PorchDrinking Interview: Flying Dog Brewery and Gonzofest
The concept of “local” is a vital part of the craft beer experience. Beer drinkers—both new and seasoned—often seek out brews that were made close to home with locally-sourced products. This makes the entire experience special, more personal. Thankfully, as a resident of DC, I can call Flying Dog Brewery my local brewery, and I was welcomed and encouraged to do so by Flying Dog CEO, Jim Caruso. Jim and his team were kind enough to invite PorchDrinking to attend their annual Gonozofest, a music fest-cum-beer fest-cum-Hunter S. Thompson-homage. We were also lucky enough to attend a behind the scenes tour led by Jim himself.
Flying Dog has experienced wild success over the past few years to become the 29th largest volume producing brewery in the U.S. What struck me immediately about Flying Dog and everyone who worked there, was that this is not a place for BS; this is a place for great beer, great fun and great passion. The brewery maxim sums it up well: “Good beer, no shit.” And that is precisely what you’re going to get here.
The brewery is an unassuming place, packed snugly into a warehouse on the outskirts of Frederick, MD. But once you pass through the doors, it becomes a temple to beer and one of my favorite Kentuckians, Hunter S. Thompson (who also dabbled in homebrewing), and his illustrator of choice/partner in depravity, Ralph Steadman. The hallway that leads to the production rooms are splashed with murals chronicling the life and libertine of Mr. Steadman’s inadvertent associate, Mr. Thompson. Steadman’s raw, sometimes rude (but in the best way) style is the perfect reflection of Hunter’s literature and Flying Dog’s approach to beer: Gonzo as hell.
At Flying Dog, beer is “liquid art,” which is why the brewery sought to place original artwork on the vessels entrusted with this great beer. Steadman’s work was seen as the perfect artistic embodiment of the Flying Dog spirit, as it echoes the “if you’re going to be crazy, you have to get paid for it or else you’re going to be locked up” attitude that Flying Dog embraces and infuses into each excellent brew they produce.
But between the usual brewery tour talk of wort, hopping, and the debate over cans vs. bottles (cans seem to keep coming out on top), Jim chatted very frankly with PorchDrinking.com about the future of craft beer, what it means to be local, and advice for craft beer neophytes:
PD: What do you think is the next big trend to look for in craft beer?
JC: Palates have changed but what we see now is people continually pushing the edge. With all of the breweries popping up, people are getting tired – it’s not news anymore that there’s a new craft beer. It used to be that it was a huge celebration. I think now it’s sorting out in a way that the industry has grown, there’s certainly a huge amount of new breweries coming in but now it is who are those trusted craft breweries that people are adopting as part of their brand portfolio.
PD: Stylistically, what is the next big thing?
JC: I don’t see the next big thing as much as we are going through a tremendous period of experimentation. For a few months, it was all the talk was that sour beers were something. I can’t really say that’s a trend, other than that the trend is really to push the edge as far as you can push it. And something inevitably falls out from that.
PD: You mentioned in the tour that Flying Dog’s core market is the mid-Atlantic. The idea of what is “local” is rapidly changing and expanding. Do you see what local means for you and the community evolving and growing?
JC: There are two levels to that. The first level would be you’re in this industry where you have the macro: Sam Adam’s, New Belgium. For those breweries, if you’re going to do that, you need a mass market strategy and a flagship beer that is consumable by the general public. That’s one strategy. That’s not a strategy that I want to be a part of. Where you run into trouble is that brands want to spread out and want to be national, and when you do that you run against Abita in New Orleans or Sweetwater in Atlanta or Flying Dog in Maryland. We used to be in 48 states and 25 countries; I’ve been shrinking that and shrinking that. I’d rather be a trusted, relevant regional brewery with lots of beer styles and that is a very defensible position.
Local is one of those words that everyone uses but doesn’t really define. I define it as, “what does that mean to the people who are in the beer world?” Well, that means several things. Instead of being able to do 10 styles and have one be 80% of my sales, I can have 40 styles and only 8 are available outside of this region. Part of local is that when you are in this area you get to try and access ALL that this local brewery can do, that it couldn’t do nationally or worldwide. The second is that local movement means that we are partnering with local people. Yes local is nice, it’s eco-friendly, it’s fresher, it’s all of those things. But it creates a sense of community that doesn’t exist with a brewery that is 1700 miles away. But I can form a bond with someone who brings spent grain over to my restaurant and work with them to bake bread, and we brew a beer for them, and then we have a film festival where it’s a celebration. For those people who want to be part of that slow movement – which isn’t everybody but it’s a big enough audience – we believe there is value in that sense of community, especially around an agricultural product.
PD: I know you came out with the Single Hop Series and the collaboration with Evolution. Anything else exciting on the horizon?
JC: We do! There are a lot of breweries out there that we love. Last year, we did a collaboration that was an “Arms Race.” So we are doing another Arms Race this year with four breweries. Last year, it was to brew a bitter beer without hops; this year, we aren’t using barley. ABB: Anything But Barley. That’s not the official name, just what we’re calling it right now. Should be quite fun!
PD: What is your advice to someone who is just starting out drinking craft beer? It can be a fairly overwhelming experience for many people with so many options in style, breweries, etc and it comes along with a unique vocabulary that can scare off many people.
JC: There are about 60,000 beers in America. My advice is don’t start at the liquor store. Start at the brewery or a beer dinner or a tasting. If you were just coming to this industry, the sheer number of styles is overwhelming. If you have some interest, start at one of these very friendly beer or beer and food events. In the movie Dead Poet’s Society, there is a scene where Robin Williams has them tear the page out of the book of poetry and break it down. And I feel like that does a disservice to beer, as well. You talk about all of these styles. And Andy Crouch from Beer Advocate came out with an article recently that just said, “Drink whatever the f*** you want.”
My opinion is, forget about all of this beer geeky sort of stuff and go to a brewery, go to a tasting, find out what you like. And then learn a little bit about what that is.
PD: I think that is a perfect note to end on!
JC: Well, you’re here at the Gonzo brewery, where we’re very unfiltered and unscripted.
Heading out of the air-conditioning of the brewery, I stepped out onto a modest yard lined with tents that prominently featured a stage at the end. Under each tent, Flying Dog employees doled out Flying Dog favorites to eager festival goers (extra points to those dressed in Hawaiian shirts, Panama hats or visors, and yellow-tinted Aviators). A local cigar shop provided choice smokes. Food trucks served up only the best heartburn-inducing festival favorites like BBQ and tacos. The music was killer – The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion lives up to its name. Among the kegs of usual suspects lurked a few choice firkins of “obscure, rare, and experimental” brews:
Snake Dog IPA with CTZ hops and Cinnamon Basil: beer with cider-like spice. Would be an excellent Thanksgiving beer.