Sometimes… Interviewing Is Messy

giphy (5)Some unknown and way cooler person made this gif.

For those of you who know me, it should come as no surprise that my interactions with people who have the misfortune of being one of my interview subjects can sometimes be as fraught with the same mishaps and catastrophes I tend to encounter in my daily life.

For those of you who don’t know me, let’s get you onboarded with the fact that I’m a total mess in every way. I’m like the Mary Poppins of disasters and general disorder. (One time I knocked over two different glasses of water on two completely different tables in a single 20-second period, as I attempted to walk across a room. It was delightful.)

Why am I bringing this up today? Well, recently I had the pleasure of reliving one of my more graceful moments when I was reviewing a transcribed version of my interview with Ben Savage of Flying Dog Brewery from earlier this year, as part of their 25th anniversary

Ben: It’s not just about being a beer factory. That’s the trap. I think we look at… we look at Sierra [Nevada]. Sierra has obviously been able to get really big and still maintain that authenticity of who they are and what they stand for. More importantly, they’re not just their pale ale. 

Hold on. Liz, you’re getting ink on your face.

Me: I am?

Ben: Yeah, like… here.

Me: Oh my god. Oh… oh my god. Well, we’ll keep talking while we do this. Jesus.

Ben: I know… it’s like it broke or something. I saw it more on your cheek and then it just started like – 

Me: Oh my god. Well, that’s really embarrassing – 

Ben: I could get you – 

Me: Yeah, well, I’m not using this pen. It broke. The top of the pen broke. That’s what happens. Well, I have to say this is this a first for an interview. Oh my god.

Ben: I kind of wetted it for you, because, it’s probably… well, it’s everywhere.

Me: Well, that’s definitely a first. I’m klutzy in a lot of ways, but I’ve never turned myself into a clown midchat before.

Ben: I was wondering where that was coming from…

Me: Yeah, tip of the pen broke. Oh well, anyway. What was I going to say?

A fine moment in journalism, if I do say so myself. I’m a winner.

My Chat with Founders Brewing Company Co-Founder and CEO Mike Stevens

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Typically I’m not one who gets hyped about Mondays. Like, at all. Yes, I love my career and the people I work with. But I’m also a fan of lazy weekend mornings and being able to consider “putting on real pants” as a legitimate check-the-box accomplishment.

Today, however, is no ordinary Monday.

After years of rumors, false starts and me casting longing, envious looks across the Beltway to Washington, D.C., and Virginia, Founders Brewing Company has finally come to Maryland. And today marks the beginning of a week’s worth of release events, welcoming them to the area. (See the list at the end of this post.)

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Mike Stevens, Co-Founder and CEO of Founders Brewing Company

So to help kick things off, I want to share with you my conversation with Mike Stevens, co-founder and CEO of Founders Brewing Company. Not only did we talk about the struggles he and co-founder Dave Engbers have faced since they opened their doors, we also discussed the ever-controversial “craft” definition – did you know Founders is technically not craft, according to the Brewers Association? – as well as what advice he would give to those who are starting out in the industry.

* * *

Liz: This entry to Maryland has been coming for quite some time. What can you tell me about that?

Mike: Yeah, we started out looking at Maryland – I think we were in discussions probably about three years ago. We’ve always, as a brewery, just struggled with keeping up with demand – which is a nice problem to have… but we get down the road with the folks at Legends several years ago, and we’re looking to head to Maryland. But because of demand, we ran out of capacity and had to pull back on that launch.

Thankfully, we’ve undergone a sizable expansion in the last, say, year and a half  that has now given us the capabilities to start looking at market. It’s been on our radar, and we’re now able to responsibly enter into these markets. We’re confident we can fill the demand and have the capacity to keep up with the growth that we expect in Maryland.

Liz: I want to take a step back for a moment because you bring up something that I’ve heard, not just from you but from other brewers – whether they’re talking about themselves or warning others who are getting into the business. As they talked about at [the Craft Brewers Conference], some breweries are anticipating and building out for demand that never materializes – which puts them in a sticky financial situation. Or they’re not scaled out enough effectively to meet demand. Can you tell me more about how Founders has dealt with that over the years?

Mike:  It’s been a bit of a teeter-totter for us. We live in this world of lack of capacity. Then trying to service that demand. Then we go through an expansion. Then we get to a shifting point where now we have some excess capacity, and we can add a few more of those markets. But we’ve been at it for 20 years, so we’ve lived this up-and-down cycle for a long time, and we’ve gotten pretty good at honing that in. Our forecasts are pretty dialed in nowadays, and we know what kind of debt we can responsibly undertake and not get ourselves underwater, so to speak. We’re fortunate enough where we’re a brand that’s now nationally recognized.

[This issue is] definitely industry-wide, though. That’s the growth cycle of any brewery. You’ve got to be responsible to your fiscal bottom line, and you don’t want to overextend yourself with that. There’s a lot of white space out there that I think a lot of people get big eyes pretty quick, and unless your brand is mature enough where you can really properly forecast where you’ll be, it can be a dangerous position. The smaller breweries that are fighting that battle right now have, I’d say, a little bit more of a significant hill to climb. The climate now is just so much more competitive than what it was even five years ago that you’re just not guaranteed that the demand’s going to be there anymore.

The smaller breweries that are fighting that battle right now have, I’d say, a little bit more of a significant hill to climb. The climate now is just so much more competitive than what it was even five years ago that you’re just not guaranteed that the demand’s going to be there anymore.

– Mike Stevens, Co-Founder and CEO of Founders Brewing Company

I think if you’re in that top 20 brewery list, you can get there with some type of reassurance that you’re going to be able to sell your beer there. Continue reading My Chat with Founders Brewing Company Co-Founder and CEO Mike Stevens

Maryland, It’s Time to Be Honest About How Much We Really “Support” Our Local Craft Beer Industry

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Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore at the Beyond Brewing Forum

So after months of waiting, Organarchy‘s first-ever Beyond Brewing Forum took place earlier this month. How was it? Well, I knew it was going to be fantastic, and it was. But more on that later – because today I want to share some thoughts on a particular talk I heard during the first day from Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore.

Here is a quick excerpt of his remarks to craft brewers, farmers and other regional industry attendees:

I know I’m at home [here in Virginia], but as you do think about the future, I can assure you there’s no better place to invest your money and work than in Virginia. Many of you know that we have been working in the Commonwealth, for I guess the last seven or eight years, to promote the craft beverage industry. To fully integrate it into our overall economic development platform so we treat craft beverages – wine, distilled spirits, beer, cider, mead – the same way we treat IT, manufacturing, and on and on and on.

It is part of the economic development fabric of the state. As far as [Virginia Governor Terry MacAuliffe’s] promotion of craft beer, wine and other craft beverages… he gets it. He understands it’s jobs, it’s investment, it’s tax dollars – and that’s just at the brewery, distillery and winery level. Then you start thinking about the feed stock that goes into it, trickling down to the farm – and that’s the thing that we need to convince so many people in Virginia about.

These great craft beverages all start on the farm. This agriculture at it’s absolute finest. It’s value-added agriculture at its finest …

Virginia generates about $52 billion a year in annual revenue and over 300,000 jobs all across the state – in the suburbs or Washington D.C., down the Eastern Shore, and all the way to Southwest Virginia. And the craft beverage industry – particularly craft beer – plays an incredible role in helping us build that new Virginia economy. Less than three years ago – excuse me, less than four years ago, we had about 30 craft breweries in Virginia. We now have over 145 in the largest cities and in the middle of counties like Goochland County which is, for those of you non-Virginian types, I assure you, is the Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery. You go to the middle of nowhere and take a right. And those folks have done great business. They have a great view, and I think there’s even more to come.

I was joking with my friend from Maryland here about the government being here to help you, I think in Virginia we really do that right. I hope that Virginians in the house we agree to a certain extent that we do work with you. Not only do we want you here growing your business, we want you expanding it and we want to help you …

If you don’t take away anything else from the conference, it’s this:

Virginia is all in with craft beer.

From the farms all the way through brewhouse, and we want to work with you to make it happen, to take it to a higher level. Again, the resources that we have, the expertise, the manpower, the infrastructure is growing, and obviously all of my Virginia colleagues, I want you to continue to grow and prosper …

If they don’t, let me know who they are, and I will make the secret special forces of Virginia government come out. [laughter]

Re-reading this again as I write this, I am in awe as I was then.

It’s not that I haven’t seen support from the Maryland government. Just last year, the Anne Arundel County Council unanimously brought production and farm breweries to our own backyard. And Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot put his admiration for our state brewers on full display during his remarks at the award ceremony for last year’s Maryland Comptroller’s Cup at Peabody Heights Brewery in Baltimore.

In his remarks, Franchot said, “[Maryland breweries] contribute a lot, but the quality of what you produce? ‘Aces up’ all the way around. What you produce is really special.”

He went on to say those brewers should feel proud because they took a risk by putting themselves out there and making the investment of time, passion and money to advance this industry in our state. [My column from November 18, 2015.]

But – and I say this without diminishing Franchot’s support of our brewers – I would die to hear a speech from someone in Maryland like one above from Secretary Haymore of Virginia.

For someone to stand up and say, “Maryland is all in with craft beer.”

An industry that not only creates jobs and nurtures culture directly within the confines of their communities, but also empowers farmers with new value-add agriculture opportunities.

That latter part is something that’s extremely important to note. I heard it time and time again during the Beyond Brewing Forum that not only do people in Maryland not get the role of agriculture in beer, Flying Dog CMO Ben Savage mentioned during his talk (something I’ll dive deeper into on another day) that the craft beer industry as a whole has done a terrible job of showcasing beer as an agricultural product.

And as I mentioned in my feature on Organarchy, we rock at buying local in terms of buying from local brewers. But us consumers are not that great about driving demand for – or even just sparking the conversation about – local ingredients in our beer.

Even people who don’t love wine or cider know they’re (traditionally) made from grapes and apples. However, that same base level of knowledge doesn’t exist with beer.

Grains and hops – both agriculture products found on farms – are the lifeblood of beer. But that kind of narrative gets lost because we’re used to going to industrial parks or brewpubs or restaurants downtown to get our fill from our local favorites. With wine, on the other hand, we’re trained to go to vineyards with sprawling, rolling hills of vines as a backdrop – you can see that land-to-glass connection so quickly.

It’s getting better locally, with farm breweries starting to pop up. In addition to Milkhouse Brewery at Stillpoint Farm, we have Manor Hill Brewing in Howard County. And I’m just dying to get out to Waredaca Brewing Company in Montgomery County.

But even with those wins, I still hear murmurs. Murmurs of unhappy neighbors. Murmurs of difficulties in spite of supportive legislation for farm breweries and others, as well. Hell, just look at the mess we got into locally with something as simple as growlers.

I’ll end this by saying that even if you don’t 100 percent agree with me, if you have any knowledge of our local beer industry, you know that Maryland has a reputation for being difficult and overly restrictive. Especially when it comes to beer, wine and spirits, as well as the farmers we could empower with the ability to support those agricultural products… but don’t.

And when brewers in our state ask for help with limits that stifle growth, they don’t get it. Instead, distributors are favored, and they’re told to make decisions they shouldn’t have to make. From that linked article:

But Nicholas G. Manis, lobbyist for the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association, said that if the Knorrs [of Evolution] want to expand, they should sell their restaurants and convert their brewpub permit into a full-fledged brewery license.

“At some point, you have to decide if you want to be a brewer or a restaurant,” Manis said.

Well, if we were to apply that logic up the chain, I think some distributors need to decide if they’re really “independent distributors” and not an exploitation of the three-tier system on behalf of big beer. But that’s a story for another day.

It’s gotten to the point where Secretary Haymore was able to get up in front of a bunch of regional brewers and hop growers and say that Virginia is “open for business” for the craft beer industry, and really mean it.

Which is funny. Because I thought “open for business” was our slogan. I guess not.

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!

* * *

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.