary return and public apology has become something of a panacea for botched projects. But is it adequate? “Took time off work to do this, thanks a ton,” wrote one unhappy customer on Twitter after Lost Abbey’s 2015 screw up with Duck Duck Gooze. On Black Friday 2015, my brother and I woke up at 5 a.m. to stand outside a Total Wine in Orlando, Florida and buy the BCB Coffee Stout. The store didn’t open until 8 a.m. Across the country, tens of thousands of craft beer fans did the same. Sure, we got our money back from the infected bottles, but didn’t our time mean something as well?
Growing up, my family had an expectation that you needed to leave things in better condition than when you found them. If you saw a cereal box left open, you closed it. Mud in the hallway? Wipe it up. Mistakes happened, and were immediately forgiven — as long as you took responsibility and left the situation better than it was. High standards, to be sure, but my parents ran a children’s summer camp. Left unchecked, oversights could snowball.
Black Project recognized this. Instead of simply refunding everyone’s money, they asked the community to wait while they diagnosed and fixed the problem. Then they committed to giving each fan something even bolder and more rare than their original offering.
Then they committed to giving each fan something even bolder and more rare than their original offering.
According to Sarah, the brewers heard a story about the beer blender Pierre Tilquin, founder of Belgium’s Gueuzerie Tilquin. In 2012, a batch of Gueuze Tilquin à L’Ancienne became over-carbonated, just like Black Project’s Stargate. Instead of dumping the beer, Tilquin and a bunch of friends opened every single bottle of over-carbonated Gueuze Tilquin à L’Ancienne and poured them back into barrels.
“I had 20,000 over-carbonated bottles that I couldn’t sell,” said Pierre Tilquin over email. “We decided to empty them, and, as the beer was very cloudy, let it clarify and de-saturate progressively. I tasted it and measured it regularly for carbonation, and after 1.5 months, the carbonation was gone, the beer was clarified, and the taste was good (it had taken oak character from the barrels), so I decided to bottle it with a small amount of sugar to get a secondary fermentation in the bottle, and a normal carbonation. After 6 months of bottle conditioning, the beer was delicious, and ready to sell.”
“The beer was really appreciated,” Tilquin added. “It was more tasty, oaky and funky than the normal gueuze.”
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At Black Project, James and Sarah emulated Tilquin’s experiment (named Gueuze² because it went twice in barrels and twice in bottles). They opened each bottle and poured each beer back into a fermentor, where it sat until it became flat. Then, like Tilquin, they tried a second time.
“It ended up being perfectly carbonated,” Sarah said. “And we refined our entire way of bottling. We added a small mesh filter to remove any hop or fruit particles from the beer.”
Three months after the botched release, Black Project released a second beer to anyone who’d been waiting in line for the first. In homage to Tilquin, the Howat’s named their beer Stargate².
Whatever the outcome, the fact remains that Black Project committed to rectifying their error by providing their fans with something better.
It took a few extra months, but I actually had the opportunity to try both beers. A friend had sent me one of the few coveted original bottles to escape the brewery, and Sarah Howat herself got me a bottle of Stargate². Regular Stargate poured clear and tasted like white peach juice, with a bit of lemon and funk. Imagine someone handing you a glass and saying, “This is peach wine.” Stargate² was a different beer. It was riper, peachier, and ultimately juicier, like biting into a fuzzy summer peach.
At the Hop Culture offices, the jury was divided. One writer liked Stargate better, while two others preferred Stargate².
Whatever the outcome, the fact remains that Black Project committed to rectifying their error by providing their fans with something better. In a world where most businesses get by with the bare minimum, that type of service stands out.
And now more than ever, service is an important component of the brewery experience. Over 5,000 breweries operate across the United States, with another 2,000 in planning. As with any young and fast-growing industry, mistakes are common. And this level of competition means it’s not enough to have a good product. If you assume that half the breweries in America maintain a basic level of competence, that’s still more than 2,500 direct competitors in your market. Quality is only one of many differentiating factors.
Is it unfair to ask The Lost Abbey or Goose Island for a little something extra? Perhaps. Everyone makes mistakes. But those companies shouldn’t fuss when upstarts like Black Project steal their lunch. -HopCulture