Friday, January 28, 2011

Week #4 - Audra Marotta

The Craft Beer business is one that definitely rewards hard work and by those standards Audra Marotta is a well decorated medal winner. Offering her vast knowledge of finance and infrastructure she has helped both new and established craft breweries to build a strong and sustainable base beneath themselves. Audra's unique niche in the brewing industry is her deep understanding and love of beer itself, which allows her to apply an informed perspective of financial guidance to the everyday applications and needs of a growing brewery. Her efforts do not stop with craft brewers, as her Violent Orchid consulting firm is aimed towards all forms of small creative businesses. 2011 has been pretty good to Audra so far: A new gig with a great brewery, a panel at the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference in California, a recent step into a Director's role at Weaver Street Market...see what I mean about hard work being rewarded?

Ladies and Gents, Audra Marotta....

You bring an interesting perspective and talent to craft beer, one that is vital, but very behind the scenes. At what point for you did the world of numbers meet up with the world of craft beer?

I prefer building a financial and operational infrastructure behind the scenes to allow a company to grow sustainably over the long term. Though I've been working in the world of numbers over the past decade and a half while enjoying alcoholic beverages most of my life (I'm Eastern European, so I was allowed), the two didn't officially collide until I was hired by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery as their Controller. Once I started working at Dogfish, one of the first things I did was start building a network of accounting and finance professionals within the craft beer world. This is such a unique niche within the food/beverages industry, and every brewery operates differently. I knew I'd learn the most from those who had been immersed in it for much longer than I had. When optimizing systems or developing new processes, you need to spend a lot of time listening and learning before acting. Previous experiences may not always prove relevant when dealing with craft beer. Let's just say I spent more time reading, asking questions, conversing, and then asking more questions than I had for any other industry up to that point.

How important is it for a brewery to have a good comprehension of the numbers side of things in a time where so many breweries are still able to grow, expand, and open new markets and STILL not be able to satisfy demand?

With all this explosive growth the craft beer sector is experiencing, now (more than ever) is a crucial time to gain a solid understanding of trends, mix, margins, profitability, and ratios, as well as to establish a longer-term (at least 2-year) financial and capex investment plan. It saddens me when a brewery/brewpub is allowing sales to grow by 50% or more year-over-year without their knowing what a brand of beer costs to produce or how much of their liquidity is tied up in slow-moving inventory. When a brewery is growing, it needs to have a solid grasp of cash flow management in order to ensure resources are being spent optimally. Each dollar tied up in inventory sitting in the warehouse is a dollar that could have been spent paying off a loan or invested in a new fermenting tank. It doesn't matter how much revenue is coming in the door if you end up running out of cash.

If a brewery doesn't have the time, it should bring in contracted help to design and develop a financially-focused information systems framework (or optimize the one currently used) to provide the brewery the guidance it would need to maintain a sustainable growth rate and make appropriate investments in the equipment needed at the right time in order to support that growth rate while maintaining healthy cash flow.

Lack of time is not an excuse for poor information systems. I know the bank will liken that to 'the dog ate my homework'. Line of credit increase: denied. Not good times.

From what I gather your work with Violent Orchid is not solely directed at craft breweries, but do you take on breweries as clients? Could you explain what services Violent Orchid offers to potential clients?

It's funny you ask this *laughs*, as 100% of my current revenue is coming from craft breweries! Violent Orchid is a consultancy focused on empowering the creative community with the management tools, education, exposure, and voice to succeed. We offer accounting (including accounting information systems), finance, marketing, and operations guidance, anything from process audits and building costing templates to benchmarking performance, developing business plans, and implementing financial management software solutions. Our focus lies with craft breweries, not-for-profits, startups/small businesses, and artists, but as I just mentioned, all our paying clients happen to be craft breweries right I feel right at home! Our goal is to provide an entity C-level direction without the financial burden of C-level salary. As I was one of the few from the University of North Carolina who signed the, I believed this was my path to creating value responsibly. You can get more information about us by checking out all my contact deets at the bottom.

How did you get involved with the NC Brewer's Guild and what type of work are you doing with them?

When the North Carolina Brewer's Guild started up in 2009, I believe I was the first (then) out-of-state enthusiast member who signed up. Though I was working for Dogfish Head, I still felt very tied to the North Carolina beer scene. When I moved back home to North Carolina from Delaware, I contacted the Managing Director of the guild to see if they needed any help. He connected me with the Treasurer, and the rest is history.

I created a custom-tailored chart of accounts, set up the financial system infrastructure, and mapped all the items to the appropriate lines on the informational (tax) return to provide the Board the information they would need to measure performance and meet organizational objectives. I then trained the Executive Director and Treasurer on the system and its use. Though I'm recognized as the guild's Financial Advisor, I'm also spearheading the guild's educational programming initiatives. Our first educational event brought six of North Carolina's highly respected brewers together on a panel to discuss recipe development. Our next event will be in Asheville in February. In fact, I'm busy planning it as we speak!

Whenever I'm home and working up North it seems like I invariably end up talking about beer culture in North Carolina. The state really lends itself to a strong craft beer community because you can get almost anywhere in a short amount of time, so visiting all of these different breweries or pubs or great bottle shops is kind of a breeze. As a community, how have the people of North Carolina embraced the craft beer culture that continues to grow there?

Every time I think about how our community has embraced the craft beer culture here, I can't help but smile. Being involved in the North Carolina beer scene, whether as an enthusiast, an employee, or a blogger carries a badge of pride that is hard to define. I'm amazed by how many people choose to volunteer at each of our breweries, and each who does carries this spark in their eye as they chatter on about the beers brewed. It seems almost every night of the week finds a scheduled beer dinner, sampling, or gathering throughout a rotating circle of establishments. The pairing of local beer with local music has defined certain regions of our state as the go-tos for Thursday and Friday evening entertainment. Interest and participation in beer education, homebrewing and homebrew clubs has risen. North Carolina Brewer's Guild enthusiast memberships keep growing steadily. It's very hard NOT to get excited about the promise and passion our state carries for well-crafted local brew.

Where's your favorite place in North Carolina to sit down for a beer?

This isn't a fair question. This is like choosing a favorite pair of heels or a favorite Russian Imperial Stout. It can't be done. I love Federal in Durham, The Wooden Nickel in Hillsborough, Rec Billiards in Winston-Salem, and Thirsty Monk in Asheville. Mother Earth Brewing's tap room in Kinston is uber groovy, and Pisgah Brewing's space in Black Mountain is so relaxed. Big Boss Brewing's tavern in Raleigh is like family to me, while I feel Catawba Valley's taproom is synonymous with community. And don't even get me started on how awesomesauce Bruisin' Ales is in Asheville. The day slips by oh-so-easily there when immersed in conversation while being surrounded by one of the most fantasmo bottle selections in the state. You can't make me choose one. It's not fair. If it's in North Carolina, and there's craft beer served, it's likely a favorite place of mine.

Between Fullsteam and Mystery Brewing Co, how exciting is it to be living smack dab in the middle of some serious brewing innovation right now?

Imagine you're a four year-old who gets a pony on Christmas morning. And in its mouth the pony is holding passes for Disney World. And Lion-O from Thundercats is on the pony's back. Lion-O is holding a hot fudge sundae in one hand and a Red Ryder BB gun in the other. And did I mention the pony is floating on a magic carpet?

It's that exciting.

I am kind of a freak about Weaver Street Market. I love it. It reminds me of a frequent lunch and grocery stop up the road from me at home, so it is really comforting to have a place like that to go to when I'm on the road. How did you get involved with Weaver Street and what are you doing for them?

Our food shopping options were very limited when we moved to Hillsborough in 2006. Thankfully, the Weaver Street Market co-op opened its food preparation center and its third store in Hillsborough shortly after. I signed up as a consumer-owner right after it opened its doors. Drawn to its mission, providing a vibrant, sustainable commercial center for the community of owners and potential owners that is cooperative; local; ecological; primary; fair; inclusive; interactive; empowering; educational; and is reliant on community support, I chose to run for its Board of Directors during the summer. There were three of us running for one consumer-owner spot, and I was so honored to be the one elected! I will start my service in January 2011.

We are directly accountable to the consumer owners for the activities and accomplishments of the store. Specifically, it is my job to interact with the owners to understand their values and vision for the store; to develop, monitor, and revise policies that guide the store to achieving outcomes consistent with the owners' values and vision; and to ensure that management achieves the goals set by the entire board.

You recently (like, really recently) joined Mother Earth Brewery as their Chief Financial Officer, had you been working with them previously or did the opportunity come up independent of your previous work with breweries?

I had worked with them for a short spell as a Violent Orchid consultant back in December. We kept communication lines open over a period of six weeks after that. Stephen and Trent asked me to come out in January to explore a possible peace, love, and beer connection. Next thing I knew we were all looking in the same direction and the path for me to take was obvious. Everything just felt right and I could genuinely relate to every person who was a part of Mother Earth already. I gave every co-worker a huge hug my first day. I count my lucky stars every day that such an exciting opportunity arose. Sometimes things just come together.

Do you have a favorite Mother Earth beer?

My favorite Mother Earth beer is currently Old Neighborhood. Josh outdid himself with this porter! But with the canning line coming aboard this spring, there are two new brands we'll be brewing that I can't wait to try already! To be continued, I guess?

Travel-wise, where have you not been that you really want to go on a beer trip?

Within the US borders, I haven't been lucky enough to spend any time in Oregon yet. I'd love to fly into Portland, rent a car, and take a 10-12 day driving vacation throughout the state visiting breweries/brewpubs while getting lost in the state's beauty. My favorite vacations have been those without an itinerary. When you love meeting new people as much as I do, you just can't plan, nor impose a time limit on an inspirational conversation.

Outside the US, I haven't been to Belgium since I was a little girl. I would love to return as an adult to explore the countryside, abbeys, chocolatiers, and breweries, staying at small inns and on farms rather than in hotels. I have several Dutch friends who live in area, so it would be a great opportunity to catch up and visit with them as well.

I'm very excited to hear that you will be presenting at Craft Brewer's Conference in 2011. What can people expect if they come to your seminars?

You wouldn't believe how excited I was when I received the call from the Brewer's Association accepting my proposal! Expect a water balloon fight, some Napoleon Dynamite-style dancing, Peeps, and purple-striped leg warmers....wait, that was something else....

My presentation will be focused on cost accounting for brewpubs and information systems for breweries. I plan to survey the crowd beforehand to ensure we tackle some of the most pressing and confusing issues we in the craft beer world are experiencing, then work that in with a general accounting tutorial focused on the brewing process. It will be a hoot n' holler for the numbers junkies, and I'm stoked to be presenting a topic that is a strength of mine.

Let's continue the conversation!

Audra's Facebook

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Violent Orchid's website: (under development) Read more!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Week #3 - Maaike Brender A Brandis

Maaike Brender A Brandis is part owner of Cape Fear Wine & Beer in Wilmington, NC - she runs a bar that is as much a diamond in the rough in its' own city as the city itself is a diamond in the rough inside of a large, active beer state. The selection of the beers at Cape Fear is a reflection of Maaike's smart buying and immense beer knowledge and sensibility. Brimming with music and good people, Cape Fear Wine & Beer is a "Must Add' for any trips down the East coast.

How did Cape Fear Wine and Beer come about and when did you open for business?

My business partner, Lector Bennett, opened Cape Fear Wine & Beer in July of 2003 and I became President in September 2006, just a few months after turning 21. I thought, I had never run a bar before but if I desired a truly great beer bar and worked to make it a reality, I would be successful. I had been homebrewing in Canada since I was 17 years old so beer was already familiar terroir to me. To be a young female in the beer industry in the south was at times difficult but completely worth all of the headaches.

Two years ago we left our original location of 800 sq. ft. for a 3600 sq. ft. spot on the main drag of downtown Wilmington and have never looked back. Our capacity tripled and so did the beer selection. We now boast 300+ bottles and 19 rotating taps with only the best American, German, Belgian and UK beers, including a beer engine for cask ale and cask-conditioned beers. Though we are not limited to beers from only those countries, we are rather focused on them. It is not rare to see Brazilian, Canadian, Dutch, Polish, or Russian beers in our coolers. We allow our customers to mix-and-match their own 6 packs so the combinations and permutations are endless. We also have one of the best and most diverse wine selections in the area.

We are a work in progress, as all good things are. We'll never claim perfection but always work towards it. But the day we hit it is the day the challenge is done.

How would you describe your customers and/or the general beer buying public in Wilmington?

Wilmington's scene is very diverse. There's a core of loyal beer drinkers that are well-read and have sought out exactly what they want. Even other bars have, for the most part, good beer offerings. It's not uncommon to see a few good placements around town. But the concentration of craft beer is not quite there. People are frequently willing to try new beers which is a nice change of pace. We're no Asheville but we gain momentum in the south for sales.

Our spot is a destination for good beer so we frequently have folks with specific requests. Many regulars have come in off the street with limited knowledge but leave our spot as connoisseurs. I like to think we've done a great service for good beer in our city.

We've got some great distributors in the state that make it easy to procure a wide variety of great beers for our customers. I keep hearing about states' distributing battles and alcohol caps and I feel very fortunate to be operating in the state of North Carolina.

It's hard not to immediately get the feel of Cape Fear Wine and Beer the second you walk through the door. How do you feel that your bar is different from others in Wilmington?

First and foremost, we all grew up with the tenets of punk rock and DIY and that is reflected in the physical appearance of our bar. Everything in here was built by hand. Our establishment has been described as one part German beer hall, one part British pub, one part record store, and one part tattoo parlour. We've become successful without many characteristics of other mainstream bars around. There's no loud live music so you can enjoy conversation, and we've forgone the meat market aspect so all of our customers feel comfortable. We refuse to sell BMC (Bud-Miller-Coors), which is unheard of here. All of our staff are well-trained and can answer any question about any beer. All of this makes us an incredibly unique business in town and I think people really crave that change of pace. Plus, we're all really proud of all of our accomplishments, including involvement in Pop the Cap and various distribution battles. We're also part of the international organization Beer Church and we have several charity events for our region throughout the year.

Music is always a highlight when I'm in Cape Fear, how big of a role does music play in the bar? Is it a dream come true to fill up a jukebox with your favorite albums or do you eventually suffer from over-exposure?

Music is an integral part of our atmosphere. We pride ourselves on our jukebox which is mostly punk rock, metal and ska, but we also have Johnny Cash, B-52's, Benny Goodman, Devo, and a variety of types of music. People say those last few bands aren't very punk rock, but we think that a wide palate for music is punk rock, no matter the varietal of music.

There are a few songs that we hear several times a night but that's a reality we have to accept. It's mostly the more popular punk rock bands. I hear “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” a few times more than I'd like to. But at least it's not the same Top 40songs over and over again. Even folks who aren't into our type of music are going to find something they recognize and like, and that adds to their comfort level. Though the fans of D.I. and The Avengers enjoy talking obscure punk rock with us.

You've got a strong musical background, what band(s) have you played in?

As a brass player, I've been in several jazz and ska bands. Most notably, the Madd Hatters, a ska-punk band that was based here in Wilmington, NC. I've had the fortune of playing several key spots up and down the east coast, including CBGB's & The Continental in NYC and Club 215 in Philly. I also toured with several bands in Canada: Running on Empty, Dianthus, and a brief stint on the road with my pals, One Shot Left. Even when I wasn't in a band, I was frequently touring with friends' bands, lugging around amps and selling merchandise.

I was trained classically on piano but picked up trombone and baritone in grade school. After that, I taught myself trumpet and tuba. I've got an eclectic collection of horns, including a slide trumpet, a pocket trumpet, a valve trombone, and a white fiberglass sousaphone. (There's nothing like rocking out with an instrument almost as big as you are, swinging it around like it's nothing!)

Do you still play?

My musical career has definitely taken a backseat to my career in the beer industry. I joke about playing music never paying my mortgage, yet it is still an integral part of my life. On first glance, anybody will see my entire back covered in musical-themed tattoos. Coming from a family of musicians, it will always be something near and dear to me. My maternal grandfather penned the tune, “Everybody Loves Somebody” (popularized by Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra) among others from that era, and my grandmother sang and danced on Broadway. Music flows through my veins along with beer and, I suppose, blood.

Is there a place online where we can hear your music?

Unfortunately, there is not. There is a place online to view my beer list, however. or

Cooler gig: Musician or Publican?

It's arguable. I miss touring and traveling every day. I miss the nomadic lifestyle and constantly being around musicians. I miss playing music! However, I do enjoy being able to have a stable relationship and sleeping in my own bed every night.

Just like I come from musicians, I come from beer people. I've seen photos of our family's alehouse in Switzerland. Our family crest has bocks alternating torches. My Dutch uncle grows hops in his backyard. This is second nature; it's something I am good at, and I enjoy it.

Plus, there's the beer industry's too-numerous-to-count perks. I've met some of the best people I will ever meet in this industry. I drink the world's best beer. We promote an industry whose tenets I can stand behind. (I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I sold BMC for a living.) I don't have to worry about how many visible tattoos I have, or if I want to wear a hockey jersey to work, or if I want to dye my hair fire-engine red and black!

What beer do you always want to have a case of at your house?

My favourite poolside beers are Anderson Valley Boont Amber in cans, Fuller's London Pride cans, Ska Modus Hoperandi IPA and Ska ESB cans. (We have a rule at my house: No glass by the pool.) The general rule for household beers is the darker, the better, but we like wheats in summer and Belgians anytime. (Plus, I'm a huge sucker for a well-made amber ale.) The big brew for the house this winter will be the tart cherry chocolate oaked bourbon imperial porter we will brew. I also see a Terrapin Wake & Bake (coffee chocolate oatmeal imperial stout) clone in our future.

Though our fridge isn't limited to any of those specifics. If it's well-made and flavourful, I'm gonna drink the hell out of it, no matter who brewed it. Read more!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Week #2 - Dustin Walker

The man they call Ranger, Dustin Walker, is Terrapin Brewery’s Regional Manager for Virginia & North Carolina. Every rep has their own approach to the job and I really admire Ranger's ability to be all business one second and all fun the next. Talking beer with him is awesome too, he’s been to Cantillon and loves sours. Every time I peel back a layer of the Terrapin story it gets cooler and cooler and Ranger is no different. Moving up to North Carolina's 'Triangle' area from Georgia, Mr. Walker is doing great things for Craft Beer in cities like Raleigh, but also has a knack for wiggling into some of the smaller towns in his territory that are thirsty for the good stuff. If you’re in VA/NC you can catch him at one of his zillion events. He comes to see us in Philly every once in a while too. Ladies & Gents, Dustin Walker...

I always get a huge team-work vibe out of all you Terrapin guys. What's your favorite part about the people you work with?

I really love working for Terrapin for two big reasons. I believe that we make wonderful, delicious beer, and the people that I get to work with are awesome folks! I would consider everyone on the sales team as close friends. We actually all hang out together a good bit away from the work scene. It was through the folks at Terrapin that my eyes were opened to all the different and amazing craft brews and breweries out there.

How long have you been with the brewery?

I have been with Terrapin since August 18th, 2008. It was the day that I started my dream job. Before I was hired by Terrapin, I used to work for a distributor in Athens, Georgia, and they were actually the first to distribute Terrapin's beer. I was even in the warehouse when the first shipment of Terrapin came through the door on a little box truck full of torpedo kegs. I remember it clearly because that was the first time I had ever seen 1/6bbl kegs. I was 18 at the time.

What's the biggest thing you've learned in the beer business?

I've learned that is doesn't take millions of dollars in marketing to sell beer. At the end of the day, its all about the liquid inside the bottle that makes the most difference.

So...the Oxymoron tour. Sounded like a lot of fun and sounded a bit painful. What can you say about it?

Dan Conway from Left Hand brewing and I did a 6 day, 10 event tour of Virginia at the end of October to celebrate the Midnight Project collaboration our breweries do together each year. This year's collaboration was called "Oxymoron." It was a week long, grueling tour of tastings and bar events that reeked havoc on our livers but was something we both enjoyed and will hopefully get to do again...maybe not 10 events in 6 days though. We both thought we were going to hate each other when it was over. I mean two hungover, grown ass men in a single cab pickup truck for 6 days. We keep asking ourselves, "What were we thinking?" The booze helped, but we became better friends in the end.

The collaboration beers are always exciting. Are they planned really far in advance or do the guys just let you know, 'Hey we're gonna go do this. Get ready to sell it.'?

We know what style the beer is going to be before they start brewing. The reps from Left Hand and I get events set up before beers are released. Dan and I wanted to blow it up big in Virginia, so we worked on the tour for about 3 months getting everything lined up.

After Philly Beer Week you told me you were really impressed with the food at the bars in Philly. Where else in your territory are you finding great food?

Craft beer reps are lucky because great food and great beer come hand in hand. Almost everywhere I go for a market visit, I can find great food. Richmond, Arlington, Raleigh and Charlotte all have great places to eat. The food in Philly seems like it is raised up to another level though. Even the bar food is amazing!

2010 was your first Philly Beer Week right? What'd you think?

I thought that Philly Beer Week was a great time. It was hands down the best beer week that I have ever been a part of. So many great bars, great beers and great events... so little time. Hopefully I will get to help out again this year.

I've had a couple of retailers tell me how active Terrapin is in reaching out to them, showing the brewing facility, etc. How important is it to you guys to convey that sense of where the beer comes from to the people who ultimately end up selling directly to the consumer?

Its very important to us that the retailers have a sense of where the beer comes from. One of our goals is to connect Terrapin to our retailers in some capacity. Bridging that connection with our company and beer gives the retailer an experience they typically want to convey to the potential customer. We also believe that it is our role as a craft brewery to educate, show people about the brewing process, and tell the story of Terrapin.

What's in store for 2011? What do we need to keep an extra space in the fridge for?

2011 is going to be a great brewing year for us! Tomfoolery "Black Saison" is slated to be next in the Side Project lineup. We are also looking at brewing another beer in the "Crunkles" lineup to follow Capt'n Crunkles. The exact style is still under wraps, but it will be in the form of an IPA. Rye Squared and Monk's Revenge will also return in the Monster Beer Tour series this Spring.

In your dream cellar, what's the one case of beer that would never run out?

Geez... that's a tough question. I would say the original Liefmans Goudenband before they were shut down then reopened would have to be in there. But if it were my dream, and it is damnit! I would also have a case of Hopzilla!

*Ranger is pictured above with his awesome wife Kristin Read more!

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. Read more!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

What it is (and what it will be)...

Ok, so this whole thing gets under way tomorrow morning and the general goal will be to post these every Friday. Before it gets rolling though I wanted to give you a little background, let you know where I'm coming from and what to expect.

My travels with New Holland Brewery have taken me to so many places I'd not have gone or known about and allowed me to meet such cool, great interesting people. There are so many different things going on in the craft beer industry and so many people to learn from. My hope is that as you check in on this project you will learn some new faces and names in craft beer and also learn a bit more about the people you already know. At the same time I hope to shed light on some of the things that fly under the radar, but are so crucial to the way craft beer works, is made, is distributed, is enjoyed, is read about, is learned, and is perceived.

Let's see what happens. See you tomorrow. Read more!

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Year of the Interview

So it's that time of year again: grand announcements, plans, resolutions, plots, schemes, promises. I've hung up my camera on the other blog and have something new and interesting that I'm hoping people enjoy as much as I have in the few weeks I've been working on it so far:

In 2011 I will post one interview about beer right here on the Grain Bill every single week. 52 interviews covering every aspect of the beer industry and this beer culture of ours. I am really excited for the interviews I've already completed and just as excited to see where the project goes from here. So don't be shy beer people, if you want to be involved drop me a line. Posting begins this on the lookout. Read more!