It’s been almost a decade since Scott LaFollette entered the beer industry. What started out as a passion for both beer and homebrewing evolved into a career. Armed with a degree in materials engineering, LaFollette started his own small brewery, Blank Slate Brewing Company, in Cincinnati in 2011 and ran the company for close to six years before closing due to growing competition. There’s been no shortage of competition in Ohio and as one door closed, another one opened for LaFollette – this time it was an opportunity with Fifty West Brewing Company.
But what exactly caused the brewing boom in Ohio over the last handful of years?
“I’d like to say it’s some wonderful philosophical great story but they changed the liquor laws,” LaFollette admitted in a recent phone interview. “Before 2012, if you were a brewery in the state of Ohio, you could only be a distributing brewery – you could not sell beer inside your own walls. There’s no margin for that. In order to start a brewery those days and really be effective at it, you had to start something trying to be the size of Great Lakes [Brewing Company].”
It’s been almost two years since LaFollette joined Fifty West and now, as Head of Brewing Operations, he’s in charge of concocting the company’s next-level brews. One such beer that’s making a little noise throughout the beer industry is Quencher, a low-calorie, 4.1 percent ABV watermelon lime fruit beer that the company has labeled as an “active ale.” If you’re not familiar with this sub-category, that’s because it’s not widely brewed. Quencher is not only a low-calorie effort but it also contains electrolytes, making it the perfect post-run or post-exercise reward.
“If you just went for a run and you feel good from exercise and you want to reward yourself, you can go to the bar and you can drink a 300-calorie IPA and sure you’ll enjoy it, but in the back of your mind you’ll be thinking about undoing all the good stuff you just did,” LaFollette said. “So, the idea here is, you know, you can have your beer, you can have your reward after your run – and [Quencher] is definitely not as bad for you as drinking some 300 or 400 calorie stout.”
With non-alcoholic beers quickly becoming the new trend of 2020, it’s no surprise that a growing amount of breweries are looking to capitalize on low-calorie, low-carbohydrate efforts. But just because Quencher contains electrolytes doesn’t mean it’ll rehydrate after extensive exercise.
“Electrolytes, at the most basic level, are just minerals. Your body depletes minerals through your sweat as you exercise. Electrolytes is the technical term but it’s almost a buzzword these days. At the base of it all, it’s really just mineral salt that the body uses. Your body needs calcium, magnesium, potassium, all of those types of things, and you lose them as you sweat.”
LaFollette and the crew at Fifty West tested a variety of sports drinks and electrolyte waters to figure out the mineral contents. They even sent some of the drinks out to be tested to better determine the amount of specific minerals each contained and the answers were all over the place, which basically proved there’s no real set way to incorporate electrolytes into their beer because there’s no set amount, since everyone’s body is different. The nutrition label on the back of the drinks also proved important in better understanding just how much added electrolytes these companies were incorporating into their drinks. In the end, it was an average of these various products paired with a careful calculation of different minerals.
Incorporating these minerals, or electrolytes, into the brewing process was simpler than you might think and offered little impact to the final taste of Quencher. At the end of the brewing process, LaFollette heated up a little water to dissolve the minerals and just added them to the hot water. Once the minerals were dissolved in the water, then it was mixed into the beer.
But when it comes right down to it, flavor and taste are the most important.
Quencher is a sessional beer, which has nothing to do with the added electrolytes, meaning that it has a low-alcohol content for prolonged drinking periods and, since it’s low-calorie, it doesn’t sit as heavy as some of the company’s more robust offerings. It was brewed from the ground up, rather than from another recipe, starting as a smaller scale test last year and, since it was created during the summertime, two of the season’s biggest flavors, watermelon and lime, were added to the brew. LaFollette and his team used a watermelon concentrate as they would with any fruit beer, while the lime was meant to simply accent the overall flavor, splashed into the batch of beer to bring out the flavors while also adding a little tartness as well as a little bit of a citrus character, for even easier drinkability.
“The idea was we really need to be low-carb, low-calorie, all of that,” LaFollette explained. “Well, when you do that, for us as brewers, you end up with Michelob Ultra or something like that, which is a beer that a lot of runners drink because they can drink it and not feel as guilty about it. But what does that beer taste like – it tastes like water? So, we knew we wanted to do something else to it to get some real good flavor in there. It’s got a lot more flavor going on!”
Depending on the popularity of Quencher, drinkers could see similar beers from Fifty West down the road but LaFollette hinted at plans to do additional flavors, though it’s still underdevelopment. With the launch earlier this month, Quencher is set to hit the majority of Fifty West’s footprint which consists of southern Ohio and northern Kentucky and it’ll soon be available for drinkers in that area at Kroger grocery stores. Will there be copycats from other local breweries? Maybe, but LaFollette doesn’t claim to have invented the “active ale”, though he’s happy with the feedback he’s been getting at the brewery.
“I’ve actually had a couple of people tell me that they’ve drank a couple of these after a run and they were like, ‘Hey, two hours later, I felt way better than I would have two hours after drinking a couple of other beers after my run.’” LaFollette said. “Who knows, maybe it’s a bit of a placebo effect but there’s probably something there, you know. You are getting some salt replenished back into your body, more so than drinking a regular beer.”