As part of an ongoing series of interviews, Haas recently sat down with Matt Brophy, Chief Operating Officer and Head Brewmaster of Flying Dog Brewery in Fredrick, Maryland to talk about his passion for brewing great craft beer.
Is there an underlying principle or philosophy at the core of how you approach developing new beers at Flying Dog?
Matt Brophy: For me, it’s really about the creative process and the team that’s involved with that process. We have worked hard to establish a culture of creativity. We have over 100 people in the organization and they’re all involved in our Brewhouse Rarities program, which is a program that results in a unique eight-beer series that we release each year. Anyone in the organization can pitch a concept—last year we had at least 70 or 80 ideas. In fact, in May we’ll do our pitch session for 2017 beers. It’s a way of sharing what I think is the most fun part of craft brewing—the creativity and the pursuit of innovative concepts that would be almost impossible for any one person to come up with by themselves, even if they were a world traveller or a trained chef.
When you’re evaluating those 70-80 pitches, are there beers that jump out at you and feel like a Flying Dog Beer, versus ones that just doesn’t feel right?
Matt: For starters, the proposed beer has to be in some way commercially viable. In other words, if it uses some super-expensive process or ingredient it is immediately knocked out of consideration.
Over the years the evaluation process has evolved. When I first started home brewing, I was inspired to recreate the historical beers of the world. I set my sights on a true German pilsner or an English-style IPA and worked really hard to get that foundation down. Once I was able to replicate those world beer styles I began to feel confident and felt that I had the skills and platform to experiment further. So in the Brewhouse Rarities program, we’ll often brew a beer that’s a more traditional style. This year we’ll be doing a Berliner Witzen that is a challenging old, traditional style. We’ve done simpler ones in years past too—but those are generally the minority of the concepts.
Something that just sticks out like crazy is Fever Dreams, which is our mango habanero IPA. That was a Brewhouse Rarity and the feedback internally and from the market was so phenomenal that we decided to make it a year-round beer. So for a young brewer involved in that creative process — crafting that recipe (or for that matter coming up with any concept that becomes commercially available) —it’s their beer, they should be very proud.
Are there any beers that took off when you really didn’t expect they would?
Matt: One good example would be our number-one seller now, Raging Bitch, our Belgian-style IPA. That started with a few of us experimenting with yeast strains and hop varieties and we came up with something that we felt was just fantastic. We started introducing it to the market before it even had a name and the feedback was phenomenal. We were first to market with the Belgian-style IPA concept and several more have come on since then.
Dead Rise would be another example where we took a regional culinary flavor, Old Bay Spice, which is very popular in Maryland. After a lot of research and development in test batches, we were able to use it in a summer ale and have the character come through. The balance is fantastic, the flavor is great. But it’s not gimmicky—you get the flavors in there, so people who are familiar with Old Bay, they get it. But it’s not overpowering.
When it comes to the names your beers, some really push the bounds. Do you ever get push back on some of the names you put out there?
Matt: Surprisingly less than you’d think. Raging Bitch, of course, raised some eyebrows. We had the liquor control board in Michigan ban the beer and it turned into a big First Amendment battle that we won. You get it a little, here and there. But it’s not something we run into any more.
What are your perceptions about how tastes are changing among the American beer consumer?
Matt: I think IPA is certainly here to stay. As people like Haas continue to develop new and interesting hop varieties—whether it’s the brewers themselves or their customers, people can’t quite seem to get enough of it. I do think we’ll see more session IPAs. As more people convert over to craft beer and we start seeing that market share hit upwards of 20%, I think we’ll see people gravitate back towards moderately alcoholic beers, the 4.7s or 5.5s. What people like about mass-produced beers is they’re generally light in malt and dry and that makes them pretty easy drinking. I think that kind of base—not necessarily lager, it might be an ale—that base, supported with good hop flavor and aroma and not necessarily a ton of bitterness is a great direction for beer to move in.
One series of beer we are brewing this year features a certain heat and spice and pepper flavor. The first is an oaked chipotle ale; this has smoked malt plus chipotle flavor, so it’s got a little heat. The next one is going to be an ancho lime and I think it’s going to be a big hit. Then there’s our Carolina Reaper Peach IPA, the new world-record holder for the most Scoville units, and that will be kinda hot. We’ll finish the year with the Jalapeno Light.
I would never have expected these to be of mass appeal. But I do think we are seeing a shift in that more and more people are interested in — and their palettes are acclimating to — spicy and hotter foods. For the consumer that enjoys these flavors this will be a perfect line for them to try over the course of the year.