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Ben Savage, CMO of Flying Dog Brewery

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.

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.