Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking with Matt Shirah and Travis Herman of Scofflaw Brewing Co.

On a cool afternoon about 12 hours before the tropical storm formerly known as Hurricane Irma blows and pours its way through Atlanta, leaving hundreds of thousands of Georgians without power, there are a few dozen folks cheering on the Falcons to victory over the Bears. Scofflaw Brewing Co.'s taproom in Westside Atlanta is busy, but not bonkers, perhaps owed to the fact that a lot of ATLiens are out buying water and generators.

In the breezy lot out front, Good Beer Hunting grabs a picnic table with Scofflaw president/co-founder Matt Shirah and brewmaster/co-founder Travis Herman to catch up on a big first year for their company. In addition to being one of the fastest growing breweries in the U.S., Scofflaw caused quite a stir with a Facebook post in mid-August that depicted the brewery’s entire team flipping off the camera. The photo was paired with a self-described “rant” from Shirah addressing some negative feedback his brewery had received from people online. Here’s part of it:

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“BTW, other craft breweries have these issues. Exploding cans, srm/color variances, haze variances…give them a break. Don’t think this is professional, well that’s good cause I am not a professional, I am a fucking scofflaw. #webrewbeerforgeorgia”

We talk a lot about the post in the conversation below, including the fact that it was inspired, Shirah says, by the employee of a Scofflaw competitor. But we also discuss the ins and outs of buying hops, the difficulties that come with hyper-growth, the steps Scofflaw is taking to ensure consistency going forward, the difference between Shirah and a lot of “business douchebag types,” and much more.

“We’re a little yin and yang,” Shirah says early in our conversation, referring to he and Herman’s respective styles. “He’s quieter about it and I’m much louder about it, much more soapbox-y.”

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Indeed, throughout our conversation, Shirah leans over the table and speaks directly into the recorder when he wants to emphasize a point. Herman, on the other hand, often stays quiet, opting to let his partner pontificate on the brand. That yin/yang model played itself out on Facebook, too. Whereas Shirah was the inspiration for the middle-finger post that went viral in the beer world for a couple weeks, Herman was the impetus behind the follow-up post that, while not exactly apologizing, made it clear that perhaps the first one was a tad hasty in its execution.

The following conversation was a fairly sprawling and tangential one that lasted nearly two hours. As such, it’s been edited for clarity and flow. It’s also one of the most interesting, unique, and truly unfiltered Critical Drinking interviews we’ve ever published.

Let’s ease into this by talking about branding and marketing in general. When you established Scofflaw, what kind of story were you trying to tell? You’re coming up on a year of business, which means you probably have a pretty good idea who you are, but at the outset?

We knew what we were.

What were you?

Scofflaws. Travis and I raised a lot of hell when we were young. We both came from trailer parks, one in Oklahoma, one in North Carolina. We’d made it through our educations, through graduate schools, and had become successful in our fields, and we wanted to leave and get back to doing something we were passionate about. When Travis and I met probably five years ago, we took about six months to get to know each other. We figured out we’d both been in handcuffs enough times to where we understood what the real-world was like. We weren’t spoon-fed Buckhead boys. We had the skill set, together, that it would take to build a brand around our own personalities. We’re a little yin and yang. He’s quieter about it and I’m much louder about it, much more soapbox-y than he is. But at the same time, I can look in his eyes and tell when he’s like, “Fuck you, man.”

Are there times when you’re like, “You need to amp it up,” or he’s like, “You need to calm down,” in that complementary way?

Travis can calm me down or I can work him up. But together, it’s the perfect balance for the brand. Trying to be edgy, but we’ve got families now. We’re not out to create trouble, but we’re not going to change who we are just because anyone wants us to be someone different. Mainly what we wanted to convey was authenticity and approachability. I’m not going to go into detail about rap sheets and shit like that, but we’ve come around to a place where we’re family-oriented guys, but we still take care of our own people. You can be a tough guy and still care. That’s where I think we are.

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How has it changed a year in?

Things have worked a lot better than we thought they would work. The growth is painful, the speed. We’ve put the brakes on it a number of times. It went from five [customers] in there, talking to them, to 800-900 people in there at a time, spread yourself around and hit all those people. If we’re brewing 200,000 barrels a year, hypothetically, you’ll still find us on the floor every day. You won’t find us in a fuckin’ office. He’s fixing a pump. I’m trying to get a bill paid. I’m trying to get the grain farmer to come out.

So you see yourselves, in 20 years, still on that floor?

Oh, god, yeah. Hopefully we’ll be able to take the weekends off at that point. [laughs] We’re a hundred hours in each, every week, at least. There are no days off. We’re fortunate enough to come after so many breweries that have done things the right way and the wrong way. We’ve been able to learn from the guys who came ahead of us and made it much easier for us. Could you imagine, if you’re Ken Grossman, trying to get equipment? And the guys in Georgia cut a path for us. Freddy Bensch cut a road that wasn’t there and showed everyone it could be done at a time when ABVs were unreasonably restricted. Let’s pay tribute to those guys. Now it’s our job to make sure that the people who support us get what they want.

Tell me more about your business outlook.

Here’s the difference between myself and a lot of business guys. There are plenty of business douchebag types out there who think they understand everything about business or beer… My mom’s got 2,500 square foot downstairs. Let’s build a lab and a brewhouse down there. Let’s get to know each other. [Travis and I] spent 24 months in that basement, every day, together, walking through what we thought we wanted to do. And we still made fuckin’ mistakes. But every mistake we’ve made, it sounds clichè, but, every time we fuck something up, it’s always an opportunity to not fuck it up on a larger scale, and to not make the same mistake again and again and again.

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That feels like a good transition point. About a month ago, you put the photo up on Facebook. Are you still hearing about now? Because for a couple weeks it felt like the only story on the beer internet, especially locally. Is it still coming up?

No. Well, I have a lot more requests for interviews. I have a lot more job applications. Web traffic increased 77%. Facebook likes increased 10-to-15 fold the following week. It’s just us being us. I was a little annoyed, so I vented a little bit. I don’t feel bad about it. What drives that process is, let’s say we’ve sold 20,000 cases of beer. There are batch variances in there. Ten times leading up to [the Facebook post], someone was coming at my people and saying, “You guys are not doing the right things.” I’ve called Travis and said, “Go to the fucking brewery and sit down with these guys. If there’s a problem, I wanna know about it. We’re gonna sit down, talk about it, and work it out.” You know what happens every time? Travis, what happens when someone comes in here?

Let me just clarify real quick. This is someone bringing in beer saying there’s a problem?

Yeah, so this has happened less than a dozen times over 20,000 cases of beer. And I say, “Travis, sit down with these guys.” And then what happens?

Probably one of the biggest things that you notice is that the beer is an experience in itself. Some people just drink it to get drunk. But craft people have some connection to the beer that makes them love it. Maybe it’s an awesome tour or it was at a wedding or a special event. They believe in the story or they believe in the product. And there’s other times where maybe something’s just not right in your day, and you’ll have the beer but it doesn’t live up to your previous expectations.

What’s the result when they come and sit down with you and you walk through it?

Most every single time when we’ve asked someone to bring in the rest of the six pack, it ends up being like, “You know what, maybe there’s not that much of a difference.” At no point have we really had an “aha!” moment. Like, “You know what? Thank you, you have brought in the one thing that has really made us try to figure this out.” It's almost always been—

It’s not almost always. Every time.

Every single time so far it’s been something like, “Maybe I remember something a little different about that point. Or maybe that exact moment in time, my taste buds weren’t quite there.” A glass was dirty or whatever.

And your palate is not the guideline for everyone else’s palate. I’d had enough of the social bashing… There are going to be batch variances, and I did not go and say, “Look at this batch variance, look at this batch variance, look at this batch variance.” But everybody’s got it. I could point you to it, say “Look at so-and-so’s beer.” That’s not productive. And maybe even my rant wasn’t productive. Well, I take that back. People need to understand that there are going to be batch variances in small-batch beer. Don’t come at me slandering that this is a bad product. That’s just not true.

Inviting people to the brewery to talk through it, that sounds like a really reasonable interaction. But what was the impetus that made you decide to put the photo up and say what you said?

Well, the photo is one thing. The photo is, “If you don’t like us being who we are, then don’t fuck with us. Don’t drink our beer. Move on.” You’re not the person I’m trying to please if you’re the person that’s coming out in an effort to try and create negativity around what I’m doing. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in community. [gestures toward Scofflaw’s taproom] I’m interested in those guys in there. I don’t give a damn about the beer they’re drinking. I care that they’re drinking the beer in there and facilitating a relationship.

It was someone coming at me that is trying to spew negative rhetoric. And many, many times, many, many times, it ends up being from an employee or a competitive distributor. An employee of a competitive distributor, an employee of another brewery.

People are going, ‘You can’t come in here and make 10 IPAs and be successful.’ Watch. Watch what I do.
— Matt Shirah

So you’re thinking it’s competitors more than consumers?

I don’t think, I know! Because I can look it up and figure out who the fuck it is. But don’t come at my brand. Are you upset that we’re cruising along? All I’m trying to do is make beer here. But if you’re coming at my brand and it’s dishonest, then I’m gonna have something to say about it. That was the straw. Somebody coming at me, I know where it came from, and you’re trying to illustrate a picture of things we’re not doing. I’ve got a lot of money in that laboratory. We have a lot of skills in our people. We have three or four scientists. We’re not fucking around. We make beer because we love it and we’re passionate about it, but this is not a game to us.

Walk me through the moment when you’re gathering everyone together to take that photo. What do you tell them? What’s their motivation?

We had a person who didn’t know how to use our camera and they made us stand there all this time. And Matt was like, “Fuckin’ flip her off!” and, at that exact moment, she happened to catch the photo. But that photo was taken four months before [the Facebook post]. It was an old photo, but it fits very well into what we said.

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There’s a part of the post where you wrote, “Don’t think this is professional, that’s good, ‘cause I am not a professional, I am a fucking scofflaw.” Unpack that a little for me.

I don’t have to be fuckin’ PC to you guys. I’m not trying to be someone that I’m not. You want me to walk and talk a certain way and be extra-special nice? Not gonna fuckin’ happen, man. I care about people and I show them in my own way. You can talk to the people that are around me. But because I grew up in a rough neighborhood, in a rough family, it created a certain type of person, and that’s the type of person that I am. “Professional.” That’s that corporate stigma, bullshit, game-playing political dance that people do when they’re not in charge of their own destiny. I have the guts to jump off the edge of the cliff. All right? When you get the guts to come jump off the edge of the cliff with me, I’ll put you out there with where I am and maybe you’ll understand not being a professional. We are who the fuck we are, and it’s always gonna be that way. Which is why we’re independent. Which is why we make the beers we want. People are going, “You can’t come in here and make 10 IPAs and be successful.” [long pause] Watch. Watch what I do.

Here’s part of the larger issue, Austin. Beer has become hyper-competitive, and there has been a shift to where people are going to have to fight so intensely for shelf space and for sales that the game is gonna change. And it’s at that point now. Fortunately, I feel like our market penetration, being ourselves, doing all these things have allowed us to remain who we are and, at the same time, remain craftsmen. But it ain’t easy anymore. You can’t just come out with shit beer. Local, neighborhood guys can do it and make a living. But we’re trying to make beer for Georgia… It’s only gonna get worse, especially as resources get thinner, not only from the market’s ability to consume excess barrelage, but from a human resources perspective. You add 30 breweries in a state where there’s not many brewers, and the battle for human resources is gonna increase, which I already see. The competitive environment has changed drastically over the past 36 months.

And that’s something I’m curious about. We’re coming up on 6,000 breweries in the country. We’re gonna hit that and go well beyond it. Is there a risk in you guys saying, “Listen, you don’t have to drink our beer.” Saying no to some customers when a lot of small businesses are like, “Oh my god, give us all the possible customers.”

No, no. How am I driving people away?

I think you’re both trying to say the same thing. If someone’s complaining that they don’t like the flavor of our beer then, simply, there’s more out there. It’s not that we wouldn’t love to have you as a customer, but if you go to a tofu restaurant and bitch that all the tofu tastes like tofu, maybe you just don’t like tofu. Go to a chicken place. Don’t spend all your time saying how you don’t like our tofu. I think that’s really what we’re trying to say. If you don’t like us, go drink what you want.

We’re not driving anybody away. If you don’t like it, you shouldn't drink it. I don’t like Pepsi, so I don’t drink it. But I don’t call Pepsi and bitch at them because I think it tastes sweeter than Coca Cola.

[laughs] Fair enough.

There’s an opportunity for everyone to enjoy craft beer. You don’t have to focus on the trolls. They’re not your market, and I can prove that by looking at my sales data. My market is every man that wants to drink a good beer. It’s craftsmanship to us, and if we get the opportunity to share that story with other people, that’s fantastic. If the guy drinks the beer at a bar and I don’t get to share the story, that’s fantastic. If you have a problem attracting customers, then you have a problem with your product. I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of breweries that have said things that people didn’t like. If I couldn’t stand Travis, I guarantee you I’d still drink his beer. Guarantee you. He makes the best beer in the world, but because he said something about my sister’s ass, am I gonna not drink his beer? No way.

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That’s quite an endorsement. You speak in a very particular way, and that came across in the post. And it was everywhere for a couple weeks. And it happened during Shelton week, so there were brewers in town. How did you feel about your peers seeing that? And how do you feel about drinkers who have never had your beer before, that being their first exposure to Scofflaw?

Well, it drove a lot of people in here to try the beer, which was fantastic. We talked to them. There was a lot of support from other breweries that you would know. I won’t say [their names], because they prefer to be more PC than I am. When our guys were at Shelton fest, they had many, many invitations to hang and go out with some of the most renowned breweries in the country as a result of what we did. As a result of what I did. There was a lot of collegial bird-flipping at Shelton fest.

I’ll tell you the way it is. Small brewers get shit on. It happens all the time. They’re getting screwed by the larger players in a myriad of circumstances and ways that people don’t understand. We have good equipment and we have invested heavily in people and R&D. But the small guys, if they’re catering to a certain group and that group doesn’t like what they’re doing, what’re they gonna do? They’re gonna get hurt by something like being honest.

Gratuity levels have nearly doubled on the gross amount of sales. People just feel differently, I think, when they’re buying a beer instead of buying a tour.
— Matt Shirah

It sounds like, knowing what you know now, you would publish that Facebook post again in a heartbeat.

It wasn’t that much fun for a couple days. But it worked out OK. Maybe I would re-couch it or re-position it. But we tried many times to explain variances in flocc rates and tank size differences and yeast changes and hop changes and hop crop year variances, and people don’t wanna hear that. But, why all the negativity? If you don’t like it, man, don’t drink it, dude. There’s plenty of beer. I don’t want anyone spewing negativity around me. Half the time, I’m being funny. I just have a weird sense of humor. My wife can’t tell if I’m fuckin’ with her or not.

Consistency keeps coming up. What steps are you taking to ensure that when people pick up a Basement, they’re having a Basement every time?

One of the biggest things is that we’ve spent a lot of money on analytical equipment. We don’t do a lot of, “How do you feel?” or, “What do you think about this?” It’s like, “What’s the number?” We have specs and ranges for everything. We have digital pH, digital gravity, digital carbon dioxide, digital dissolved oxygen. We have labs that run PCR. We rely heavily on empirical data to determine whether the beer’s good or not. Obviously, sensory still matters, but maybe that day you’re not feeling it or maybe you’re not sensitive enough that you’re picking it up—when it’s a problem that will happen in the future. Having all that data is probably the biggest key when somebody comes at me with a quality issue.

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All that makes sense. So, how do you account for the guy on Facebook that had the two cans that were different than the other four in the six pack?

I can make that happen right now with two cans out of the same six pack. I’ll put ‘em in a cold spot, and then I’ll shake one up... I can do that with anybody’s beer. I can show you pictures of the best known brewers in the state’s beers that are supposed to be clear that look like this. [shows us a cloudy beer photo] It fuckin’ happens! In a keg, when it gets cold, the yeast settles to the bottom of the keg.

We’ve been able to duplicate this many times. We’ve selected a yeast that’s mildly floculative. So if you pour it gently, you can get a nice, good, clean beer. If you take that same beer and pour it slightly more aggressively, it’ll stir that yeast up and it’ll come out cloudy. That beer is the same beer both ways, whether you pour it soft or cloudy.

That’s what that picture was… Differences in time and tank and temperature create minor variations in yeast flocculation.

Even order of the packaging [could affect the appearance]. When you start packaging, you package from the top of the tank—that’s the clearest beer. The racking arm’s up there. And as the beer goes lower and lower and lower, you turn the racking arm down, and eventually, you’re going to hit the hazy shit. I personally think that the hazy shit is a better beer.

So if someone says, “Hey, I have a hazy beer.”

“What time is [listed on the can of] beer?”

“It’s 5:15 in the afternoon.”

“Oh, we ended at 5:30. You got, literally, the bottom of the tank.”

Having the timestamps, and having all the quality checks that we have, I think you can address every single issue. And every single issue that’s there is a real issue. It’s not a quality issue, it’s “this is where we were pulling from in the tank.”

But here’s what I don’t understand. You’ve got [The Alchemist’s Heady Topper], and there’s a reason it says, “Drink from the can,” because it looks different every damn time you pour it. When they get really hazy, you got a 5% or 10% difference in haze variance and you can’t tell the difference. You can haze the shit out of everything if that’s what you’re interested in doing. If you had that as an issue, you could haze everything up and no one would be able to tell.

People need to understand that there are going to be batch variances in small-batch beer. Don’t come at me slandering that this is a bad product. That’s just not true.
— Matt Shirah

Let’s talk about hops a little bit. You said, “we’re so small, we get the shittiest pick of hops,” and what I’m curious about is: are the shitty hops the ones you’ve been using from the start, or did they get shittier over time, or—

No, they’re just always the last pick—

I can answer this. Brewers that have contracts, all the photos you see online with people jumping into hop piles and [mimics rubbing them in his hands and smelling them] doing this, there’s a reason why they do that, and it’s because they know there’s flavors they want to accept or reject in their hops. So, brewers that are established, they buy hop contracts. Brewers that are new like us, we didn’t get to be a part of the hop selection process.

How does that work?

[Let’s say] we don’t have Galaxy contracts, but we need Galaxy hops. So if we were to go online, and the Galaxy hops that are available on the market right now [might be] hops that have expired, and those are good ones to get. Say a brewery projected they needed 10,000 pounds of hops, they used 5,000 pounds, but since they bought five years in advance, they got another 10,000 pounds coming, and they have 5,000 pounds sitting in the refrigerator—those are the hops you wanna get. But there’s also the guys who go [rubs hands together] and say, “Nope, not gonna take these hops,” so they’re gonna package them up and send them to somebody who doesn’t go [rubs hands together]. Sometimes you get those hops. You don’t know the origin of those hops.

Well, you know the origin. But you don’t know how they were stored.

In talking about the variances, is Basement all-Citra [like it says on the can], or is it different types of hops?

No, it’s always been Citra. However, in the recent, we have started adding very small amounts of complementary. One of the things we’ve dealt with with Citra is that we had really great results in our growth of Basement using John Haas hops. We switched from a hop that was relatively easy to find on the spot market, [then] Citra started becoming hard to find near the harvest, the spot market starts going dry, and so you buy hops from a different manufacturer, possibly even a different crop year. So they’re a year older and from a different manufacturer—it’s a different plant. It’s just not the same thing. So you try to maybe up it a little bit, figuring there’s a 10% degradation factor for a year, so you up your hops by 10%. One of the things we’ve found is that one specific supplier of hops is very strong in a certain aromatic that, to me, it comes off as very obvious. So trying to blend that out so it’s not so obvious has been a struggle. So we’ve started to blend some complementary hops.

Aside from hops, what are some of the other major challenges you’ve faced through all this growth in your first year?

Human resources.

Human resources and acquiring tank space.

We’ve been capacity constrained all year. At one point, we had to discontinue cans because draft was accelerating so quickly. We ended up going from about 6,500 barrels to about 16,000 barrels capacity.

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As you guys get bigger, do you feel a responsibility to be a leader in Georgia? How do you feel about the local scene?

I feel a responsibility, similar to the way I spoke out, to let people understand the struggles of the small guy. Why not talk openly about the struggles of a small craft brewery? I don’t consider us to be a big brewery. I still sweep floors and clean toilets... People are paying attention to what we’re doing, and I have no problem giving direct and honest responses to folks that are not candy-coated by anything. And I will continue to have those conversations and be very direct about the struggles of the small guy and the way I see the market going competitively. And even the things that I see that I think are quite nasty about the way some small brewers are beginning to treat each other as a result of the new, competitive environment in craft beer.

What’s an example of the nastiness?

If I look at reviews, sometimes the negative reviews are from people who work at other breweries. Or publicly people will say things that work at other breweries. That doesn’t make any sense to me. I feel like we should be working together on these things. For another brewery to say something negative that’s, in fact, unfounded without confronting their own issues is, to me, kind of hypocritical. But it’s not my business unless you’re affecting my people’s livelihood... A lot of the growth is coming from the guys that have been purchased by the disruptive growth funds, and it’s because they have resources that the small guys don’t have. And that needs to be exposed to a certain degree. I’m happy to talk about those things. They’ve created an environment with their checkbooks that’s not going to go away. It’s not going to get any easier. You’re fighting against a lot of things. You’re fighting against pay-to-play. Pay-to-play is a big deal! Small craft breweries are at a disadvantage instantaneously when it comes to going in somewhere and trying to get tap space. Everybody knows this.

It’s just us being us. I was a little annoyed, so I vented a little bit. I don’t feel bad about it.
— Matt Shirah

How involved are you guys with the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild?

I mean, we talk to them, and we support them financially, but we’ve got our hands full.

It seems like that’s the place to go to try to fight that kind of stuff, right?

No, I mean, eventually, Georgia has to come around on it. It seems to take a long time for it to happen. It’s all politics. Politics just suck, man. I was looking at the comments on [local email listerv] Atlanta Beer Talk, and I saw a couple guys kicking stuff back and forth about certain politicians. All of a sudden, politicians want to wave the flag. “Hey, we did this!” Yeah, you didn’t. That’s a whole other level of nastiness, the political landscape. My therapist tells me to just turn the radio off and ignore it.

How was Sept. 1 [the day direct sales at breweries became legal in Georgia] here compared to an average Friday?

I think it was a slow day. Sales were up probably 100% with less people. One thing I didn’t wanna do is create a landslide. We’re making more money in the taproom. It’s too early to tell if there will be a honeymoon period. I wanted to give my people some breathing room. And I’m also concerned about my local package stores who are supporters. Let’s don’t hurt those guys. I’m mindful that they need to earn a living.

But there’s certainly been some upside from our perspective. Remarkably, gratuity levels have nearly doubled on the gross amount of sales. People just feel differently, I think, when they’re buying a beer instead of buying a tour. It changes the perception of the service, and they’re rewarding the server for their work. And that’s the greatest upside of this whole deal.

It sounds like you’re pretty committed to not leaving Georgia.

Nah, that’s not gonna happen.

Never?

I don’t think so. I don’t think you need to.

People are paying attention to what we’re doing, and I have no problem giving direct and honest responses to folks that are not candy-coated by anything.
— Matt Shirah

You mentioned 200,000 barrels earlier. You think you can do that in Georgia?

No, that’s a huge number. We’re still working on our beers. We have a lot of runway ahead of us for doing things and improving products. What happens, at some point, is that people become your distributor, and you can sell in excess of what your market capacity is.

You lose control of too many things when you go outside your home. I’m not willing to risk stuff being on the shelf too long or sales people that are not proactive and giving the appropriate service to our customers. When you’re in the state, I can reach out and feel those things. Travis, if he has to, can get in the car and go to Columbus and meet some people.

There aren’t many examples, though, outside of New Glarus in Wisconsin, of big breweries staying in one state. And this would be you and Creature Comforts both. What’s the upper limit, you think?

SweetWater does it, too. They’re outside the state, but they probably do 80,000 barrels inside the state… Let’s take care of home. I don’t see any reason for us to go anywhere else. There’s a lot of growth potential here because there’s a lot of people here who could be educated about craft beer… You want everyone to have access to the highest quality craft product they can have. How could you really do that outside of your market? How do you know when you’re at that point in your market? Those are questions I don’t really feel like examining.

Words, Austin L. Ray
Photos, Andrew Thomas Lee