It’s not a question of whether craft brewing is ready to adapt the startup mentality. The industry is well into its Silicon Valleyification.
Homebrewers have been replaced by venture capitalists. Taprooms today look more like coworking spaces than reclaimed warehouses. Corporate acquisitions are beginning to outnumber new openings. The question becomes: How will it manifest next?
BevSource, a beverage consulting firm based in Little Canada, has spent the last 17 years helping brands like Joia Spirits, WG Brewing Company, and Lionheart Cider to test, package, and release new products to market. the Lab, an experimental taproom opening today in St. Paul, is their first consumer-facing initiative.
True to its name, the Lab is something of a research facility. Billed as a “beverage pilot facility,” the almost-too-glossy taproom serves drinks that have been designed and incubated in their seven-barrel brewing facility. The Lab serves an array of beer, hard seltzer, cider, and even high-test kombucha, all created by BevSource’s many clients. The twist? Patrons will be totally blind to who made what’s in their glass.
“This is a playground for new beverages,” says BevSource CEO and Lab creator Janet Johanson. “Everybody wants to be part of the next new thing.”
Drinkers here will be participating in a test-kitchen-meets-focus-group experience. Their feedback—be it passive, in the form of sales figures, or active, in the form of reviews through their Untappd app—will be packaged into data reports and given back to the drink’s producer. By the time it gets to the mass market, the concept will have been well-proven.
The value to Lab clients is clear: They get a lower-cost option for beta testing new products, recipe consultation with 20-year brewing vet Matt Hall, and a glut of data about how drinkers prefer to order, pour, and drink beer. The proposition for drinkers is a little less clear.
For your actionable insight, you’ll get a reasonably priced brew (16 oz. pours average $5.75 each) and the opportunity to—however nominally—influence the market, all served in what’s become a pretty predictable environment of neon furniture, poured cement, and iconographic murals. One wrinkle is that drinkers get a choice between a self-serve pay-by-the-ounce wall or traditional bartop. Johanson plans to update drinkers on how their input has affected final product, but all that is pending client participation.
The idea is sure to be met with great cynicism. Drinking beer without context is an uncomfortable proposition whether you’re a cicerone or novice. Sure, it forces you to be more critical than you may be if you were to see a name like Surly or Miller on the label, but it’s also removing a necessary quality filter. As one media preview attendee put it: There are plenty of places to get beer that’s not market-ready in the Twin Cities, why do it here?
The Lab has anticipated this skepticism, responding with an unquestionable legacy of quality. Hall, a GABF-winning brewer who most recently was with Lift Bridge, is taking the reigns as brewmaster, and he’ll personally oversee any guest batches that go from mash tun to tapline. Anything that doesn’t meet his exacting standards will be dumped.
“It will be interesting to see how different segments of the industry responds,” Hall says, acknowledging the cynicism. “But I’ve always been trying to push boundaries.”
The Lab’s trump card is Gerri Kustelski, a former Summit employee hailed as “the Godmother of Quality,” who came out of retirement to help run their quality assurance lab. Kustelski and brewing scientist Hannah Krieg will quantitatively assess any on-site-produced beer, passing samples through rigorous tests for “beer-spoiling” microbes, yeast, and bacteria. This service will be open to breweries who mail-in samples for evaluation.
“My goal is to never have a bad beer out there,” Kustelski says.
If you know what you like, don’t bother with the Lab. This is a place for people who want a little discomfort in their drinking day. If you picture yourself at the vanguard of beer trends, it offers you a chance you test that out in a board-certified experimental context
It’ll cost you more than the opt-in checkbox on your Google profile, though. At $6 a beer, are you willing to be a guinea pig?
767 N. Eustis St., Suite 115, St. Paul