doggie style: the brewmaster of flying dog

I could not think of a better way to start off my Oregon Beer Trail week than to speak to the brewmaster for a major craft brewery. And by some miracle, this chance actually came about when Stephanie Kerchner in Flying Dog’s PR department somehow found my review of the Flying Dog Double Dog IPA on my blog. She sent me a sample of their Dogtoberfest beer (score! free beer!) and included a letter from Neal Stewart, the head of marketing for Flying Dog. Neal offered to set me up with an interview with Matt Brophy, brewmaster of Flying Dog in Denver, Colorado. When I was actually able to schedule the call with Matt, I almost needed an adult diaper. For a fledgling brewer and beer writer, this is about the coolest thing that has happened.

When I called Matt at 4 p.m. mountain time on Tuesday, he was already at home having a beer. The dude is my hero… The first thing I had to ask him was if being a brewmaster is as cool as it sounds. He said that he would be lying if it weren’t a really fun job. But for him, the best thing is the people that he works with and the environment at the brewery. Ain’t that the truth! I think the same can be said for any job. It just so happens that beer is awesome.

Matt began homebrewing when he was 17. He heard an interview with Charlie Papazian on NPR about his book, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, and it totally fired Matt up about brewing. He went out and bought some homebrew equipment and got started. His first few batches “tasted like crap” but he didn’t care. At 17, it was beer, and he drank it.

As Matt continued to homebrew and learn the craft, he read everything about brewing that he could get his hands on. He began to appreciate brewing as a craft, yet was also fascinated with the scientific and biological side of the process. After a couple years of homebrewing, Matt decided that he wanted to get into it professionally, so he got hooked up with a job at The Flying Fish Brewing Company in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Flying Fish was still in the construction phase of their brewery, so he started working for next to nothing, doing anything to help with the installation.

After working at Flying Fish for some time, he spent about 3 months at the Siebel Institute of Technology and World Brewing Academy in Chicago. Once he completed his time there, Matt returned to Flying Fish and was moved up to Assistant Brewer. However, he felt that he needed a break, and took a few months and traveled around the country. Once his travels were over, he decided to settle in Colorado, and who could blame him? Colorado has a great brewing culture, it’s got beautiful scenery, and they have the Broncos! What more do you need?

When he arrived in Denver, Matt started working at the Great Divide Brewing Co. He spent five years there and then had a couple other stops at some brew pubs before joining up with Flying Dog, and he has been there now for just under five years. I could tell from the way that he talked about it that he felt like he had found a home there. Just from Flying Dog’s website, brand presentation, and the time I spent talking to Matt, Stephanie, and Neal, it seems like a very laid back place and the people really enjoy what they do. I think that attitude really come through in the beer, too. If you’re uptight, the beer knows, and beer does not like to be stressed out.

Aside from his history and background, I was very curious to hear from Matt what his day-to-day job was like as a brewmaster. When I think of brewmasters, I envision someone pouring buckets of stuff into huge vats while wearing a fedora and then getting served huge mugs of beer poured from ancient wooden barrels stored deep within the recesses of the earth. Or wait, maybe that was another dream I was having… Anyway, while perhaps not that picturesque, being a brewmaster is a pretty cool job. Matt said that he spends much of his time coordinating production between their two facilities, one in Denver and the other in Maryland. His daily duties include managing quality control (taste testing!), inventory management, consistency in the finished product, and developing new recipes.

The other aspect of commercial brewing that I was very interested in learning about was how they developed new recipes. Brewing beer is a lot different than something like baking cookies. With cookies, you can whip up a batch, try them, and then tweak the recipe, all within minutes. A batch of beer can take over a month to finish, so the feedback loop is much longer. Plus, commercial brewing deals with a much larger scale than home brewing. While I only have to buy ingredients for 5 gallons at a time at home, commercial brewers test in 50-gallon batches or more. That makes mistakes a lot more expensive and time consuming.

Matt said that the key to coming up with new recipes is knowing your equipment and experience. They often start by reverse engineering. They will start with a “vision.” For instance, the brewers may get together and decide the want to do a Belgian Trippel. They will then go get a bunch of different styles of that beer and sample each, noting what characteristics they like and which they don’t like about each one. They will then try to take those that they do like and figure out how to incorporate them into their own recipe.

Knowing your equipment is very important to reduce the trial and error process involved in developing the new kind of beer. If you know how certain ingredients and processes will turn out on your equipment, you can measure and anticipate the results a lot more accurately than if you are on someone else’s equipment. Reducing those unknowns and variables can take a lot of the guesswork out of the process and make the final product a lot more predictable.

Finally, I asked him, beer drinker to beer drinker, what his favorite beers were. Like any good craftsman that takes pride in his work, he of course likes many of his Flying Dog beers, especially the Double Dog IPA (also one of my all-time favorite hoppy beers), the In Heat Wheat, and Snake Dog IPA. His non-Dog favorites include good Belgian ales and beers from the Sierra Nevada and Deschutes breweries. I was thrilled to hear him mention Deschutes, because I’ve heard great things about it from people that have lived out West, and I’m going to have the opportunity to try it for the first time on Sunday when we’re at the home of Deschutes in Bend, Oregon. I may not come back…

Having the chance to speak with Matt was a really neat experience, and his story definitely gives me hope that beer dreams really can come true. So I’d like to thank Matt for taking the time to talk to this newbie homebrewer from South Carolina, and all the other folks at Flying Dog, especially Neal and Stephanie, for getting some good beer to us way down in South Carolina. Cheers!

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About Brian

I like beer.
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2 Responses to doggie style: the brewmaster of flying dog

  1. Dogwood Dell says:

    Enjoyed this post but I do have one issue: Baking Cookies.

    Baking, unlike cooking, involves chemistry. Just “tweak[ing] the recipe, all within minutes” is not the case for a good baker. When one cooks, one can “tweak” a meal being developed on a stove to potentially fix it in a few minutes. That can not be done in baking. A bad batch of cookies is a bad batch, regardless on how one tries to “tweak” the product. Room temperature, humidity and dough temperature are important for an excellent batch of cookies. One must also control the cooking temperature and time to have a strong cookie. A problem with any of these elements will result in a poorly baked cookie.

    I’ve been involved with baking cookies for over 15 years with Mrs. Dell. Through the dozens of varieties baked, we still attempt new creations. This qualifies me as being somewhat of an expert in the field (but still light-years away from Mrs. Dell).

    Those that bake store-bought cookie dough are not bakers. Typically those cookies are inferior and ruin how a good cookie should taste. One can say the same about some of the mass produced beers in stores.

    I will agree that brewing is a longer and a more difficult process then baking. The craft involves both chemistry and biology. I guess that’s why one sees fewer brewers than bakers. Brewers must take more time to learn/understand the science of the trade.

    One thing that I see in both baking and brewing is importance of control. Regretfully the brewing process takes longer (coupled with constant care/sound science) to taste the end product.

    Looking forward to more reviews from the West Coast.

  2. Izzy says:

    Hope you get a tour of the Rogue facilities and a chance to talk to them. I’ll bet they’re an odd lot.

    And if you’rein the neighborhood of Corvalis, feel free to stop by and say Hi to my mom. Phone number and address can be supplied.

    Pax,
    Izzy
    who likes to actually mix up and bake cookies, but (unlike Dogwood) also enjoys break-n-bakes (and usually only has time for the latter)

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