A tall, tasty glass of art

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Holly Manthei and Ben Savage photo by Jonathan Timmes

Ben Savage ’99 first told me “the Flying Dog story” over the phone from his mother-in-law’s beach house on the Maryland seashore.

It begins like this. Back in 1983, before there was a brewery, before there was even a Flying Dog beer, a thrill-seeking Colorado landowner named George Stranahan, heir to the Champion spark plug fortune, took on K2 with a dangerously inexperienced group of mountaineers. Resting in a Pakistan hotel bar after the climb, Stranahan marveled at the painting of a winged canine that appeared to be a local artist’s misinterpretation of the English-language notion of a bird dog. “They just thought no one ever told this painter that dogs can’t fly,” Savage had said. “And it resonated with them because no one ever told them that they couldn’t climb K2.”

It’s resonating with me, too, as I drive up Wedgewood Boulevard, straining to distinguish Flying Dog Brewery from the masonry contractors and seamless gutter manufacturers in this nondescript Frederick, Maryland, industrial park. Why? Because no one told me I couldn’t drop by a brewery for a visit at 8 o’clock on a Monday morning in January with my three young sons. Not even Savage, the company’s vice president of brand development, who, very last minute, after arrangements I made by late-night email while visiting family in Virginia, is expecting us.

At last I spot a Winnebago wrapped in the bat-winged, spattered Flying Dog logo. Savage will tell me the vehicle finally died last year, a souvenir from the founding era in Aspen, Colorado, that moved here with the rest of the company a few years ago. For now he’s waiting patiently inside to tell us the rest of the story and talk about things that make him happy.

A good beer was hard to find

Once upon a time, Savage was a Natty Light drinker who met his first craft beer, a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, at a “high-end keg party.” As a lacrosse player studying marketing and film at Notre Dame, he sought out Goose Island brews whenever he traveled to Chicago. Then he strapped on a backpack and flew to Europe. “Once you go to Belgium, your whole perspective on beer changes,” he says. “Their beer is phenomenal and so different.”

So to understand the smile on the face of this barrel-chested man with the close-cropped hair and the untucked gray brewery shirt as he begins his tour spiel, it helps to remember some things about beer that the average American drinker has forgotten, having reduced it to a mere social lubricant or an ice-cold refreshment for grown-ups after yard work.

Beer is as old as civilization. It’s made water potable and given the people an affordable alternative to aristocratic wine for some 12,000 years. Modern brewers work in more than 60 different styles enumerated by Tasting Beer author Randy Mosher, from classic English bitter to American pumpkin ale.

The right beer can pair with nearly any food, including many that have foiled the most imaginative wine enthusiasts. Malted barley, hops, water and yeast are the basics, but there are dozens of varieties of hops alone, so there’s more to be made from it all than the American lager we typically reach for at the grocery store. When brewers select and blend their ingredients, boiling the malt and hops into a banquet of fermentable sugar for the yeast, the possibilities are wide-ranging, and that’s without substituting other grains for the barley, like oats, rye or wheat, or experimenting with the flavors added by virtually anything from sage to peppercorns to chocolate to oysters.

The marbled handles I spy over Savage’s shoulder in the brewery’s taproom speak to this experimental spirit. Kujo Imperial Coffee Stout is in season, and though it’s a little early in the year for the heavier, higher-alcohol Horn Dog Barley Wine with its hints of caramel and spice, it’s out there, too, along with more than a dozen other ales for, uh, older visitors to try.

“We honestly feel that making beer is an art form,” Savage says. He talks about a front-porch ethic to match craft brewing’s aesthetics. “Support local creativity” is a company mantra. Within the last year Flying Dog partnered with acclaimed chef Bryan Voltaggio to explore smoked malt and create the “perfect barbecue beer,” and with local chocolatier Randy Olmstead to pair the brewery’s popular Raging Bitch India Pale Ale with Olmstead’s blood-orange truffles.

It’s all good for the Maryland economy, Savage says, and that matters to the brewery’s fans. “You can actually have a conversation with the guy that makes our beer, shake his hand, give him a hug,” he adds. That is what sets craft brewing apart.

All for one

Research and development in this industry means sampling the competition. It’s one of Savage’s favorite parts of the job. The little guys stick together as they run through the legs of the big corporate brewers with a camaraderie and mutual respect that’s key to the industry’s success. And business is good. Brewers Association data for 2010 show 11 percent volume growth and 12 percent sales growth for the small, independent, American-owned breweries and brewpubs the trade group represents, more than 1,700 at last count. Meanwhile the overall U.S. beer market declined 1 percent, to say nothing of the stale economy as a whole.

Finding your niche is important in craft brewing, notes Bill Brennan ’01MBA, an industry veteran who helped build brands like Brooklyn Brewery and now directs the MBA initiatives program at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Regional pride and appeal are important, he says, but in the end, “you gotta make a darn good product, too. Make it something that is not readily found.”

While Brennan was learning those lessons in the field, Savage was just another Baltimore-area kid twirling a lacrosse stick. Oscar Wong ’63, ’65M.S., on the other hand, was a mid-career entrepreneur who’d sold his engineering business and was looking for a fresh challenge. He found it in renewing an old love from his student days at Notre Dame.

One afternoon at Cushing Hall, Wong and classmate Dan Castellani ’63, ’65M.S. spotted a custodian pulling from his lunch sack a Pepsi bottle that didn’t have Pepsi in it. “That’s my beer,” the man explained to the thunderstruck young men, who asked for his recipe and hustled to Sears to buy a 10-gallon garbage pail, malt sugar, a thermometer, a manometer. “The works,” Wong says.

They began in the basement of the house Wong shared with friends on Washington Street. The first batch, they forgot the hops. Then they decided not to bother with them at all. One night after a party, someone checked the brew at 1 o’clock and woke up the house to bottle it before the beer went flat. “We loved it,” Wong recalls. “We called it Tiger Paws. If you had too much, it would tear you up.”

Wong gave up home brewing for a time, satisfying his thirst for good beer with tastings and beer dinners, a story undoubtedly familiar to many whose entrepreneurship built the industry. When he met an award-winning brewer in North Carolina, he saw his chance. Together they established the first legal brewery in Asheville since Prohibition.

Today, Wong says, his Highland Brewing Company has tapped thematically into the community’s Scottish heritage to become the fourth largest brewer in the southeastern United States. Its 23,000 barrels (one barrel equals 31 gallons) last year represented a 30 percent jump in production over the year before, but Highland is still not quite a third the size of Flying Dog, which is itself still a relatively modest player. By comparison, the first-in-the-world Anheuser-Busch portfolio, now a segment of a Belgium-headquartered multinational beverage corporation, dropped below 100 million barrels in total shipments for the first time in more than 10 years.

Size doesn’t matter to Jeffrey Stuffings ’02, whose Jester King Craft Brewery managed a wee 930 barrels in 2011, its first full year of operation, and looks to top out around 4,000. The name is a play on Budweiser’s famous nickname, but interprets “king” in terms of what Stuffings says the spirit of beer really is: “diverse and interesting, and not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.” Artisan brewers taking risks on wild yeasts and harvested rainwater to rediscover forgotten flavors or prospect for new ones are the jesters and true kings of the beer world, he says.

Stuffings now does professionally what kept him up often until 4 a.m. as a young attorney in Austin: obsessing over recipes and trying them out. Making the jump to full-time brewing, he won the support of some Irish Angels, a venture capital network affiliated with Mendoza.

His company crafts farmhouse ales and other tradition-soaked beers in wine-size bottles for about $8 to $10 apiece. Several contain high levels of organic ingredients — like yeasts that float in from the neighboring cidery and wineries in Texas’ Hill Country to settle on shallow, open-air cooling vessels. Das Wunderkind! is one beer Stuffings brews using this kind of slow, inefficient, old-world practice, which includes aging in oak barrels. “It’ll throw people for a loop,” he says. “We’re quite proud of it.”

Good beer, no censorship

All this creativity isn’t as easy as it may look. Stuffings toils for years to produce the beers he likes to drink. Wong talks about physical labor: schlepping sacks of grain, buckets, hoses, not to mention the bottling and kegging. Though he’s older than the parents of most of his employees, now and then he’ll even pick up a broom and sweep.

Then there’s the legal work. Flying Dog’s penchant for corporate pottymouth — Raging Bitch, its biggest seller, didn’t go over well with the Michigan Liquor Control Commission — has twice led it to court. Lately in their fight for brewing rights, Savage and CEO Jim Caruso found themselves poring over state legislation, too. They consulted with distributors and retailers and worked with their state senator to rewrite part of Maryland’s restrictive post-Prohibition beer law, which had pronounced unfavorably on virtually every aspect of microbrewing from the amount of beer they could sell to visitors or pour on tours to the kind of events they could host.

Wong and Stuffings say similar laws cramp craft beer’s style in their states. “We’re pioneers,” says Wong, “and pioneers tend to get shot at a lot.” At Flying Dog, a copy of Maryland’s new law hangs behind the bar to mark the breakthrough, but Savage says there’s still more work to do. For instance, out-of-state breweries may open brewpubs in Maryland, but license restrictions block his company from doing the same. “It’s kind of a weird law,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like you’re promoting in-state success.”

The fight-for-your rights attitude is part of the brand. Apart from the legislative memento, stepping into Flying Dog’s taproom is like falling into a Hunter S. Thompson story in Rolling Stone circa 1972. That’s no accident. The walls are covered with the framed work of Thompson’s chief collaborator, the British artist Ralph Steadman, whose gritty, grotesque style once lampooned the depraved side of American culture alongside Thompson’s wild, rambling prose. Murals leading back to the brewhouse feature more of Steadman’s art and once more tell that Flying Dog story from beginning to end. Steadman still designs every label and is as responsible for the brand’s irreverent persona as anyone.

Thompson himself introduced Steadman to Flying Dog founder George Stranahan, Thompson’s Aspen neighbor and pal. Steadman delivered his first label design for an England-inspired beer, Road Dog Porter, in 1994. Naturally, as the brewpub’s poet laureate, Thompson, the late inventor of “gonzo” journalism, delivered the toast.

“There is an ancient Celtic axiom,” he began, raising a goblet of the ruby-dark ale, “that says, ‘Good people drink good beer.’ Which is true, then as now.”

My boys don their goggles so we can go see where the beer is made. We climb a flight of metal stairs while Savage talks over the noise emerging from the stainless-steel brewkettle and ductwork in the brewhouse.

Growth happened fast, he says. Flying Dog found its way to barrooms and beer shelves in 43 states and 26 countries and eventually bought the defunct Frederick Brewing Company to brew out of this facility for its burgeoning customer base east of the Mississippi. In 2008, Flying Dog shifted the entire business to Maryland. They lost friends in the unusual move, Savage says, but they kept others, along with the Winnebago and the equipment from their Blake Street brewery in Denver. Next door in the beer cellar, where funky indie folk music echoes off long rows of gleaming fermentation tanks, Savage explains how they painted the legs of the Denver tanks red to remind them of their roots.

Not long after, the company hired Savage, trusting his marketing expertise and outsider’s perspective to help it build its fan base through experiential marketing: events, social media, brewery tours, targeted philanthropy, an exclusive beer club. The strategy is to pull out of faraway places and fortify the brand in the Mid-Atlantic. The challenge, he says, is “transcending beer geekdom” to get the unconverted to give your beer a try like he once did. Imagine a down-and-dirty tavern in Anytown, Maryland, with three draft lines, one for Bud, another for Miller Lite. “That third one, if it’s you? In craft beer, that’s the goal,” he says.

Making our way out of the cellar, “a Rubik’s cube of logistics” where brewers balance varying fermentation times with tank cleanings and production schedules, we pass the lab where technicians test the beer and taste it every morning before packaging begins. Back in the bottling area, the children gravitate to machines that fill and cap some 230 bottles a minute. A passing forklift driver honks as Savage walks me over to a freestanding tank with a tap and a board that announces what’s on the line. “This is the freshest beer you can possibly get,” he says with a grin. “So we fill our growlers off these.”

That’s the tour. It takes a minute to peel the boys away from quality control, where Savage has promised a little boot will shoot defective bottles off the conveyor belt and into a garbage can. No luck. It seems Flying Dog is on a roll. We have a long drive back to Indiana and Savage is late for a marketing team retreat in the nearby Catoctin Mountains. No on-site samples for me, but he suggests I take a few six-packs home to share with friends. I ask what he’d recommend. But, waving goodbye to my entourage, the beer man who has three kids of his own at home won’t advise me. “I like all my children the same.”

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.