Friday, January 7, 2011

Week #1 - Erik Lars Myers

I met Erik Lars Myers (briefly) at Craft Brewers Conference in 2010. I'd sat in a panel titled 'Storytelling' that Erik was a part of and several of the things he'd keyed in on grabbed my attention. Drawing parallels from other experiences in his life and connecting them to Craft Beer was big for me as my mind tends to do something very similar, so I understood what he was trying to say and got a lot out of it. It was this panel that I learned of Erik's blog and began to follow his story more closely. As you'll read Erik is busy at work starting up a brewery of his own. Between his brewery's site and Erik's blog there's a lot of great brewing and industry info and both are great examples of incorporating social media into your webpage presence. After you read the interview check out this blog post and tromp around the Mystery Brewing website. There's a great story to catch up on.

I caught up with Erik just after he'd finished Siebel's Concise Course in Brewing Technology...

Looks like I caught you at an interesting time. What's your overall reaction to your time at Siebel in Chicago?

The Concise Course is kinda like brewery boot camp. They cover an enormous amount of information in a really short amount of time, which can be kind of intimidating. In a lot of ways, I wish it was harder; we spent 40 hours per week for two weeks sitting in a classroom watching Powerpoint presentations. It was a TON of information, but not particularly challenging. It might have been nice to have a field trip or two to see some practical applications of the information we were given. I think if you had spent some time in a brewery, it was probably a lot easier to see how it all fit together. The homebrewers in the class may have been a little overwhelmed at times.

I enjoyed it. I feel like I took a lot of practical information home with me, but experience is always the best teacher.

A lot of times when I'm on the road I find myself comparing beer culture to that which I'm used to at home. Any similarities or glaring differences between what's going on in Chicago and what you're used to in North Carolina or even just in Durham?

It’s interesting that you ask this because I thought about it a lot while I was in Chicago. I moved down to North Carolina from Boston in 2003. When I moved down, Boston was beginning its craft beer renaissance after the late-90’s lull that it went through. When I got to North Carolina, there was a 6% alcohol cap on beer and it was hard to find a good craft beer selection. I remember being really happy that I could find Yuengling Porter, and being really excited when a local bar finally got Widmer’s Hefeweissen in. There was really only one bar in the area with a decent beer selection (Tyler’s – they’re still a favorite) and one brewpub (Carolina Brewery – also still a favorite) that I liked and I spent a lot of time at those.

Once we “Popped the Cap” in 2005, beer culture in the state kind of exploded. We’ve had literally dozens of new breweries open, you started seeing a good selection of beer from other states and other countries and, in general, I’ve felt like North Carolina is as good a place to get a beer as anywhere else.

This past visit to Chicago sort of changed that view for me. The last time I was in Chicago was for the Craft Brewers Conference in April, and while I was really impressed by the vast selection of beer available, it seemed really inflated (and trust me, it was) because there were people from 1,000 other breweries in town, and a lot of them brought beer. This time, I had a different eye on the experience and what I realized is that North Carolina (wonderfully, really) still has a lot of growth ahead of it.

I noticed, this time, how much more variety is available in Chicago – but that’s not as simple as it sounds. I remember going into a package store in Chicago to look at the beer selection and thinking, “This is big, but there’s not that much more beer here than in the store right down the street from my house.” Truth. You’re probably talking about a 20% volume difference. Four aisles instead of three, but on the other hand, the store I have has five-tall shelves and this store only had three-tall shelves, so probably not even 20%. But the variety difference was significant.

It’s not so much that they have more or different breweries – obviously, they have more Midwestern breweries, and fewer Southern breweries. Our selection is opposite. But the types of beer represented were different. They were more adventurous. It wasn’t just your normal pale ale, IPA, APA, porter, stout kind of line up, but a lot more beer from breweries that were stretching limits a little: more sour beer, more barrel-aged stuff, more – and different – combo-styles like Black IPA or Belgian IPA, and a significantly larger availability of beers from around the rest of the world.

I think that the North Carolina beer culture is still early in its blossom. You certainly have small pockets of really special stuff down here, of really great variety and people who appreciate it, but the overall selection is still fairly staid.

I will say this in favor of North Carolina beer culture: If I am out at the store buying beer, I almost always buy local, North Carolina beer – not just because I like supporting my local brewery, but because we have a wide style selection and they’re all well-made. It’s really pretty great.

The deficit in the beer availability is not what’s locally made, but what’s imported into the state by distributors. The local breweries get it, but I think the distributors are still lagging behind.

With North Carolina really on the rise in all things beer, how important is it for the NC Brewer's Guild to have a website that is a constant source of information for people to know just how much is going on with the state's brewers?

It’s vital.

We’re a pretty tech savvy state – we’ve got a big financial and corporate population, a lot of great colleges and universities, and a quickly growing tech market. Those are people who are going to be checking in on the web pretty much constantly. They’re plugged in and ready to receive information, and they want to enjoy their local beer culture.

Geographically, we’re a big state with isolated population centers. Getting the word out physically – with billboards, or pamphlets, or even just showing up at beer festivals – is difficult.

We’re also a comparatively small beer-drinking population. I remember Sean at Fullsteam saying, a year or so ago, that if you work out the math (with a few guesstimates), that one out of every 100 beers consumed in North Carolina is a locally-produced craft beer – 1%.

We still have a lot of market to reach. The web is, by far, the most efficient way to reach it.

There are a good many brewers out there that will tell you they don't know the first thing about Twitter or Blogging or what they want their website to look like. How important is it becoming for craft breweries to find their voice in the social media world?

Oh man. I could write a book about this. The only thing that surprises me more than businesses without a Twitter account is a business that has a Twitter account but has no tweets.

Social media is like buying a billboard space where you can consistently control the message and where the people who see it are ALL interested in your product and ALL have the ability to share your billboard with countless others instantly. The only difference is that billboards cost a lot of money and social media costs a little time.

It’s ridiculous not to use it.

People like to say that craft breweries are really cutting edge in their use of technology, and I agree … in the brewhouse. On the computer, I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in the tech market. Are they more cutting edge in their technology use than the local yarn store? Sure, yeah. But, there’s still a long way to go for the whole industry.

Right now we have a few individuals in the industry that are really good, many who try who are on the right track but not quite there, and a wide swath that just don’t understand how to use technology to their advantage. A lot of people still think about social media as a noise machine – a new way to send out ads, or press releases or something – instead of a way to develop relationships with their fans.

With a lot of younger brewers and breweries coming of age it seems as though there's a shift happening where breweries are able to have their message travel further and quicker than in the past where many of today's long standing breweries had a longer regional and grass roots start up period. What else must a brewery with a hot internet buzz or awesome Twitter account do to ensure that their flame doesn't burn out when the next best brewery blows up on the internet?

First, you need to realize that just a buzz does not constitute your consistent loyal audience. There will be a lot of people who only key in on you at certain times. Your long-term audience, the ones that you need to be true to, are the ones that are following you AFTER the buzz dies down.

I think that the trap that people fall into is trying to come up with the next gimmick to keep attention on themselves, maybe by making a super-high alcohol beer, or packaging it inside a dead weasel. It works, but people get jaded.

I think that in order for a brewery to be most successful with social media and to use it best in the long-term, they need to get comfortable with the fact that they won’t always be the center of attention for everybody. (But you’ll always be the center of attention for somebody.) That next hot buzz brewery will also lose its buzz in a little while, and you need to be there for people to look back to when that bubble has burst.

The answer is: Come up with a consistent strategy, use it, stick to it, and let the buzz rise and fall around you.

Seeing your friend Sean Lily Wilson create an amazing presence on the web before his brewery opened, how hopeful or confident are you that Mystery Brewing Company will have the same allure and effect?

Heh. Sean is a tough act to follow. He’s an incredibly savvy marketer.

I do hope that I have a good web presence before opening, but I’m a little wary of getting people too involved online before I open the door. One of things that I observed with Fullsteam is that a few months before they had product out, there was a consistent kind of clamor online of, “So, where’s the beer? Where’s the beer?”

You can’t really fault him for it, either. Starting a brewery involves a lot of waiting and a lot of things that happen behind the scenes away from the (potential) customer’s eyes. It’s easy for them to become impatient because they see things as moving slowly when, in reality, things are moving as quickly as they can considering licensing, installation, inspections, and on and on and on. I know that Sean thought he was going to open well before he could, but was delayed for a myriad of unpredictable reasons. But that’s difficult to explain to someone who just wants to sit in a tavern and buy a beer.

I’m already starting to get those questions, privately, and I’m still months away from producing product, so I’m loathe to start that defense online. At the same time, I’m planning on opening the process up a little more than usual so that people can see why it’s taking so damn long.

I’m working on a redesign of my website right now (target January 2011 for wide release) and part of that is going to be regular updates of what’s going on inside the space and inside my head and trying to open up lines of communication between myself and people who are potentially interested in the brewery and my beer.

I really hadn't heard about Kickstarter until I started reading up on Mystery Brewing Co. I've got to imagine there was a sort of 'click and cross your fingers' thing going in the very beginning? Can you describe how you felt seeing the pledges reach and eventually exceed your goal?

I think “click and cross your fingers” is the most apt description I’ve heard of that first day. It is sickeningly terrifying to put your ideas and dreams (to say nothing of a video of yourself – ugh) out into a public forum and hope that people will like it enough to give you the money in order to do it. And, I’m not kidding myself – that was a lot of money. I worked my ass off for that thing, and I still consider myself incredibly lucky. Thus far, I’m the only brewery that’s tried to get any sort of significant amount of seed money via Kickstarter and succeeded.

The day that I reached my goal was a Tuesday. Tuesday, in my job at the time, was meeting day. The prior day and a half had seen an enormous pledge drive working through in which one particular interested party (and backer) had suggested doing a 50% matching-funds drive, so that for each $1 pledged in a certain time frame, they would pledge $0.50. It was an incredible opportunity, and I was trying to push it as hard as possible without annoying the ever-livin’ crap out of everybody that I knew (I probably failed at that particular goal). The matching-funds drive ended at noon on that Tuesday – which was exactly when I was supposed to be giving a presentation at a meeting.

So, at 11:00, with thousands of dollars left to go, I went to my meeting. At 1 PM, when I returned to my desk and checked in with Kickstarter I promptly gave up on getting any more work done for the rest of the day. We ended up raising a little over $17,000 over a 36-hour period (and we raised another $3,000 in the week after that). I was elated, excited, and actually physically shaking when I found out, but mostly? I was incredibly humbled.

Having your hopes and dreams validated and supported by your friends and family is amazing. But I also had them validated by well over 100 people that I didn’t know whatsoever. Over 50% of my backers are people that I don’t know. Some of them are convoluted relationships away: a friend’s friend’s father, an old roommate’s old roommate – that kind of thing. But it was also people who randomly saw a Facebook ad, or a Google ad, or picked up a random flyer in a coffee shop somewhere and decided: This sounds cool, I’m going to give money to it.

It really gives you a faith-in-humanity-type feeling.

It also makes you realize how many people like good beer.

I'm loving a lot of the words you've used to describe the beers you plan to brew at Mystery (Session, Heirloom, Non-traditional, Rustic), as well as your goal of, "Testing the boundaries of creativity and style". Can you go into detail about any of the first beers we'll be seeing?

Absolutely! One of the first beers I plan to make – and one that I hope will stick around through the years – is my saison. I’m a huge fan of dry beers, and an enormous fan of farmhouse ales, and they hit almost all of those words there.

My saison is just above the table beer range – right around 5% - and a good portion of the grist is rye. It gives the beer a lot of body for being light and dry and also lends a really fantastic peppery flavor that really blends into the fairly high noble hop character. What I think really makes it stand apart, though, is that I finish it with Centennial hops - but not with a ton – I’m getting enough hop character on it to really give you a nice round grassy and citrusy finish without obscuring the important flavors in the beer which, of course, come from the yeast.
I have my own saison yeast that I’ve been using for some time now. I cultured it out of a bottle a while back and have been making saisons with it for a little while. After one beer I noticed it go through a significant flavor change, and I called up a yeast scientist I know to have him isolate it and make sure it was clean.

Now, I’ve got it banked as a proprietary strain at White Labs. It’s a really robust yeast – my saisons finish off with a gravity right around 1 – and they ferment high. I’ve had fermentations range upward of 85F. They come out with a really wonderful ester profile. This yeast gives me a lot of pineapple/pear aromas and flavors that I think are really fantastic. It’s an incredibly refreshing beer.

In general, I’ll be making drier, more malt-driven beers, taking advantage of flavor differences in different malts AND grains – I use a lot of unmalted wheat, rye, and buckwheat – and using hops more as a spice than a forward-character of the beer. I like to think of beer a lot like cooking. If you made a nice lemon-rosemary chicken and it came out only tasting like rosemary and not like lemon or chicken, or even the wonderful caramelization that you get from cooking, I’m not sure you’d be entirely happy with the outcome. You certainly wouldn’t sell it, would you?

How widely do you plan to distribute upon opening?

Not very. My distribution philosophy is to go deep before going wide. Before I leave my area of North Carolina, I’d like to make sure that I have a solid distribution in local beer bars and, most importantly, good restaurants that are committed to serving good beer alongside good food, before I even distribute to the rest of the state, much less outside of it.

That said, if I can figure out how to make it work, I’d really like to have target release points in key cities and states that allow me to, say, have one tap handle in Boston, one tap handle in New York, one tap handle in Chicago, and one tap handle in San Francisco – something like that. The distribution laws are the bear, there, but if I can make it work that is what I’d like to do.

What is the primary thing you want people to know about Mystery Brewing Company as you get closer and closer to presenting your first beers for public consumption?

I guess the main thing that I want people to think about when they think of Mystery is of consistent quality. My plan involves changing the beer lineup a lot – like all the time: seasonal-only, no flagship, or whatever. If you love my saison, be ready for the summer because that’s when you’ll get it, that kind of thing. What I want as my consistent point is quality. I want every beer that leaves my brewery to be the absolute best it can be so that when a person sees a Mystery beer on tap somewhere, if they haven’t had it before, I want them to say to themselves: I need to try that; their beer is always great.

So I want people to know: The beers may change, but the quality will always be in the same place.


Dan Bengel said...

Very well done Dr Joel!

Erik said...

Thanks for the opportunity, Joel!

I should note (my own little errata, here) that since this interview another brewery has been successful via Kickstarter:

Pipeworks in Chicago (of which I am a proud backer).

Sean said...

Fantastic interview. That was the perfect way to start my day while enjoying my bagel and coffee. I'll be on the lookout for Mystery and congrats Erik!

Robert said...

This was a good read while we got slow at work, looking forward to that first pint of mystery brew!