Seconds to Summer is a new beer that emerged from Allagash Brewing’s pilot program. Photo courtesy of Allagash Brewing Co.

As a warmer season struggles to be born, a new beer from Allagash augurs pleasant days ahead. Seconds to Summer is a 4.5% ABV lager that gives us permission to begin dreaming.

Brewed with Czech Saaz and Kazbek hops, Pilsner and Carapils malts, and a Belgian lager yeast, it is golden, malty, herbal, a bit earthy and spicy, with a snappy finish. The yeast plays a different role here than in many of Allagash’s beers.

“In general, most of the beers we brew rely on the esters created during fermentation to give our beers character,” explained Patrick Chavanelle, Allagash’s research and development brewer. “For this beer, we were kinda looking for the exact opposite. Really, we wanted a lager strain that put nearly all of the focus on the hops and malt. When compared to other lager strains, the Belgian lager yeast tends to lend a dry, crisp character with very little residual sweetness (and) maximum crushability.”

Like many of Allagash’s new beers, Seconds to Summer emerged from the brewery’s pilot program (which has existed in some form since 2007, but has been refined many times since). Any employee can submit an idea for a beer. Submissions, which are anonymous, go to the pilot team. It is made up of employees from across the company with brewing experience (which includes not just the brewers, but folks from the lab and canning/bottling lines).

The pilot team meets weekly, and if they like the idea, they work with its author to create the recipe. The beer is then brewed on a 10-gallon pilot system and, when ready, put on tap in the brewery break room. Employees taste and provide anonymous feedback, using an app called Draughtlab.

This program generates a lot of experimentation. There are typically two new pilot beers on draught in the break room each week – so roughly 100 over the course of the year. (The pilot system is also used for other experimental R&D beers, also available to employees, brewed at about the same rate.)

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If a beer is well-received, it might get scaled-up and brewed on one of the bigger systems (30 barrels, or 930 gallons, is the next step up; the largest system brews 60 barrels). From there, it is served in the brewery’s public-facing tasting room. If popular there, the beer may be packaged as part of Allagash’s From Maine, with Love series, which is sold exclusively out of the brewery. Twelve of those employee-conceived pilot beers made it into the series last year, or just over 10 percent of all pilot beers. And a handful of those beers get rebranded and distributed across Allagash’s national footprint.

One benefit of this process is that the brewery can directly gauge the desirability of these experimental beers, as they are bought right there on site. But perhaps more significantly, the pilot process impacts company culture as well.

“It connects all employees to the process of making beer,” said brewmaster Jason Perkins. “Especially for those who aren’t brewers, the pilot program gives them an opportunity to connect and learn about the process of brewing.”

This connection also cultivates “the feeling of ownership for our success throughout the company,” Perkins notes, as everyone has a chance to shape Allagash’s next great beer.

Many of the brewery’s current lineup of beers have emerged from the pilot system, including Two Lights, Haunted House, Moselle, World on a String and Truepenny. Later this year, Allagash will release Floating Holiday, a 5.2% ABV blonde ale brewed with lemon peel and sea salt, and Day’s End, a 9.5% ABV red ale inspired by the “Boulevardier” cocktail. Brewed with Lambrusco grape must, angelica root and orange peel, it will spend a couple of months in bourbon barrels.

“At this point, pretty much every new beer release comes from the pilot system,” said Brett Willis, Allagash’s marketing specialist.

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Readers may have already encountered another new beer recently sprung from the pilot system: Swiftly IPA, a 6.5% beer balancing aggressive American hoppiness (Cascade, Chinook, Mosaic and Simcoe) with caramel malt imported from Belgium, accented by Allagash’s distinctive house yeast and a touch of coriander (in true Belgian style). Swiftly was the brainchild of Allagash’s California sales manager, who wanted a beer that evoked a dewy walk through a coniferous forest, and indeed the citrusy pine we might associate with an old-school West Coast IPA is not bashful here. And like many of these pilot beers, it seems to straddle styles, combining different brewing traditions in compelling new ways.

From Maine, with Love #14 is a mashup of a Belgian Biére de Garde and a German Schwarzbier. Photo courtesy of Allagash Brewing Co.

Look no further than From Maine, with Love #14 – currently on draft and in cans at the Allagash tasting room – a mashup of a Belgian Biére de Garde and a German Schwarzbier. Roasty bitter chocolate, dried fruit and a hint of sweetness precede a remarkably crisp, dry finish.

The experimental nature of the pilot system aligns well with the inventive makeup of the history of Belgian-inspired brewing.

“So much of the tradition is about experimentation,” Perkins said. He points to Belgian favorites like Orval that defy stylistic categorization. “Hybrid beers are also something that’s built into our DNA as a brewery from early on,” he noted, pointing to brewery favorites like Curieux, a Tripel aged in bourbon barrels that unites a classic Belgian beer with the iconic American spirit.

While Allagash certainly still flexes its expertise in traditional styles, the pilot program amplifies its experimental orientation.

“We’re going beyond historical Belgian ingredients and styles and really trying to explore beers that we think are exciting, interesting,” Perkins said, “or just beers that the folks in our brewery would like to enjoy for themselves.”

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.


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