In the summer of 2017, co-owners Emma Whelan and Matt Cronin announced they would be opening Silver Spring’s second brewery, Astro Lab Brewing, which underwent a slight name change after the announcement. Both bring extensive business and beer industry experience to the table. Whelan previously worked in marketing for Whole Foods and her husband, Greg Whelan, co-owns McGinty’s Public House, an establishment she humbly says she has been “in and out of over the years, helping out.” Cronin studied brewing at of Siebel Institute of Technology’s brewing school in Chicago and is an accomplished home brewer, which launched him into working on collaborations with local breweries. DCBeer caught up with them to learn more about Astro Lab and what progress they’ve made so far.
You are looking to brew about a thousand barrels a year in your opening?
MC: Yeah, about that. We’ll obviously look to increase production as we go, from there. First off, we’re all about quality, so we don’t want to stretch too far.
Do you have a number you’re looking to hit, eventually, above that first thousand per year?
MC: It really comes down to being creative with the space. For the space, I think we can hit about 3500, but I’ve seen more produced out of a smaller space. It’s all really a balance, so how we determine the space will define our output.
So the space you have right now is the space you’re looking to have, even long term?
MC/EW: Yes. For sure.
Is there anyone you’ve looked towards to get any local ingredients for your beers?
MC: Black Locust hops up in Maryland are doing local stuff. We usually go every year to the Flying Dog hop harvest and sample hops and will put orders in. I’ve been taking these hops and using them in some harvest ales. Being from New Zealand, on the flip side, not being local, I’m utilizing some of the hops from there. We can pull wet and dry fresh harvest hops out of New Zealand, which is great. It’s basically picked, in a bag, on a plane, and here within 24 to 36 hours. We’ll offer something a little bit more unique.
EW: And you’ll see that in everything we do. We’ll stay true to the Silver Spring and Montgomery County community and Maryland but you’ll also see a little of both our our origins in what we do. On the food side of things, we’re also looking at local suppliers for a lot of the ingredients that we use. And we throw a little of the British and New Zealand flavor in there too.
How long has McGinty’s been in Silver Spring?
EW: McGinty’s is coming up to our 12th anniversary in March. It’s my husband’s place, I’ve been in and out, helping out over the years.
When did you decide to add craft beer to the mix here? You’ve been here for 12 years, you’re pretty established in the local community, you have local brewers here now. What was the motivation behind opening a brewery in Silver Spring, in your own neighborhood? What made you want to branch out and establish your own brand of beer?
EW: I have a personal passion for craft beer, Matt brings a lot to the table, obviously we’ve become close friends over the years that we’ve known each other and it just makes sense for us to open in Silver Spring, our own community.
How long have you guys known each other?
EW/MC: About four years.
EW: And for me as well, I come from a food background, developed a love of all things local and craft very early on and solidified that through my work with Whole Foods. Craft beer is a logical progression for me because I get to work with an artisan every day and provide a local product that I believe in and love.
MC: I’d just come out of Siebel brewing school in Chicago and I had some successes locally on the amateur level, and I was looking at something, and Emma was looking at doing something at the same time.
EW: The stars aligned
MC: Yeah, the timing was good, she’s awesome at what she does with the marketing and conceptualizing things and we both really had the same philosophy in creating a high quality product and a brand to go with it to celebrate Silver Spring in the way we want to do and be unique in doing so.
The Silver Spring brew scene is, in essence, in its infancy. So with the idea that the Silver Spring brew scene is growing, you’re now part of that growth, it means more competition. What’s your plan for being part of this brew scene, you get to found part of it, have your own identity, but what are you going to do to compete with those other breweries in the area?
(Parallel World also announced their planning brewery in downtown Silver Spring, along with the already established Denizens Brewing Company, the first in the city)
MC: It’s the old phrase “a rising tide.” There's room for all of us to be successful. And also at the same time collaborate. We have some things in the works together, which will be later announced, we’re talking to each other,and we really want to make Silver Spring a hub. And I think we can do that.
EW: We have a close relationship with both the sets of brewers and we think it's great to put Silver Spring on the map, get off the metro and have some great beers. All 3 of us are very unique in culture, the beers we’re going to brew are going to be very different. We’re at the cusp of building something great here that will actually bring tourists.
MC: I think we’re on the micro point of view, but in the macro view, craft beer is very open in sharing ideas and we see Silver spring being no different. Helping each other out where need be.
Do you have any ideas of what you guys are going to offer yet?
MC: I love IPAs, pale ales, light hopped varieties, well-balanced, but I still love my pilsners, saisons. With those varieties, I always have a nod to New Zealand in there and with Emma’s background, with some of the English varieties, we’ll have some Liverpool in there. Everything will have a hop twist to it but I’m not trying to scare people away with a massive bitter bomb.
EW: Hop forward with a lot of balance. But if he wants to be on the higher end of the IBUs, he can definitely pull that off.
MC: We’d also like to rotate in some beers, have some beers that showcase one hop or showcase our house yeast strain to help educate the consumer. They can say this tastes this way with this hop, and evolve it that way.
EW: What’s really going to distinguish us is we’re going to really focus on producing quality beers, experimental beers and constantly evolving.
Tell us about your brewing experience.
MC: I’ve basically been brewing since the age of 16, started off in a shed in New Zealand. The beer had an objective, it was strong, you drank it very fast, and it had its desired effect. I migrated from there, straight on to craft, since moving to the states 14 years ago. I was visiting Stone back then and Stone was a small shed in the back of San Diego and it was inspiring to see their growth. Fast forward to being here in Maryland. My partner said I should enter some competitions, I had never entered anything. I’m always tinkering trying to get something right and she just said “you need to enter.” *laughs* So Dark Helmet became a reality for a Frederick craft brew competition. The prize was to have it commercially made by Barley and Hops, so that’s how I hooked up with them. Along with that, the Maryland Microbrewing Festival had the same kind of award and my lager won that one and I got to see it scaled up. It was a nice, organic way to see progression and also to get a chance to see some local people drink it and tell be about it. I was able to develop a relationship and start brewing and writing recipes with the crew at Barley and Hops, Eric and John up there and the owner, Laurie. They’ve been great in helping foster my brewing expertise along with Siebel which has been influential. I was up there able to work on the bigger system, seeing a little bit of a tangible asset while we get this ready here.
EW: Tommy and the team up at Milkhouse Brewery have been like mentors to get us up and running and answering all kinds of questions we’ve had. What I would say is that the brewing community in general in Maryland and the area is just phenomenal, so open to sharing ideas. It’s so exciting to be to be part of the industry while its burgeoning in the region.
We have had so much support, help and advice from other craft breweries. For example, we have spent a few days brewing at Bond Brothers (NC) to have a test run of the brewhouse and equipment that we've purchased. We've done several regional brewery visits during which we've received advice on many topics from mills to yeast suppliers to merchandising. Other brewers genuinely want us to succeed and will do whatever they can to support us along the way.
How do you see the market in Montgomery County improving in the coming years and how do you plan on attracting top talent to your brewery in order to expand?
EW: I think as you see more breweries open, you're going to see an exponential improvement in the beer that’s on offer and I think that’s the thing that’s going to attract real brewing talent to the area. I guess success breeds success. I also see a benefit of working with the county, Montgomery College. If there’s enough demand for talent, then that’s a way to entice people into the area. For instance, if Montgomery College said ‘well, we have 15 breweries in Silver Spring, let’s see if we can do a brewer’s course.’ And also just being a part of the brew scene will helpword get out.
Are you actively looking for anyone to fill positions with the brewery yet?
EW: We are always keeping an eye out for people that we think will fit into our culture and be able to provide the type of experience that we're looking to create at the Brewery. Active recruitment will begin in late March when we'll really be looking to pull together a solid team of people to be part of the opening team.
Do you have any plans to package?
EW/MC: Yes. For sure.
EW: Our business strategy has us bringing in a canning line within the first few months of opening.
MC: We will start with filling crowlers.
I assume you guys will have dedicated taps at McGinty’s as well?
EW: That’s the plan, yes.
We talked about Montgomery County. Did you face any challenges in getting this started up?
EW: To be honest, we haven’t. We have a history with McGinty’s, a great relationship with the DLC, Kathy Durbin has been a great supporter of both McGinty’s and our new venture. So, up to now, we haven’t had any real pushback. They have been very enthusiastic about what we’re doing. What I like right now, it’s at such a good stage, with the county and the Department of Liquor Control in that they’re really exploring the craft scene and how to bring it to Montgomery County. It’s a great time for people like us to come in with new ideas on regulation and changing things to make it easier for small businesses to bring great beer to the area.
MC: And I think you’ve seen that in some of the rezoning and proposals, to make it easier for craft breweries to be in residential.
Have you run into any new issues in the process of opening and getting your licenses?
EW: We have had a very positive experience when applying for licenses and permits. We already have Federal and County permits and are just an inspection away from getting our State Manufacturer License. The main issues that we think could cause delays are construction related and that is just a normal part of refurbishing a space.
Where did the name come from?
MC: Astrolabe is actually the name of a reef where I used to go fishing as a kid off of my hometown in New Zealand, Tauranga. I had great success there, which is always good when you’re fishing.
What did you catch?
MC: Snapper, kingfish, the odd shark. But I always thought it was a great name for a brewery. We pronounced it Astro-lab, not astro-labe, like the Americans here do. So, we made the decision due the confusion in pronunciation to make it two words, Astro Lab, back in October.
EW: It’s a place, a part of our history, it’s also an innovative, cool device. It takes a lot of craftsmanship, so it speaks a lot to who we are.
You’ve run into your first American problem.
MC: You pick and choose your pronunciation and sometimes you have to make a change to make sure everything is clear.
How has the build-out being going? Last we talked, you were still talking to the architect, had a plan, but hadn't made much progress.
EW: Things are progressing at a steady pace. We received permits and started construction in early November. The focus right now is passing plumbing inspections so that we can pour concrete and start putting some structure to the space. We are really excited about the final design of the building and are having fun working on finalizing the decor and overall feel of the brewery.
Have any idea when you’ll be opening?
EW: We’re scheduled for a May opening right now.
Finally, you planned on doing a roof beer garden and that ended up falling through. Tell us a little about what happened.
EW: Our landlord actually looked into the engineering of the roof deck and it would’ve taken them to build another building around the building to make it work structurally. But we’ve worked close with the architect and made the space more indoor/outdoor, so we didn’t lose too many seats from losing the deck.
Good luck to Astro Lab and we hope to see them in the ‘Spring… in the spring.