Owl Farm's Offbeat Beer Styles Attract 'Novice' Beer Drinkers
An unfamiliar brand has a familiar company behind it
Owl Farm beers feature 'off the wall' styles and flavor combinations. | Photo: Bruce Glassman
The first time I heard of Owl Farm was at Rhythm & Brews in May: I ran into Paige McWey of the San Diego Brewers Guild, who suggested I check out the Owl Farm booth and try their Afternoon Zester, which is a Pear Sour with Lime Zest. I know Paige knows of what she speaks, so I headed straight over to do some tasting.
What I found when I arrived was a collection of truly unique and interesting fermented concoctions. The Afternoon Zester was super tasty, tart, and refreshing, but so was the Gin Gose, which is actually “gin inspired” with its use of juniper berries, coriander, lemon peel, and dill. Not only were these beers massively refreshing on a hot day, they combined flavors and ingredients in ways I had not tasted before. I was intrigued. I asked a few more questions. Then I found out that Owl Farm is actually a kind of “sub-brand” from Booze Brothers in Vista. A week or so later, I was on my way to the Progress Street tasting room; I had to go check them out and get the full story.
Booze Brothers—co-founded by brothers Dave and Donny Firth—has been around for almost five years; they opened in October of 2013 and have been steadily expanding ever since. In fact, over the past five years, the company has quintupled its space, going from its original footprint of nearly 2,000 square feet to nearly 10,000 square feet today.
General Manager Kris Anacleto attributes the brewery’s quick growth to a couple of factors. “The first thing was getting our back patio. That made us one of the only breweries in Vista where you could drink craft beer outside, which was huge for people. Then we put the bar out there and started doing live music, which was also huge.” Kris says the back patio, back bar, and the recently added private event space, which can host weddings and functions for 120 people, has also been a boon for Booze Brothers business. The event space is currently booked every Saturday for the next 18 months.
So, with Booze Brothers growing like gangbusters, what inspired the team to come up with the Owl Farm concept? “It’s no secret that there’s a lot of gimmicky beer out there that does really well, whether you like it or not,” says Kris. “Fruited beers and beers with adjuncts, whether you personally like them, are capturing a market that straightforward beer doesn’t.”
According to Kris, a lot of their tasting room visitors were asking for fruited beers and related styles, so the company started contemplating what they could do to cater to folks who were “novice drinkers,” meaning not big fans of the more “straightforward” beers that form the core of the Booze Brothers tap lineup.
“We wanted to capture that novice market without sacrificing any of our Booze Brothers beer,” Kris says. So, in response, the team started coming up with recipes; they came up with one idea for a recipe, then a second, then a third, at which point, according to Kris, they thought, “What if we just do a second brand that highlights very unique, fruit-forward, off-the-wall styles of beer?” They used their tasting room and their customer base as their R&D laboratory to hone the recipes that appealed most to their patrons and soon they had a small collection of five beers that formed an initial lineup. Part of the concept was that the new line would have its own artwork, its own branding, and its own distinct identity. The hope was, when consumers wanted straightforward, they would think Booze Brothers and when they wanted fruity or offbeat, they’d think of Owl Farm.
“We want to do a lot of cocktail inspired beers,” says Kris. “The idea is not to say, ‘This is our Margarita beer,’ but something like the pear sour with lime zest is kind of margarita inspired.” In many ways, the Owl Farm beers do drink a lot like cocktails, though they’re not sweet and they’re rather light. “We wanted to do beers that give you a refreshing feeling with a different kind of taste. That was the whole reason we did it,” Kris explains. He also adds that Owl Farm beers utilize lots of fruit purées and cold pressed juices, and are made without extracts or anything artificial.
One thing I appreciated about the Owl Farm collection is that the beers highlight truly interesting combinations of flavors; they’re all well balanced, unique in their formulation, and the ingredients are used not just for “flavoring” the beer. The ingredients, in fact—in their unique combination—are the beer.
As the Owl Farm brand gets established, Kris and the team have been pleased to see that the beers are a hit with their serious beer fans as well as novice drinkers. “What’s really cool about the Owl Farm beers is that they’re all made technically really well and there are a lot of beer nerds who really appreciate what we’re doing. That Gin Gose is definitely one of the most complex beers we’ve made.” It makes the team especially happy to see people who say they don’t like beer taste the Gin Gose and love it. With very little hop or malt profile, non-beer people can experience styles of beer that don’t have the flavors and aromas they commonly associate with beer.
The initial offerings, which were officially launched in February, include the Gin Gose, the Afternoon Zester, the Blackberry Cruiser, which is a blackberry lemon ale with Oolong tea, the Peachy Monkey Brettanomyces Ale, and the Ginger Bloom, which is a ginger, apple, honey ale that recently won a silver medal in the Herb & Spice category at the LA International Beer Festival. All the beers so far are below 6.5%, with a few in the 4.5% range, and all were canned right away as part of the initial roll-out. Kris says he’s a “big proponent of distribution,” and he doesn’t want either of his beer lines to be tasting-room-only brands. As Kris sees it, a solid retail distribution network is a great hedge against the current dip in tasting room sales that breweries are currently seeing across the marketplace.
Kris, Donny, and Dave are not making a big secret out of the Booze Brothers connection to Owl Farm, but they’re also not working especially hard to tie the brands together. In the retail world, if a consumer sees Owl Farm on the shelf and doesn’t know its part of Booze Brothers, it’s fine with them. They’re happy to have the two brands remain distinct. “We talked about whether it made sense to start a completely new brand,” Kris says. “We went back and forth, and we decided we liked the challenge of it. The idea is we want it to stand on its own enough, where it’s known as its own thing.” Although future Owl Farm beers won’t necessarily only be characterized by a fruit component, they will, according to Kris, have to be unique and out of the norm: Nothing “overly straightforward,” as he puts it. “You won’t ever just get an IPA.”
It’s still very early in the evolution of Owl Farm, but certain customer trends are starting to emerge. “If we can get someone to taste the Gin Gose, that’s actually the favorite,” Kris says. “Even though lots of people are skeptical or hesitant at first, when they taste it, they’re won over. I think its popularity is because people are surprised that they like it, particularly if they don’t even like gin.”
Kris says the best compliment he’s gotten about Owl Farm came from Matt Akin, brewer and co-founder at Benchmark (whose motto is “Beer Flavored Beer”): “He came up to me and said, ‘This Gin Gose is delicious.’ And that meant a lot to me. A little bit of validation is always nice.”
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