QA/QC services for craft breweries
The wife-and-husband team of Emily and Danny Wang are no strangers to the Colorado craft beer industry. As the owners of one of Denver's first taproom-only craft breweries, Caution Brewing, which closed its doors in summer 2018, the couple has experienced brewing, canning, distribution, and everything in between -- including bad beer.
"Brewing isn't easy. It's organic, things go wrong," Danny explains. "It happens more often than you know because no one talks about it. We once had a beer go bad [at Caution Brewing]. We had to pull it off the shelves after a can exploded in my distributor's car. Turns out we had an infection from one of our dry hopping procedures."
While the loss was less than ideal, it planted a seed that germinated into the inspiration behind Fermly early last year. "We were on a date night and talking about our passions," Emily recalls. "We were already thinking about closing down Caution Brewing and moving on to our next project. I mentioned to Danny that I missed working in a lab and he said it would be cool if we could create a mobile brewery lab."
The next day, the idea still resonated. The couple began reaching out to other breweries to learn more about the QA/QC data those brewers wished they had access to. "We talked to about 100 different breweries about their struggles and how we could make QA/QC more accessible and affordable," Emily says. "We wanted to make it transparent and easy for brewers to understand and digest the QA/QC information as well."
The Wangs moved on to finding investors, acquiring lab equipment, and then to creating a platform that would enable brewers using Fermly's QA/QC solutions to access and track their beers' data over time. "We worked with a third party, Fetchly Labs, and built a web app with Ruby on Rails so that it's highly responsive and scalable," Danny explains. "Since then, we've constantly improved on it and added features and capabilities. While only a handful of the biggest breweries in the country are able to spend millions of dollars on their own software apps, we're giving that technology to every brewer."
Fermly's QA/QC solutions are available a la carte or as a monthly subscription. "We wanted to make sure that we're providing data that really matters to brewers," Emily adds. "The obvious is ABV. But we realized that the equipment we're using can provide so much more than that, so we wanted to give brewers access to all of it."
The lab's Anton Paar Alcolyzer and DMA enable the Wangs to provide brewers with alcohol by volume, calories, real and apparent extract, original gravity and final gravity, and real and apparent fermentation on each beer analyzed. "It's awesome because this data shows you how well your yeast is performing and the quality of your beer," Emily continues. "When you track them from batch to batch, you can tailor your approach."
Tracking can also help brewers identify potential issues before they become explosive problems. "If something is slightly off, we can look at what else might be going on," Emily says. "That's where we bring in all the more reactive things like chemistry and use a UV-Vis and qPCR, which does genetic analysis. This can actually tell you which species of bacteria or yeast might be screwing around with your beer."
Fermly picks up samples directly from the brewery and provides analysis within 24 to 48 hours. This means brewers don't have to mail samples to a remote lab and wait 10 days for results. "That's just too long," Emily says. "Having access to so much information, and having it fast, is a huge value for brewers. That's why we designed Fermly this way."
The Wangs hope that the subscription price will encourage brewers to test their beers on a regular basis. "By making it affordable and accessible, we're able to make sure that more brewers are able to move forward and be proactive about getting information about their beers so that they can learn and understand more of what is going on and how that affects their product," Emily says. "They can produce better beers because they can afford to test from batch to batch instead of just once per year."
Favorite beers: "Mine would be one that has no off flavors, was quality tested, and is right in front of me," Danny laughs. "Also, Wit's End John Claude Van Blonde. That's a go-to without question." He notes that the couple also has Coors Banquet on hand for when they need to unwind in the lab. "It's a consistently amazing beer."
Emily has been enjoying Oximonstrum from Denver's Liberati. "It's sort of like a port and they serve it with little chocolate nibs that bring out so much more flavor," she explains. "I love that Alex [Liberati] is able to develop a more interesting understanding of the beer by adding that."
Challenges: Fermly had its official launch in November 2018 at the Colorado Brewers Guild's Colorado Craft Brewers Summit, though the Wangs originally wanted to open in September. "We had to gather the right equipment and we ended up having delays in getting everything set up," Emily says. "But now that we're up and running, business has been amazing."
Opportunities: The Wangs are currently serving "pretty much every craft brewery" in Denver as well as traveling as far south as Castle Rock and as far north as Fort Collins. They agree that potential expansion is virtually limitless. "We have the ability to be everyone's QA/QC lab," Danny says. "We're three months in and we're busy already, so we're definitely looking at being able to service more breweries as we grow and adapt the software platform." They say they're looking at the possibility of serving breweries outside of Colorado as well.
Needs: More technology for the lab. "We want to get more equipment and be able to offer more services," says Emily. "I have my wish list of what I want next."