Anyone who knows the folks at Mass Movement knows that we, uh, enjoy a tipple or two every now and then and are more than partial to good beer. Anyway, last year I went on holiday to the happiest place on Earth, Disney World (and no, I’m not being sarcastic, honestly, hand on heart, it really is, along with Cornwall, my happy place) and having not been to the US for more than twenty years, I wasn’t really expecting much in the way of beer and figured that I’d have to exist on a diet of Yuengling and Moosehead or just go “dry” for a couple of weeks. The latter wasn’t an option, because, well, because I was on holiday, so I resigned myself to the fact that as much fun as it was going to be, it was going to be a lonely experience beer wise.
So, it was more than a little surprising to discover that the US has entered a glorious age of craft beer, and there wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t discover new and exciting beers by breweries like Cigar City, Dogfish Head, SweetWater, Victory, Magic Hat and many, many more. Then I discovered Hopsecutioner, an incredibly aromatic, easy drinking, flavour filled IPA that made my taste buds tingle and quiver with excitement. I had found my beer of choice, and whiled away more than a couple of joy filled hours in its company.
But just drinking, savouring and enjoying it wasn’t enough. I wanted to know the story behind Hopsecutioner and the history of Terrapin Beer, the brewery that produced it. I wanted to know everything I could about the brewery. So I set out to track down the people responsible for this magnificent ale, and a couple of weeks later after some back and forth via the old interwebs, I finally sat down to talk to Spike Buchowski, brewer extraordinaire, craft beer innovator and the man who brought Terrrapin Beer into the world. And this is what he had to say…
Words by Tim Mass Movement
Photographs courtesy of Justin Evans, Anne Yarborough and Terrapin Beer Company.
MM: When did your love affair with beer begin and what made you want to be a brewer?
Spike: Oh gosh, well, what basically happened was, when I graduated college back in ’89, I moved down to Florida and my college roommate moved out to the West Coast, around the Berkeley area. I lasted in Florida for almost two years and moved to Atlanta in ’92. And I would talk to him once a month or so, because you know, he was my college roommate, and he said “Hey Spike, did you ever think about home brewing?” and I said “No, what the hell’s home brewing?” and he said, “Well, you can make beer at home”. So, when I moved to Atlanta, I moved into a home with a basement, and that was prime for fermentation and all that kind of stuff, so I started dabbling in home brewing and I enjoyed it so much that I started entering a few competitions and won a few of them and then said “Screw it, I don’t want to be wearing a suit and tie anymore”, and went and enrolled in brewing school in Wheatland, California run by the American Brewers Guild in ’96 and got my first professional job in 1997.
MM: So, when did you start Terrapin?
Spike: At my first job in ’97 I was working at a local brewery called The Atlanta Brewing Company. I was the brewer and my soon to be business partner was the cellar person there. We had a boss who, one day, took us out to a Braves game and the next day, when we got to work, the owner of the company wasn’t very happy because we’d left work to go to the game, so he proceeded to yell at our manager and then he made us tar the parking lot with rollers, and we said “Screw this guy, we’ll show him, we’ll start our own brewery” (Laughs) At first it was just a joke, but then we walked around, thought about it and said ‘Well, why don’t we try to do this?’, and wrote a business plan. I came up with the name Terrapin and we started putting the plan together back in ’99 ish, and went after funding. It was tough at that time, because it was all internet funding then, and finally we rubbed our two credit cards together and started doing what’s called contract brewing and started the brewery that way.
MM: Do you see Terrapin as a craft brewery, or do you think it follows a more traditional model, or idea of what a brewery is?
Spike: I think we’re definitely craft. We make anything from IPA’s to Chocolate Peanut Butter Porters, we’re working on a sour right now. We do about twenty five different styles of beer every year and we hope to do seventy thousand barrels this year. I think for all intents and purposes, we’re definitely a craft brewery.
MM: What, in your opinion makes a beer a Terrapin beer? What typifies it and gives it a sense of identity, and makes it a Terrapin beer?
Spike: For me, obviously we do a lot of IPAs, but I think that all of our beers are very well balanced. I kind of call it brewing in 3D, you get a beautiful up front aroma and then a beautiful taste and finish and for us, I kind of like more nuances and more balance than I do more extreme flavours. I think you can really make a nice – even if it’s a double – IPA balance even with the hops instead of just adding the whole kitchen sink I there and making it so hoppy that you can’t even drink it. I think for us (Terrapin), its balance but with aggressive flavours as well, and if you can pull that off, you can make a pretty nice beer.
MM: Is there a style of beer that’s more popular than others with Terrapin? You mentioned the Peanut Butter Porter and your IPAs, like Hopsecutioner, so is there a style of beer that you’ve noticed is more popular with your customers and the folks who drink your beer?
Spike: As you know, in the United States, IPA is the biggest player and we do a beer called Hopsecutioner and that’s our flagship beer. It used to be Rye Pale Ale, which we came out with in 2002 and it won best Pale Ale in the country, but over time and with changing tastes, that Pale Ale – which seemed so aggressive back then, it’s now become almost a light, refreshing beer. As far as the consumer is concerned, everybody is looking for IPAs, not that think that’s great or like that because it’s hard to produce a traditional style when people are like (adopts funny, critical voice) “Well, if it doesn’t have hops in it, it’s not IPA”, but you’ve got to brew what the consumer wants. Hopefully, this too shall pass (laughs)
MM: You guys do a number of different brews. There’s Year Rounds, Seasonals, Collaborations and Special Releases. So, I was kind of curious about what it is that differentiates a Year Round from the other beers you produce?
Spike: When we look at our year round portfolio, we try to run the gamut. In our Year Rounds, we have a Golden Ale, I call that our training wheels beer, we have the Rye Pale Ale, which is obviously our Pale Ale, we have Hopsecutioner, which is our flagship, we have a Recreation Ale, which is a Session IPA and then we have HI-5, which is a California style IPA. And then we have Liquid Bliss, which is our Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter, so we’re really trying to cover all bases. We’re adding a new Year Round this year, it’s a Czech Pilsner, called Sound Czech, and so we’re also throwing our hat in the lager category.
MM: Then there’s the Collaborations. How do you approach working with another brewery? Is the brewing community like a fraternity of like-minded souls or is there an active sense of competition in it?
Spike: Yeah, I would say that there is some friendly competition out there, but there’s also brewers that you meet who become your friends and who you really want to work with. Sometimes you do it to open a new market, and let’s say that we were going to go into the Kentucky market, maybe you would want to collaborate with a brewery there to be welcomed into their area, because as you know, when you expand your footprint, you’re not local anymore. That’s really hard to do, but if you’re accepted by the brewing community in an area you want to move into by doing collaboration there, then it makes it easier to break into that market. I also do international collaborations, I’ve just got back from Italy where I was doing one with Toccalmatto and I’ve also done collaborations in Belgium, Germany and New Zealand, so I’ve been all over the world doing Colabs. For me, it’s the thrill of learning new techniques, seeing peoples’ breweries and getting ideas from other brewers is a real charge…
MM: Is there a UK collaboration on your agenda?
Spike: I did one with Shepherd Neame, I did an Alt Beer with them and then I did one with Everards, who do beers for Wetherspoons, I did a Rye Pale Ale with them, so I’ve done two in the UK. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to do that in the UK again, but I haven’t spoken to the Wetherspoons people in a while, but like I said, hopefully I’ll get to do that again.
MM: You also do side projects, so do you want to tell us about them?
Spike: Yeah, our side projects are kind of interesting because as you go through the year you start to think about them, and this year we’re starting to think about next year’s projects. So, sometimes the name will come out first, sometimes the beer style and sometimes the artwork and sometimes it depends on a style that’s hot for the year. This year, sours are very big, tart beers and sour beers, so this year one of our Seasonals is going to be a Watermelon Gose, so that’s exciting. We also just put a tart Belgian Red Ale in the tank, that was our first sour beer and it’s actually fermenting right now and then we’re going to do a tart Saison as a collaboration with a brewery out of Tampa. We try to get ahead of the styles and do things that no-one has done before; one of the side projects this year is called ‘Smoke On The Porter’, which is an oak smoked Porter. It’s just ideas of things that we want to go off the deep end and do and sometimes those side projects work their way into Seasonal beers, like when we first did our pumpkin beer, which is Pumpkinfest, we came out with that and decided to put it as a Seasonal session beer, and there was Mosaic as well, which went from a side project to a seasonal. The side projects are almost like little testing grounds where we throw them out as a one off beer and if it goes over very well then we might put it in a rotation or as a seasonal.
MM: We have to talk about your Blood Orange IPA, your ‘Walking Dead’ beer. How did it come to fruition? Was it through Robert Kirkman or the show?
Spike: Yeah, what happened was… It’s filmed about two hours from here, down near Georgia and I think it was during either season two or three, that they asked us for some props like boxes and banners, stuff like that they could use in the show. So, the only contact I had was through the art department and I got in touch with this girl from the art department and pitched my idea to her, but she was trying to go through the AMC Channel. And trying to work with a company like AMC, it just got lost in the whole daily rigmarole of stuff and I was going nowhere for about two years, trying to do this. I’ve got some people who work for Turner, and I talked to one of my buddies there and he gave me a guy’s name down in Senoia where they film it, whose parents or grandparents, I forget which it was, own the sound studio where the show is filmed. That’s how I got my in, and he and his business partner, they live in Senoia and they own the official Walking Dead merchandise store there and what they do, is they go out and get merchandise, put it in the store and percentage of the mark-up from that goes to Robert Kirkman on the comic book side. That’s how I got my in. They floated the idea to Kirkman and that’s how that all happened. It took me about three years to get it up and running, but with persistence, we got there in the end.
MM: What’s the reaction to it been like so far?
Spike: It’s been great. As you know, Walking Dead fans are pretty rabid for anything to do with it, and it’s been really well, we put out some draughts about a month or so ago and we’re thinking about doing another version, a different beer with different packaging, so hopefully that’s going to continue.
MM: I know it’s akin to asking you to choose your favourite child, which is unfair no matter which way you look at it, but do you have a favourite Terrapin beer?
Spike: Sentimentally, I think it would be Rye Pale Ale because it was the one that came out of my basement, it was the first one that we ever did, and six months after it was released it won a Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival and it’s just… It’s the one that kicked everything off. It’s not the Terrapin beer that I drink most, I drink a lot of the HI-5 and when the Mosaic’s around, I like to drink that and Cinnamon Roll’d Wake-N-Bake, but it’s my baby, it’s my first born. So, yeah, sentimentally, it would be Rye Pale Ale.
MM: Is there a Terrapin beer, one that you’ve brewed that the idea of, and for, seemed insane at the time. You know, one that everybody said “It’ll never work”, but it did..
Spike: Do we have a beer like that? Yeah, going back to the Rye Pale Ale, don’t forget, this was 2002 and we’re in the South. We’re in Georgia and when I told people that we were going to come out with a Pale Ale recipe, everybody was just freaking out. I was like, “Well, why don’t you like Pale Ale’s?” and they told me that they didn’t like the way that the bitterness lingered on the tongue. Then when I was formulating the recipe, I remembered drinking a lot of Jim Bean and Rye Whiskey in college and how the spicy flavour was there and when I started incorporating the rye with the beer it kind of dried your palate out and cleaned your palate up a little bit. Then I started using hops and malt, and so up front it’s got this beautiful aroma, then it’s got this little bit of sweetness and it’s got this really nice clean finish at the end . But yeah, people thought we were really crazy to come out with an aggressive beer like that in 2002, and now you look back at it in 2016 and it’s just a little baby session beer.
MM: What’s next on the horizon for Terrapin, Spike? What have you got planned for Terrapin?
Spike: Well, we just came out with a really interesting concept that we call our Single Origin Series, in which we basically took a 6% alcohol Stout and then we aged that over four different coffee’s and then we put one bottle of each coffee aged beer in a four pack and what’s really interesting is that each of those beers taste totally different because of the different coffee’s we’ve used in each. Then it’s going to be our fourteenth anniversary in April, and we’ve just done our first Kettle Sour, our first tart beer, the Belgian Red Ale which will come out then to mark that. Then there’s our Watermelon Gose and we also do something called Pumpkinfest every year and last year we did one batch of Cranberry Pumpkinfest and it went over so well, that this year, the whole batch of Pumpkinfest is going to be Cranberry.
MM: Okay, so I guess it’s time to wrap things up. If there’s anything that you’d like to add, speak now or forever hold your peace…
Spike: For me, doing this and starting a craft brewery back in 2002, today it’s a totally different animal than it was back then. It’s trying to stay ahead of the game, it’s trying to see who can be the most creative and it’s an ever changing business. And yes, it’s a little different today, but it’s something that I’m very passionate about and I love to be a part of the craft brewing scene.