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Have a Beer (Kinda, Over the Phone) With…Terrapin Beer’s Spike Buckowski

You’ve probably seen beers from Terrapin Brewing Company in and around our area by now. They launched in DC last November. A number of weeks ago, Terrapin co-founder and brewmaster Brian “Spike” Buckowski was good enough to take some time out of his day to talk with us about his beers. With so many new breweries coming into the market, it’s an important opportunity to learn more about the philosophies behind the new beers you can drink now. Thanks to Spike for his time! What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our interview.

DCBeer: I saw that Scion is putting on the Pineapple Express [a smoked pineapple Helles from Terrapin] today. I did some research about the beer, and I can believe that it was brewed, but I can’t believe that it was brewed in enough quantity that we’re getting it in DC.

Spike: Yeah, I mean, I know as you grow and get into more markets you want to try to make sure everyone gets some. You have to brew enough.

DCBeer: You brew beers in a series called the Side Projects. To what extent does that help you stay ahead of the curve on beer styles? I know you all have RecreationALE now. Session IPAs are the big thing now, the way black IPAs were in 2009-10. Having the flexibility to experiment, does that help you to stay more nimble than other breweries?

Spike: I don’t look at it that way. I mean what I look at are for seasonal sessions, our Monster beers, and one-offs, it makes us more relevant in the industry. Let’s just say that…if you’re a Bud drinker, you know exactly what you’re getting. You’re going to the cooler and picking up either a case of Bud a Bud six-pack or whatever, and you’re leaving the store. If I’m a craft beer drinker, I’m walking into the package store and saying, ‘Oh man, I like Terrapin, but gosh what does Victory have out now? What does Bell’s have out now? What does Stone have out?’ Our customers are very promiscuous because they want to know what’s new and fresh and different that’s coming out. What we try to do is stay relevant. Let’s say Cinnamon Roll’d Wake-n Bake comes out, and there’s a big rush for it. and everybody is buying it. It’s putting Terrapin back in your mind, and then they’re going, ‘Man I haven’t picked up a six pack of Rye Pale Ale in a long time. I’m going to get that too.’ So you know you just want something fresh out there all the time so that people don’t forget about you. So that’s what we do, we use it as…

DCBeer: …as a hook to get you back to your core brands.

Spike: Yeah. You know, it’s kind of different. Where you used to be able to just brew one beer, like [most macrobrewers], but you look at someone like Heineken, they’ve got one product. If that product loses momentum, how do you generate buzz about that product again? I mean what these guys do is they change packaging. It’s all they can do. They change the bottle type, the can type, the packaging. For us, like you said, we are nimble, and we can brew a lot of different styles and stuff, and that’s what we like to do and  what craft brewing is all about. So when we do that I think it energizes the core brands as well.

DCBeer: You have a lot more tools in your toolbox basically to get people to think about your brand than perhaps other breweries do.

Spike: And for us and for craft beer, I think we can do that very quickly. Let’s just say a big brewer wanted to put out a session ale. They’d have to test brew it…and then they’d have to test market it. By the time they got their session ale out, something else is on the shelf. They’re always behind the curve. For the craft brewer, it’s like ‘oh shoot, session ales are going to get big. Let’s do it.’ And you throw it in the tank, and you go. We’re a little, actually we’re a lot more nimble than the larger breweries. I kind of compare that to big battleships whereas we’re more of a steamboat. We’re flexible, and we can move stuff around. Not that those guys don’t know how to brew beer because they absolutely do, but their gears are bigger. It takes them a while to get that stuff out.

DCBeer: I was disappointed to see that you did not make SAVOR this year unfortunately.

Spike: Yeah that kind of sucks, but what do you do? We’ve been in two. We can’t get them all. There’s a lot of breweries trying to get that spot.

DCBeer: I hear you. I’m always really happy when folks get the chance to come to DC. Obviously I’m glad that Terrapin is in the market now. It’s interesting, when I talk to folks who come into DC from out of town, they talk about how quickly the city is growing. Have you had the chance to get up here recently?

Spike: I have not. I’m sure somebody has been up there, but I haven’t been in a little bit.

DCBeer: What is your major market down there? You’re in Athens, but Atlanta is a big market for you I assume?

Spike: Yeah, Atlanta is huge, it’s so much more densely populated. It’s busy. Athens obviously is our home market. What’s really nice about Athens is that we’ve got the great student population here so you know as they spend their four or eight years here (laughs), however long it takes them, when they do move around the country and into areas where we’re sold, they continue to pick up the product. So it’s kind of nice to have you core fan base move around into different markets and basically be your salespeople out there.

DCBeer: That’s the thing that was amazing when you guys came into the market. As soon as the rumor dropped that you were coming, I got a flood of emails in my inbox about you guys. You weren’t going to be here for a month or six weeks and I had people emailing me asking, ‘Can you sell me kegs?’ One, I’m a beer website, I’m not a distributor. It was just amazing to see that homegrown fanbase that you kind of have cornered there in Athens.

So I’m talking on Twitter today about what makes a good beer bar. How does that balance work out in Athens between your typical college town kind of experience and places where you can get a better brew?

Spike: Well, we definitely see when the kids are running out of money (laughs). When they come back from break, our sales go up. When they start to run out of money a little bit, they kind of switch back to PBRs and Miller Lites. They don’t crash, but you know what I mean, you can tell when they’re kind of running out of money. What’s nice about us being in Athens is we do tours and stuff. What’s interesting is that [students’] palates are changing. I love to watch when a girl and her boyfriend walk up to a bar and the guy is like ‘Well give me a Golden Ale,’ and the girl is like, ‘Give me a Hopzilla. Give me a Hopsecutioner.’ Kind of interesting to see them change. And it’s just like that everywhere else. We’re living in this culture of local food and better food and sustainability. Now with craft beer that’s something to hang your hat on…It’s almost like a badge of honor. It’s neat to see. We do get a lot of support here. I think, and I don’t know if this makes any sense, that the kids are growing up. Now, granted, if you’re going out to a dance club or something you’re selling Miller Lites and picking up chicks or whatever they do these days, but we’ve got quite a few really good craft beer bars. These kids come in, and they drop some money, and they learn about beer.

DCBeer: Can you talk a little about the education part of your market? Are there homebrew clubs? Where are people getting that education? Are they coming through on brewery tours with you? Is it kind of like ‘I’m going to drink all this different beer and it will sort itself out eventually?’

Spike: I think we do a lot of education at the brewery. If you can walk into a facility and watch and look at where it’s made and put a face to the name on the bottle I think it’s a big help. But also like I said, we have a great number of craft beer bars downtown and restaurants as well that do beer dinners or cask events or meet the brewers or tap takeovers so there’s always something going on to pique your interest that makes you dive into beers. Of course it’s a lot better when you have an educated bartender. So when you’re going to a bar like Trapeze, which is I think our best craft beer bar here, if you can strike up a conversation with the bartender, and you say, ‘I like malty beers’ and he can steer you in the right direction, I think that helps. If you’re just going to Joe Blow’s Pizza Place and you just want a pizza and a beer, I don’t think the waitress is going to come over and school you about why you should get an IPA with your pizza. It certainly can happen, but you get the gist.

DCBeer: It’s interesting you say that. I was in Shreveport, LA a few weeks ago, some friends of mine just opened up Great Raft Brewing, and I get kind of spoiled I guess in DC. Going to beer bars down there and talking to people there. The cool thing is that people are really eager to learn about beer, but you can tell that there’s a lot of room to grow in terms of beer education, distribution. I wonder to what extent you think that room exists regionally? You see a lot less, I think, craft breweries in the South. Is that something where the whole region has room to expand? You guys are a standard bearer at this point.

Spike: You’re seeing more obviously, right. Every year you’re seeing more craft breweries pop up. I think it has a lot to do with the laws too.  If I had to do it all over again, I don't know that I'd open a brewery in Georgia. The laws are not in our favor. Where I can go to North Carolina or down to Florida where I can start a very small brewery, people can come in and buy my product. I don't have to go through a distributor. I can advance my business much quicker with some of the laws in other parts of the country than I can here. We picked Athens because we knew it was a great town. I wanted to get out of Atlanta. I think we made the right decision. But if the laws were different, I think we would probably be a lot bigger in production than we are now. But what do you do? I think the laws have a lot to do with it. Like you said, education, but it's also what do you like? If you can get someone to drink a craft beer or two..maybe somebody likes scotch ales but not IPAs because they're too hoppy or vice versa. Once a person really hones in on what they like and then you keep them in their comfort zone for a little while and then you go…well…let's try this style and push them out of their comfort zone a little bit. It's a little bit like a weight lifter, you don't want to bench press 500 pounds if you've only done 100. You want to build up to that, your muscles get stronger, and you go from there. The education part is huge.

DCBeer: Your point about slowly branching out, I think that you see a lot more hybrid styles than you used to, which I think also helps. Like really hoppy saisons, for example. If you're an IPA fan but you've never had a saison, it's like training wheels to move into that style.

Spike: I think that's fun. You can, we certainly do it all the time. Black IPAs, we do our series of Side Projects, beers like an Asian IPA etc. Craft beer is getting so diverse with all of these different ingredients. If you can't find something unique…I mean I love when someone says they don't like beer, but I open a framboise, and it tastes like a cherry Lifesaver and they're like ‘oh I love beer.’ I think there's a beer for everybody.

DCBeer: I'm with you.

Spike: In the U.S. sometimes you get poo-poo'ed on by the Germans because we do brew some crazy styles. Where else but in the U.S. can you get Belgian ales, Czech Pilsners, Munich Helles, Irish Stouts, all under one roof. When you go to Germany, you're pretty much drinking lagers. In the U.S. you have a plethora of beer to try. It's why the U.S. brews some of the best beers in the world because we have such a diverse selection here.

DCBeer: I think that's a big strength for the American market. You see people get frustrated about what goes into casks. The traditional vs. non-traditional cask fillings, you also fear an environment where people can't appreciate a really good pure example of a style unless it has got some kind of hook to it.

Spike: We're kind of going through that now. We just won a bronze medal in Germany for our Tree Hugger, we won a gold medal at GABF for best altbier in the country, and it's certainly not one of our best sellers. Don't get me wrong, I love the U.S. brewing community, but for the past how many years, it's been all about the hops. I get it, I like IPAs and stuff, but if you give me a great Pilsner or Helles or Munich that I can sip on all day, I'm all over it. But if these people want to drink hoppy beers, who am I to complain? If everything was about a fruit/wheat beer, we'd be making that too. You're going to make what the people want.

DCBeer: If you want to stay in business, yep. On the hop front though, do you see a point where something has got to give? At some point, every brewer that comes online has some kind of monster IPA or hoppy style. I don't hear a whole lot backchannel about a commensurate surge in hop farming. We're already at a point now where you have to have your contracts for hops locked in pretty early. Does something have to give?

Spike: I've already been through the first round of the hop shortage and all that. We're getting better, that's the whole thing. No one used to contract before, late 90s and stuff, you would just pick up the phone and say 'I need this, I need that' and they would just ship it. The one day I made a phone call and they were like 'We're out' and I was like 'What do you mean you're out? What does that mean?’ I think hop growers and farmers and the merchants are trying to work together, that's why we're contracting so that farmers know what the trend is. If you can contract three years out, they know what to put in the ground. Before it was just a crapshoot. Where you get into trouble is if a large brewery (say Miller or Coors) says, 'Well we don't really want to use Willamette anymore' that's what really throws things off kilter. Or if they decide they want to use Cascade now, man, there goes your shortage of Cascade. Craft beer is still very, very small. The hop thing, yeah it's getting better, but I wouldn't say it'll never happen again. They are making every effort to be sure it won't.

DCBeer: What has impressed you beer-wise recently that you've had. Either coming out of your tanks or from somebody else's?

Spike: Out of my tanks, I think we made phenomenal seasonal beers in the Cinnamon Roll’d Wake’n Bake and the White Chocolate Moo-Hoo. So freaking popular and crazy. So much so that they were hand selling them at the package stores. That took us by surprise because Wake n' Bake has been one of our staples for a long time. Moo Hoo has been four or five years. But tweak it just a little bit, and people went gaga over it. I just did a collaboration with Cigar City, which was "Southern Slice," a big doppelbock with pecans. That was so decadent, it tastes like pecan pie filling, it was beautiful. Beers that aren't mine, I really like that Green Flash did a cedar beer, it was like an IPA aged on cedar, really, really enjoyed that a lot. I drank a bunch of it.

DCBeer: Last question I have for you is, we have a pretty crowded market here in DC. What do you want folks who might not be familiar with Terrapin to know about your beers and brewery that set you apart so that when they see that handle they should ask for it?

Spike: I think for us, it is about creativity. We do have our core brands. But we do also have some crazy seasonals that do come out. We do push the envelope on things, but I think our beers are very balanced. AB has “drinkability”, I call it “balanceability.” What I try to convey in my brewing is that we make some very aggressive beers, but you can drink one pint or two pints, they aren't very unabalanced where you might only be able to drink six ounces of it and then say, 'That's great but I'm not going to have another one.' For us quality beer is critical, but there's great flavor, great balance, but we also have a lot of fun. Look at our logos, look at our tap handles, look at our marketing campaign. I think we have some of the best artwork out there in the business. I think if you're not having fun at your job, why bother? We try to have fun, we try to put out the best beer that we can. It's tough out there. The more and more breweries that come into play to distract the consumer. We try to be on the forefront of it as much as we can with styles and design. You never want to go out of favor, you always want to stay relevant.

DCBeer: And all that stuff counts now. Especially in these markets where it's so crowded. We keep seeing more and more breweries coming in. Ithaca is coming into DC shortly. The number of craft bars and craft handles is expanding, and feels like it's expanding by the month here, but I don't know if it's expanding at the rate that breweries are coming in.

Spike: I hear you, and what can you do? How big can a package store be? The grocery store only has so much shelving. What are you going to start to do? How do you pick up shelves and get bigger? It's tough.

DCBeer: I certainly respect you and everyone else in the craft industry, but there are very few times that I envy you to be honest with you.

Spike: Yeah it's kind of weird. Everybody thinks oh yeah you're a brewer, best job in the world, blah blah, but it's work, and it's hard work. When it's 30 degrees up there in the warehouse they're working, and when it's 90 degrees and high humidity they're working. I mean, it's a business. We love what we do, and if we didn't we wouldn't be in the business.

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