Innovate to Survive: Hopkins Brewing's Small Batch Nights
American craft brewing has always been about innovation. Since the first major growth spurt in the '80s to the boom of the last dozen years, our industry has largely defined itself through a contrast to more historical beer brewing found elsewhere in the world. Traditions are still respected, even honored, but more often the rules are broken and trampled in a mad rush towards new horizons in flavor. This approach has brought us amazing results and America has become the leader of the brewing scene worldwide, setting trends, introducing techniques, challenging assumptions and brewing bizarre beers with bizarre ingredients.
My point is that American craft beer drinkers have been trained to place a premium on whatever is new and different, favoring experimental offerings over more traditional fare, and brewers everywhere would be well served to pay attention. This holds true for every level, from huge macro breweries, right down to small local pub outfits like Hopkins Brewing in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City. In their second year of operation, this small brewery introduced what was to become one of their most popular programs: Small Batch Nights. Since then, they've been turning out a massive number of new and innovative brews every two weeks, throwing a ton of of new flavors at the palate of Utah's craft beer fans and seeing what sticks.
Hopkins is named for Owner and Head Brewer, Chad Hopkins, who opened up shop in the space vacated by Epic Brewing's Annex project in late 2018. His tap lineup often includes things a little outside the mainstream, like the lightly spicy Chili Mangose, the jet-black Twilight Saison, or my personal favorite, the Nelson Sauvin and Hallertau Blanc-hopped Sauvin Blanc Brut, a wine-beer hybrid brewed with chardonnay grapes he grows himself. But the Small Batch Nights are something else entirely: Assistant Brewer Matt Yeager uses homebrew-scale equipment to produce myriad experimental batches, five gallons at a time, and every two weeks the brewery pours them on draft to the delight of curious customers.
The inception of this successful experiment began with a training exercise for Yeager. “We brought my old kegerator in here, just to do some experimental beers and have fun with it,” says Hopkins. “And Matt was an extract brewer and he wanted to learn how to go all grain. So I showed him the process and he just started to want to play more and do more experiments and he just took it and ran with it.” The beers were turning out great and they realized they could and should be selling them. Each five gallon batch would get kegged and poured through the eight-tap kegerator placed adjacent to the taproom's main bar. Dealing with such small batches means the pours are kept small (12oz) to make sure as many people get to sample the unique beers as possible.
The first few Small Batch Nights were a success and it became a regular occurrence, now taking place on every other Friday for about a year at the time of writing. Hopkins allows his assistant free reign over what gets brewed, and for his part, Yeager endeavors to keep things new and fresh. “I'll try and think, 'what's a weird flavor for beer,' or look around on blogs and see what breweries are doing what, what the new trends are,” he says. “For the most part I keep it pretty varied, but there are some that are redos, like a staple.” And the response has been direct and immediate; for example, people were requesting wheat-based beers, so Yeager often includes something like a hefeweizen on the lineup. “I just try to get a general feel,” he says. “If I do something that's new and a little strange, are people into it or is it not really moving too much.” This is a perfect, direct relationship: the customers are willing to try small pours of something off the beaten path, while the brewer receives real time feedback on their recipes.
Like any experiment, some results are more successful than others, but the variations just keep coming. On my last visit in late October (menu pictured), I tried four new, somewhat Halloween-themed beers and was impressed with each. TheMarzönhead was an extra-toasted version of a Märzen with distinct nuttiness and fruitier hops than is traditional while the Tricked Treat Black Saison showed off its special ingredients by tasting like a spicy peanut butter cup. The #Trendy (With Even More!!!) was an IPA with a huge smack of fresh berries and lactose with the hops blending in almost too seamlessly. I wanted a bit more hops as the fruit took over. But the highlight of the evening was the Vampire Pilsner, a lager brewed with local malt, rye, saaz hops and beet juice for a brilliant magenta color and a wonderfully balanced and earthy flavor.
Hopkins Brewing is celebrating its two-year anniversary the weekend this is published and of course, a Small Batch Night is a part of it. The promotion and interest these nights generate has been instrumental for the brewery during this difficult year, where all service industry businesses are suffering due to the global pandemic and the goal is to just get patrons through the door. “We have a following of regular customers that come in every other Friday and they try all the small batch stuff,” says Hopkins. “And they usually come back and have their favorites, and they'll drink them throughout the week.” As for what's next, Yeager isn't short on options. “The condiment thing is a trend,” he says laughing. “I've been joking around for a while about doing Worcestershire sauce in a stout and calling it a 'steak ale.'” Pictured below is their Small Batch menu for this special Anniversary night edition, and I for one, will be showing up to try something new.