Thursday, May 3, 2012

Flying Dog's Matt Brophy talks of his Jersey ties

Flying Dog's Matt Brophy
When you think about it, Matt Brophy's beer aspirations were meant to have wings.

His foot in the door to the craft brewing world was Flying Fish in Cherry Hill in the 19990s. And for nearly a decade now,  he's been with Flying Dog, taking a Denver-to-Maryland route where there's greatness in gonzo, some wild and wicked label art by Ralph Steadman, and the Hunter S. Thompson echo of the Celtic axiom "Good people drink good beer."

No shit.

But long before his pro brewer days, while he was a youth in South Jersey (by way of Pittsburgh), beer, as in brewing, found Matt. It poured from the radio as homebrewer talk, a tide of inspiration that was really a wave of ambition. Matt went with the flow.

Recently, Matt took some time for a Q&A to talk about how he got his start in brewing, his hearing the call of out West, and the Flying Dog beer culture that unleashes the hounds to come up with those cool bat-winged brews. It seems like a fitting interview to mark this Saturday's National Homebrew Day.

BSL: You're a South Jersey guy, can you talk a little about that?
MB: I actually moved to South Jersey in 1990, as a freshman in high school. I went to Woodbury High in Gloucester County, and started homebrewing when I was a junior

BSL: Flying a little bit under the radar?
MB: Yeah, I was 17 years old ...

BSL: So, talk a little about that early start ...
MB: My mother knew about it, but I think she was just happy I was interested in something. But my story starts – of course, I had been drinking beer a little, you know what we kind of refer to these days as factory beer – I was home sick from school one day and heard Charlie Papazian on Radio Times promoting his book, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, and it really captured my imagination. I kind of learned a lot in the course of an hour about how interesting beer really is, the history behind it and world beer styles, a lot of things I just wasn't aware of.

So I went out and bought his book that same day, and I read it cover to cover in just a couple of days, and by the weekend, I was out buying homebrewing equipment. I fired off my first batch and waited, you know, two or three weeks and finally got in the bottle and waited another week or two for bottle-conditioning and had a couple of my 17-year-old friends over, and we cracked the bottles open and took sip, and it was terrible but we drank it anyway (laughs).

BSL: But clearly you were undaunted by that ...
MB: I kept trying, I kept brewing and quickly was able to improve the quality of the beer I was making. Pretty quickly after that, mostly motivated for economic purposes, I switched to all-grain brewing but also saw some other benefits once I started doing that. 

BSL: So in your youth you were marching to a completely different drummer altogether.
MB: Pretty much.

BSL: What kind of music were you listening to?
MB: We were kind of old school kids. We listened to some oldies and stuff, into some classic rock, that kind of thing, that morphed into a little more jam band kind of thing, Grateful Dead stuff. Since then it's gotten a little more eclectic but pretty traditional, at least Americana type 20th century music.

BSL: There's a common thread with jam band music and beer ...
MB: We have a beer, our Double Dog, and the way the hopping works on it, you know we start with a bittering hop and then we kind of fade into another hop as the first hop kind of fades out. So sometimes when I'm talking about the beer, I describe it as a little bit like what happens at a Dead show where some elements stick around as it morphs into something else.

BSL: Where did you get that first homebrew kit? Did you get it from the now-closed BeerCrafters, or did you go across the river (to Philadelphia)?
MB: Is it Home Sweet Homebrew on Samson in Philly? I might have gone there first. I don't remember what year BeerCrafters opened, but I remember being there, too. I think Philly was first, but pretty soon afterward I was solely shopping at BeerCrafters.

BSL: What was your very first good batch of beer, the one where you said 'I zeroed in on this, this is really, really good'?
MB: I remember brewing a pilsner. At that point I had a beer fridge going, too, and I put the carboy in the fridge and watched it – that's what's great about glass carboys, you can see the action, where with big stainless conical fermenters, you don't get to see inside ... So I put the carboy in the fridge, the temperature was probably in the mid- to upper-40s, it was pretty cool, and it had that nice fermentation. I'd check on it day after day. Those bubbles would continue to slowly rise and it finally ended its fermentation. I put it in secondary, let it lager for a little while longer and I got in the bottle. I entered it the Moon Madness competition in Pennsylvania. I don't remember how old I was at this point, I think I was 18, I remember my mom having to drive me over because I won a second place. I thought it was kind of cool winning this ribbon for a pilsner I brewed, I was particularly proud of it. I thought it was a great representation of the style; I felt that I'd followed pretty much all the traditional techniques and everything to get it to where it was. It was a little ironic for the award: I got a ribbon and a Munton & Fison pilsner kit (laughs). I just brewed a pretty good pilsner, I really don't need the kit.

BSL:  When was it that you knew this was a career, that this is what you wanted to do?
MB: It was about at that time. By the time I left high school, I knew that I wanted to pursue this professionally. I also knew I was kind of too young to really get too far into the industry. I went to Gloucester County Community College for a while, business type classes ... I was also doing some work, some carpentry stuff, installing laboratories for a little while, traveling up into Manhattan, like at NYU, and into Pennsylvania at some of the pharmaceutical manufacturers. I found it to be pretty gratifying work; I liked working with my hands, I liked being a true craftsman. I remember my observations then that anyone who's a craftsman, who's done anything for any length of time, really becomes an expert, and it's second nature to them. I knew that's what I wanted to be, a great craftsman. But I wanted to be a great beer craftsman.

I remember working with these guys and talking to them on our trips up and down the New Jersey Turnpike, telling them I was going to be a brewer. I think they thought I was full of shit. When I was 20 years old that's when I approached Flying Fish and (then FF head brewer) Joe Pedicini.

BSL: And that's where you were able to get your foot in the door?
MB: They were still kind of in the construction phases, the equipment had been dropped in place. I was sweeping floors, cleaning lines, whatever needed to be done around the brewery. It was a great experience, hanging around Joe and Rick (Atkins, the assistant brewer). I learned a lot from those guys, good-hearted, passionate people, very passionate about beer and the craft.

I felt like I was able to spend some time there to get some practical experience under my belt, to see the actual inner workings of a production brewery.

BSL: But at this time you were also eyeing some formal schooling at the Seibel Institute?
MB: I took the program there, and when I returned from Seibel, Joe Pedicini was actually leaving and Rick Atkins became the head brewer, and I became the assistant brewer. I did that for about another year, and this gets us up to about 1998. It was the beginning of 1998 when I started traveling around the country. Nothing against Jersey, but I wanted to travel around a little bit.

BSL: Get some different perspectives, right?
MB: I also wanted to immerse myself in another market that was a little more craft-centric. New Jersey at the time was – Flying Fish was one of maybe just a handful, tops, of craft brewers in the state. There was some craft brewing activity in Philadelphia. But amongst my friends in Gloucester County, there weren't too many who were interested in it, and I just wanted to change the culture I was immersed in.

I kind of did that classic road trip, traveled across the country, north, south, east, west, kind of everywhere and visiting breweries along the way, talking to brewers, taking pictures, checking out their equipment, you know, just getting some advice on what path I should take.

When I got to Colorado, I just fell in love with the state and the fact that craft beer was booming; there were a lot of passionate people out there that I met. That was half way through my trip.

BSL: Onward to the West Coast, then?
MB: Way up the Pacific Coast to Portland and Seattle and Vancouver and back down to Colorado again. That was the summer of 1998. I came back and it was probably June or something, and I told my girlfriend, 'We're moving to Colorado.' We gathered all the cash we had between us, which was probably around 3,000 bucks and we loaded up my old Volvo, drove out to Denver.

BSL: How quickly did things come together for you out there?
MB: It was one of those deals where we were getting a little worried. The cash supply was starting to get a little low and we really didn't want to have to turn around with just enough gas money to get back to Jersey. But the timing worked out just right where I got a position at Great Divide Brewing, and my girlfriend, who's now my wife, got a position at Colorado State Bank.

BSL: How long were you in Colorado?
MB: We spent 10 years there. I worked at Great Divide from 1998 to 2003, and I've been with Flying Dog since 2003. In the interim, while I was working for both these brewers, I took care of the beer for a brewpub up in the mountains called Great Northern Tavern. It was a 10-barrel system and about a 90-minute commute each way; during ski season it was a ski resort area. It would keep me pretty busy. There were stretches of time where I would be brewing mostly in Denver, or one place or another, for 27 days straight with a day off, three or four weeks straight ...

BSL: That's a pretty tough schedule. They're had to be some benefits for keeping that pace.
MB: It was really good because I was able to get some good perspective on brewing at the pub level and brewing at the production level and all of the challenges associated with both. In retrospect, it was time well spent.

BSL: At the pub level you probably got to play around a little bit with styles, like having your own canvas to paint.
MB: Yeah, it was. There were a couple standard beers. A lot of tourists come through, a lot of non-craft-centric people, so you wanted to keep something on there that was pretty friendly, but yeah, I did a lot of special beers – I'm a hop-head, a bit, so I'd play with different hop combinations and do IPAs and ESBs, did a couple of Belgian-inspired beers and just had fun with it.

BSL: Talk about how you ended up at Flying Dog.
MB: I was pretty excited about the direction Great Divide was going, but I felt that it was good to get some experience at different facilities, different beers and different production methods ... Flying Dog was just a couple blocks away. All of the brewers would just hang out: the brewers from Flying Dog would come over to Great Divide or vice versa. Just in some conversation, just seeing what the Flying Dog guys and the culture was all about, I decided to make the move a couple blocks away. I'm glad I did. I was very proud to work for Great Divide, and still am. I'm very pleased at their high degree of success and the integrity and quality of their beers. They're doing really good work these days.

BSL: But how cool is it to work at a place that has Hunter S. Thompson as a guiding light?
MB: Culturally, Flying Dog is a great place. At this point, I'm in a leadership position, with others on a leadership team. It's great to really kind of guide the company forward. For me it's being part of a team, being a part of everything that goes on with the beer, which is where I wanted to be when I was 17 years old. From that perspective, it's a dream come true.

Culturally, everybody in the organization, you know, I don't think people are waking up in the morning and going 'Ah, crap I gotta go to work.' People come in here and they're happy to be here. They're passionate about what they do, and when I get off this call, I'll probably go out and have a beer with some of the guys. And when we talk, we talk about beer; we talk about the pilot (brews) we got going. We've got Disobedience, our abbey dubbel, in the fermenter right now; we're all excited about that, we're going to do some bottle-conditioning, some 750s, you know, just kind of working on the plans, just some of the shoptalk that's associated with it.

BSL: Relocating Flying Dog to the East Coast, you were involved in that? That was a monumental project.
MB: My role was to try to maintain consistency with beers. For about two years, we produced beer out of both facilities simultaneously. It's a challenge. It gives you a new respect for the big guys who have 13 facilities around the country or around the world and their level of skill at maintaining consistency. So that was a big challenge. Part of that obviously is just recipes, part of it is the processes and how people are being trained on the equipment. It was a big project, but it was a great learning experience for me.

BSL: And just a few years ago, everything was finally shifted?
MB: It was 2008 when we decided to concentrate our operation here in Frederick. It was January 15, 2008, when the last bottles came off the Flying Dog Denver production line. I stayed there for a few more months ... we moved a bunch of the fermenters from the Denver brewery here to Maryland to increase capacity here in Frederick. Then we kind of locked up shop and I was out here in the summer of 2008.

BSL: Different geographic regions, especially east vs. west, used to mean really different palates, different preferences, especially among tastes for hoppier beers. Times have changed, of course, but by all accounts, Flying Dog's focus really transcended that nuance.
MB: It goes back to the culture of the organization and our level of passion and our preferences for the beers that we make. I speak for most of the brewers and the production guys when I say we're hop heads. So we like the IPAs, but that doesn't mean that I might not go grab a Woody Creek White on a hot day. We've got a new beer, Underdog, coming out. It's 4.7% alcohol. We're calling it Underdog Atlantic Lager. It's brewed with Golding hops, nothing too assertive from the hop end of things, but something that's drinkable but has a good hop presence for people who like hops.

There really are no meetings at Flying Dog where we say, 'What does the market need?' We kind of say, 'What do we want? What do we want our portfolio to look like?' A beer like Raging Bitch is a perfect example of some experimentation; that came up as a concept a few years back. We wanted to do something new. Well, we're Belgian fans, we like hoppy IPAs. Can we take some elements of those two types of styles and put them together as something that's going to work? After a little bit of experimentation, we felt really good about it. And in the case of Raging Bitch, it's our No. 1 seller.

BSL: What does 2012 look like for R&D at Flying Dog?
This year, we've cranked up the creative process here quite a bit. We're doing this Brewhouse Rarities series. It's pretty limited, basically 100-barrel batches. (In the fall of last year) we offered anybody in the brewery who wanted to pitch a creative concept, or basically a beer, to what we call the Remarkable Beer Team, which is kind of the group I work with that manages all of the processes and creativity here ... So these guys would kind of pitch their ideas, you know why we should do it ... (For example) this guy he does his pitch, he tells us what kind of hops he wants to use, what the gravity is going to be, he's got an idea for the name, you know, the whole thing ... We had about 18 ideas; we're using about 12 of them.

There were a couple instances where some ideas overlapped so much that we kind of teamed those guys up together, but a lot of them are individual brews. So now these guys went to work at the end of last year doing their pilot brews – we have a 1-barrel pilot system – you know they do a couple pilot brews, really dial in what they want to do, scale it up to the big system, then brew on the big system ... It helps kind of spread out the creative influence – my title is chief operating officer and brewmaster, but by no means do I take credit for the total creativity that comes out of this brewery. We have a lot of creative thinkers and a lot of creative minds out there in the production world, and then our marketing team, even the administrative staff, they're all passionate about beer, and that all came together with the project (and our other new beers) coming out this year.

BSL: How many people make up the brewing staff there?
MB: We've got 13 or 14 spread out through what we call, well, the front end of production, which is the brewhouse, cellar operations, filtration and quality. Then we have about another 15 or so that take care of the kegging and the bottling ... 40 sounds about right in total, maybe 45. We just hired a canning manager because we're going to be running cans. Underdog will be our first beer in cans; we're really looking forward to that. So we're growing, more people are getting added ...

BSL: You also have a year-round oyster stout coming out ...
MB: We do. Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout. We did this as kind of a collaboration, I'd call it. We've done a couple of projects, like Backyard Ale, which was a project with Bryan Voltaggio, he has his Volt restaurant here in Frederick. So we worked with him on a beer. And the idea is that it's a learning process, we want to find partners like that – Bryan wanted to learn more about beer, we wanted to learn more about the cool shit he does with food; this guy's amazing with everything he brings to the science of food preparation and culinary skills ... So that was a great relationship. We did a collaboration with Brewers Art in Baltimore, and it was good to just work with another brewer – Steve Frasier and his perspective, he's using the Belgian malts, putting together a recipe with him. That was educational.

We approached this (Pearl Necklace) from the same standpoint. There's a nonprofit organization called the Oyster Recovery Partnership ... With the Chesapeake, over the years there's been a lot of, you know, save the bay (talk). We didn't want to come out there and say 'Hey, save the bay, and we'll contribute this,' or just have some kind of corny promotion associated with one of our beers. We wanted to dig in a little deeper and make it a little more meaningful. So I went down to Cambridge, Maryland, with a colleague from the brewery, and we visited the Oyster Recovery Partnership's hatchery. It's pretty amazing what these guys do: They take oysters from the embryonic state and grow them up – they feed them algae – then they use something called the Shell Recycling Alliance, and these guys actually bring the spent shells from all the restaurants in a few different cities in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, and they'll use these shells as substrate for these oyster babies to attach to ... To date, I think they're responsible for half a billion oysters being added back into the bay.

Pearl Necklace, a portion of the proceeds goes to benefit this oyster recovery partnership. It is actually helping restore oysters to the bay. And if you read a little bit about osyters, you pretty quickly realize what a positive impact they have on the cleanliness of the bay. In 1850, the bay wasn't completely navigable because of the oysters in it

We also visited Rappahannock River Oysters there in Virginia. These guys have a little tasting room where they serve their oysters, and they also serve our beer. We went down there, spent a night with those guys. They took us out on their boat and showed us how to sustainably grow oysters. These guys have three different oysters that they grow, in different locations off the Rappahannock River. You learn about how the (water) salinity affects the flavor, and that's really the big difference between the oyster varieties.

So, again, a great learning opportunity, a great partnership, in this case a three-way partnership. We had the beer out in draft in November of last year, and it did really well. And that's the thing, with Pearl Necklace, it was so popular – I loved it, the production team just loved it – and we want it year-round. So we're going to make that a reality. So it will be a full-time beer available in draft and six-pack, 12-ounce bottles, and just like the original version, a portion of the proceeds from the sale go directly to the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

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