Happy National Dog Day!
Right now, at this very moment, in a Maryland industrial park, Flying Dog is making beer. This isn’t conjecture or a lucky guess: Twenty-four hours of every single day, the Frederick brewery is producing ale – and maybe a little lager – in some capacity.
When it comes time to package this beer, a German bottling line will churn out one thousand 12-ounce longnecks in four-minute intervals. The rest of the fermented liquid will go into kegs or cans, and the odor of what spills on the ground will swirl in the air with that of the cleaning fluid used to wash it away.
All in all, over 100,000 barrels of beer will leave the facility this year. In this regard, Flying Dog is quite literally a model of efficiency. It’s where aspiring breweries visit to brush up on everything from building their quality assurance lab programs to steeling cans to carbonization levels. It’s where former employees learned and honed their craft before staking out on their own brewing ventures.
Recently, Flying Dog even expanded into more accessible educational opportunities, launching a “Flying Dog University” series that offers classes on food pairings, craft beer basics, and advanced brewing techniques. Like the brewery’s “Summer Session” outdoor concerts, the courses are primarily a means of attracting customers to the facility – and, perhaps, an excuse to show it off.
If the breweries that have sprung up within the Beltway over the last five years each feel like start-ups in their own endearing way – usually marked by the dishevelment of rapid expansion, makeshift tasting areas, and barely roped-off production floors – Flying Dog is something very different. In comparison to those nascent operations, the 21-year-old Colorado transplant feels like the slick Silicon Valley campus of a Google or Facebook.
It’s an early July afternoon, oppressive with sun and stickiness, but the grass outside the brewery is the brightest of green. Shrubs of assorted sizes hug one side of the building; a series of thin vines shoot discretely up another. The 46,000-square-foot structure itself is massive and white with black tinted windows.
Inside, the tasting room is all earth tones – monochromatic walls colored burnt orange, green leaf, and soil; a pair of oak barrels out for display; a refurbished wood bar that stretches several dozens of feet. Behind this half an ark are the draft lines for eighteen different beers – a mix of brewery’s year round, seasonal, and limited releases. Hung all around the room are prints of the splattered and furious art Ralph Steadman has drawn explicitly for their labels. The names of Flying Dog’s beers may on occasion be boorish, but the room in which they are served is anything but.
It’s here that I sit down with two of the brewery’s core management team: CEO Jim Caruso and Matt Brophy, who holds the dual title of Brewmaster and Chief Operating Officer. Together, these two possess thirty-three years of experience behind the scenes of Flying Dog. They witnessed its expansion and survival in the wild west of Colorado’s early craft beer years. They strategized and executed its relocation and consolidation in the Mid-Atlantic. They have continued to push the edge of Flying Dog’s identity as a brewery and company. They are charting its expansion to new frontiers.
“Time is very compressed here,” says Caruso, who at 61 might have the most muscular frame in the building. “It gets kind of stacked.”
And thus we begin unpacking over two decades of beer, iconography, and gonzo.
The hallway that leads from Flying Dog’s tasting room to the production facility is painted on both sides by Ralph Steadman murals. The smattering of drawings presents a loose chronology of the brewery – or, more accurately, an origin story. Like most origin stories, it is a selective mix of truth and fancy. There’s something about founder George Stranahan’s delirious climb up K2 in the early 80s and the oil painting of an airborne dog that he came across in a Rawalpindi hotel, but what’s important is this: In 1990, the heir of the Champion Spark Plug fortune opened a brewpub in Aspen called Flying Dog.
Almost five years later, Stranahan would enter into a different beer venture with the company Wynkoop Brewing. At the time, Wynkoop operated the largest brewpub in the world. It also employed one Jim Caruso. “You know, I have a lot of amnesia – or maybe it’s a selective memory,” the CEO jokes looking back on that time. “A lot of it feels like the golden days now.”
Splitting the cost evenly, Stranahan and Wynkoop opened a production brewery in downtown Denver named Broadway Brewing. It operated out of the old Silver State Laundry, a facility whose claim to fame during the cowboy saloon era was that it could properly clean the dresses of the prostitutes that worked Lawrence and Armor Streets.
The transition to production brewing was hardly seamless for Caruso and his colleagues. “We lost something like $100,000 per month for a year or two, which was not insignificant” he shares. “I like to say that we felt so guilty about all of the money we were making in brewpubs that we had to open this brewery.”
Then the operations manager, Caruso claims no template existed for opening a production brewery in Colorado’s nascent craft beer market. “In 1994, nobody really knew about this business,” he says. “Now, you can call Flying Dog and we’ll tell you how to open a brewery; we’ll tell you about quality assurance. Back then, we were all figuring it out.”
Many of its fellow microbreweries didn’t make it out of the decade. ”We were very fortunate that we were able to stick with the brewery, subsidize it, and keep it going,” Caruso shares. “We always believed in it, and it turned out to be something that we loved forever.”
By 2000, the brewery – long since rechristened Flying Dog – had outgrown its home, so it moved to a larger facility across the street. But just five years later, it faced the same problem. “We were bursting at the seams again,” the CEO remembers. “We needed capacity.”
Flying Dog had noticed most of its growth occurring on the East Coast. With fuel costs spiking, the leadership team began exploring the option of opening a second facility closer to that market.
The brewery was confident that the brand it had established in Denver – namely, the “gonzo” imagery of Steadman’s labels and the brewery’s irreverent names – wasn’t inextricably tied to the Rocky Mountains.
“Our identity was more than Colorado,” Caruso explains. “Unlike some breweries, Flying Dog was never related to a state in particular.”
That the Denver enterprise would end up in Frederick of all places was largely by luck – some good and some bad.
In February of 1997, the Frederick Brewing Company cut the ribbon on a sparkling new facility in Wedgewood Business Park. Reported to cost $8 million, the brewery was state of the art in all regards: a JVNW brewhouse, massive fermenters, a Krones bottling line, everything. The equipment was purchased with the restraint of a “Super Market Sweep”. The estimated annual capacity of all this machinery clocked in a whopping 75,000 barrels.
What went wrong?
Simply put, the Frederick Brewing Company and its investors had wildly overestimated the demand for its Blue Ridge beers. Even after absorbing fellow Maryland breweries Wild Goose and Brimstone, the brewers were only utilizing 30% of the facility’s capacity. Unsurprisingly, between 1997 and 1999, the company reported a cumulative loss of almost $17 million.
By 2001, Ohio’s Snyder International Brewing Group had assumed control of the company, and even though management would bring even more brands and contract-brewing work into the facility, a profit escaped them. After a few more years of loses and convoluted tax disputes, the Frederick Brewing Company was placed in receivership.
Enter Flying Dog.
“This brewery was in bankruptcy. We bought it,” Caruso says, cutting to the chase. “There was no genius required. We’re not one to miss an opportunity.”
In doing so, Flying Dog acquired not just a facility twice the size of its Denver operation – although, technically, it did not own the building outright until this past winter – but also the Frederick Brewing Company’s lines of beers and the brewing team that had been producing them.
Will Golden, co-founder of Austin Beerworks in Texas, was Frederick Brewing Company’s senior shift brewer at the time. “It was a tough place to work when we were in receivership. We felt like this forgotten brewery, and we were operating with a skeleton crew,” the Frederick native remembers. “All of a sudden, there was this new hope of a cool brewery and all of its cool branding and cool hype coming in with an influx of money.”
As with any merger, there was some tension early on. “It got pretty weird for a little,” Golden shares. “The guys coming from Denver might have thought they were better than the Frederick guys, but we got through it and continued to make good beer.”
After a few years operating both the Frederick and Denver facilities, Flying Dog went all-in on Maryland. By 2008, it had consolidated the entirety of its production in Frederick.
“Two breweries was a losing proposition at our size,” Caruso explains. “It doesn’t scale to have one at 60,000 barrels and the other at 100,000. You need them to be at about a million barrels each.”
The move was nevertheless bittersweet for the CEO. “We loved Colorado. It’s the second Napa Valley of beer, outside of the Pacific Northwest,” he shares. “But we needed the capacity and this brewery was available. It was kind of the opposite of ‘Go West, young man.’ We went east.”
As time has passed, though, Caruso has seen the light on his new hometown. “I’m like the poster boy for Frederick,” he gushes. “It is the best kept secret on the East Coast. It’s cosmopolitan. There’s a great nightlife. There’s an event – if not several – almost every weekend. We really like the whole scene.”
Neighboring brewers, meanwhile, were happy with the exposure brought by the high profile relocation. “Frederick had a couple of really good breweries, but we were sort of overlooked by the whole brewing industry and most people in the area,” Golden says. “When Flying Dog came in, they started pushing Frederick into the forefront. People started recognizing it as a good brewing town.”
Caruso is demure on the subject. “There was already a great tradition of brewing here,” he says, citing brewpubs Brewers Alley and Barley & Hops. “They introduced the public to craft beer. We helped it along.”
But in the grand scheme of Flying Dog’s history, perhaps more important than where the brewery settled is what it decided to do not long after arriving.
When Flying Dog left Denver, it was the second largest brewery in Colorado. It distributed to 48 states and dozens of foreign countries. Essentially, if anybody wanted Flying Dog’s beer, it would ship some their way. But casting a wide net wasn’t bringing Flying Dog comfort – it was doing the opposite.
“We could see what was happening with the industry,” Caruso remembers. “Many, many breweries were opening, and much of them were spread far and wide.”
Instead of trying to compete with larger breweries on a national level – not to mention whatever smaller breweries were popping up locally in each market– Flying Dog made the unconventional decision to retract its reach.
“Rather than being a mile wide and an inch deep, we identified our new home in the Mid-Atlantic as the area we wanted to develop and be well-respected in,” Caruso says. “We went from a national strategy to a regional strategy, which no other brewery has done. It certainly had some risk, but we considered it an acceptable risk. If you’re doing something that’s no risk, there’s probably little value in it.”
Flying Dog also could see a hole in the market: While Colorado had been disparately populated with people but dense with breweries, the inverse was true of Maryland, Virginia, and DC.
Jeff Hancock, co-founder and brewmaster of DC Brau, was an early hire at Flying Dog, and remembers the barren landscape for production breweries. “Back when Flying Dog moved east, there were only a few breweries of their size in the area,” Hancock remembers. “[There was] mainly Clipper City, Old Dominion, and Dogfish Head Brewery.”
Having identified the “Amtrak corridor” of DC to Boston as the market to satisfy above all else, Flying Dog subsequently stopped shipping west of the Mississippi River with the exception of Colorado and California.
As a result of this strategy, many in the greater DC area came to know Flying Dog without any of its Rocky Mountain backstory. In their eyes, Flying Dog has always just been a local brewery, and one whose beer is pretty much always stocked on neighborhood grocers’ shelves.
“The people who have discovered craft beer in the last ten years have grown up with Flying Dog in their backyard,” Brophy observes.
These people have also come to know Flying Dog as a purveyor of hop-loaded beers. It’s an association that Flying Dog has not only embraced – it’s had to fight to maintain it.
How does Flying Dog perceive the reputation of its beers in the market?
Caruso doesn’t hesitate: “Hoppy.”
Brophy, who has a baby face and aw-shucks demeanor, laughs and nods in concurrence.
“Look at the tap handles in here: We have the entire range from Easy IPA on up to Double Dog,” observes the CEO, noting the session IPA and double IPA that sit on opposite ends of the spectrum. “Like all breweries, our offerings reflect personal taste preferences. Matt and his brewing team could brew any beer perfectly to the style. We like hoppy beers.”
Indeed, six of Flying Dog’s eleven year-round beers are hop-forward pale ales of some variety, while a seventh, Bloodline, is all but one in name. Since 2011, the brewery has rolled out an imperial IPA brewed with a single hop variety each season. Meanwhile, other limited releases like The Gourd Standard and Juniper White IPA have married the style with pumpkin beer and a gin-and-tonic flavor profile, respectively. Even the brewery’s Gonzo Imperial Porter hits the bitterness metrics of a double IPA – 85 IBUs.
“I think a fair number of other brewers, and likely customers, see us as an East Coast version of West Coast breweries that utilize heavy-handed hop additions to their beers,” shares head brewer Ben Clark, who has worked at Flying Dog for nine years. “With that hop-forward profile, we tend to create beers that are crisper on the palette, creating a very drinkable offering.”
A hop-forward reputation comes saddled with certain expectations, particularly for a brewery of Flying Dog’s size and resources. It’s assumed that Brophy and his team will be at the cutting edge of finding new hop varieties and using them in creative ways. However, the reality that all breweries face is that hops exist in a finite quantity and there is intense competition to acquire them.
“There’s a certain naïveté with new brewers. They’re like, ‘I’ve started a brewery and I’m ready to brew, so I’m just going to order ingredients,” Brophy shares. “It’s not quite that simple. Of course, with things like barley and malt, it’s a little bit easier, but when it comes to hops, everything is pretty strictly contracted out year over year.”
For the past seven years, Brophy and his team have traveled to Yakima Valley, the 600,000-acre chunk of Washington that accounts for roughly 80% of U.S. hop productions. In Yakima, Flying Dog evaluates new and experimental varieties, and how even existing hops might be evolving.
“Hops, being an agricultural product, change a little bit each year, so we work very hard to select hops that fall in line with what we like from a specific variety and what fits our beer’s flavor profile,” shares Clark. “You find after selecting for a few years that some varieties seem to have more variation than others.”
The trip also allows Flying Dog to further solidify relationships with hop growers and processors. Such relationships are both personal and contractual. As hop producers are being asked to expand and change their businesses, they require certain assurances.
“Hop production used to be largely driven by macrobreweries,” Brophy observes. “What we’ve seen with the growers is a shift from a commodity-driven agricultural approach to one where each variety has its own characteristics and its own value in the brewing process for craft brewers.”
The latter approach requires not just putting different plants in the ground, but processing them in more arduous ways. For example, a processor that kilns hop cones at 160 degrees might now be asked to do so at 140 because the lower temperature and slower process allows its hops to retain more essential oils, which, in turn, gives brewers the hop characteristics they covet.
“As a grower and processor, you’re saying, ‘Well, it’s great that everyone likes the quality more, but I just reduced the capacity of my processing operation by 25%,’” Brophy explains. “So they’re going back to the brewers and saying, ‘Look, I can grow my business and build more processing equipment, but it’s going to be a considerable expense. Are you willing to contract for the next three years at these ever-increasing prices to ensure you’re going to get the supply of these hop varieties?’”
Flying Dog has responded unequivocally to this changing landscape.
“We just committed to spending more on hops for the next few years than we made in total sales for the brewery five years ago,” Caruso admits. “Farmers are going to put in the group what they already know is sold. We’re telling them to plant these hops, because whether we need them or not, we’re buying them.”
As the CEO hints, it’s a speculative game. Flying Dog not only takes a strong position in the hops it needs for existing recipes; the brewery also bets on what emerging hop varieties might be in vogue – both inside and outside the brewery – three years down the road. If Brophy guesses wrong, the brewery is stuck with hops it won’t want to use. These are gambles, to be sure, but it’s far superior to the alternative.
“When you look at the really small guys, they’re calling their supplier and asking for HPC341 and the Galaxy hop from Australia, and they’re probably getting laughed at,” the brewmaster shares.
Given the relationships established and investments made, does Flying Dog have access to all the hops it could want right now?
“No,” Brophy shoots back. “And if any brewers told you they did, I’d be very surprised.”
Three Springs ago, Flying Dog was primed to release an IPA brewed with chocolate. The concept was progressive: While soot black chocolate stouts and porters are a dime a dozen, this was a pale ale made without any chocolate malt. Instead, chocolate had been added hot side and again in the fermentation vessel.
Flying Dog called it Chocolate Fever. Brophy considered the beer one of the best IPAs the brewery had ever produced. And it never saw the light of day.
“It was a great concept, and it tasted outstanding, but it just didn’t have an intense chocolate taste.” Brophy recalls. “We looked at the packaging and it was like, ‘This isn’t quite a Chocolate Fever.’”
Chocolate Fever had made it all the way from the mash tun to the longneck – original Steadman artwork and all – but during that time, the chocolate had deviated from the script.
“Real chocolate is not easy to work with,” Caruso explains. “Chemically, it doesn’t bind to other compounds in a strong enough way, so it ends up disappearing by the time a beer makes it to the package.”
Instead of releasing a beer that was more “Snake Dog with Chocolate Essence” than “Chocolate Fever,” Flying Dog pulled the plug on the project.
“The last thing we would want to do is jeopardize our integrity by coming out with a beer that clearly states a flavor characteristic and then doesn’t have it,” Brophy says. “I would never want to be labeled the gimmicky brewery that says, ‘It’s this flavored beer!’ and our customers are like, ‘I’m not getting this flavor. What are you guys doing? This is bullshit.’”
Caruso sees a silver lining in the botched brew. “It didn’t work, but it tells me we’re trying to push the edges. If we don’t have some failures, it means we’re not experiencing the true genius of all the people here,” the CEO shares. “What I try reinforce on a daily basis is this: Do original stuff. Make shit happen. Find the limits of our abilities.”
In many ways, this mentality has come to define Flying Dog just as much as its hop-heavy offerings. To wit: Over the course of a year’s time, the brewery will release well over 40 different beers.
“Flying Dog has a very prolific and extensive portfolio that covers many popular flavors and styles of the moment,” DC Brau’s Jeff Hancock observes. “But it also covers the more esoteric, less trendy stuff at the same time.”
On one hand, you have fashionable offerings like The Fear Imperial Pumpkin Ale and the sessionable Easy IPA. On the other, you have traditional, limited releases like Dopplebock, Maibock, and the forthcoming Berliner Weiss.
And then you have the stuff that doesn’t fall into these categories or, really, any other. There’s Bloodline, a hop-forward ale brewed with blood orange. There’s Numero Uno, a south-of-the-border lager made with agave and lime zest. There’s Dead Rise, a wildly popular saison flavored with mustard, paprika, celery salt, bay leaf, black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, mace, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, and ginger – a combination of seasoning otherwise known as Old Bay.
Brophy sees the incorporation of non-traditional ingredients – or traditional ingredients used in unusual ways – as part of a natural evolution.
“Over the years, I’ve been involved in recipes that are more traditionally based, and they’re great – that’s how I learned about beer and brewing,” the brewmaster says. “But I quickly started experimenting with different ingredients and techniques.”
Of course, there are limits to what Brophy himself can devise. “I’m only one person and I have a lot of responsibilities,” he admits.
Fortunately, he works with people who are always thinking about new beers, and for a few days in May, every employee of Flying Dog gets the chance to sell his or her vision.
For years, whenever Flying Dog’s employees would gather around the bar in the tasting room to talk shop, Brophy would eventually find himself on the receiving end of a suggestion.
“We’d be having a beer, and all of a sudden someone would tell me, ‘You know what we should brew? We should brew an imperial stout,’” the brewmaster recalls, chuckling.
Clark, whose responsibilities include recipe development and new ingredient trials, experienced much of the same. “We’ve always kicked around a lot of good ideas at the brewery. We’re all beer lovers at heart,” the head brewer shares. “In the past, this would be while passing in the hallways or over a pint after shift, talking about what we might brew on the weekend at home.”
Wanting to harness his younger colleagues’ creativity and spread the wealth of influence, Brophy proposed a staff retreat in nearby Gambrill State Park: “I told the guys, ‘Bring your concepts. Let’s throw down. Your peers will decide what’s going to be brewed.’”
What emerged from this retreat is the Brewhouse Rarities series.
Introduced in 2012, the series is the product of a process that begins each spring at Gambrill State Park. There any Flying Dog staff member – whether part of the production team, sales force, or HR department – can pitch his or her concept in front of the entire brewery. Often they’re not alone: People who otherwise don’t work side-by-side will team up to work all the angles of a concept. “You get these interdepartmental partnerships developing,” Brophy observes. “You’ll have a brewer working with a guy who’s sitting with excel spreadsheets all day.”
“Some of the larger breweries out there have one or two guys that create all the recipes,” says Clark. “We work to ensure that there is a program in place for everyone to have a voice in what we create. I think that speaks volumes to our commitment to creativity and pushing the envelope of what a beer can be.”
Additionally, the retreat is an opportunity for Brophy to teach his team about the unglamorous underbelly of bringing a beer to market. “There’s a little bit of naiveté, like ‘Oh, let’s just brew this!’” the brewmaster shares. “I have to say, ‘Ok, well, we’d love to, but from all sides – sourcing, accounting, packaging, compliance – it takes a lot to make that happen.’ If someone’s concept is chosen, it’s like, ‘Are you prepared to go through with this?’”
The brewers are forced to make hard choices. “Maybe the beer can’t spend six months in the fermenter, so what else can you do?” Brophy continues. “A lot of these guys want to run their own breweries, and this puts them in the entrepreneurial mindset.”
Even if some fantastical ideas are buffered by reality, the final eight or nine beer selected can still read like beer science fiction. “A big part of the Brewhouse Rarities program is looking to push that envelope a little bit more each year,” says Clark. “This usually includes ingredients none of us have experience brewing with.”
This past May, the selection committee heard some 92 pitches before selecting the 2016 Brewhouse Rarities line-up, which will include Tropical Stout, Mint Julep Ale, White Peach Saison, Hibiscus Grapefruit Radler, and something called Bee Beer. These beers will each go through just one production run, with their releases spaced five or six weeks apart. Upon entering the world, they’ll ship strictly to local markets. “And they go fast,” Caurso adds.
In addition to the rotating Single Hop Series, the Brewhouse Rarities program institutionalizes a consistent stream of new, innovative, and shorter run offerings to a craft beer market where the attitude of consumers and bar managers is increasingly, “What have you done for me lately?”
“Now that there thousands and thousands of craft breweries, we can’t all go in one direction. We have to experiment and keep inventing new stuff,” says Patrick Mullane of DC’s Hellbender Brewing Company. “Flying Dog has had to adapt to the market like all of us. They’re bringing out more and more beers all the time. It’s not like with the Buds and Millers of the world, where they change their label every now and then but otherwise they’re sticking with the regular old stuff for decades. In the craft beer industry, you can’t do that.”
In a way, the Brewhouse Rarities series has also functioned as a farm league for Flying Dog. Early versions of Easy IPA, Numero Uno, and Dead Rise debuted as Brewhouse Rarities, found a warm reception, and were elevated – with some recipe adjustments – to seasonal or year-round offerings.
“We love these beers, but we’re like, ‘I don’t know – is everyone really going to go for a Pumpkin IPA?’” Brophy shares. “And when it turns out that people like it as much as we do, it becomes, ‘Can we work it into the line-up?’”
Part of answering that question is determining if there’s another beer that can go indefinite hiatus. While Flying Dog strives for diversity, the brewery also doesn’t want to overwhelm the market. If something new is entering the rotation, something old is exiting. In recent years, that’s meant once-staples like Old Scratch Amber Lager, Woody Creek White, and Road Dog Porter fading to the background.
Brophy chalks that up, in part, to brewers wanting to keep things fresh. “Old Scratch is a phenomenal beer, and it won a ton of metals at GABF and all of that, but it fell out of favor internally,” the brewmaster explains. “When you looked at the leftover beer with messed up labels, you would see it was still sitting back there, which meant the guys here weren’t drinking it so much anymore. We saw that in the market to some extent, too.”
Recently, Flying Dog opened an additional avenue of experimentation: Sub Rosa. This series of tasting room exclusives launched last April when, after a year-and-a-half of navigating red tape, the brewery finally attained a license to sell pints on premise. The Sub Rosa beers – which thus far have included Thai IPA, House Rules Extra Pale Ale, and Double Dead Rise – can be brewed quickly and efficiently on Flying Dog’s new pilot system, which clocks in at a hearty 15-barell capacity.
The generosity of the system is not lost on Erin Weston, Director of Communications for the brewery. “We definitely work with some smaller brewers who are like, ‘Neat. Your pilot system is larger than our entire system,’” she notes wryly.
The beers are available on draft only, which means they never get artwork from Ralph Steadman.
This begs a legitimate question, though: What’s a Flying dog beer without a Ralph Steadman label?
Flying Dog’s CEO doesn’t mince words in his praise of Ralph Steadman.
“Ralph may be the one true artist left in the world,” says Caruso, fighting back a big grin.
The British painter and cartoonist attained worldwide notoriety in the early 70s for drawing pictures to accompany “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s articles and books. In the minds of many, the two are forever linked.
It just so happened that the famed author was a neighbor of Flying Dog co-founder George Stranahan in Colorado. As the story goes, Stranahan and Thompson got along famously, bonding over mutual appreciation of booze and firearms, and in 1990, the writer introduced the millionaire renaissance man to Steadman. Five years later, Steadman would draw the art for the first Flying Dog beer labels. It’s something he’s done ever since.
What exactly ends up on a Flying Dog label is largely out of the brewery’s hands. Steadman knows that Flying Dog prefers a single character for each beer, but that’s about his only constraint.
“We just give him the name and some concept of the beer,” Caruso explains. “Ralph’s genius is so over the top that to suggest to him what something should be… well, that’s just not how it works.”
According to the CEO, the creative process is just as much of a mystery to Steadman. “He’ll say all the time, ‘I don’t even know what something’s going to look like when I start out. What would be the fun of it if I did?'” he shares. “Everything starts with a splat. He’ll take his pen and put down a big splat and he’ll go, ‘Well, that looks like a horse’s head.’”
The receipt of a final print is an event within the brewery. “We’re like kids at Christmas when we get art from Ralph,” the CEO continues. “He’s beloved here. In spite of some of his outrageous art, he is one of the most lovable, generous, kind persons in the world. He hates bullies. He believes in freedom of speech.”
The protection of the First Amendment is a subject Flying Dog is all too familiar with itself – largely because of Steadman.
This history stretches back to the mid-90s, when a BBC documentary crew following Steadman in his London studio captured the artist creating the label for Flying Dog’s Road Dog Porter. Previously, Hunter S. Thompson had written a brief essay to accompany the beer, closing with the “ancient Celtic axiom” that good people drink good beer. Steadman, in a moment of irreverent improvisation, referenced those words and scribbled “Good beer. No Shit.”
“We loved it. It was just too good to be true,” Caruso remembers. “We had to put it on the label.”
But not long that phrase appeared on Flying Dog’s bottles, another brewery filed an obscenity complaint with the Colorado Liquor Board. This would set off a mandatory recall and, subsequently, a four-year legal battle that wound up at the Colorado Supreme Court. Aided by the ACLU, Flying Dog prevailed and would spike the football with an especially “shit” laden label.
All these years later, the fracas still leaves Caruso sour. “We don’t like that kind of arbitrary authoritarianism,” the CEO shares. “The market should decide. If they don’t like our beer or our names, they can choose not to buy it.”
Almost a decade later, the brewery found itself in a similar situation with its Raging Bitch Belgian-Style IPA. In 2009, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission banned the beer from being sold within the state, deeming the beverage “detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of the general public.” Flying Dog sued the state and the commission for violating its freedom of speech – a lawsuit that the brewery would continue to pursue even after the commission reversed its band in 2011.
“I know that our friends at Dogfish [Head] had been rejected for Bitches Brew, which was named after Miles Davis classic album. So I asked the commission, ‘I’m just wondering: If you had the authority to ban that album from being displayed in stores, would you?’” Caurso recalls. “And they said yes. That’s when I realized how over the top it was.”
Just this last May, five years after filing suit, Flying Dog was again triumphant: The U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that the state had committed a constitutional violation. “It wasn’t a naming issue,” states Caurso. “It was Michigan committing a crime. It was three officials violating our First Amendment rights.”
The brewery plans to start a First Amendment society with the damages awarded to it – after settling legal fees, of course. “We’ll have some fun with that,” Caurso says, spit-balling the idea of a banned book club. “This goes back a long way. We do believe that freedom of speech is the last defense against tyranny.”
Such a stance might explain why Caruso grimaces at the suggestion that Flying Dog might have changed or downplayed a few of its more suggestive names recently – namely, In Heat Wheat and Doggie Style Pale Ale. In the tasting room, both names hang from the wall as draft options, but on the brewery’s website the former is listed as Flying Dog Hefewizen and the latter Flying Dog Pale Ale. Neither of the original names appears prominently on the beer’s labels.
The Flying Dog CEO attributes this shift merely to graphic design.
“’Doggie Style’ created this tremendous asymmetry on the label, so we tried dropping it. That allowed us to line up all of the bat wings,” he tells me, illustrating his point with a bottle in his hand. “But then, of course, everybody said, ‘Oh, so you finally caved in after 25 years?’ And I was like, ‘No, we didn’t cave in! It was just kind of bugging me that we didn’t have the symmetry on the labels!’”
Caruso promises “Doggie Style” will be coming back to the label as part of a forthcoming redesign. It’s a similar story with In Heat Wheat: “The artwork and the label was kind of awkward, so we thought that we’d line it up better, but everyone still calls it In Heat Wheat.”
The CEO seems to shrug off concerns of any perceived inappropriateness.
“We would never do anything to offend people with the Flying Dog names,” he says. “We just find names that are funny.”
If many Maryland, Virginia, and DC craft beer drinkers have grown up with Flying Dog in the their collective backyard, the same can be said for the area’s emerging craft breweries. Most of these breweries were founded and have expanded in the shadow of Flying Dog. Often, this growth has occurred with the Frederick brewery’s assistance, either directly or less obviously so.
Bill Butcher, founder of Port City Brewing, considers Flying Dog a great friend and ally in the market. Their relationship is one that formed before the Alexandria brewery even opened. “When we were in planning, I contacted Matt Brophy, kind of out of the blue, to ask if we could come for a visit to see their brewery setup,” Butcher remembers. “Matt welcomed us in. I had my architect and engineers in tow, and he spent the afternoon showing us around the brewery and answering our questions, and then opened up the taps and bought us all a beer… I have never forgotten his generosity.”
There were other times Flying Dog aided the four-and-a-half year-old Alexandria brewery in its early days – like when it would send Port City boxes of blank bottle caps so head brew Jonathan Reeves could continue with production – but that initial help is something that Butcher has been paying forward ever since: “It’s the reason that I have tried to spend time with aspiring brewers to answer their questions about starting up a brewery.”
Several of Flying Dog’s alumni have gone on to start their own breweries, as well. “It’s bittersweet,” Caruso remarks. “We’re proud, but we hate to lose them.”
DC Brau’s Jeff Hancock was hired by Flying Dog at a time of early turnover in Frederick, and as a result, circumvented the traditional line of succession, jumping straight to working on the brewhouse. The experience was invaluable.
“The two years I spent at Flying Dog greatly influenced my approach to brewing at DC Brau,” he shares. “Up until I started working there, I had only been at brewpubs, which produce a fraction of what a production brewery does. At Flying Dog, I was working with some of the most skilled people in the industry. I learned about effective plant layout, quality control and lab practices, and the multitude of engineering challenges that come with designing and building a production facility.”
Hancock has remained good friends with several members of Flying Dog’s management team. Each year, the two breweries collaborate on a beer dinner for the Craft Brewer’s Conference.
Will Golden, who left the Frederick brewery to assume control of nearby brewpub Barley & Hops, hasn’t kept in as close of touch, but like the rest of the Flying Dog diaspora, he took what he learned with him. “A lot of good brewers have gone on to do other things,” he says. “As a whole, it made the entire scene better and stronger. The beer got a lot better after that point.”
In 2011, Golden founded Austin Beerworks with a group that included Adam Debower – a brewer who had previously been working the graveyard shift at Flying Dog.
“It’s a challenge to retain people, and it’s something that happens in industries that are growing like this,” Caruso admits. “I appreciate it. I can think what I’d be doing if I was 35 years younger. I’d be going, ‘I’d rather be number two in charge over there than number four over here.’”
More recently, one brewer reversed Flying Dog’s geographical path to go work at Left Hand Brewing in Colorado. “He was very upfront about it. He was like, ‘My experience has been great. I want to go get experience in another brewery,’” Brophy says. “And it’s like, ‘I don’t blame you. It’s not a bad thing to do.’”
Brophy took a similar course on his way to Flying Dog. The New Jersey native got his break at Cherry Hill’s Flying Fish, where he learned the ropes of brewing. Soon, however, Brophy was feeling stuck in his hometown, so he packed his belongings in a car and drove to Denver with his then-girlfriend. Unable to rent an apartment without a salary, and unable to find work without a mailing address, the two camped in Colorado state parks. Just as they were running out of money and preparing to throw in the towel, Brophy landed a job at Great Divide. After five years there, he decided he needed a new challenge and took a position with Flying Dog.
“I completely understand if a guy wants to work at a brewery for three years, and once he’s learned worked production, filtration operations, cellar operations, and maybe spent some in the lab, he feels like he’s ready to move onto another experience,” the brewmaster says. “We have our system set up so we can train guys to be very proficient in different areas, and then ideally, they stick around. We have guys that have been with us for years.”
Sending well-trained brewers out into the market also functions as a different type of quality control. While the craft beer market is getting bigger – purportedly approaching a 20% market share by 2020 – it’s also attracting less experienced entrants.
“There are some people that are getting into the business for the wrong reason,” Caruso observes. “It’s the next get rich quick scheme. It’s easy money. They don’t have brewing expertise, and they’re putting beer out there that if it’s consumers first introduction to craft, they’re going to wonder, ‘What is this shit?’”
Still, the trend is promising, and Caruso sees comrades in those making great beer locally.
“In terms of more breweries, I say bring it on. The more people that we can turn onto craft beer, the better,” he tells me. “The pie is getting bigger. We’re not worried about the percentage of the pie we have.”
How much of that pie Flying Dog can eat will directly correlate with how much beer it can brew.
Nine years after moving into its Frederick facility, the brewery is still figuring ways to increase capacity. “There’s a lot complexity with the production environment,” Brophy says, noting the purchase of new fermenters last year and his team’s seasonal adjustments. “We continue to surprise ourselves. What we thought our capacity was five years ago isn’t even close to our capacity now when we really start looking at the efficiencies that can be gained in various ways of inventory management and production optimization. We’ve come a long way.”
The capacity of the facility was originally estimated to be 75,000 barrels. Last quarter, Flying Dog annualized at 110,000. “Matt’s being a bit modest,” Caruso pipes in. “It’s been a brilliant effort by him and his team.”
Will the effort be enough to sate Flying Dog’s growth projections by time craft beer hits 20% in 2020? In other words, will this facility cut it?
“It’s possible,” the CEO answers. “Matt and his team have worked on it, but while it may look good on paper, in reality, when you start framing everything in, we’d be walking down the corridors sideways.”
More likely, according to Flying Dog, is building a new facility somewhere in the area. It’s an option that Brophy has spent years exploring, and the rationale for such construction comes down to more than elbow room.
“We want the benefit of 2018 technology,” Caruso shares. “We’re not low-tech but we’re kind of medium-tech. It’s hard to retrofit technology. The brewing industry has changed a lot since this place was built in 1996.”
Flying Dog’s vision may be even grander than you imagine.
“We look at 500,000 barrels as a volume that we still feel is ‘crafty,’” Caruso says. “We can have our fingers in the markets – especially here on the East Coast – and we wouldn’t just be shipping to unknown people. We can see ourselves expanding over the next five to seven years to 500,000 or 600,000 barrels and still feel like we’re a true artisanal craft.”
Such ambition isn’t limited to North America either.
Ever since Flying Dog doubled down on a regional strategy, it has capped European distribution at 5% of its total output. From selling to twenty-three European countries at the time of the brewery’s greatest reach, Flying Dog consolidated shipments to the U.K., Sweden, and Amsterdam, which serves as the port for the rest of the continent.
“We’re sort of high-spotted in Europe,” Caruso explains. “You’ll find us in the best craft beer bars in Paris and Amsterdam and England.”
In ten years of visiting Europe for Flying Dog, Brophy has observed an unexpected reception to craft beer. “In America, most people get the difference between mass-produced products and what smaller brewers like Flying Dog make,” the brewmaster shares. “Over there, it’s a little different. Some of their breweries are so rooted in tradition, but then you have these big guys like Heineken and Anheuser Busch move in and they start moving the market in the other direction. Craft needs to get in there and make its mark.”
One way that American craft breweries have sought to make that mark is by moving production to Europe. Since 2011, the British brewery Shepherd Neame has made Sam Adams under an exclusive license. More dramatically, Brooklyn Brewery – working with the Carlsberg Group – opened a new facility in Stockholm last year. Both are means of eliminating hefty shipping costs, but the latter strategy is most appealing to Flying Dog.
“We’re pretty serious about a brewery in Europe,” Caruso tells me. “We were originally thinking Sweden, but the U.K. seems to fit more and more. They speak English, which is a huge plus. We’ve been shipping there for a long time. And we have a great affiliation between Ralph [Steadmen] and all of the events that we do there.”
“Unlike in the U.S., Europeans aren’t so concerned about where something is brewed,” the CEO continues. “They just want it to taste like American beer.”
For over two decades, here’s one thing that has remained utterly true about Flying Dog: You can’t say it’s afraid of a frontier.
Every beer has a story. Flying Dog shares some of its brews stories below
In 2013, DC was set to host the rotating Craft Brewers Conference, and Flying Dog wanted to draw up a recipe that would wow visiting breweries. What Brophy’s team settled on was an early version of Bloodline, an ale that combines blood orange peel and juice with the citrusy hops Galaxy and Citra.
Bloodline’s reception was hardly acidic. “Please make more!” one early commenter begged. And while Flying Dog considered obliging, transitioning a beer with an agricultural input like blood orange from a one-off project to a year-round offering was not a decision flippantly made.
“We had to asked ourselves, ‘Can we do this on a bigger scale? How much blood orange puree can we get? How much beer can we make?’” Brophy remembers. “Once we figured out some of the agricultural logistics, we said, ‘Ok, let’s do it.’”
Before it came to market, though, some slight adjustments were in order. The original Bloodline was higher in ABV and bitterness – bolstered attributes Brophy didn’t believe were necessary to the flavor profile. If anything, they hindered the fruit component. “It’s not a fruit beer, but the blood orange is certainly a prominent characteristic of the beer,” the brewmaster shares. “We didn’t want to interfere with that.”
For head brewer Ben Clark, the beauty of Bloodline lies in how the blood orange accentuates the beer’s citrus hop character.
“Bloodline was a blast to develop,” he remembers. “Traditionally, fruited beers are low in [both] bitterness and hop flavor/aroma, because hops tend to overshadow the delicate fruit notes… We wanted to use fruit and hops in a beer where they complement each other. While fruit in beer could be seen as ‘traditional,’ pairing fruit and hops to intentionally play off of each other is not something that’s very common in beer.”
Clark considers Bloodline a hop-forward beer, and at 40 IBUs, he certainly has a point, but you won’t see the three letters most common to Flying Dog’s ales on the longneck’s label.
“If people see an IPA from Flying Dog, they’re going to say, ‘Oh that’s going to be one of those really hoppy, burn-out-your-palate beers.’” Caruso explains. “But it’s not. That’s why we left the ‘IPA’ off of it.”
Flying Dog may have complete control over what it calls Bloodline, but the same can’t be said about its supply of blood orange puree: The brewery sources the in-demand input from California, and like everything else being grown in California, it’s susceptible to the ongoing drought.
Brophy approaches the sourcing of blood orange the same as he does hops from Yakima and malted barley from Copper Fox Distillery. “It’s about digging your heels into your connections,” he shares. “I haven’t been to Southern California yet to go to the farm and talk to the growers, but if you develop a relationship with them, you’re probably going to be first in line if the drought ends up impacting the yield and the quality of the fruit. We’re in a good position now, but that could change based on the conditions out there.”
It would be a shame to see Flying Dog’s blood orange supply dry up, not only because Bloodline is a wildly refreshing beer, but also because Caruso seems so enamored with the fruit.
“What a great name. Blood. Orange,” he says, relishing each word. “And it’s high in antioxidants, so there are health benefits in addition to the yeast and B vitamins. You must drink a glass a day!”
A Flying Dog beer frequently starts as the passion project of a single staff member. This isn’t always the case, but it certainly was for Counter Culture: Caruso spent many a meeting advocating for the recently introduced ale – or, at least, the idea of it.
“For the last couple of years, I would bring up that there’s a huge audience for a ramped-up, malt-forward beer,” Caruso explains. “I thought it was an important offering for us to have in the market.”
What exactly Counter Culture ended up being is not a question easily answered. The complex beer is hard to pin down.
“There were a lot of moving components,” Brophy says of the recipe development. “We spent a lot of time with the yeast selection. Of course, it’s a malt-forward beer, so we spent a lot of time with the malt. And while it’s not a bitter beer, we do have a lot of hops involved with it, particularly Citra in the finish.”
Finding the right balance of those core components was a painstaking process, but Counter Culture started to come together once Brophy’s team landed on the malt profile. Still, it was a process of trial and error.
“At one point, we felt like we had so much going on that it was almost muddy. From a flavor standpoint it was like, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’” the brewmaster recalls. “But we reigned it back a bit to define the flavors more clearly, and we brought it around to something that we think is really nice.”
Counter Culture has Belgian characteristics, but following the trend of recent Flying Dog releases – Bloodline Ale, Dead Rise Summer Ale, Numero Uno Summer Cerveza – the brewery has refrained from putting the beer in a clearly defined stylistic box. Brophy calls it “leaving things open-ended”
“I’m a fan of traditional beers. We have a Maibock as a Brewhouse Rarity right now; that’s a clearly defined world beer style,” the brewmaster explains. “But something like Counter Culture is just a tasty adult malt beverage. I don’t particularly want to categorize it in one area or another.”
Stylistic tags may also be counterproductive in framing an unconventional beer. “As soon as you put the word ‘Belgian’ on something, it divides people. They’ll say, ‘I don’t like Belgian beers!’ or ‘I like Belgian beers!’” Caruso shares. “Counter Culture is not really a Belgian beer, so we don’t want to call it something that may cause people to have a preconceived opinion.”
Brophy is hoping that longtime fans of Flying Dog will roll the dice on a playfully undefined offering. “With Counter Culture, we’re kind of saying, ‘Just try it,’” the brewmaster says. “I realize that for twelve bucks a six-pack, it’s a bit of an investment to make on just try it, but it’s a friendly and approachable beer. It’s certainly not a bitter beer that would turn some people off.”
Of course, Flying Dog did built its brand on bitter pales ales, which is a big reason this malt-forward brew is called Counter Culture. Intentionally or not, it also rebuffs a prevailing outlook in craft beer these days.
“There’s a bit of a perception hops are macho. They’re not. They’re just a taste preference,” Caruso explains. “You like salty food, you like sweet foods. There’s room for both.”
Introducing Counter Culture as a new year-round offering in May meant parting ways with the award-winning Old Scratch Amber Lager. It’s a sacrifice that Caruso is at peace with – an unsurprising development considering it brought his baby into the world.
“I have friends over quite often and they’ll ask, ‘What’s the opposite of the Truth?’” he shares. “I’ll tell them, ‘I have the exact opposite of the Truth. It’s called Counter Culture, and you’re going to love it.”
If you’re curious what goes into a particular Flying Dog beer, you don’t have to look much further than the brewery’s website. Each style has its own paint-splattered page, enumerating the yeast strains, hops varieties, and specialty malts used to brew it.
On occasion, however, you’ll run into a beer where Flying Dog refrains from sharing an input. As you might expect, Brophy takes responsibility for such guardedness – they are ultimately his recipes, after all – but Caruso sees it as part of a larger marketing strategy.
“Being able to recite ingredients is not interesting to people, so we try to point out what makes a beer distinctive,” the CEO explains. “If the yeast is not a significant part of the recipe, it doesn’t serve any purpose to highlight our use of a German ale yeast. We want to tell a story about a beer.”
There are exceptions, though.
“Some stuff really is proprietary,” Caruso says. “We’re not going to tell you how we make Dead Rise.”
Dead Rise is Flying Dog’s most closely held secret. The yeast strain of the Old Bay-seasoned summer ale’s is proprietary. The hop variety is proprietary. The malts are proprietary. And while the website doesn’t discuss brewing process much, you can rest assured that’s proprietary too.
To understand why the production of Dead Rise is such a hush-hush topic, you must look to its lengthy development.
The seeds of the recipe were sown in 2012, when brewer Keith Kohr pitched a gose for the Brewhoue Rarities series. Gose is a traditional salty and sour style of beer from Northern Germanic descent, but Kohr proposed introducing the former characteristic with Old Bay – the spicy crab seasoning manufactured in Maryland by McCormick & Company.
The idea struck a chord with Brophy. “There’s always been an agricultural regionality to brewing. Just look at how the Belgians use what’s around them,” the brewmaster explains. “It was a really nice thought on Keith’s part to incorporate a regional flavor.”
The gose was well-received, which got Flying Dog thinking about something bigger – a more strategically released one-off or perhaps a new seasonal offering. Chief marketing officer Ben Savage reached out to McCormick about a formal partnership. “That’s a big company, and there’s a lot of stuff going on over there. It took a while to iron out,” Brophy recalls. “Meanwhile, we were working through the pilots with the wishful thinking that everything would go well and we would be able to bring the beer to market.”
Brewing with Old Bay posed its challenges, chief among them finding an appropriate balance. “Whenever you’re dealing with a spice, it’s easy to overdo it,” Brophy shares. “But it’s easy to underdo it, too.”
Flying Dog was determined to brew a beer that wouldn’t overload palates but still showcased the potent spice blend’s heat and saltiness. It’s a mark often missed. “Somewhere toward the end of the project, I was in a local coffee shop that advertised an Old Bay bagel. I thought, ‘This is great. I’m really into Old Bay right now,’” Caruso recalls. “I took a bite of the bagel and I could not taste the Old Bay. I licked the top of it, and I still could not taste the Old Bay. I remember texting Matt: ‘We have to make sure it’s distinctive enough that we can taste the Old Bay.’”
After seven months of experimentation, Brophy and his team finally settled on the recipe for a “summer ale” that most closely resembles a saison.
Debuted last May, Dead Rise was an instant sensation. In fact, its popularity took Flying Dog wholly by surprise. “Before Dead Rise was even released, we had more orders in Maryland for the volume of beer than we had projected to sell in the entire country over four months,” Caruso recalls. “It was tracking at an annualized rate of 1.5 billion cases for about a month.”
The response forced Flying Dog to recalibrate its entire production schedule. “As a local brewery, we had to walk the talk, so for a three-week period we dedicated all production to Dead Rise,” the CEO continues. “We still couldn’t satisfy Maryland.”
This begs the question: If there’s such a clamoring for Dead Rise, why not brew it year round?
“To some extent, there can be too much of a good thing,” Brophy responds. “You don’t want to dilute the specialness of this beer by having it around all the time.”
Somewhat ironically, Dead Rise is usually out of the market prior to crab season. “By mid-July, people are already into Oktoberfest and pumpkin beers, and you kinda gotta go with the trend,” Caruso explains. “This whole seasonal thing really throws us off. Dead Rise is viewed as the summer crab beer, even though summer is ending in people’s minds before crab season even starts.”
During Dead Rise season, some Maryland bars will leave tins of Old Bay seasoning on the bar for patrons to shake into their beer. For those insatiable fans of the spice, Flying Dog brewed a Double Dead Rise this July. The Sub Rosa brewery exclusive doubled the spice, and fortified the ABV from 5.6% to 8%.
“We ran it through our small filter and lost a little bit more than we wanted, so there’s only about eight barrels of it, which is a decent bit of beer for the tasting room,” Brophy shares. “We expect it to last for a week or two. It’s one of those special things. People can come in, try it, maybe get a growler while, and then it’s gone.”
“Maybe we’ll do a Triple Dead Rise next year,” Caurso jokes.
While Flying Dog may keep playing with different iterations of the beer, there are no plans to tinker with Dead Rise proper.
“It took a while, but the team totally captured what we’re striving for: a true Old Bay beer,” the CEO tells me. “And it’s our secret. That’s just the way it is.”
Flying Dog has cemented its reputation as an increasingly experimental brewery and one untethered from the limitations of traditional beer categories – at least when they don’t serve a purpose – but its brewmaster maintains his respect for deep-rooted brewing cultures.
“When it comes to experimental stuff, anything goes, but I’m a traditional brewer when it comes to traditional beer styles,” Brophys tells me. “If you’re going to bring a beer to market and have it be a true Oktoberfest, you need to do everything you can to capture that, which includes using the native ingredients.”
Flying Dog’s Dogtoberfest is a traditional Märzen brewed entirely with imported German ingredients. The recipe predates Brophy, who has done little to alter it.
“Dogtoberfest has been part of our heritage for a while,” he says. “To me, it exemplifies the style.”
Where Brophy is willing to break from tradition, however, is the process of making Flying Dog’s Märzen. While Belgian and English brewers have loosened their rigidity on brewing technique, the brewmaster says Germans still cling to centuries-old processes.
“German brewers are the last holdouts,” he explains. “One of the things they’ll tell you is that you have to use certain methods, like decoction brewing, to really capture the malt character. With the recipe that we’ve put together and our processes, we’re able to capture that style brilliantly without all of that.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean Dogtoberfest is an easy beer to brew. “It was a bear to brew since it used all bagged malt,” remembers DC Brau’s Jeff Hancock, who cites the Märzen as a favorite in the Flying Dog portfolio. “Brewers have to mill in each bag of malt by hand. That gets tedious when you’re milling 60 to 70 bags per 50-barrel mash while managing a four-vessel brewhouse. It was too much for some of the brewers but I loved that level of activity.”
Brophy expresses “a tremendous amount of respect” for the Germanic heritage, but notes that processes employed traditionally were often based off the need to manipulate poor raw materials.
“As a brewer, it’s good to understand traditionally where things have been and what those styles are really all about, but you can’t have blinders on,” he continues. “At the same time, if you talk to a German brewer and you don’t do it their way, it’s just not the same.”
“I get it,” Brophy adds. “Champagne doesn’t come from Virginia.”
In Brophy’s office, collecting dust in some cabinet or drawer, is the original brew log for Double Dog. The double IPA was concocted to commemorate Flying Dog’s tenth anniversary in 2005. At 11.5% ABV and over 100 IBUs, the creation is a “bit of a beast,” in Brophy’s words, but the same can also be said of the process to make it.
“When I came up with the recipe, I was enamored with the Columbus hop, which was kind of this new, big deal,” Brohpy remembers. His plan was to liberally introduce the hop – in addition to the Warrior and Cascade varieties – over the course of a lengthy, nearly two-hour boil. This would require engineering ingenuity.
“Our head maintenance guy had worked with all of these other food and brewery plants, and I told him I wanted some kind of apparatus that would allow us to continuously add hops into the brew,” the brewmaster recalls. “He brought in this thing that had a little hopper and a little auger. It was originally designed to, like, put sprinkles on pop tarts on the conveyer.”
The brew day commenced as planned with Brophy using the hopper to add hops every fifteen minutes. Then things turned south. “The hopper started going backwards. Everything went to shit!” he exclaims. “So, in real time, as the brew is going, we decided to add the hops ourselves. We started with the bittering hop, Warrior, and then we went into Columbus, and, finally, we finished with Cascade.”
Brophy says Double Dog flows like a good jam. “I use the analogy of a Grateful Dead song: You come out of one passage and you’re in the middle space for a while before heading to the other,” says the brewmaster. “I think that follows through in this beer.”
Flying Dog has ironed out the kinks in Double Dog’s production, but the process remains intensive. Like Gonzo Imperial Porter and Horndog Barleywine, the double IPA requires the generation of so much sugar that the brewery uses a “double mash.”
“We’ll do a full mash, and then we’ll lauter into the kettle halfway through, keeping a very high sugar concentration,” Brophy explains. “There’s so much sugar left in the mash that we can actually do the House Rules.”
House Rules is an extra pale ale brewed using the nutrient-wort leftover from Double Dog. “House Rules was born from a conversation between me and the head brewer,” Bropht recalls. “I said, ‘Dude, why don’t we take some of this wort and throw it in the pilot kettle?’”
In its first iteration, the Sub Rose release – available only at the brewery – was brewed with the experimental hop HPC431, largely because that’s Flying Dog had on hand. “We’ve played around with it a little, so it might not always be the same, but the idea is that it’s a very sessionable, hop-forward beer,” Brophy says. “House Rules went from a conversation to a product pretty quickly, because it’s not actually going into the market.”
In contrast with Double Dog, the brewing of House Rule stems from a very traditional, centuries-old process. “In the old days, grain was an especially precious resource,” Caruso explains. “You wanted to get as many beers out of a batch as you could, going from higher alcohol to lower strength beers.”
There will be plenty of opportunities to make something House Rules again because, somewhat remarkably, Flying Dog goes through the labor of making Double Dog every seven to ten days.
“We can’t keep up with demand,” the CEO says. “If we sold it everywhere people wanted it, we’d be tying up too many tanks for too long.”
“We told Ralph that it was a light beer – an easy-drinking beer,” Caruso remembers. “And he e-mailed me back and said, ‘I’m struggling with this ‘easy’ concept.’”
Easy IPA was the first beer to make the jump from the Brewhouse Rarities minor leagues to The Show.
The original iteration of the session IPA debuted as a draft offering in May 2013 – a product of the previous year’s summertime blues. “Matt and I were standing here on one of these 95-degrees days with 100% humidity,” Caruso says. “That’s when the idea of a session IPA starts to appeal to you.”
According to Austin Beerworks’ Will Golden, session IPAs – the lower alcohol India Pale Ales that have risen rapidly in popularity recently – don’t exactly jibe with traditional Colorado ideas of craft brewing. “Most of their stuff starts at a pretty high alcohol level,” he observes. “A session beer start at, like, 6%.”
Indeed, Flying Dog’s CEO would not have envisioned himself embracing a 4.7% IPA during his previous life in Denver. “Up until a few years ago, when it came to 7.0% IPAs, I was like, ‘Yeah, give me a couple of those.’ Then I moved to this climate,” he says. “More generally, we’ve seen a trend within Flying Dog towards easier-drinking beers, especially in the summer months. That’s reflected in our offerings.”
But Easy IPA isn’t Flying Dog’s first foray into easier drinking beers. In fact, it might have been a little too ahead of the curve.
In 2012, the brewery introduced Under Dog Atlantic Lager, a crisp and light summer offering. “We weren’t going for the Pacific Northwest hop characteristics,” Brophy explains. “It actually had a higher hopping rate overall than Easy IPA, but we were using the English-derived Golding hops, which aren’t super assertive hops. I don’t know…”
The beer never quite caught on.
“It was a great beer,” the brewmaster continues, sounding a little bummed. “That may have been a case where the brewers weren’t connected enough to the market to understand what the perception of a certain style may or may not be.”
“Look, we put it out there to the market,” Caruso weighs in. “It was a great start to our session offerings. And we keep building on that.”
The CEO points out that back at the turn of the century, Flying Dog was producing its Tire Bite Golden Ale, too.
“Before some of these lighter beers became fashionable or a little bit trendy, our Tire Bite was out there, but we felt like that needed to be refreshed, so we moved from that to the Under Dog,” Caruso explains. “The natural progression has now led to the Easy IPA.”
What do those connoisseurs have in common? “They both try to get as many as they can.”
Flying Dog’s offering the gourd cult is The Fear, an imperial pumpkin ale that goes all-out on everything – except the pumpkin.
“Some pumpkin beers are so heavy on pumpkin. They’re pumpkin pie in a bottle,” Brophy shares. “I’ll try them at GABF and I’m like, ‘Holy shit! If that’s what you’re trying to capture, you nailed it. This taste like fucking pumpkin pie.’”
Entering its fourth year of production, The Fear doesn’t necessarily skimp on the pumpkin flavor –each batch is brewed with one hundred pounds of local pumpkin puree, plus a blend of pumpkin spices – but it’s cut with a 9% ABV and a mix of Warrior and Willamette hops that push the IBUs to 45.
“We wanted a balanced beer,” the brewmaster says. “It’s a bigger beer, but it’s not pumpkin pie in a bottle by any stretch.”
In February 2005, Hunter S. Thompson, the writer and journalist whose spirit Flying Dog associated with for a decade, took his life. As a tribute, the brewery set about brewing a one-time beer in his honor. They called it Gonzo Imperial Porter.
“We approached the recipe with a little bit of…” Brophy says, pausing to find the right word.
“Irreverence?” Caruso offers.
At 9.2% ABV and 85 IBUs, Gonzo Imperial Porter was an undertaking true to its name. “If you were to show the recipe to another brewer, he would look at it and chuckle a little bit,” Brophy shares. “There were ridiculous amounts of specialty malts and caramel malt. The hopping rate was pretty ridiculous. It it was pretty off the wall. We thought, ‘This is kind of crazy but, whatever, it’s a one-time thing! Let’s just do it!’”
But the reception to the beer was so strong that Flying Dog decided to keep producing it. Originally available exclusively in 750 mL bottles, Gonzo Imperial Porter is now available in six-packs. In fact, the same can be said for everything Flying Dog offers in stores.
“We did four-packs for years, but as far as I know, the only reason craft breweries did that was because in the mid-90s they were shy about charging $7 for a six-pack of beer,” Caruso says of the packaging. “It always felt kind of weird when you pull it over the shelf. The six-pack was designed a long time ago because it had the perfect balance. Four or five years ago, we were like, ‘To hell with this four-pack thing. Let’s just put everything in a six-pack.”
Of course, as with Double Dog, it can be a challenge keeping those six-packs on shelves.
“We’re brewing before the beer is even ordered in the market. You would think at some point the law of large numbers would come into play, but it doesn’t,” the CEO marvels. “We could sell as much as we produce. What’s hard about those beers is the production schedule – the double mash, the longer fermentation, and so forth. We do to some extent limit how much of the higher alcohol beer we release.”
Understandably, the beer is a favorite of those who can get their hands on it.
“I really enjoy drinking Gonzo Imperial Porter,” DC Brau’s Jeff Hancock shares. “It’s incredibly smooth for such a potent, high gravity beer.”
“Pumpkin IPA” is officially called the Gourd Standard, and come late August, it will be the latest addition to the brewery’s Fall offerings, bottled and available in six-packs across the region.
“It started as a collaborative effort with one of our wholesale partners,” Brophy says of the beer, which had previously available in a limited run under the name Bondage. “It was just a fun thing we did, so we decided to add it to the line-up as a shorter term seasonal.”
Caruso calls it “more of a mainstream alternative” to The Fear Imperial Pumpkin Ale. For Brophy, what piques his interest is The Gourd Standard’s hop profile.
“Instead of using Pacific Northwest hops – which are traditionally more assertive – we’re using the German noble hops,” he explains. “It’s a little different. It has a very high hopping rate using predominantly Hallertauer and Saaz.”
The imported hops, originally grown in Central Europe, carry a higher price tag but are prized for a spicy and earthy finish.
If you’re anxious to try the Gourd Standard, you can consider Brophy among your company too.
“I probably had no more than three pints of it last year,” the brewmaster confesses. “I’m curious to bring it back around.”
As head brewer, Ben Clark has played a part in developing every entry in the Brewhouse Rarites series. In addition to sitting on the selection committee at Gambrill State Park, he’s the one who works with Flying Dog staff to turn winning concepts into recipes that can actually be brewed.
So when Clark says that Juniper White IPA is his favorite Brewhouse Rarity, you tend to give the sentiment some credence.
Pitched by brewery packaging supervisor Matt Hardesty, Juniper White IPA combines fresh juniper berries and lime with a special hop blend designed to play off the resinous notes of the berries. Simply put, it’s a gin and tonic in beer form.
“If you think gin and tonic, and try this beer you will certainly get it,” Clarks says. “However, if you just pick up the beer and drink it not knowing the concept, it is still super.”
The affection is reciprocated by Caruso. “You like some Brewhouse Rarities more than others. This is one of my favorites,” he says. “I used to drink gin and tonics all the time.”
The CEO sees the popularity of the Brewhouse Rarities series as a sign of how much craft beer drinkers’ palates have evolved. “If we released the stuff that we’re doing today ten or fifteen years ago, it would just sit on the shelves,” Caruso shares. “What’s exciting is that not only are we exercising our creative juices, but the consumers are looking for it.”
“When we release a juniper beer and say, ‘This should conjure up the essence of a gin and tonic,’ it’s not unusual for people to say, ‘Let me try it!’” he continues. “If you had said that in 2000, they would have said, ‘A gin and tonic?!? A gin and tonic is a gin and tonic. It’s not a beer.’”
Most of the potential Brewhouse Rarities concepts never leave Gambrill State Park, of course. Brophy recalls one memorable pitch for a saffron beer, which his team actually ran a five-gallon pilot of before ultimately deeming it too expensive. “Occasionally, you’ll run into a totally off-the wall recipe ideas where it’s like, ‘I understand that the cost of the ingredients will far outweigh any sort of revenue generation! It’s a gift to the market!’”
Clark, meanwhile, cites a dill pickle beer pitch that’s stuck with him. “What draws me to a concept like this is the challenge of creating a balance between the salty, acidic, and spice characteristics you get from a dill pickle, and working to pair those flavors with a beer, while staying true to both the pickle and the beer,” the brewer shares. “There is one beer style in particular I think this would work really well with.”
Despite its popularity within the brewery, this will likely be the last time Juniper White IPA sees production. Or maybe not. As Caruso says, these decisions are an inexact science.
One Brewhouse Rarity that Clark is hoping makes a comeback is 2014’s Mango Habanero IPA. “There may be a few tweaks to the original – more mango character, a bit more heat – to get it where we would want it for a portfolio offering, but it is a solid beer that I think would be popular with its tropical flavors and aromas and the subtle heat that builds as you finish the pint.”
If you missed Mango Habanero the first time, perhaps you’ll get another chance. But the safest course of action with any Brewhouse Rarity is to drink it while can.
Most of Ralph Steadman’s canines are grotesque in their own memorable ways: Double Dog, with its prickly legs, bulging tongue, and what looks like a diaper; Raging Bitch, with its deranged face and protruding nipples; the demonic jester head of The Fear.
But Kujo is still something special. There’s the long, toothy snout that conjures an alligator. There are the porcupine quills. There’s the forked tongue. One of the eyes is bandaged – or maybe it’s some sort of growth. Even the backdrop feels especially violent and splattered. Is that blood?
It’s an appropriate fit for the imperial coffee stout, an 8.9% winter seasonal that head brewer Ben Clark says is a beast to bear: “Without a doubt, Kujo is the toughest beer to brew and filter.”
Kujo’s recipe requires a large amount of oats to impart a full body, but such quantities often cause delays in the filtering process. “Most beers take us about six to eight hours to filter,” Clark shares. “This beer can take 24 hours for the same size batch.”
Additionally, the beer requires a labor-intensive post-filtration, where a “secret roast” of coffee from Summit Point, West Virginia’s Black Dog Coffee in introduced.
“[That] is a custom-roasted coarse ground coffee that we place into five-pound sacks that allow for great surface contact with the beer,” the head brewer explains. “We add a few hundred pounds of coffee this way to each batch.”
The fun’s not over yet.
“The beer is then moved onto the coffee, recirculated for one to three days until the coffee character is just right – tasting all along the way, of course – and then we must move the beer off the coffee, and retrieve the bags of spent coffee.”
It’s a savage process for a beer that has fittingly been called “the savage spawn of two brewing worlds.”
You may be inclined, quite reasonably, to shrug it off as tongue-in-cheek marketing, but when it comes to Lucky SOB, rest assured of one thing: There are indeed genuine four-leave clovers in Flying Dog’s Irish ale.
“It all started on a summer day when we were talking about Lucky SOB. Tabitha [Kim], our purchasing person, said, ‘I’ll tell you how to find four-leaf clovers.’ Apparently, they have a little dot on them or something.” Caruso recalls. “Not long after, she brought back these four-leaf clovers. So, we put them in a Ziploc bag, and I put them in my freezer for months. One day, I brought them back into the brewery, and we have a brewer from Ireland who he did an incantation over the vessel before we actually added the four-leaf clovers.”
“It was a bit of a ceremony,” Brophy laughs.
Unfortunately, when Flying Dog sought government approval for Lucky SOB, the brewery discovered that the luck of the Irish doesn’t guarantee a green light. “We found out that four-leaf clovers were not classified as ‘generally fit for human consumption,’” Caruso says with bemusement. “We had to not only get the beer and the label approved as usual, we also had to get four-leaf clovers deemed fit for human consumption.”
In addition to four-leaf clovers, Lucky SOB is made with 100% imported Irish malt. Just don’t call it an Irish red in front of Brophy. “It’s an Irish ale,” he vents. “The ‘red’ term gets to me.”
Caruso humors him. “The red’s not really a red.”
Like cherry tart Super Tramp, Lucky SOB is a “quasi-seasonal” – a beer brewed and released during a particular season, but not necessarily one you can expect to find in quite as steady a supply as, say, Dead Rise or Dogtoberfest. In fact, Flying Dog dropped having Spring seasonal altogether. It’s something Caruso says a lot of breweries are doing.
“Spring is this weird season,” the CEO explains. “No one wants to bring a Spring beer in during December, so you can’t really load it in until the middle of January, and by St. Patty’s Day, everyone is in the summer mentality. It’s like this six-week season.”
Lucky SOB is a stop-gap seasonal of sorts – something to have in market in the build up to St. Patrick’s Day but not much longer.
As for whether the inclusion of four-leaf covers caries any tangible benefits, Caruso is willing to hedge his bets.
“We think of it like Blaise Pashcal might,” the CEO shares. “He had the wager that said why you should believe in God. If there is no God and you believe, what have you given up? But if there is a God and you don’t believe, you’re going to burn in hell. So, we can’t tell you that four-leaf clovers will give you good luck, but what have you got to lose? You might as well have a pint of Lucky SOB during the St. Patty’s Day season.”
Introduced into the seasonal line-up this year, Numero Uno is the brainchild of chief marketing officer Ben Savage. At the brewery’s Gambrill State Park retreat in 2013, he pitched the idea of a craft alternative to south-of-the-border light lagers that uses agave as a fermentable. After getting the nod, his Agave Lager was introduced as a Brewhouse Rarity a year later.
But what Caruso initially considered “a good experiment” found a passionate audience in waiting. “When we rolled this out, the market feedback was phenomenal. People were calling us about it long after we had run through the couple hundred barrels we brewed,” the CEO recalls. “The message was clear: We love this beer.”
The timing was fortuitous for Savage’s project. Flying Dog had been looking to expand its lighter, more sessionable offerings, so moving the “summer cerveza” concept into its warm weather line-up was “intuitive.”
In making the jump, Numero Uno supplanted longtime summer seasonal Woody Creek White. “Woody Creek White is a very traditional Belgian witbier, and it still sells extremely well, but you can only put so many beers in the market,” Caurso explains. “We love that beer. We approach it more like, ‘What do you want to let go for the moment?’”
Brewed with German noble hops and lime zest, this year’s Numero Uno diverges slightly from the original Agave Lager, but Flying Dog says the spirit remains true. And much like its predecessor, Numero Uno is overperfoming. “It’s exceeding our expectations as a seasonal, too,” Brophy shares.
The “summer cerveza” is unlike anything in Flying Dog’s portfolio, which is perhaps why the brewmaster seems unsure quite what to make of it.
“I look at it as a bit of a curiosity, at least from a brewer’s standpoint. It’s very low in alcohol. It’s not very hoppy. It’s thirst quenching. I’m fascinated by it,” he shares. “It’s great that people are engaging in this type of craft beer from a small brewery. They could buy the other stuff. There are plenty of mass-produced Central American beers that just aren’t really that good and don’t necessarily have the quality built into them.”
Caruso shrugs. “Some things just connect with the market.“
Consuming briny oysters and roasty stouts is a custom that goes back to Victorian England, and the idea of using mollusks in the brewing of a stout is rumored to have originated in late 1920s New Zealand, but Flying Dog sees its oyster stout as central component of its Maryland identity.
“This area was built on dark beers and oysters, when the beds were a couple hundred feet deep,” Caruso shares. “It’s what fueled that generation of pioneers on the Chesapeake.”
Before it could brew Pearl Necklace, though, Flying Dog needed to insure it would have enough mollusks to make the oyster stout.
The brewery wanted to source locally, so it reached out to Travis Croxton, who working in tandem with his cousin Ryan had revived his grandfather’s oyster company, Rappahannock Oyster.
“We visited down there and went out on the boats and checked out the whole oyster growing operation,” Brophy remembers. “Over a couple of a beers, he said to me, ‘I’ll tell you what: You make the beer and I’ll make sure you have the oysters for it.’ It was just a handshake type thing.”
In the time since Pearl Necklace’s fall 2011 debut, that commitment has continued to hold up. “We actually had an order come in earlier today,” the brewmaster tells me. “I just took them up to the cooler. We’ll be brewing it in the next day or so.”
What Flying Dog is removing from the bay, it’s helping to replenish: For every bottle of Pearl Necklace sold, ten oysters go back into the Chesapeake thanks to the brewery’s partnership with the Oyster Recovery Project, an organization dedicated to the restoration of the Eastern oyster.
“We’re not just brewers and business people, we’re community members,” Brophy says of the relationship. “In the past, the bay was almost not navigable because there were so many oysters, but with pollution and everything, you’ve seen deterioration of that. The Oyster Recovery Partnership is building it back up.”
“We don’t beat our chest about stuff like this, but we write them a check,” Caruso adds. “The same goes for Dead Rise – we contribute some of the proceeds to the True Blue program, which supports true Maryland crab. It’s kind of a big deal to us.”
“People are always going to tell the brewer, ‘This beer is great!’” he jokes. “You’re not going to walk up to me and be like, ‘I hate your beer!’”
Still, even if flattery is the norm, Brophy sensed something different in the air when Flying Dog premiered a small pilot brew of its Belgian IPA at the Brickskeller six years ago.
“I had never quite seen a reaction to a beer like we saw with Raging Bitch,” he remembers. “The reception was just phenomenal. They were going really crazy about it. We only had this pilot batch, so we came back to the brewery and eventually decided, ‘Let’s get it out there and see what happens.’”
The beer had initially been conceived as the cross-pollination of Brophy’s two favorite beer styles, broadly defined: Belgian ales and IPAs.
After an early conversation with the brewing team, the brewmaster set about experimenting, modifying an existing work stream to play with different yeast and hop combinations. After settling on El Diablo for the former, it dawned on him that the Amarillo hop – a variety with tropical fruit characteristics – would pair perfectly.
The El Diablo yeast train was the inspiration for the beer’s working name: Deviled Dog. That moniker turned out to be taken, but once the beer hit the market, it didn’t matter what it was called.
“We were sending kegs up to the New York market that didn’t even have a name,” Caruso remembers. “Places like the Ginger Man would blow through a keg in one day.”
Internally, the brewery had settled on “Raging Bitch,” but while Flying Dog was clearing compliance hurdles, the beer was going by the less colorful “Belgian IPA.” Or so Brophy thought. “One night, my dad texted me from Victoria and said, ‘I just had the Raging Bitch,’” the brewmaster remembers. “I was like, ‘How the hell does he know it’s called Raging Bitch!?’ Somehow, it just kind of leaked through our system here or there.”
Since seeing release in 2009, Raging Bitch has been Flying Dog’s top-selling beer, accounting for one-third of the brewery’s total sales. In taking that spot, it displaced the previous reigning champ, Doggie Style. “Our pale ale is a phenomenal pale ale,” Caruso says of the change. “But with ten million pale ales in the market, it’s a little bit hard to distinguish yourself.”
At a respectable 8.3% ABV and 64 IBU, Raging Bitch certainly distinguishes itself. In fact, it’s not a beer that screams mass appeal, at least on paper.
“Raging Bitch is pretty hoppy, but it’s so well-balanced that very few people would consider it a ‘hoppy beer,’” Caruso observes. “Very few people would recognize that it’s 8.3%. It’s dangerously drinkable. “
If Caruso has one regret when it comes to the bestseller, it’s putting it into a category.
“You hate to say ‘Belgian IPA’ because people think, ‘Another IPA?’ The Belgian bit throws people off, too,” the CEO shares. “This beer is just a tropical, fruity, delicious, grapefruity thing. It’s got these nice floral undertones. I wish we had just called it Raging Bitch.”
If Dogtoberfest is Flying Dog at its most europhilic, using all German ingredients to create a traditional Märzen, then Secret Stash is the Autumn foil: A beer made with almost entirely with local inputs.
“Secret Stash is a beer that really celebrates the harvest season, specifically in Maryland agriculture,” Brophy explains. “From the beginning, we were working with local hop farmers and incorporating local ingredients. It is a bit of a challenge to get local malted barley. We do have our partnership with Copper Fox in Virginia, but we’re focusing on elevating the local hop growers and market.”
Backing up that talk, Flying Dog hosts an annual meet-up at the brewery where local hop growers can meet with area brewers, offer samples, and discuss the nitty gritty – pricing and quantity availability. It’s that last bit where things can hit a snag.
“The harvest season comes, the hops get processed, and the quantities that are produced in Virginia and Maryland are kind of low. It’s not yet a sustainable supply,” the brewmaster says. “Some day that may change. In New York, they’re growing more hops than in Maryland and Virginia combined.”
Of course, like most any agricultural products, hops are influenced by the soil and climate of a region. The 42nd parallel – stretching from Oregon and California through Michigan and to upstate New York – has proven for desirable hops; the 38th less no.
“There are certain limitations with growing hops in the East,” Brophy says. “Cascade is a popular variety, but you see a little more grassiness and a little less citrus characteristics than you might get if it was grown in the Yakima Valley. It’s a work in progress.”
Entering its fifth year, Secret Stash has been a work in progress itself. Flying Dog has tweaked the recipe over the years, moving from a Belgian style saison to an American pale ale with a cleaner yeast strain. “We’re trying to let the hop shine through,” Brophy says of the evolution. “It’s a pretty simple grist in the malt brew.”
Another input that has gotten cut, albeit more literally at first: potatoes. When Flying Dog first brewed Secret Stash in 2011, it used the local produce as a fermentable. Things didn’t go quite as planned.
“We had them in mash cooker and basically boiled them. We wanted to gelatinize them, almost like making mashed potatoes,” Brophy remembers. “We mashed the grain on top of that, and turned it into the lauter ton, and after that, we started seeing little potato chunks floating in there.”
“The night before, there was someone who wasn’t being aggressive enough in cutting up the potatoes. It was like being in the army, chopping up potatoes, and they were getting kind of tired,” recalls Caruso. “So these giant potato chunks came through the beer. They would pop up like a missile coming from a submarine.”
“They were goddamn tasty too, I’ll tell you,” Brophy says with a big grin. “They had the malt sweetness. There was a little bit of conversion, a little bit of starch.”
“We’re always learning,” the CEO adds.
“All of our babies are beautiful, but for eighteen years, this is what I’ve been drinking at the end of the day,” he tells me, holding up 16 ounces of Snake Dog IPA. “It’s my ‘makes the world right’ beer.”
Introduced in 1997 as a “Colorado IPA,” Snake Dog is one of the few beers – along with In Heat Wheat, Doggie Style Pale Ale, and Dogtoberfest – that Brophy didn’t have a hand in developing. Unlike the others, however, he has left his mark on Snake Dog.
“Snake Dog is pretty true to what it started as – a pretty edgy IPA – but Matt juiced it up,” Caruso explains. “What was extreme in 1997 isn’t extreme today,”
The juicing occurred in 2003, when the brewmaster transformed Snake Dog from an English IPA made with the traditional English hop Goldings to one that reflected developments in West Coast varieties – namely, the rise of the Columbus hop – and the public’s taste for hoppier IPAs.
In discussing the latter trend, Brophy makes note of the supposed “lupulin shift,” a term coined by Russian River Brewing Company brewer Vinnie Cilurzo to reflect what many see as the collective migration among craft brewers and drinkers towards beers with more robust hop bitterness.
“It’s the natural progression of things,” Caruso says of that gradual change. “The more you drink IPAs, the more you’ll want to try something hoppier. You’re more interested in experimenting with what the edge of the style is. It’s just America: ‘Give me more of that.’”
“It’s like spicy food,” Brophy adds. “You get acclimated, and then you want a little bit more and more heat.”
As for Snake Dog in particular, the brewmaster modestly downplays his involvement.
“Over time, there really hasn’t been much that we’ve changed about it. We just made it a little more assertive,” he explains. “It’s the standard American IPA. It does really well for us. And I agree with Jim: It’s kind of a go-to for me.”
Earlier this year, San Diego’s Stone Brewing Company announced it had revamped the recipe of its flagship double IPA, Ruination. The beer has been a staple since 2002, but as the brewery explained, a lot had changed in the passing years: more varieties of high alpha-acid hops are available; extraction techniques have improved; palates have shifted. So, Ruination was out, replaced with what Stone dubbed “Ruination 2.0.”
This was the same shifting landscape facing Flying Dog in 2010, when it set about developing The Truth – an imperial IPA that wouldn’t replace double IPA Double Dog, but one that was certainly envisioned as its hipper younger brother.
“The Double Dog recipe came to life in 2005, and at that point, the varieties of hops available to brewers were somewhat limited,” Brophy explains. “As the decade progressed, a lot more interesting hops came along. We were looking to incorporate them into something that was a little different.”
In this golden age of West Coast hops, though, Ben Clark warns that it’s easy for breweries to fall into the trap of using too many. “I have a handful of favorite hop varieties, [and] I would love to use them all in one beer, but that won’t make the best IPA,” the head brewer shares. “You end up making this ‘hop soup.’”
Clark credits the experience of Flying Dog’s Single Hop Series with shaping The Truth. Rolled out in 2011, the series challenges the brewers to make four imperial IPAs every year, each utilizing a single hop. Thus far in 2015, Flying Dog has brewed and bottled imperial IPAs spotlighting HBC-431, Columbus, and Warrior, and Apollo is scheduled for its close-up in October.
Brophy says the series is the product time spent in Yakima. “It’s about us finding and learning about new hops, and then trying to get enough to make a single hop imperial IPA,” the brewmaster shares. “Once we do, the process is not the most complicated in the world.”
Brewing an entry in the series remains relatively consistent from batch to batch. The brew team targets the same bitterness levels (75 IBUs), which requires some adjustments in the bittering additions, but otherwise, the brew time and dry hopping are the same. This uniformity allows the variations each hop’s characteristics to shine through.
In some cases, those characteristics can change from year to year. “We began using [the El Dorado] hop in the first year of the Single Hop program. We got just enough of the [it] to brew the beer, because it was a very new variety,” Clark shares. “We brewed the El Dorado again each of the next two years… What we saw was the hop maturing over the years as it went from a ‘baby’ crop to a ‘mature’ crop.”
During this fruition, Clark could witness El Dorado’s aroma and flavor morph from something bright and sweet – like a watermelon Jolly Rancher – to a hop that evoked peaches and apricots with a hint of melon.
The Single Hop Series presented Brophy’s team the opportunity to understand these new varieties inside and out, and to figure out how the brewery could best use each in its beers. Clark compares the methodology to a microbiologist gaining an extra level of magnification. “We wanted to break everything down to the simplest level and know exactly what we are getting from each varietal in terms of bitterness, flavor, and aroma.” the head brewer explains. “There are certainly some hops that are better suited for different parts of the process – ones that give cleaner bittering or a more favorable flavor and aroma.”
All of this acquired familiarity went into The Truth, which after years of research and development, had its laundry list of hops locked in: Warrior, Summit, Citra, Amarillo, and a blend of Columbus, Tomahawk and Zeus called CTZ.
“We identified the standout hop varieties that we loved in the series and utilized them in the same way that they stood out to us,” Clark continues. “One of the challenges was balancing the characteristics that were so enjoyable from each variety so they were all perceivable on their own, yet blended together to create something unexpected and truly extraordinary.”
But beyond just selecting the hops, Flying Dog also had to make sure it would have enough to regularly make The Truth.
“We anticipated that it would probably be one of the more popular beers,” Brophy remembers. “We had to make sure we had the hop contracts in place to be able to bring The Truth in as a full-time beer and support its production.”
With all of its ducks in a row, the brewery debuted the imperial IPA in the summer of 2013. At 120 IBUs, it’s a “beast” in its own right, but there’s an unmistakable subtle sweetness to it.
The Truth, it would appear, does not always have to hurt.
Additional contributions by Katie Hahn.
Full disclosure: BYT and Flying Dog have a business relationship with regard to the promotion of the brewery’s summer concert series.
This piece originally ran August 11, 2015.