Fruits of Their Labour
From a family of wine-makers, Ben Wiens chose the grain over the grape. Five years later though, he’s making one of California’s most-awarded fruit beers.
Wednesday 06 December 2017
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Just north east of San Diego, Temecula doesn’t feel like the most likely place to find an award-winning craft brewery, but this is the town that Wiens – and its now-famous Apricot Wheat beer – calls home.
Brewmaster Ben Wiens and his family have been in the alcohol business for some time, as wine-makers and latterly as brewers. Ben’s own journey started in the 1990s, when he and his uncle decided to learn to brew and – as people did at the time – went out and bought an actual book on the subject.
“We both really took to it,” recalls Ben. “My uncle went to UC Davis and on to work for AB-InBev for 12 years. When we came to open this place five years ago, he was instrumental in getting us set up and formulating the first beers. After 18 months he got a great opportunity to work for Stone in San Diego and is now working toward his Brewmaster qualification. He was very much part of the technical side of getting this going for us.” When his uncle decided to move on, Ben quit his day job in IT and took over full time as head brewer.
Wiens started off as something of a side project for the family, which had been growing its winery business outside California since 2001. Ben says the work ethic that has made that business such a success has been carried through to the brewery.
“As a winery, we don’t take any of the profit, but roll it straight back into the business. There’s plenty of wineries out there that aren’t really growing but the owners have big cars. My uncle drives a little hybrid. My dad drives a little VW. We’re a big family that came from nothing; my mum and dad made my clothes and cut my hair, and those are the kind of values we still like to live by.”
When Wiens opened in 2012, the local brewing scene was completely different, and had no idea that the single brewery in town before them would grow to six within a single year. He admits that the unforeseen competition forced them to change their business model a little, but that things are going well.
“We’ve grown a little bit here and there, added more tanks, doubled our brew capacity; we’re making beer as much as we can in the heat and having fun with it,” he says. This characterisation of Wiens’ progress is somewhat modest though. It’s often said in America’s crowded craft beer market that any brewery that wants long-term success needs ‘one great beer’; the beer you take to a festival, and all you hear is people saying to their friends “have you tried…?”.
In 2015, Wiens found that beer, in the form of its Apricot Wheat. “Fruit beer was just becoming a big trend, so we started playing around with a few ideas,” recalls Ben. “We put together a recipe, grabbed some saison yeast, brewed it up on our little two-barrel pilot system and it was pretty damn close to what we wanted. We did it again, refined just a little, and it came out really well. We called it Apricot Saison.”
Happy with his creation (he’s not a fruit beer guy), Ben put the beer on the bar in Wiens’ Temecula taproom… and it just sat there. “I couldn’t understand it, because the character of this beer seemed right on point for what people were looking for then,” he continues. “So I asked my son, who does all our branding, to take a look at it. He scratched his head and suggested changing the name to Apricot Wheat. Same beer, same batch. We got through four kegs in two days.”
After a couple more equally successful batches, Ben started bottling Apricot Wheat, widening its distribution. In the meantime though, he’d submitted it to the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), almost as an afterthought and promptly forgotten about it.
“I don’t know why, but that was the year we actually decided to go along: me, my uncle, my dad and a cousin. We sat there as they were announcing the fruit beer category, and I was kind of listening out for bronze, but was talking to my cousin by the time they got to silver. When they said Apricot Wheat had won gold, my first thought was that someone else had made a beer called Apricot Wheat! There could be a thousand Apricot Wheats in this category.”
The effect of winning the gold medal at GABF was instant and dramatic. America, Ben found, was full of buyers who had no idea or interest who Wiens Brewery was, but knew precisely what GABF gold meant.
“You go to somewhere like Colorado and all the accounts know what GABF is, so this really means something. It’s been so helpful. A few days after we won, we got an email from a buyer in Pennsylvania wanting to get our beer out there. It’s amazing how they can be so far away and yet suddenly we’re on their radar.”
The effect of winning the gold medal at GABF was instant and dramatic
Apricot Wheat has won several other major awards since GABF, cementing its position as a force to be reckoned with in the highly competitive fruit beers category. Ben is characteristically modest about the secrets of its success.
“It’s a solid recipe, really hard to screw up and it balances really well,” he says. “We can have variations in the process, or it can be a really hot day, and the beer tastes the same. It’s not sweet, it’s got a little bit of fruit tartness without being a sour. It’s more than just your average one-dimensional fruit beer I guess; something the craft beer enthusiasts would appreciate, but at the same time the yoga girls who come in would want to drink because it’s an apricot fruit beer.”
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