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Discover Second Runnings, Small Beers with Big Flavors

At Marshall Wharf Brewing in Belfast, Maine, owner David Carlson dreamed of making massively hoppy ales, beefy barley wines and hulking stouts, all rich in flavor and high in alcohol. His plan had one hiccup, however— the recipes required more grains than he could cram into the brewery’s too-small mash tun.

Confines can have a way of spurring creativity, though. To brew Chaos Chaos, Carlson was forced to split the imperial stout’s grains into two batches. But after he drained the wort—the sugary broth on which yeast feast—the grain contained loads of leftover sugars. He steeped the remaining grains in hot water for a second time, and drew off the lower-strength wort to create a sister beer, Little Mayhem.

While Chaos Chaos packed a wallop at 11.2 percent abv, Little Mayhem checked in at a lightweight 5 percent. The process is known as a second runnings, or “small beer”.

“It is a weaker beer, but it’s not weaker flavor,” says Carlson. “Necessity is the mother of invention, and with second runnings, you’re getting everything you can out of your resources and ingredients.”

Today, a brewery’s basic rule of thumb is as follows: one grain bill, one beer. In 18th- and 19th-century Britain, though, beer makers practiced parti-gyle brewing, in which multiple beers were made from a single grain load.

Each running drew out progressively weaker wort until all residual sugars were removed. It was a thrifty practice, akin to brewing a second pot of coffee with the original grounds or steeping tea a second time.

The original Eugene porter from Revolution / Photo courtesy Revolution Brewing, Facebook
The original Eugene porter from Revolution / Photo courtesy Revolution Brewing, Facebook

“It’s a great way to utilize your grain, because otherwise, you’re dumping all those nice sugars down the drain,” says Jim Cibak, head brewer at Chicago’s Revolution Brewing. “We’re being more responsible with our raw materials.”

Whenever Cibak brews high-test stouts, porters or barley wines—stronger beers work best—he draws an additional running for experiments.

“The second runnings can provide a great base for a lighter-style beer,” says Cibak.

That’s how the HuGene imperial porter (9.1 percent) spawned Wee Gene (4.7 percent), a London-style porter. It’s also how the silky, chocolaty Alderaan imperial oatmeal stout (10 percent) lead to the creation of Small ’n Oats, a not-so-tiny 7.3 percent.

“I like to refer to them more as second runnings beer, because they’re not necessarily small,” says Cibak.

The tasting room tap list at sour beer specializing brewery Hermit Thrush / Photo courtesy Hermit Thrush, Facebook
The tasting room tap list at sour beer specializing brewery Hermit Thrush / Photo courtesy Hermit Thrush, Facebook

The resourceful trend is gaining steam, though brewers’ techniques often diverge. Some keep sibling beers in the same stylistic household, like how Alaska-based Midnight Sun Brewing Company’s Berserker Imperial Stout spawned SOB Stout (that is, Son of Berserker).

In contrast, Vermont’s Hermit Thrush Brewery turned their Jolly Abbot Barley Wine (13 percent) into Party Guy (3 percent), a lemony sour ale. Minnesota-based Surly Brewing morphed second runnings of Darkness, its imperial stout, into Damien, a k a, the “child of Darkness.” It’s hopped assertively like an IPA, incandescent with citrus and pine.

At Burial Beer in Asheville, North Carolina, Head Brewer Tim Gormley often takes second runnings in unexpected directions. For their Love’s Easy Tears release, a former imperial stout provided the base, later laced with lavender and sweet orange peels.

A rich, colossal quadrupel led to Matchstick Petite Abbey Ale, a light-drinking Belgian ale seasoned with golden raisins.

“You can totally hop the beer differently, use a different yeast and make two different beers,” says Gormley.

If second runnings beers make clear economic and environmental sense, why aren’t more brewers making them?

“To do it, you have to brew two beers at once,” says Gormley. “That can be tough if you don’t have a big staff.”

Working the tanks at Burial Beer / Photo courtesy Burial Beer Co., Facebook
Working the tanks at Burial Beer / Photo courtesy Burial Beer Co., Facebook

Breweries also need extra equipment to make it happen. Burial brews on a 10-barrel system (one barrel equals 31 gallons), but its smaller pilot system is just one barrel.

“It’s a matter of having the proper amount of tanks and yeast strains ready,” says Revolution’s Cibak, who has two brewhouses and employees aplenty.

A small beer can also seem like a penny-pinching tactic meant to pull the wool over customers’ eyes, which is a stigma to overcome.

“People might get the feeling that it’s a weaker version of what you’re making,” says Gormley. “It’s like, ‘Why would I want to drink that?’ ”

Another challenge is that the second beer might not sell as swiftly as the base beer. Marshall Wharf’s Carlson could sell more crates of his vanilla-infused Sexy Chaos imperial stout, but tries to restrict releases so the market doesn’t swamp his smaller-run Little Mayhem.

The lineup at Marshall Warf, including Sexy Chaos and its second run offshoot, Little Mayhem / Photo courtesy Marshall Warf, Facebook

“I’m not making money on Mayhem,” he says of the stout, which costs about $40 for a case of 16-ounce cans (Sexy Chaos runs $96 per case). “We price it accordingly. I see Mayhem as value added.”

With small beers, brewers wring their resources dry and flex their creativity, all to deliver flavorful, lower-alcohol beers. It’s a win-win for all, save for one sad contingent.

“The cows are a probably little disappointed,” says Cibak, who sends Revolution’s spent grain to Indiana farmers, “because they’d love to get a hold of all those sugar-rich grains.”