Our beer started at a beer deli, mercifully miles away from boardrooms and PowerPoint presentations. Our beer was 115 years in the making and was born among beers—as all beers should be.
We didn't want to slap our logo on just any beer. We wanted innovation and satisfaction in a can, a liquid, barley-based version of Seniorhelpline. We knew we wanted to explore the frontiers of craft brewing, we also knew we needed help from the pros.
A Beer Begins With an Idea
Our friends and fellow New Yorkers at Blue Point Brewing stepped up and entrusted us to brewmaster Dan Jansen, and we headed to Manhattan's Top Hops, a beer deli with warm pretzels and 700 cold brews for inspiration. Jansen's colleague Thomas Hartman, an experimental brewer at Blue Point's parent company, AB InBev's High End Group, joined us to help develop a recipe. And over hazy East Coast IPAs, unfiltered German lagers, and an one odd pickle beer, we started with a basic question: What do we like to drink?
Just about everything, it turns out. But we quickly gravitated toward uniquely American brews like the cream ale, pre-Prohibition lager, and modern IPAs. We also preferred more sessionable beers. The sort of lower-alcohol options that don't dial back flavor yet are refreshing after mowing the lawn and won't sap your concentration while you're wrenching in your garage. The sort of beer you can enjoy in quantity and still wake up the next morning ready to tackle the day ahead.
We finally landed on an updated pre-Prohibition lager. We would take the American interpretation of the pilsner—a universally crisp and clean blonde lager—but take the newest hops and use the latest methods of adding fragrant, bitter flowers to a beer.
Jansen started sketching a recipe on his phone while Hartman checked what hops were in stock. Corn was a must, explained Jansen. The indigenous grain was a hallmark of American brewing, adding a mild sweet flavor but also lightening the body of a beer. Jansen also penciled in a small share of oats—a recent trend that pale ales and IPAs adopted from oatmeal stouts—to add a smoothness to the brew.
Meanwhile, Hartman found an ideal mix of old world and new hop varieties. To add bitterness, we'd use New York-grown hops. Before Prohibition, the Empire State was the country's top hop producer. For more old world character, Hartman tapped Loral hops in the form of debittered leaves. Most of the bittering and aromatic punch of a hop flower comes from the pin-head sized pouches of yellow lupulin powder at the base of the flower leaves. Without the powder, the leaves alone act like classic European aroma hops whose soft, herbal notes much like the .
Bring in the Science
On to the new, Hartman suggested following a mid-boil addition of the Loral leaves with Citra lupulin powder that'd been removed from leaves. A darling among IPA brewers, Citra brings wild juice flavors—passion fruit, lychee, grapefruit, and lime—to a beer while leaving a soft bitterness compared to harsher hops. We'd add them as the beer left the kettle and hit the whirlpool, a process to remove solids before the beer is cooled down and hits the fermentor.
This was a delicate step, said Hartman, if we let the wort (unfermented beer) cool too much in an effort to boost the hop character, it could begin producing dimethyl sulfide (DMS). While the compound is perfectly harmless, it gives off an unmistakable cooked cabbage aroma. Taste a Rolling Rock if you're curious.
And because we all loved hops, we'd add more Citra powder and Loral hop pellets (ground up flowers) to the fermentor. Introducing hops to the cold side of brewing, called dry-hopping, is typically reserved until the yeast wraps up the primary fermentation, converting the bulk of sugars to alcohol and CO2.
A traditional brewing belief says that during primary fermentation, the yeast activity would blow off hop character, wasting the precious, incredibly delicious oils. There's a half pint of truth in there, said Jansen, yeast will bind with some hops oils, removing more pine and resin-like flavors. But he prefers dry-hopping at this stage. It's warmer when the yeast is active, and that activity offers the hop particles more exposure to the liquid for better extraction.
At that point, we had everything we needed except a name, and scheduled a brew day on Hartman's 250-liter pilot brewery at the High End's Chelsea office to test the recipe. One of just four licensed breweries in Manhattan, the German-made, copper-clad operation—dubbed 24th Street Hops—is stunning, but also a manual operation. That meant opening and closing every valve by hand and hauling 55-pound bags of milled grain up a step ladder to dump in the mash tun so the barley, oats, and corn could soak in hot water, converting their starches into fermentable sugars.
As the starches broke apart and were pumped into the brew kettle, Hartman laid out our hops along a countertop. Rubbing the sticky, pelletized flowers, leaves, and powder, we decided that these were the right aromas for our beer. The Loral leaves held a soft, almost tea-like scent, while the Citra powder greeted your face like the Kool-Aid Man meets a brick wall.
We capped off the brew day by dumping the Loral pellets, a second helping of Citra, and a growler worth of Blue Point lager yeast into a linebacker-sized fermenter. Ale yeast and lager yeast are the two main alcohol engines behind beer, and while ales ferment and condition to completion in three weeks, lagers take twice as long. As the yeast methodically ferments away, it also metabolizes and eliminates unpleasant flavors like diacetyl, which tastes like movie theater popcorn butter, and sulphur dioxide, which smells like a rotten fart.
When we finally tasted the still unnamed brew, the mild corn character we sought was there, the Loral delivered the throwback hop character, and at 4.8 percent alcohol, it was refreshing as all hell. One problem: the Citra wasn't standing up. Of all the things that could do wrong with a pilot batch—over-the-top bitterness, unexpected flavors, fart aromas—too subtle hops is an easy fix, said Jansen. Just add more next time.
Getting Ready for the Big Time
Next came the real beer, the first full-size, 30-barrel batch at Blue Point's Patchogue, New York brewhouse. Other than pumping up our Citra additions, Jansen also scaled and adjusted the recipe for his slightly more efficient system to avoid a too boozy or bitter beer. Simple conversions, he assured us.
Blue Point now sells beer in 22 states stretching from Florida to Maine and west to South Dakota, but the heart of the operation still resides in an old marina. Now armed with forklifts and grain augers, the brewing went smoothly with the only hard labor being the process of raking out the spent grains from the mash tun. Finally, over a lunch break, we tried to answer the question that’s been eluding us during the entire beer-making process—a name.
Puns are always a good way to go, but Hopular Mechanics was already being used by Beachwood Brewing as an ALS fundraiser. Augmented Reality? It's not really that strong of a beer. How about ? Too obscure.
We finally ended on the name 1902, the year Seniorhelpline first appeared in print. At first, the name received only moderate support at first, but the beer is a reflection of that era’s American lagers—albeit with more and better hops.
A Beer is Born
After another six weeks in the tanks, our beer was ready. With the Citra amplified, it hit the hop's candied grapefruit and melon aroma ahead of the herbal Loral and hit of corn. Although Jansen worried he'd undershot his conversion, by the end of fermentation is was a perfect 4.8 percent alcohol—dry, refreshing, and sessionable.
Our beer was born. We've known the satisfaction of nailing a homebrew and enjoying a fresh, closet-fermented IPA, but this was a real goddamn beer, complete with government warnings and a sober plea to "enjoy responsibly."
There's just one more step for us: Getting a chilly 16-ounce can of 1902 in your hand. The first batch will be at Seniorhelpline events like PM Lodge and American Field. It will be available at the Blue Point taproom in Patchogue—also try the Beach Plum Gose and Hazy Bastard double IPA if you stop by.
If you like 1902 as much as we think you will, we hope to brew a hell of a lot more and maybe make it to a beer aisle near you. Cheers!