On Oct. 8, 2022, the nation’s largest and most prominent beer festival and competition, the Great American Beer Festival, offered 300 medals in 98 beer categories covering 177 different beer styles.
The judging took place over a period of nine days during which 235 beer experts from seven countries assessed 9,904 brewery entries. To subsidize such a massive undertaking, many of the categories were sponsored by some of the biggest, and most important, companies within and adjacent to America’s $100 billion beer industry.
There was Micro Matic, a top supplier of keg couplers, extracter valves, and other “dispensing solutions,” underwriting the American-style IPA category.
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Antigo Zeon, a designer and manufacturer of beer neon signs, sponsored the popular hazy IPA category.
NZ Hops Ltd, a cooperative of hops growers, supported the experimental pale ale category and Wyeast Laboratories covered the Brettanomyces beer category.
Country Malt Group, Briess Malt & Ingredients, and White Labs, another yeast supplier, perhaps fittingly covered the pro-am competition.
And there, in the fruited sour ale category, won by Revelation Craft Brewing’s Razz Sour, was a sponsor whose website homepage currently displays products like pumpkin pie syrup, natural watermelon extract, and a giant tub of something simply labeled Marshmallow Compound #3020.
The Starbucks Syrup Pump Thing
Augie Carton had started his business, Carton Brewing, in 2011 with culinary ambitions inspired by the likes of Blue Hill Farm’s Dan Barber and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery. Early on in his career, he remembers drinking a certain brewery’s crème brûlée stout and being blown away that its flavor profile tasted exactly like the caramelized custard dessert.
“But back then I wasn’t cynical, wasn’t so indoctrinated, so in my mind, the fun of drinking that beer was thinking, ‘How the f**k can they be doing this?’” recalls Carton. Then one day, a server he respected at a well-regarded beer bar, clued him in. “He told me, essentially, ‘They’re getting the Starbucks syrup pump thing and adding it to their beer.’ Bullshit! I didn’t want to believe it.”
At the time Carton was laboriously engineering a beer he would eventually call Regular Coffee, meant to taste like the classic “milk and two sugars” cup of joe from your local breakfast joint. Along with Fair Mountain Coffee Roasters he had designed a specific roasting pattern in order to give the beans the acidity and bitterness he wanted and had added dextrose and lactose (milk sugar) to create the perfect flavor and texture of artificial creamer. And, suddenly, just like that, he realized he could have simply bought a coffee-flavored syrup and saved himself a bunch of time, money, and effort.
“Instead of taking the easiest cash in the world, I was turning everything into a 50-day, $50 million process,” he jokes.
Craft beer arose in the 1980s and then boomed in the 1990s and early-aughts, a rejection of the bland sameness of an industry long dominated by Big Beer’s watery lagers. At the same time, this new breed of American craft brewers looked with disdain toward European brewers stuck in their centuries-old ways, beholden to laws like Germany’s Reinheitsgebot, which only allowed them to use the four basic ingredients in their beer — water, grains, hops, and yeast.
And so they made experimental beers laden with fruit and cocoa nibs, spices and peppers — unexpected ingredients, extreme ingredients, but always “real” ingredients. As recently as the early 2010s, there were still so many stories, social media posts, and videos showing an entire brewing team tirelessly slicing vanilla beans, zesting citrus, and even chewing up and spitting out corn for 12 hours.
For most of the history of this industry, you could always rest assured that if a craft brewery was using some offbeat ingredient to make a unique beer, it was always going to be made the hardest, most artisanal, most craft way possible.
That was simply craft beer.
Today, however, it seems everyone just calls Amoretti.
Amoretti was founded in 1989 by Armenian immigrant brothers Jack and Ara Barsoumian, a molecular biologist and chemical engineer, respectively, along with their wives Maral and Hasmig. They set up shop in an industrial park in California’s San Fernando Valley, planning to produce an almond-filled truffle with a pistachio crust.
This Middle Eastern delicacy wasn’t a success in the States, but the almond filling was — customers demanded it be produced for their own baking needs. Over the next two decades, Amoretti (which roughly translates to “little love”) would evolve into a top supplier of pastes, extracts, ganaches, oils, spreads, flours, concentrates, sauces, and compounds to bakeries, chocolatiers, glaciers, and coffee shops. Today, they have over 5,000 products for such uses.
But by 2015 the company had begun to notice that breweries were also using products like their water soluble extracts and Artisan Natural Flavors, thick syrups originally designed for ice cream and gelato. The owners decided to start pursuing the brewing industry in earnest.
“We sent these huge, extravagant boxes of samples to every single brewery listed in the Brewers Association database; there were nearly 5,000 at the time,” recalls Dylan Guerineau, an account manager on Amoretti’s small brewery-specific team. Business was slow at first and breweries were leery of Amoretti. “Natural flavors were scary back then,” Guerineau says.
But fruited sours, pastry stouts, and other insane hype beers were just about to explode.
The Secret Sauce
“We are a very unique brewery in that we do things a little differently,” says Scott Struchen, the founder of Tangled Roots Brewing Company, at the start of a video on Amoretti’s website. In it, the company visits the Ottawa, Ill., brewery to see how head brewer Mike Billy deploys their Amoretti Craft Purée.
In 2017, Amoretti introduced the line with flavors like blood orange, pineapple, and espresso available in 55-pound drums. They also began attending conferences and plying craft breweries with samples of their flavors. Their strategy eventually worked.
Three Notch’d Brewing brewmaster Dave Warwick was introduced to Amoretti at one such craft brewers conference. He admits liking how soluble it was, especially compared to real fruit, which typically sinks to the bottom of the fermenter. Today, his Virginia brewery makes a variety of fruited goses using Amoretti, like their top-selling Watermelon Gose as well as their Blackberry Gose, both made by pumping Amoretti Artisan Natural Flavor directly into the fermenter.
“It’s the heart and soul of our beer,” he says.
And it’s the secret sauce behind countless craft beers on shelves at the moment, too.
Other than those that appear in their marketing materials, Amoretti doesn’t divulge who exactly buys from them, but Guerineau believes they are working with around half of the roughly 9,000 breweries in the country right now, not to mention countless international breweries along with cideries, meaderies, distilleries, winemakers, and especially hard seltzer producers. Even he is surprised by how fast the beverage alcohol world has fallen for Amoretti.
“In 2016, [brewers would] ask me a lot of questions, and often weren’t willing to give it a shot — many are customers now,” says Guerineau. “I would always say, ‘You don’t have to listen to me, just try a sample.’”
Guerineau feels, and countless brewers seem to agree, that you simply get a better, more intense flavor from Amoretti’s product than you do from the actual ingredient. (“I think we have the best marshmallow,” says Guerineau. “And I love our cinnamon bun; it blows me away every time I taste it.”) While that is certainly up for debate, what isn’t is that you will get a more consistent product from batch to batch that is easier to scale up and is made quicker and cheaper.
Today, Amoretti has a “brewing resources” tab on their homepage (it even comes before “baking” and “ice cream”). They offer hundreds of infusions registered with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau as well as a 53-page guide along with YouTube Q&As as to how brewers can use their products.
Amoretti, of course, doesn’t reveal how their proprietary products are made, other than to state that the fruit ones are produced with natural fruits, with no artificial flavoring or preservatives. (“There’s no chemical flavor at all,” says Warwick.) Items like pumpkin pie extract or French toast Artisan, however, would obviously seem to be more the work of a laboratory.
Of course, if everyone is just dumping extracts, purees, and compounds into wort, I began to wonder, is this even beer any more?
“The day Not Your Father’s Root Beer took off [on the secondary market), it no longer mattered if you’re not making beer,” says Carton. “It doesn’t matter how much integrity and artistry you have, the kids want sugar water and will pay extra for it.
“So you ask yourself, ‘Am I trying to make money or trying to make beer?’”
The Next Hype Beer
There are true haters, of course.
“It kind of bums me out that I feel it’s necessary to say that our coconut lime sour uses 100 percent actual coconut and lime, and not some amoretti bullshit,” tweeted Orpheus brewmaster Jason Pellett last year, along with a photo that appeared to show several tubs of freshly grated coconut.
In fact, Amoretti has become an easy punching bag on social media. Recently, Canada’s Half Pint Brewing tweeted the famous GIF of The Weeknd trying to escape a Super Bowl halftime show hall of mirrors along with the caption:
“Winnipeg brewers searching the Amoretti catalog for the next hype beer.”
There’s much truth to that joke.
“When we do [new beer] launches, we have lines out the door waiting for product that has Amoretti in it,” Struchen says, specifically referring to Tangled Roots’ YUM Series of fruited hazy IPAs. More than even the hype, Carton sees brewers using Amoretti as a sort of crutch to differentiate themselves from the macro-breweries in this inflationary era in which they can easily undercut their smaller competition.
“Budweiser doesn’t make a f**king Cotton Candy IPA,” he says. “What is the price of a Nerds stout? Would you pay $8 for that?”
So breweries no longer see a taboo with flavoring, and customers don’t care, either, nor do even expert beer judges. Amoretti-flavored beers have medaled at the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup.
Even Carton has somewhat come around to the use of flavoring; he just wishes the breweries would be honest and transparent about it. He mostly still does things the hard way, still uses nuance and subtlety to coax flavors out of more traditional ingredients, and he believes it has, in many ways, cost him in this strange, strange era.
“My brand is falling apart because I can make a beer that tastes like oranges, but I don’t actually put orange flavoring in my beers,” he says.
And, not that he now uses Amoretti per se, but he recently had to use artificial flavoring for a red licorice beer he collaborated on with Magnify Brewing. It was just too much work to try to make his own homemade licorice. So why not just buy a red licorice that was already perfectly engineered? Even he has to laugh at the thought.
“Well, f**k, now I’m doing exactly the same thing I thought was preposterous a dozen years ago,” he says.