Friday, May 20, 2011

Week #20 - Matt Simpson

Bridging the gap between a beer and its final destination is sort of a shared responsibility that falls on the shoulders of every advocate and champion of the craft beer movement. Without a blossoming field of new beer drinkers (and more educated current beer drinkers) a beer can go to package and then slowly draw to its demise if there is not an element of understanding about that beer's application out in the world of sensory pleasure. Professionally, brewers spread the word and market themselves through a variety of channels; at wholesale, sales reps taste and educate their accounts on what is new, what is available, and what people are drinking elsewhere. In the best of scenarios, retailers and their staffs are guiding consumers through their purchases. Beyond that, beer can hit the shelf or hit the tap and fly right out there door...or it can go to a sad state of purgatory, degrading and sadly falling to a state far from the brewers' intention or hope. The fate of that beer lies almost solely in all of the outlined steps prior.

Enter Matt Simpson, The Beer Sommelier. Matt's efforts touch all of the aforementioned paths and dig a trench to an all important x-factor: The curious craft beer consumer. Through a variety of consultation and informative services, Matt educates restaurant and retail shop staffs, he guides curious drinkers through Beer 101, food pairing possibilities, and an increased knowledge of how beer goes from raw materials to a half empty pint. Combining a wealth of knowledge and experience, Simpson's efforts touch both the provider and the consumer and in some cases even the unexpected TV viewer who's prime for an all important 'What's this craft beer stuff?' moment. Most recently Matt has released The Beer Expert App, which from all I can tell is the mack daddy of all beer apps. Drawing from a library of 300,000 beers, it is beer knowledge on call, at your fingertips. Enough from me though, check out the story behind The Beer Sommelier...

You're a Jersey Boy that calls Atlanta home. What led you to the South?

Well, originally, I worked in Journalism and broadcasting/tv/video…I moved to Atlanta for a job in that field. But after years of its ins and outs driving me nuts, I decided to open The Beer Sommelier® for business and follow my passion, instead of my training.

When did you start homebrewing? What styles do you most like to brew?

I began brewing some time about 2003. My teacher/mentor was Mark Nelson, one of the two creators of Georgians for World Class Beer, the organization that was instrumental in the lifting of Georgia’s 6% abv cap. Back then, my tastes were fairly myopic. I tended towards really big beers – the bigger, the better. That, combined with the fact that I have a hard time drinking great quantities in any reasonable time (which is why I bottle to this day, for cellaring, as opposed to kegging), led me to only create styles like barleywines, imperial stouts and Belgian strong ales. On the occasions I brew these days, I still make big styles (my last creation was an 18% sweet mead), but am considering a sour sometime in the future.

At what point did you decide that beer was something you were more than just interested in? How did the decision to take on the role of educator come about?

As I mentioned earlier, I really got sick of not only being in and out of work, but always working for “the man.” My last external engagement involved working for a friend’s company, who’d committed to partnering in eventually opening a craft beer store in Atlanta. When that prospect fell through, I decided it was time to open my own beer business – one that negated the need for massive overhead, startup costs and time and monetary investments. Having already had decades of craft beer experience (thousands of sampled beers, brewing, travel, writing, co-founding and editing, etc.), it was simply a matter of creating and protecting the company, gaining credibility, forging industry relationships and MAPs (marketing, advertising & promotions). The latter being possibly the most important, since you can be the best at what you do, but if nobody knows you exist, what’s the point? Fortunately, my writing and creative background allowed me to create my own marketing materials, including ads, business cards, press releases, web site (with much help from my developer, Geoff Coleman), social networking sites, etc. Then it was just a matter of earning my BJCP certification, seeking major writing outlets for columns and finding new revenue streams. I think the biggest success to date for The Beer Sommelier®, will be our The Beer Expert app – powered by Imagine being able to walk into any package store, grocery, or brewpub, and having immediate access to the information and user reviews for any beer in front of you, simply by speaking its name into your phone. Now that’s exciting!

How did you go about organizing or approaching the way the Beer Education 101 class at Emory University would work and the sources that students would study from?

It was simply a matter of forming a plan. So I created a class itinerary that covered all the bases, in the most logical order; what beer’s made of, how it’s brewed, styles, history, beer & food pairing. I then created a 30-page primer and PowerPoint presentation, to illustrate my ideas and went about teaching the course. I provided all the ingredients for taste and smell, the beer for sampling (two or more styles each class) and homebrewing equipment, for hands-on inspection. It was lots of work, but fun. Much like any entrepreneurial venture, when I realized I could be doing these classes myself, I began to do so. They’ve been sporadic thus far, due to life’s adventures and diversions, but I plan to do more in 2011.

Your Beer Expert website offers a variety of services where virtually anyone could hire you to inform and guide a tasting, pairing, staff training, or event. How long have you been 'open for business' so to speak?

I “opened my doors” in 2007. I’ll never forget walking out of the city building with my first business license. I was very proud and full of dreams.

Of your on-premise customers, do you find that restaurants and bars come to you because their customers are putting the pressure on them to carry craft beer?

Either that, or they see the writing on the wall themselves, and know that with a relatively small fee to me, they can exponentially increase the knowledge of their employees, in turn, increasing their bottom line. I often tell the story of “Ryan,” a server at a local beer bar, over a decade ago. Every time my friends and I came in, he’d ask us what we’d like, knowing we kind of knew our stuff about beer. If we showed either indifference or curiosity about anything new, he’d always make suggestions that reflected our style tastes…or sometimes just surprise us. And he never steered us wrong. In fact, we’d usually buy 2-3 more pints, simply based on his personable, educated and persuasive personality. This anecdote perfectly illustrates the power of staff education and its positive impact on a retail establishment’s bottom line.

Can restaurants come to you looking to take an existing or past manager's beer program to the next level?

Sure thing. I’ve got a huge list (two pages) of marketing plans, that may be used by either bars, package stores, or restaurants. Their implementation is a win-win for the retailer – at the very least, they’ll drum up business and create buzz. As I tell them, even “break even” programs are a winning proposition for the house. Even if they don’t generate tons of revenue, their clientele walk away happy and satisfied. And happy customers tell other folks, who in turn, become new customers.

Is there one general message that you have about beer that you try to convey or instill in your clients, regardless of the service they request, or the level of knowledge they have?

There are two, actually. First, is to sample, sample, sample. The only way to know if you like something, is to try it. I can’t tell you how many wine folks I’ve met, who swear they don’t like beer, only to be swayed by something I offer them – say, a saison, imperial stout, or lambic. It’s very heartening to see their faces, once they realize that macro lagers aren’t the only beverages that qualify as “beer.” The other tenet I try to impose on folks with whom I meet, is education. Knowledge is power, plain and simple. The fact that many wine lovers don’t know that there’s an entire bell curve of styles, spanning a history of hundreds to thousands of years, is a reflection of the lack of beer education to which we’ve become accustomed in the U.S. I aim to help reverse that trend. My company slogan is “My cellar of expertise, to your table of knowledge,” but my business model and personal motto is “Bringing craft beer to the masses.” It’s what drives me in what I do.

I watched several clips of you on television from your site. How many more times do we have to watch TV personalities say, "Oh, we're talking about beer like its wine," before we're just on TV talking about beer? It seems like every news or Morning Show appearance I see by someone from the beer community there's this general joking tone that comes from the hosts. Why do you think it is that beer doesn't get taken as seriously by these types of media outlets?

It’s a simple matter of past marketing. But it’s changing. In the past, macro lagers have marketed themselves in a lowest-common-denominator manner…selling their products, not based on their quality or consistency, but with models, sports figures and talking animals. So that’s the image we have of the products and the people who drink them. But not only is that marketing changing, to reflect the hard work, craftsmanship, ingredients and overall quality of the products, the perception of said products and companies is starting to change as well. Videos like “I am a Craft Brewer,” movies like “Beer Wars” and marketing like that of Boston Brewing are helping to increase public awareness that there is no more time-honored, complex, fun yet serious beverage on the planet, than beer. While some beer geeks disagree, my school of thought is that we in the beer community need to hyper-market ourselves to the point in which we find ourselves with a cache, perception and respect above that of wine, before we can relax and take a step back.

Your website lists yours as, "One of the largest, most robust and comprehensive beer cellars in the world". Is there one beer in there that you'd sacrifice all others to keep? What are the prize pieces of the collection?

Lol. I am pretty proud of my cellar and have some pretty rare stuff (Southampton Double Icebock – 100 total bottles, Lost Abbey Duck Duck Gooze, Roots Epic jeraboam –100 total bottles, BA Speedway from Pete Zein’s personal collection, Hair of the Dog Adambier Batch #1, Stone Vertical Epic 020202, a 22+ year vertical of Bigfoot, etc.), but to tell the truth, the bottom line is that they’re all beer and meant to be drunk. Eventually. ;-) And really some of the best beer I’ve ever had, has been homebrew. Live the dream, homebrewers! Read more!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Week #18 - Jason Ingram

The world of Craft Beer is made of an intricate web of stories, personalities, and backgrounds. The people that create that web have so many things in common when it comes to beer, but often bring a huge variety of other interests and tales to the table when it comes to the world outside of our precious liquids. Jason Ingram is one of those folks with some really cool tales. His connection to some of the great unsung heroes of American music is fascinating, which makes conversation over a beer really interesting. No one had ever broken down the lyrics to a Robert Earl Keen song to me or transformed a bar in the Outer Banks into a Honky Tonk before my very eyes until I started to hang out with Jason. And know this, nothing stands between him and the Auburn Tigers.

Always running hard to bring the beers of Left Hand Brewing Company to the Carolinas and points further south, Jason's dedication to serving the craft beer community is remarkable and the beer he's out there selling is some of the best in the country.

How long have you been working for Left Hand?

I started with Left Hand in May of 2009.

What led you to the beer business?

My first job out of college was in Marketing in the front office of the Atlanta Braves. I loved the job. I realized that I always needed to work in an industry that I was passionate about. From an early age (drinking age) I seemed to like better more interesting beers. I completely fell in Love with Craft Beer and specifically the idea of small companies that turned to the ultimate American success story. I knew that I needed to be a part of this crazy industry. I also realized that I was not a going to be a brewer, but my talents were in discussing beer and getting people excited about it.

There can definitely be some challenges to working hundreds of miles away from your brewery, but growth in far off lands certainly comes with its own set of rewards. If you had your preference would the brewery be right in your back yard or as far away as it is?

That is very true that sometimes I face disadvantages being away from the brewery. If I need any supplies or would like to take someone by to see it, it would be nice if that were accessible. But Left Hand is located in beautiful and fun Colorado so I am always super excited to get to visit. So it also has its advantages as well.

What are some things that people probably don't know about Left Hand, but should?

Just how small we actually are. We are growing at a brisk pace but most people have not the slightest idea that although we sell beer in around 30 states … we only have around 35 employees. We have a great set of folks that work extremely hard to make world class beer. It is a challenge but we are all so in love with what we do.

What's your favorite thing about working for Left Hand....and what's your favorite beer from the brewery?

I love so many things but specifically about Left Hand would probably be the way in which we as employees are treated. I really feel a true since of partnership within the company. It motivates me to do my best and pull my weight to continue to grow along with Left Hand. Favorite beer changes with whatever hour of the day it is. At this moment: Nitro Sawtooth. An American ESB on a nitro pour with an ABV in the 4% range is floating my boat.

What are some of your favorite places to go out for a beer in your territory?

I am spoiled in that I live only a couple of miles from the famous Brick Store Pub. But in addition: Red Light Red Light and The Ravenous Pig in Orlando. Datz Deli in Tampa. 8oz Burger Bar in South Beach (We sell Milk Stout draft on South Beach Miami… how cool is that? Craft beer is everywhere). 12 South Taproom in Nashville. The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta. The J-Clyde in Birmingham. A whole bunch of others.

And when you need to get away from the beer world? What do you do for fun?

Funny as even when I am on vacation and not working I always try to find the local brewery or brewpub to visit. I love beer too much to ever really get away from it. Even when I do not feel like drinking beer I never tire from talking about craft beer. That is how I know I am in the right job. That said I love Auburn Football more than life. So my interests are My Wife, Sports, and Craft Beer. And depending on what mood she is in is how they get ranked :) Read more!