It has long been standard procedure here at Brew Gentlemen to refrain from talking about projects while they’re still in motion. Not only does publicly announcing one’s plans make them statistically less likely to be achieved, it also puts you in the unenviable position of having to explain why things didn’t work out in the event that they don’t.
This policy of maintaining a Space Race-like level of secrecy until the moment we’re ready to yank the sheet off of whatever we’ve created was all the more necessary for a project as grand in scope as putting our flagship beer into cans. Years of work took place nearly entirely behind the scenes, with progress being shared only with our closest friends and family. Now that cans are out in the world, there’s a lot we can finally share with you – and thus, dear reader, we present the full story of General Braddock’s.
PART ONE: THE GENERAL COMES TO LIFE
The earliest conceptual ancestor to the beer that would eventually be called General Braddock’s, even though it bore little resemblance in either color or flavor to its modern counterpart, was on the right track. Having begun brewing in our fraternity garage only after deciding to start a brewery during our junior year, we were intent on making an IPA built for balance right from the start. The now-omnipresent New England-style IPA had yet to jump the fences of its namesake region and saturate the American craft beer industry, but the idea of an East Coast answer to the West Coast’s aggressively bitter IPAs was by no means a new thing. Balance was the way.
As our senior year went on and we settled on Braddock as the brewery’s eventual home, we wanted to use our yet unnamed flagship to pay homage to the steel town we had become so deeply entranced by. With such a rich and layered history, Braddock was overflowing with people, places, and things to name a beer after. The most recognizable among them, however (names like George Washington, Andrew Carnegie, or the Edgar Thomson Steel Works), seemed far too presumptuous for two college students to lay claim to. In the end, we settled on General Edward Braddock, a British general best known for his catastrophic defeat at the Battle of the Monongahela in 1755 while leading an expedition to capture Fort Duquesne from the French – and little else. An obscure historical figure with a relatively uncontroversial legacy; essentially a blank slate. Edward Braddock checked all the boxes.
We opened our doors two years after graduating, with General Braddock headlining a launch day lineup of five flagship beers. That number would eventually be whittled down to the General alone. The industry around us was undergoing a period of major transition, and the hazy IPA was soon to become the poster child of the decade. We planted our flag in the ground as the first regularly available hazy IPA in western Pennsylvania in 2015, and the General Braddock’s we now know began to take shape. Momentum built with Paste Magazine naming it #2 on a list of 247 American IPAs the following year, and Draft Magazine naming it one of the 25 best IPAs in America a year after that. It was becoming increasingly obvious that General Braddock’s needed to be placed at the center of our operation.
The pace of change within the industry hastened. New breweries were sprouting up seemingly every month. The taproom model reigned supreme. Mobile canning outfits and new packaging methods allowed even the smallest breweries to put their beer in cans; the growler, once the veritable symbol of small breweries through the 1990s and 2000s, seemed wildly inconvenient by comparison. As the fatigue of releasing new beers weekly in order to retain the customer’s attention began to set in, the urge to simplify our business by focusing on a single brand seemed like the best path forward.
As we became more committed to the flagship model, we saw that the title of “Pittsburgh’s IPA” – a designation we defined as being a.) widely available within the Pittsburgh area, and b.) well known outside of it – had yet to be claimed. If we hoped for General Braddock’s to one day fill that role, we needed to get it into cans… and to get it into cans, we needed to build a bigger brewery.
PART TWO: THE SECOND BATTLE OF THE MONONGAHELA
We broke ground in the spring of 2019, jackhammering up the floors of the warehouse we’d been anxiously holding onto for two years. After a long and tedious planning phase, work had finally begun on the General’s new home: an 13,000-square-foot, production-scale brewhouse with plenty of room to grow.
Amidst the dirt and rubble, a separate and far less dusty project was already in motion. We had committed to packaging General Braddock’s in a 12oz slim can during a trip to Nashville the previous year for the 2018 Craft Brewers Conference, a decision we felt confident in despite the increased difficulty of acquiring them and the recurring eyebrow raises we received from those we informed. Slim cans presented a sleeker alternative to the timeless-but-stubby 12oz can, and, as a bonus, were not widely used in the craft beer space (a landscape that had recently come to be dominated by 16oz cans). They felt nice to look at and nice to hold.
A design began to emerge, drawing influence from vintage beer labels, European football crests, and historical monuments. By July of 2019 we had submitted the finished drawings to the Ball Corporation – the world’s largest manufacturer of aluminum containers – making note of our additional desire that the cans be printed with a matte finish.
We could nearly make out the audible scratch of a record skipping as the action ground to a halt. We were informed that there are matte-finish cans, and there are slim cans, but there are no matte-finish slim cans. Not yet, at least. The first trials of such were set to be produced during a pilot program at Ball’s facility in Monterrey, Mexico in Q1 of the coming year. We asked if they needed additional guinea pigs. They politely declined.
Disheartened but not yet ready to abandon our very specific vision, we continued pressing our contacts at Ball for weeks in search of a solution. The answer remained a no. Just as we began to make peace with the reality that we weren’t getting everything on our wish list, a somewhat perplexing email arrived that made reference to our participation in the Monterrey pilot program as if that had been the plan all along.
Thus began five months of world championship-grade phone tag. While our friends at Ball were always incredibly friendly and helpful, nailing down any additional details about our production run was nearly impossible. Phone calls, voicemails, texts, emails, and the odd homing pigeon went unanswered for weeks at a time. Even after flying out to Ball’s Colorado headquarters in February of 2020 to sign off on the final colors for the cans, we were unable to nail down an additional in-person meeting with our primary contact. The only morsel of information we were able to squeeze out was a somewhat ambiguous confirmation that we were still on track, despite now being halfway through the previous estimate of Q1 2020 and nearly finished with construction. We weren’t exactly optimistic.
Less than a month later, the world as we knew it was flipped on its head. The ongoing pandemic had reached the U.S., and we made the tough decision to close our taproom indefinitely and begin offering our beer in crowlers. After months of uncertainty, we were now sure that this would be the death of our plans for General Braddock’s.
As expected, Ball reached out with some disconcerting news. The raw materials required for the matte finish pilot in Monterrey (which were not certified for use in the United States, hence the project taking place in Mexico) had been irreparably damaged while being held up in German customs. This, along with the rapidly-worsening global health situation, caused Ball to cancel the program outright.
With less than six weeks to go before our targeted launch date, morale was not high. A number of things, namely the continued financial stability of our company, relied on a mid-year launch at the absolute latest.
Good news finally came a few days later. While the matte finish was no longer an option, production would be able to begin nearly immediately if we opted to go with a satin finish instead. If a slightly-less-tactile texture was the only concession we’d have to make in exchange for meeting our original deadline after all, that seemed like a completely reasonable price to pay. We couldn’t sign the new proofs fast enough.
In true Brew Gentlemen fashion, everything came right down to the wire. The freshly-printed cans arrived two days before our scheduled canning date. The cardboard case flats and plastic four-pack holders arrived the following day. In spite of five months of uncertainty and the total disruption of society, our launch was pushed back from the original date by only a single week. As the mobile canning operation pulled their box truck into the building and unloaded their equipment, we knew this was the first day of a brand new chapter.
The first cans off the line tasted so goddamn good.
PART THREE: BRADDOCK’S EXPEDITION
Between the major internal event of launching a new packaging format (a milestone we had spent over two years preparing for) and the major external event that upended the entire world around us (changing the way that beer is sold and consumed more drastically than anything since the repeal of Prohibition), it began to feel as though we’d jettisoned the business we had been running for six years and started a new company altogether.
For us, the metrics by which we measure our own progress have been flipped upside down. Before May, nearly all of the beer we made was sold on draught – both in our own taproom and in a select few bars around the city. By the end of July, however, more than 90% of our beer was sold in cans and crowlers.
A shift of this magnitude can be felt in every aspect of our business: how we make beer, how we sell beer, and how we interpret the numbers and velocity behind each. The metrics by which we determined the success of our taproom seems in hindsight like the divination of tea leaves and animal entrails when compared to the simple integers and objective benchmarks of wholesale distribution.
The future of General Braddock’s is now more open-ended than ever. Cases will continue popping up on new shelves as we steadily expand wholesale distribution. Online ordering will become more streamlined as we continue to incorporate new functionality based on your feedback. And even though we have no plans to reopen our taproom in its original form, we are looking into other creative ways to bring you the BG experience in its stead.
Ever since the days when General Braddock’s was bubbling away atop a propane burner in our fraternity garage, we have always tried to be strict on vision and flexible on details. A few wild months in the spring of 2020 demanded more flexibility than ever before, enough so that once the dust settled, it was as if we had woken up in a different body. Everything changed except for our original vision: to focus on our flagship beer, and to continue sharing it with the world.
Seeing all the ways that you, in turn, are enjoying General Braddock’s and sharing it with others continues to be the greatest reward imaginable.