Most brewers love to tinker, experiment, and push boundaries in the brewhouse. But most breweries—as businesses—aim to sell high volumes of their core beers. That simplifies operations and ingredients, and it avoids the sort of headaches that come with managing crowds for special releases or whipping up new labels every week.
In Portland, Maine, Lone Pine Brewing is one of those lucky breweries that get to do both. Since opening in March 2016, it has built its reputation on hop-forward core beers: Portland Pale Ale, Brightside IPA, and Tessellation Double IPA, recently adding a New England double IPA, Oh-J, to the year-round lineup. Those beers constantly occupy the brewery’s largest 80- and 40-barrel fermentors, and their sales are what keep the lights on. Meanwhile, their success also bankrolls what might be called “the fun stuff”—such as a series of beers brewed with actual doughnuts from fellow Portlanders at The Holy Donut, or the Cannon IPA series that turns the haze dial to 11.
The popularity of its core beers made Lone Pine the fourth-fastest-growing American craft brewery in 2018, according to Brewers Association data. Cofounders Tom Madden and John Paul say their mission is to make Lone Pine’s beers approachable, adaptable, and available. In late 2017, they purchased Sebago Brewing’s former 13,000-square-foot brewery in nearby Gorham. That added production allowed Lone Pine to produce enough beer to send to 11 states as far-flung as Florida and Utah, as well as to overseas markets including the U.K., France, and Japan.
Going for Easy Appeal
It’s rare that, in the year 2020, a brewery truly excites consumers with a straightforward American pale ale. As it turns out, an accessible, modern pale ale is what a lot of drinkers like to have in their fridges.
“We had this vision of refocusing people’s attention on something crisp and easy to enjoy, but using hops that appeal to people who are really into the craft-beer world,” Madden says.
The brewery splurged on the hop bill, using Citra, Amarillo, Centennial, and Falconer’s Flight blend. They chose an English yeast strain, instead of the classic Chico strain, to throw more fruity esters. The recipe keeps the protein content low, lending the body a lighter, refreshing texture. The aim was to be a middle-ground pale ale that still had its malt roots in Sierra Nevada’s classic but also nodded toward more boutique, fruit-punchier hop flavors.
It worked. Demand for Portland Pale went beyond what Madden and Paul expected—and, at times, beyond what their hop inventory could supply. Fast growth has helped the brewery secure much-needed, steady access to hop contracts, which in turn feed the pale ale and IPAs that are driving the brewery’s growth.
Cranking Up the Character (Carefully)
Brightside, the brewery’s flagship IPA, is another success story born of a similar origin: Madden calls it a “bigger brother” to Portland Pale. It uses almost the same malt bill, the same yeast strain, and just dials up the hop intensity—Citra and Falconer’s Flight, plus Idaho 7—and the ABV by 2 percent. When the brewery found itself with too much Mosaic on its hands, the Tessellation all-Mosaic DIPA—the fourth core beer the brewery introduced—was something of a no-brainer: “We were like, ‘Let’s go to a double IPA and dial it up again,’” Madden says.
This isn’t to say that Lone Pine’s core hoppy beers aren’t distinct, but they are variations on a theme. Working with narrow variables and making small changes are what make those beers shine, Madden says, rather than reinventing the wheel with each new recipe. You generally won’t find Lone Pine brewers working with three strange ingredients and a new hopping technique at the same time. The team’s approach—even with its more adventurous Cannon series of IPAs—is to isolate and incrementally adjust specific variables from batch to batch until the beer achieves desired flavors.
“Beers like Hawaiian T-Shirt Cannon or the Holy Donut series seem a little off-the-wall, but in reality, our process and our experiments are very calculated,” Madden says. “We are not drifting a lot when we’re making new beers.”
For example, the brewers have been diligently tweaking yeast-pitching rates within the Cannon series, finding out how they affect not just the esters produced but also the haze level. Eventually, they decided that slightly under-pitching the yeast forced an increase in the levels of esters, complementing the hop-driven tropical fruit flavors.
Lone Pine also pays careful attention to how much hop particulate remains in its IPAs, as too much of it can cause astringent hop burn. That’s why the brewers are enamored of their new centrifuge, which has not only improved yield but cleared out a lot of the vegetal matter that causes the astringency. Madden says they’re also careful not to let the beer sit on late-addition hops too long. Four days is his ideal period; he dry hops two days before the beer reaches terminal gravity, then overlaps the dry hopping with a 48-hour diacetyl rest. Certain highly hopped beers, such as Oh-J, then benefit from a few days’ rest in the cans before the brewery releases them. For Madden, the sweetest spot for most of Lone Pine’s IPAs is a week or two weeks after they’re canned, when the hops have smoothed out.
Under the Microscope
For the most part, American brewers are working with roughly similar raw materials, so these small procedural choices are everything to Madden.
“Anyone can dump seven pounds-per-barrel of Citra in a dry hop, but the nuance is in the yeast and water,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s the same ingredients. We’re finding nuanced ways of getting more out of them.”
Getting more out of ingredients is getting easier, he says, thanks to better scientific understanding of processes such as biotransformation. Even just a couple of years ago, much of the knowledge about how yeast and hops worked together to impact beers’ flavor was being passed in anecdotes and whispers from brewer to brewer. Now, it’s an important area of research for brewing chemists.
Madden is on the board of the Quality Control Laboratory at the University of Southern Maine, and the brewery sometimes uses that lab to drill down in the beer analytics to a molecular level. When it comes to “doing the legwork” on beer quality, Lone Pine has seen the return on its investment. Paying for a dissolved-oxygen (DO) meter or lab tests on yeast-cell counts pays off, Madden says, when customers know they can trust your one-off releases as much as they can your flagships.
That’s how they’ve been able to build a business on mainstays while also creating buzz—such as the Great American Beer Festival bronze medal last year for Chaos Emeralds Double IPA—for special releases.
“Once you gain the trust of your consumer, anything you come out with from that point forward,” Madden says, “there’s that inherent trust you’ve built that ‘Hey, this is going to be good.”
Photos: Courtesy Lone Pine Brewing