On the surface, Crystal River, Florida is known more for its clear waterways and beloved slow-moving sea cows than for craft beer, at least for now. Crystal River’s first craft brewery and its loyal following were both built by former math teacher Fran Copp. As a self-taught brewer with a diverse background, Copp crafted a reputation by paying attention to every detail of his beer and by improving his beer any chance he found. As the beer goes further and farther out from Crystal River, the number of Copp Brewery’s faithful drinkers keeps growing.
The buildup to a brewery
For Fran Copp, beer-making was not always his primary interest. In fact, in past lives and careers, Fran Copp has been a weightlifter, a furniture maker, and a twenty-year veteran mathematics teacher. Copp found himself continuously pondering the art of beer-making. “I was interested in the concept of making beer,” Copp remembers. “We had been running the winery, and I had been dabbling with the notion of making beer… it was one of those things where I was trying to create something. So, the first beers were me trying to create a macro lager; I just wanted to make good beer.” Fran remembers that making beer seemed simple at first but required some patience in the end. “The first beer I made, I put grain in and it didn’t smell like beer. I boiled it out and it didn’t smell like beer,” Fran recalls. “It went in the fermenter, still didn’t smell or taste like beer. Then after five days and six days, I take a sample; it’s flat, but it tastes like beer! Really bad beer, but it tastes like beer. That gives that light for me to think ‘I am a god! And I can create!’ That’s where it started, and I just tried to make the same beer over and over changing very little and working on the technicalities.” Copp did not stop after the initial spark of fermentation struck, he instead decided to begin honing his craft.
Copp began daydreaming of fermenters and hops. He did not stop thinking about the details of his beers and made batch after batch, trying to make just the aroma and taste profiles he wanted out of his beers. Copp Brewery beers have different lives because of their creator’s patience and attention to detail. Unlike neophyte brewers who might jump right into working on their favorite beer styles, Copp waited and perfected that first beer. “People go right into trying to create crazy beers,” Fran asserts. “I went in and worked on making the same beer, working on my technique and all the mechanics, trying to figure it out. That beer was just a pale ale. I look at it like a chef trying to learn how to cook. I was just trying to learn how to cook the egg.” It was in cooking the proverbial egg that Copp found his own “style”– the secret? ”I like to do smooth and balanced. That gets to the (India Pale Ale) IPA crowd a bit, but if I have a flavor, I want a finish that at the end there is no flavor left. I don’t want hops to linger, and I want more of the malt to balance out the flavor. That’s my thing. Commercially, if someone sees my tap, they know Copp beers, they know that if it’s an IPA, it’s going to be more subdued, a little more balanced.” Copp takes pride in knowing that he can provide consistently balanced IPA.
An eye for technical detail is a recurring theme in Fran Copp’s brewery as well as his brewing process, down to the brewery’s tasting room. The bungalow that houses Copp Winery and Brewery has an outdoor brewing area – all built by Fran. His professional brewing career began on a system that Copp cobbled together. Travis Parsons, assistant brewer at Copp Brewery asserts that Fran built his own system because of who he is. “It’s his personality. I can tell him that something costs $200, and Fran would be like, ‘I can build that.’ He built the brewing system from the ground up so that it had everything he wanted and nothing he didn’t.” Fran agrees. “If you buy someone else’s house, then it’s not done for you. Another brewer can come in and use my system, but they can’t create my beer because we use our system slightly differently.” That system served Fran well, but now with the transition to a larger brewery, he purchased a larger brewing system. “From that first system, we went to a three-barrel system, and I began distributing off of that when we would do seven-barrel batches. Scaling up recipes is a challenge. I don’t use some stock apps for my recipes, I wrote my own program to match my systems, thinking of my efficiencies. I just put in my info, and it gives me all of my numbers. I modified the program for the new brewing system.”
Copp Brewery’s New Home
One of the questions that Fran gets all the time is when the new brewing system will celebrate the opening of his new brewery in Crystal River. “We hope to be in the new space by the first half of this year (2018),” he insists. “Once I move in there, I am done moving. The new space should be pretty cool. We’ll be making our own sodas from scratch. We’ve made nonalcoholic soda that’s all natural. We do a regular ginger ale from an 1819 recipe and that’s our base recipe. We have a lemon-lime-orange soda, too.” More than just sodas, Copp will have a full lineup of his beers on tap at the new location as well, it will just take some time for the brewery to move operations to the new space. Fran also says that despite his dislike of sour beers, he and his assistant brewers look forward to brewing sour beer in the new brewery. These beers will become the “Bad Copp” sour series.
Looking for “Occasion Beers”
Growing the business is more than just hoping that folks enjoy your beer, and Fran says that he hopes people will enjoy his beers at meals, as well as what he calls “occasion beers.”
Fran breaks his beers into two categories: core beers and what he calls “occasion beers.” “I always have my core beers. I think that when you go someplace, there are two reasons why you go out: either you’re tired and you just want to get out, or you go out to experience the world. The days you’re tired, you don’t want to try something new. If you have a bad day at work, you don’t want to have a bad day eating food, too. If you don’t have the core beers, then you don’t get the business of the people who just want to have my drinkable core beers.” But Copp also says he creates “occasion beers” as well. “Sometimes I build recipes for occasions. One beer I keep trying to make is a Shipwreck porter. This beer would be a bourbon barrel-aged smoked porter. My inspiration for that one is ‘if I was in the bottom of an old fighting ship what would I feel like? What would I drink?’ So, I created a beer for the occasion. It was a smoked stout, but it is not a rauchbier, it’s not strong, it’s just enough for what I would call rustic. It’s just enough to know that this beer has been in a fight. I’m drinking it around smoking cannons, and I barrel age it to give me the oak from a fighting ship. A lot of times, I’m sitting in a barn, now what do I want to drink? Saison. Ok, now we start creating flavors and start creating alcohol levels, so you tell me light, medium, or dark and sour, etc. and we’re using the situation to create the beer.”
“No Bad Beer”
While Copp has made hundreds of different beers, he insists that each beer has a time and an ideal drinker. “There is no bad beer, it’s just finding the person that matches that beer. We made a melon IPA, and it sold like crazy. It was called Melicious. It was a honeydew melon IPA, and people loved it, it flew out the door. People loved that beer even though I did not.” What drives Copp to keep refreshing recipes is finding that happy middle ground where beer and fruit can meet and have a dance. “I want it so when you’re tasting a fruit beer, you’re tasting the apricot and finishing with the hops – or are you tasting the hops and finishing with the apricot? I want those two blended together so they know it’s fruit, but they’re not sure about the hops.” With IPA and citrus, Copp says he has found a happy puzzle to create for his drinkers. “People drink an IPA and ask how much grapefruit we put in it. The truth is, it’s not grapefruit, but it’s Citra hops. But if you add orange fruit, then that creates a tangerine flavor. That’s not the fruit, but the hops and the fruit working together. So, you don’t want it to be 100% one flavor.” That’s the twist that Copp loves to put on any beer, especially his IPAs.
On King’s Bay IPA
Copp has found particular liquid poetry in the twist he put on King’s Bay IPA. “Our IPA is hopped with Citra hops (which have notes of grapefruit) and Azacca hops (which have notes of orange). That’s my King’s Bay IPA.” The beer is not over the top, it blends several layers of flavor. “The beer takes the Citra hop character and takes it down a notch with the orange flavor of the Azacca hop. There’s actually roasted barley in there, too. No one uses roasted malt in IPA, but it makes mine just a little bit darker.” The color is not the only difference in this beer, Copp does not ramp up the bitterness, either. Compared to a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA (60 IBU) or a Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA (65 IBU), “This is only a 50 IBU beer. Is it the best IPA you’ve ever had? No. That was not my goal.” Copp insists that the beer has a different purpose: “My goal is if you’re out there and you’re tired and just want a beer. Something with a little dryness that I can drink two of – this is your beer. I want to finish everything up front and you should not get bitterness in the throat the same way.
Copp says that he has the collision of art and science and in general can get the beer to where he wants it within a few batches. The average beer goes through (in general) three iterations before Copp is satisfied with the beer. “Think of it as a teeter-totter,” he says. “First time, too much; second time, not enough. It’s like spicing a chicken wing. You can put more and more and more spice on the wing, but you don’t know when you have enough until you put on too much. Sometimes, we get lucky and we hit it exactly right the first time.” There are those select beers that need no tweaking, they can get it right on the first time. “Some beers, we taste it in the tank and we just smile. That’s why beer is exciting because even making the same beer over and over and over, I can still see that same thing that interested me all the way back [to my first batch] and was amazed that it tasted like beer.”
Still, looking back over all of the batches that Fran and Travis have brewed is like looking through a high school yearbook. Copp says he and his assistant have likely brewed over 200 different beers since opening, and the friends reminisce over beers the same way old friends talk about high school chums. “We go through old notebooks or old tap handles and … and you just pick a category — it’s like going through an old photo album. Take “M” for instance – Maple Coconut, Maroon for Coconut, Rum Melicious, Morning Haze (coffee brown), Mutiny, Mom’s Fruitcake, Orange Tart, and all these other different beers. As he strays to other letters and labels, he chuckles in remembrance. “Yippi Kye-Yay IPA. Admiral Nelson – British IPA using Admiral hops and Nelson hops. American Wheat – Angry Elf that everyone wanted back (a spice stout)… Back in Blackberry… Bad Apple Ale… Belchin’ Belgian… Black Beery Ale… Black Eye… Black Pepper Porter… Bloody Good IPA… Blood Orange IPA, one of our best sellers. We sold out of it in a flash. We did one batch and it was gone…” The list goes on and the brewer fondly remembers details on each beer.
Whether it’s one batch of a new beer or a batch of beer he has brewed 100 times, Fran says that beer keeps him coming back to work and perfecting a cream ale like Southern Grit is something he takes pride in. “You have to have the technical aspects down,” Copp asserts. “We haven’t bottled and canned yet because we’re worried about aspects like dissolved oxygen levels, and we’re doing tests where we abuse the bottles. We put control samples in the cooler, some go at room temp, and some go in the parking lot. Then we taste them every week and see if we can taste the difference. And we can.” While this can happen to any beer, there is a specific beer Copp and Parsons put to the test. “Southern Grit. That’s the one that’s going to be the most sensitive. If we can be consistent in cans, then we know we can do it with the other ones.” Copp is unwilling to compromise the quality of his beer and is very blunt about its effects. “Is that holding me back? Yes. Is that holding me back financially? Absolutely. All you can do is have a good business model that will help you survive the famines because it’s going to go up and down.”
While Copp says that he is not canning or bottling at the moment, he assures his drinkers that he is staying true to his calling card: subtlety and balance. “If I’m making a coffee beer,” Copp says matter-of-factly, “I want it to taste like a coffee BEER. If I want to drink coffee, then I will have a cup of coffee. The same thing with barrel-aged beer. I love barrel-aged beer, but if I wanted to drink a glass of bourbon, then I will drink some bourbon. I want the beer with hints and finishes and so on.” The advantage to being so small and having a tasting room like this is being able to fine-tune batches to perfection like Copp does. “I’m still fine-tuning my hazelnut rum beer. I still think the hazelnut is a little too strong on it,” Copp opines. “We’ll work those down,” he insists.