A Little More Conversation with Ben Savage, CMO of Flying Dog Brewery

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Last week, my column celebrating Flying Dog’s 25th anniversary ran in The Capital, but here’s the funny (see: “awful”) thing about feature writing. As if the writing process wasn’t already enough of an unending hellscape of misery and shame, you spend most of your time weeping over what massive bits of an interview end up on the cutting room floor, in the name of narrative cohesion, because there is no way to fit it all in.

It happens every single time, without fail. No matter how focused or tailored your questions may be, your conversation will meander off-course. Or, even if you are dedicated and focused on sticking with the topic(s) at-hand, answers will be too long to print, as-is. In either case, I typically walk away from an interview with an immediate feeling of being enlightened and empowered with fresh perspectives, but that is quickly replaced with dread when I remember how much of it I can’t include.

My February interview with Ben Savage, which was the keystone of that piece, is a perfect example of that. In under an hour, we knocked down the doors of a handful of topics that could have been crafted into their own strong features – in spite of having ink all over my face for most of our chat and not realizing it. (Seriously.)

Since our chat, I’ve struggled. Do I write that series? Or do I just share what was said, without a ton of structure or exposition?

I opted for the latter. Though I think there are ways to have larger discussions stemming from what was discussed, I’m going to save those for a later time. Instead, I’m going to let the man speak for himself here. Because, if you haven’t met him, one of the great things about Savage is that you kind of just want to sit there and pick his brain.

Enjoy!

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Me: In terms of the time that you’ve been here, what do you see as the path forward? Flying Dog is celebrating its 25th year, but it’s a milestone anniversary at an interesting time for the industry, where we’re dealing what I see as almost two buckets of issues. You have within the industry identity challenges. Meaning we know legally on paper what a craft brewer is but does every craft brewer create craft beer?

Then, what happens when that identify gets muddled when a former craft brewer is acquired? Now we have competition issues where Anheuser-Busch is looking to acquire SAB Miller, and there are already pre-existing, systemic problems within the distribution system that’s making that really problematic.

Ben: Yeah it’s tough. It’s really hard to predict or understand what the motives are really with some of those mergers and acquisitions. I think that craft is growing and a lot of macro isn’t. Maybe that’s really what’s spurring it, but I think for us what we want to do is just continue to make really great beer, focus on quality, and yes it’s getting more competitive in the market.

But that’s also why we firmly believe in a rising tide raises all ships.

As it gets more competitive, more and more people are actually trying craft beer. We think being an ingrained part of the community is going to separate us from maybe some of the national guys, and the local guys we very much feel like we’re all in it together. It’s maybe… you know, you read publications, and it seems very adversarial, but it’s really not. That difference means something in the beer world.

So yes, it is getting harder. It remains to be seen what’s going to happen with these mergers. It’s hard to predict. I don’t know if it’s just they’re gobbling people up so they can compete in more markets. It’s hard to understand what’s going on.

I can say it’s given us an opportunity to focus on our independence more than maybe we have in the past. We’ve always been independent, and with every acquisition that means so much more. It’s like we’re an independent brewery. You’re starting to see the shift a little bit about we say fiercely independent or unapologetically independent. We’re independent. We’re a craft brewer but we’re also independent because now that craft line is getting blurred. The line that’s not blurring is the independence blurring.

Me: That’s interesting that you bring that up. Tröegs recently went through a re-brand that included slipping in a subtle re-positioning in their name – where “independent” was chosen, and the “craft” reference was removed. Why? The only quote I could get from anyone in their camp was refreshingly honest – the only thing people can agree on is independence and that craft as a definition… it’s not necessarily infighting but nobody can agree on what craft means. Or they don’t care. Some people say we don’t need the definition.

Ben: Yeah, for sure and it’s hard to understand what craft is really anymore. We’re consider ourselves independent. A local independent. Maybe you can consider regional on some level but you’re right. Tröegs is right to some degree, where they keep going back to is the word “independent,” because that is sort of irrefutable.

Me: Do you think that’s something that is going to become more of the differentiator as we go on, as opposed to craft vs. not craft? Independent vs. not independent?

Ben: I think so. It’s definitely something we’re holding high these days, as I have more conversations. We talk more about “independent” than you know, because the typical consumer, we always like to get wrapped up in who we know who owns breweries. It’s not always the case that everyone knows those relationships, so you like to appeal to people. We try to appeal to people that we’re independently owned, so that means we’re not owned by stockholders that are making decisions for monetary reasons necessarily. We always uphold the character of the beer. Again it’s about motivation or motives.

That really drives the quality of beer. That drives our interest in being part of the community, interest in being a part of the Maryland beer scene and the mid-Atlantic beer scene, and that means a ton right now. With every acquisition, it means that much more.

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Me: That’s a perfect segue to get away from the infighting or the politics of beer. Let’s talk a little bit about the role of Flying Dog, and I’ve always found this fascinating. You really did start as a Colorado brewery, and at some point you did make that conscious decision to say, “We’re planting our flag here. This is where we are.” Since then you’ve taken a substantial role in the Brewers Association of Maryland. You also do a lot of work in terms of creating beer that helps the community, whether that’s with oyster recovery or True Blue. Where does that come from?

Ben: Yeah, I think as a local brewery, we certainly wanted to become Maryland’s brewery. I’m born and raised in Ellicott City, so I’ve been here my whole life. I have a good idea of what resonates with Marylanders, and I think that we made a conscious effort to become part of the community and really be meaningful to people’s lives even beyond beer. If we’re meaningful in some way to people’s lives beyond beer, then when they choose to try beer they might choose to try ours. You just want to become relevant in their lives.

Whether it’s True Blue and the watermen, or oyster recovery, or being able to get a Snake Dog at Camden Yards, we’re trying to be a major part of the community, so much so the people feel like we’re as much of the pride of being in Maryland as some other great local businesses, like Old Bay. That’s kind of what you want, that hometown team mentality is the way we look at it. We’ve really worked hard at that the last five or six years for sure.

Me: What do you think makes the Maryland craft beer community special?

Ben: I’m not really sure what makes it unique. I would say that what I love about Maryland’s local craft beer community is that there is a true camaraderie, and there’s a sense that we’re all in this together. We feel like we’ve been through some things that we know other breweries might experience in the upcoming, in their first few years. We try to make a conscious effort to be a leader within the local community whether it’s through quality assurance. (We have a lab.) We have the capability of testing things that other breweries just starting out don’t. I really feel like there’s a true brotherhood, and that goes with the breweries that have been around awhile.

Some breweries have been around in Maryland longer than us, and they’ve paved the way for us to change some things with the regulations. It really is a sense that there’s no real cutthroat attitude about it. I think it’s unique to other industries too. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I can’t believe you go and hang out with these other guys.” In other industries, that would be so foreign. It’s somewhat of a canned answer because I’m sure a lot of brewery communities say the same thing, but it really is unique.

There are a lot of parallels to music, in that regard. We want to work together and create a collaborative product.

It keeps it interesting, and we do projects where multiple breweries are involved, just in the name of pushing beer forward. You certainly don’t see it between Coke and Pepsi or any soft drinks, as an example. But with beer, it’s just always… it feels like it’s always been that way, or it’s understood that it’s that way.

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Related:

How Can New Breweries Build Something Sustainable and Scalable? Flying Dog Leaders Weigh In… 

Why Is No One Talking About the Tröegs Name Change?

“Care to Dance, Mrs. Roosevelt?”

Care to Dance Mrs. Roosevelt

This isn’t a post about beer.

Recently, I’ve spent a good deal of time going through our apartment like a whirlwind. All in the name of “a fresh start,” no stack of dust-covered paperwork or disorganized box of mementos has been safe from the my iron-fisted regime of organization and army of trash bags.

The benefits have been twofold. First, our apartment is cleaner than it has ever been, and the constant claustrophobic sensation of drowning in, well, junk has been kicked to the curb. Second, and most importantly, I’ve had a chance to walk down memory lane as I uncovered forgotten keepsakes. A note from a best friend asking me to be her bridesmaid. A wayward CD of digital photos from our honeymoon. A ticket stub from a Washington Nationals game in 2008.

But the most profound item I came across was a piece of paper I had I never forgotten, but rather I thought I had lost it as a result of my trademark absentminded behavior.


Me and my Aunt Dee, the Watergate Apartments (1986)

I’ve written about the amazing women from my mother’s side of the family who dominated the greater part of my childhood before. But in a bittersweet twist, my parents had me when they were older, so much of the previous generation passed away before I was old enough to realize the significance of their absence. It’s only in recent years have I felt somewhat adrift when trying to connect the dots between myself and those who came before me. That’s the tricky thing about looking backward using the review mirror of your childhood. When you’re young, you only know someone through your own myopic, mortality-oblivious perspective. And sadly it’s often too late when you learn about things that you wish you had known sooner. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

In the case of my Great Aunt “Dee” – Dolores – it was for the better, in the form of a 1989 article from The Washington Times, the contents of which you’ll find below.

“Care to Dance, Mrs. Roosevelt?”
Jeremiah O’Leary | Monday, June 19, 1989

I’ve grown accustomed to circling in the orbit of American presidents for more than half a century, but rarely has it been on a social basis. The reason is obvious: A newspaperman exists to gather news and ferret out secrets. Presidents like to make news on their own terms and keep their secrets to themselves. This comes to mind now because early this month, on the day before I left the White House pressroom after a 10-year stretch, President and Mr. George Bush invited me and my wife to a state dinner for Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

I wore a tuxedo and was suave – I’ve studied David Niven films for years. My tablemates were Julie Nixon Eisenhower and Vice President Dan Quayle; my wife basked in the wisdom of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. And it was in that exalted company that I fell to musing about the first engraved invitation I ever received from the White House.

It was June 1940, when the hosts were President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt and things were quite different – for me and the country. 

So why did the Roosevelts want me at a state dinner? The invitation was solely because I was the newest member of the White House Correspondents Association. I knew precisely what I would wear that long-ago June night. I had only one presentable suit, a blue-serge number better suited to Finland than to the Washington summer. It itched so much, I wore pajama bottoms under the trousers. 

My chief concern was to find just the right woman to take. Most of the girls I knew well were only teenagers. But on that magic night I wanted a perfect grown up female, someone as gorgeous as Norma Shearer or Dolores del Rio. And in my world of a half-century ago, the most beautiful and mature girl I could think of was four years older – an age difference that seemed wider than the ocean. 

I invited her anyway. 

Her name was Dolores Perruso, and her father and mother had a neighborhood bar and restaurant at North Capitol and H streets. Dolores’ parents were Italian immigrants, and she had three tough brothers named Vito [my grandfather], Tony and Jimmy. Until Prohibition put my grandfather out of business, he owned a bar across the street in the heart of this mostly Irish section of town, known then as Swamppoodle. 

Dolores, to me, was as sophisticated as she was beautiful. Her eyes and hair were dark, and she was poised, shapely and well-groomed. 

I barely knew her and telephoned her in fear. But she said yes.

On the big night of that 1940 White House dinner, my blue-serge suit and I showed up at the Perrusos’, undergoing a policelike inspection by her father, her mother, and, of course, Vito, Tony and Jimmy. I sat in her parlor with a corsage box in my lap and made silly small talk. Finally, Dolores appeared – gleaming, with a substance called stardust in her hair. 

When we arrived at the White House, there were about 150 other people there. The president made one perfunctory circuit of the room in his wheelchair and greeted everyone before disappearing for the night. But the president’s wife, Eleanor, hardly a beauty but elegant and hospitable, danced the night away to the kind of prewar music made famous by Goodman, Waller, Kempt, Krupa and the Dorseys. 

Believe me, you have not lived until you have done the Big Apple with Eleanor Roosevelt. 

As I recall, Dolores was easily the most beautiful woman in the room. What we talked about I can no longer say because I was dazed with the grandeur of it all, but eventually I stopped feeling like Ichabod Crane. The ushers blinked the lights and the band played “Good Night, Ladies” at 1 a.m. after one wretch of a journalist fell into the fishpond, where the White House diplomatic entrance is located today. 

I have seen Dolores Perruso only once in the 49 years since, a brief encounter in the corridors of the State Department. I do not know what has become of her. 

But Dolores, you might like to know that the Stardust from your hair kept clinging to my blue-serge suit, which amused all the cops and robbers at Police Headquarters. I don’t think that stuff ever came off. 

Dolores and Mrs. Roosevelt: Thanks for the memories.

I’m a Sponsor of Organarchy’s Beyond Brewing Forum in April, and Here’s Why

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My inbox reminds me a lot of  a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested wasteland. Occasionally I’ll come across signs of life, in the form of messages from friends I actually want to read, but for the most part, I’m being crushed by the monotonous drone of countless emails telling to “BUY THIS!” and “OMG YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT!”

Then, on Feb. 3, I received a message from Organarchy Hops, a hop farming and supply company with farm locations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The subject line simply read, “Agenda Released – Beyond Brewing Forum 2016.”

I may not be the most well-connected or observant person in the world, but I hadn’t heard of this event before. A surprise since I’m a pretty big fan of Organarchy, after having been introduced to their crew during a session at Flying Dog about what they do, as well as hop growing and care for homebrewers.

My interest sufficiently piqued, I opened the email…

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It read:

Organarchy Hops, together with the Northeast Hop Alliance, brings hop growers and brewers together for the Beyond Brewing Forum 2016. Join 300 of your brewer and hop grower peers for 2-days of actionable insight delivered by an all-star agenda of speakers from the most respected brands, an in-the-trenches Field Day, unique networking events, and much, much more.

A few weeks later, here I am – one of the sponsors of the event:

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Why?

Well, first, let me start by saying I know I’m not some huge publication who’s pushing boundaries and making waves every time I sit down in front of a keyboard. Yes, I have a column in the local paper, and I do try to put something meaningful on these virtual pages. But at the end of the day, I’m boring pajama and cheese enthusiast who has a passion for beer and the people behind it who make it so awesome.

That said, Beyond Brewing Forum was unique in a way that captured my attention. And it goes back to something Maryland Office of Tourism partnership and outreach manager Heather Ersts mentioned during a recent interview.

Though it didn’t make it to the final column, she said that one of the things that makes Maryland beer special is that often you’ll find the use of local ingredients help breweries define who they are, as well as their place within the community. While you see this most often with farm breweries, the same can be said for more standard commercial brewers like RAR, Monocacy, Flying Dog and Burley Oak (just to name a few), who often make it a point to incorporate local ingredients into their beer.

So when I compared the Beyond Brewing Forum to numerous other beer industry conferences that are coming up in the region, it stood out.

Instead of being the usual awe-inspiring, overwhelming massive parade of beer and breweries and educational trainings and sessions on every topic imaginable, it was very focused on bringing brewers and hop farmers together in a way I hadn’t seen done before.

Here’s how it works: At the Beyond Brewing Forum, there are two tracks for folks to attend – a “Brewer Track” and a “Grower Track.”

On the first day, brewers and growers will come together for breakfast and the opening keynote from Ralph Olson, the former CEO of Hopunion. After that, both groups will break for the rest of the day to attend sessions tailored to their interests. For growers, talks will include the future of East Coast hop production, the cost of growing green, the challenges of running family farms, protecting your crops for a healthy harvest, a Q-and-A panel with experts, and more. For brewers, top techniques and trends shaping 2016, harnessing the power of wild yeast, modern beer branding, 30 best practices to boost your brews in 60 minutes, and the future of flavoring beer are just a sampling of the topics that will be covered.

Then, after a full day of separately learning and digesting, brewers and growers get a chance to come back together for a “Field Day” full of field trips to places like Milkhouse at Stillpoint Farm, Organarchy, Fabbioli Cellars, Flying Dog and Vanish Brewery. How cool is that?

Events that are everything to everyone are flashy, fun and memorable, to be sure, but they’re often a dime a dozen.

To find an event like Beyond Brewing Forum, however, that not only boasts a ton of opportunities for education, but also brings into focus to the very necessary symbiosis between brewers and hop growers – and then gives it a platform to be nurtured and celebrated – is something I think is special and important. The Organarchy team has put together an event that has impact at an individual level and at the community level.

So that’s why I’m a Beyond Brewing Forum sponsor in its inaugural year.

Am I looking forward to learning a lot? Yes. But more than that, I look forward to supporting a local beer industry where the bridge between grower and brewer is strong, and ideas have an opportunity to be shared and realized.


Tickets are now on sale at the Beyond Brewing Forum website. Tickets are regularly $199, but will be going up to $299 on March 15.

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Anne Arundel County Farm Breweries: What the 25% Ingredient Rule Means

If you need an indication of how quickly time flies, chew on this: We’re only a couple of weeks shy of the one year anniversary of the Anne Arundel County Council’s passing of Bill No. 8-15. As a refresher, this spunky piece of legislation paved the way for production-scale breweries in our neck of the woods. But as I mentioned last year, there were some concerns around the part of the bill pertaining to farm breweries.

More specifically, a lack of clarity around this:

“The facility shall be located on a farm of at least 10 acres, and the farm shall produce at least 25% of the grain, hops or other natural ingredients, excluding water, that is used to brew the beer.”

Part of the romance of farm breweries (like Manor Hill Brewing or Milkhouse at Stillpoint Farm) is that you’re drinking what the brewers are growing in their own proverbial backyard. So to have a stipulation within this bill addressing the mandatory inclusion of a farm brewer’s own homegrown stash, at least to some degree, makes total sense. But for many people, that little piece of language was confusing.

Do they mean 25 percent of each individual ingredient or 25 percent of the sum of all natural ingredients – excluding water – used?

Well, if you’re looking to start your own farm brewery in the area, you can breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve confirmed with the Council the intent of language is to stipulate the use of 25 percent of the sum of all natural ingredients used, and not 25 percent per ingredient, which would have been extremely prohibitive.

And for those of you still unhappy about the 10-acre stipulation, rest assured that breweries aren’t being singled out. Wineries are held to the same standard, per the County Code:

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I’ll be exploring farm breweries in more detail in the coming months, but for today, this should be a nice little bit of news. Now if only some farm breweries would get going around here…

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How Can New Breweries Build Something Sustainable and Scalable? Flying Dog Leaders Weigh In…

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As part of their 25th anniversary celebration, Flying Dog Brewery (Frederick, Maryland) held an interactive Q-and-A session, inviting fans in person and across social media to submit questions for CMO Ben Savage, CEO Jim Caruso, and Brewmaster and COO Matt Brophy to answer. Personally, I would have loved to have been there myself, but alas things like work and dogs that prefer to be fed regularly prevented me from making the trip.

So I asked the following over Facebook:

“As you look at the success of Flying Dog, what’s one piece of advice you’d give breweries who are looking to build something that is sustainable and scalable as a business?”

Here are their answers:

Matt: I think having a quality product is extremely important. I would start with that.

Jim: A lot of my friends view the “brewery business” as the next get-rich-quick scheme. Nothing, NOTHING is as easy as it looks. If you’re not willing to dedicate yourself 24-7, and willing to put everything else on the line to be an entreprenuer to start any business – including this business – don’t get into it. But once you’re into it, it is more fun than anything you could ever imagine.

Ben: I would agree with both of those, and building off of what Jim said, I would say authenticity is a really big thing for us. I would encourage any people who are starting a brewery right now to understand what you want to be and what you stand for, before you get into it, because there’s a lot of noise out there. There’s a lot of people starting breweries for the wrong reasons. Do it for the right reasons. Have the right motives and be authentic about it. Otherwise, craft consumers are smart, and they’ll sniff out an imposter quickly.

Matt: Jim, I think there are about 4,500 breweries in the country right now – with probably about 6,000 by the end of the year, maybe more. One of the things I think we’re blessed with is having talented people, and I don’t know this for sure, but with 6- or 8- or 9,000 breweries in this country in the next few years, I hope that, that talent exists for each of those breweries to successfully bring good craft beer to market.

You can watch the entire recorded session on Flying Dog’s Periscope account page, or you can read their roundup of the full interview.