Deschutes’ Brewmasters discuss Modified Theory, Product Development & Innovation

Veronica Vega (left) and Ben Kehs (right)

Deschutes Brewery’s head of R & D – Veronica Vega – has been hard at work developing new brands for a new generation of drinkers. At 31 years old, the Bend, OR-based Deschutes is ancient in craft brewery terms, but still heeds the mantra of change or die. The challenge is predicting and following, but not chasing, trends and drinkers. With less consumer brand loyalty than ever, it’s more difficult for large craft brewers like Deschutes to compete. It’s not easy to turn on a dime, especially when you rely on stale and proven brands and brewing hundreds of barrels at a time. It’s also important for Deschutes to keep with tradition and not abandon the fans who made them, classics like Mirror Pond and Black Butte Porter are not going anywhere. All this has lead to Deschutes seeing itself as more of a consumer adult beverage company and not just a brewery.

We sat down with brewmaster Veronica Vega and assistant brewmaster in charge of the barrel program – Ben Kehs. Watch the interview with Vega and Kehs above, and get more in-depth info on the launch of Deschutes new WOWZA! and Modified Theory below.

WOWZA! Lo-Cal Hazy Pale Ale

Wowsa! is Deschutes attempt to reach a younger, more health-conscious demographic that also loves the current, sweeter, juicier, aka hazier beers. Wowsa is billed as a crushable and citrusy hazy pale ale with only 100 calories and a sessionable 4% ABV. Yes, this beer is tropical, citrusy and juicy with candied orange, passionfruit and blackberry notes and yet it’s not thin or watery like similar low abv products.

Brewmaster Veronica Vega has tapped into everything people like about hazy beers and made it as drinkable as a PBR. The secret is Amyloglucosidase and Chicory Root, and no, you can not taste either ingredient in the final product.

To get Wowsa! down to an impressive 100 calories, Vega turned to Brut IPA’s, the anti-hazy pale ale. Amyloglucosidase is an enzyme that when used properly makes beers bone dry but not cidery, it’s the key ingredient in the process of making a Brut IPA. While developing Wowsa! Vega learned that the enzyme also reduced calories by “chopping up all the complex sugars into simple ones- easily gobbled up by yeast.”

The enzyme has the effect of drying out the beer and making the body much lighter. So to bring balance back to Wowza! and leave it with more body and sweetness like a hazy pale ale, Vega turned to Chicory root. Chicory is a natural sweetener, and when you remove it’s signature woody/nutty flavor, it adds body and sweetness without the calories.

Hopping is also a factor in a beer such as this. Vega is testing active fermentation dry-hopping, a method known to raise the pH in beer and extend the fermentation time. A higher pH will increase the hop flavor extraction into the final beer, but another tricky balance needs to be achieved to keep the beer from tasting too acidic or even buttery. Dry-hopping has been shown to increase active fermentation, resulting in higher final gravity and sometimes diacetyl. This phenomenon is a recent discovery referred to as “hop creep.” Hops have been found to have a naturally occurring enzyme similar to that used in Brut IPA production. When boiled, this enzyme is killed off, but in dry-hopping, the hops are not boiled and the enzyme begins to break down un-fermentable sugars and can then lead to over-carbonation or diacetyl. For a beer that will be primarily sold in cans and needed to be at or under the 5% alcohol by volume barrier, hop creep is a serious issue but one that can be mitigated.

Deschutes Modified Theory

Modified Theory

Modified Theory is Deschutes (perhaps inevitable) entry into the FMB category. FMB stands for Flavored Malt Beverage, this is regulated federally by the TTB (Tobacco and Trade Bureau) and a category created for non-beers like seltzers that use some percentage of fermented malt. Well known FMB’s include Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Hard Seltzers are often dropped into this broad section of classification even though they typically are made using a fermented sugar base, and often have hard alcohol added.

Deschutes Brewery will tell you that the new Modified Theory brand is an FMB but NOT a hard seltzer. Modified Theory will not even carry the Deschutes logo or name in any fashion, it’s created to exist as a completely standalone product that can be enjoyed on it’s own or combined with spirits. The tagline is “Mixology made easy” and the marketing encourages consumers to drink it straight up or over ice with a spirit. The packaging even offers cocktail recipes and the flavors are more creative than typical mixers.

Developed by Deschutes R & D Brewmaster Veronica Vega, the Modified Theory line of products can be enjoyed like a hard seltzer with it’s 5.5% ABV, but goes far beyond that. Though the new line of beverages technically falls into the FMB legal category, it’s actually designed to be closer to an RTD (Ready To Drink). RTD’s are premixed alcoholic beverages like hard iced tea or the canned premixed cocktails you can now purchase in liquor stores. Though they contain no liquor.

“Seltzers are neutral malt base or neutral sucrose base with added water and flavor.  The alcohol for Modified Theory comes 100% from fermented malt, there is a tiny amount of hops (necessary to be classified as “malt beverage”) and then various ingredients dependent on recipe,” says Vega.

Part of what makes Modified Theory’s beverages unique is that they use a small amount of lactobacillus culture and lactic acid so that they finish tart. That high pH level makes them perfect for mixing into cocktails. Deschutes MT line is sold in a six pack with three different varieties with flavors that keep cocktails in mind: Tahitian Lime Agave, Tarocco Orange Vanilla and Northwest Berry Lavender.

“In a recipe like Tarocco Orange we add orange peel, warming spices in the kettle-mace (the casing around nutmeg) and cardamom (not too much!!), and natural Tarocco Orange (blood orange variety) and vanilla flavor in the conditioning tank,” says Vega.

All this positions the Modified Theory line as a cut above run-of-the-mill hard seltzer brands and wine coolers. But will the public catch on?

Deschutes R & D brewmaster Veronica Vega
Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com

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