There was a time, maybe three of four years ago, when I completely dismissed the craft beer revolution which by then was all but over, having already recruited a legion of believers to its cause and in doing so forever subverted the way the mainstream, and the brewing industry, thought about and approached beer. I was a “traditionalist” and firmly entrenched in the belief that beer was beer and that was that.
Then one night, my beloved, being the wise and all-knowing woman that she is, decided that I needed to think outside of the box and gave me three beers that she had discovered (to this day, I don’t and won’t question how and where she found them), and these three beers completely altered my mind-set and flipped my previously cherished ideas of what beer should be upside down and inside out. From then on, I became a committed advocate, and firm acolyte, of the revolution. I might have arrived at the party a little late, but by Gaia, I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to stay until they had to kick me out.
One of those beers was Flying Dog’s Easy IPA and since that night, if a can or bottle bears the Flying Dog name, you can bet I’m going to try it and I’ll bet that I’m going to enjoy it. Why? Because I’ve yet to drink one of their beers that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. Endlessly inventive, with one eye fixed firmly on taste and the other on pushing the idea and envelope of everything that beer should be, Flying Dog have always been, and will always be (in my humble opinion) at the forefront of the craft movement. So, when the opportunity to talk to their brew master Ben Clark about everything Flying Dog came my way, I jumped at the chance to ask one of the people responsible for changing my life for the better all of the things that I wanted to know about the brewery and their beer. And this is what he had to say…
Interview by Tim Cundle
MM: All of the best stories start somewhere, so would you like to share a little of Flying Dog’s history with the folks out there in Mass Movement land? How, when and why did the brewery begin…
Ben: There are many aspects to our story over the past 25 years, but the one behind our name is my favorite. Shrouded in mystery and conceived after an extreme adventure, the name Flying Dog dates back to 1983 when our founder George Stranahan came across a painting in a Pakistani hotel. He and a group of twelve innocents (as he called them) had just returned from the summit of K2, the second deadliest mountain in the world.
They signed affidavits stating they were sons of Christians, which allowed them to drink in the Muslim nation. After a few, George stumbled across a painting that was a Pakistani artist’s interpretation of an English bird dog. It was literally a dog with wings. The term “flying dog” resonated with George, and when he opened a brewpub in 1990, the name just fell into place.
MM: So, tell us a little about yourself. What made you want to become a brewer and what led to you joining Flying Dog? Did you start as an amateur, a home brewer, and then turn professional or did you follow a different career path, one that led you to your current destination?
Ben: What got me into craft beer was ultimately a challenge from my grandfather: My grandfather made wine, primarily for the holidays in his basement. As a kid I always looked forward to helping him bottle up the wine for our holiday parties to share with friends and family.
Fast forward a handful of years, and I received my first craft beer as a gift from my (now) mother-in-law when I was 21. Coincidentally enough, it was made by Flying Dog. At that point, I became fixated on finding more craft beer. I announced to my grandfather during our holiday wine bottling run that I was going to try my hand at creating my own beer. He wished me luck, stating he had never made a beer he liked. I saw this as a challenge, so I set off to see if I could best the only man I knew who fermented anything! It only took a few batches before I had my grandmother turned onto my beer (at least she pretended), however my grandfather was a harder nut to crack, refusing to drink my ‘grog’ after the initial sip of my first attempt.
I continued to home brew after college while working a few office jobs, and finally decided to take some beer focused coursework to try to crack into the brewing industry. I completed this through the Siebel Institute of Technology and started applying to local breweries. My first interview was with Wild Goose Brewing company, which I did not know had just been purchased a few months previously by Flying Dog Brewery. I was offered a job and started out cleaning basically everything, fermenters, hoses, floors, … you name it. I have been with the brewery now for ten years. Once I was ‘legit’ grandpa was known to enjoy a few cold ones of my own creation.
MM: I’ve always thought of Flying Dog as being a craft brewery and I’m sure that most people who readily consume your product would agree. But do you still think of Flying Dog as being a craft brewery now that it’s become a part of the mainstream beer consciousness? Is there a point at which a craft brewery stops becoming a craft brewery and becomes the more traditional model of a brewery? Or is craft brewing more of an ideology and lifelong mission, one that inhabits everything that you do and thus ensures that you’ll remain a craft brewery regardless of increasing popularity and appeal?
Ben: I also see Flying Dog as craft. I think there can be a challenge for ‘larger’ breweries to hold on to their craft image when they can pump out beer in mass quantities. Most breweries our size have one guy sitting in an office somewhere creating all of the recipes. These scenarios aren’t overly inspiring to customers, or the brewery employees. At Flying Dog, we do things a little bit differently than many other breweries our size. We have a hunger for collaboration, which leads to a high level of creative freedom at the brewery. Everyone has ideas, and many of them are great if you just take the time to listen to them. What sets us apart is having a culture where we all have inputs that ultimately shape the beers we craft. This leads us to constantly evolving and pushing the limits of our imaginations, and our equipment. This is what I see as the ‘craft’ in craft brewing, and I think this shows in the quantity and variety of delightfully surprising beers we create.
MM: And while we’re on the subject of craft beer… What in your opinion constitutes a craft beer? What differentiates a normal, average beer (one that you can find in any pub, bar or supermarket) from a craft beer? I guess what I’m asking is, what makes a beer a ‘craft beer’?
Ben: There are likely more opinions on this then there are craft drinkers out there. I don’t know if you can define what craft is, as it likely means differing things to all of us. My interest in craft beer was based out of a romantic notion of enjoying a product that was someone’s own expression, a consumable art form that they created with their hands. On the other hand, being a brewer, it was also the notion of being able to tell a story with a pint of beer. Craft beer is a form of expression; it is art. I think it comes down to how the beer was made, and how a brewer can influence the final product. The effort and attention put into the creation of the beer is essential. How can you measure these things when you pull up a stool at the bar, or pick up a six-pack? Maybe you can’t without knowing a bit about the brewery, so does that put it in the hands of the marketing? Then you get back to a rigid definition of ‘small’ or ‘traditional’ that fails to encompass much meaning. How small is ‘small’? Is a fully automated brew house traditional? I truly thing the answer to this question is dependent on the drinker.
MM: Again, sticking with the theme. The craft beer revolution, while increasing in global popularity, seems to have struck a nerve, and become more popular, in the US than anywhere else. Why do you think this is so? What was, and is, it about craft beer and the changing way in which beer is perceived that has made it so popular in the US? Would you, like many of do, agree that the US is the home of the craft beer revolution and that the rest of the world is slowly waking up to what you guys and other US craft brewers have been doing for the last two decades?
Ben: There are so many things that draw people to craft beer: the choice (styles/flavors), innovation, locality (and pride), and maybe even rebellion… at the end of the day it is a small expression of who you are as a person. I often ask people: What’s your go-to beer style? I feel like it tells me something about them, just like asking where they are from. Craft beer drinkers are passionate; they want to support brands that they feel share their same beliefs.
MM: Back to Flying Dog. What makes a Flying Dog beer a Flying Dog beer? What separates and differentiates a Flying Dog beer from other beers? And as a brewer, how do you know you’ve nailed a new beer? How does it feel when all your hard work pays off and you know you’ve invented another FD success?
Ben: A Flying Dog beer is surprising and at the same time enjoyable. We like to push the envelope and experiment with non-traditional brewing ingredients. Our more traditional beers tend to be hop forward, with a crisp, dry finish, and an aggressive hop aroma and flavor profile. We know we have a winner when the beer comes out just as we imagined it when we formulated the recipe.
MM: Which five Flying Dog beers do you think of as being the breweries flagship beers? Why?
Ben: We actually don’t subscribe to a flagship strategy, per se, but our best-selling beers are our Snake Dog IPA, Raging Bitch Belgian-Style IPA and Bloodline Blood Orange Ale.
MM: Is there a style of beer that’s more popular with Flying Dog customers than any other? If so what is it, and why, in your opinion, is that style, or that beer, more popular than your others?
Ben: We have so many beers coming out throughout the year – from our Brewhouse Rarities to our Heat Series of hot pepper beers – and our most passionate fans are up for anything. They may prefer certain styles, but always seem to be up to try our latest release.
MM: Okay, so you do year rounds, seasonals and limited releases. What makes a beer a season or a limited release instead of a year round? Why not make all of your beers ‘year rounds’?
Ben: There’s a pretty obviously seasonality to a lot of our seasonal releases. Our winter warmer, K-9, is rich and roasty with intense malt character, which is perfect for colder months. On the flip side of that one is our Dead Rise OLD BAY Summer Ale. OLD BAY is a seafood seasoning that is quintessentially Maryland, and the beer is spicy and citrus-forward, yet light and crisp. What makes a seasonal release seasonal for us are the situations our fans will be in while drinking our beers and what outside factors, like weather, will make them the best fit.
MM: And I have to ask you about your Brewhouse Rarities because some of those beers sound insanely good (like Mint Julip Ale and White Peach Saison) and in all likelihood I’m never going to get to sample them due to geographical location. What are your Brewhouse Rarities, what makes a beer a rarity and where on Earth do you come up the ideas for them?
Ben: I mentioned before that everyone has ideas at Flying Dog. Our Brewhouse Rarities program is the platform for those ideas to be heard. At an annual mountain retreat, anyone on our staff – from sales to accounting, packaging to marketing – can pitch a beer concept for the next year’s series. Then, our selection team (including myself) have the incredible tough job of narrowing down over 75 pitches to six final releases for the next year.
MM: Has there been a Flying Dog beer that you’ve brewed that everyone else told you were crazy to do and that would never work, but did work despite everything that the naysayers told you? If there was one, what was it and why do you think no-one else bar your good self was so dead set against it?
Ben: There have been a handful of beers that we have created that we all thought had a serious chance of failure, but that is what makes creating unique beers fun. If you don’t fail once in a while, you aren’t trying hard enough. Currently we are working on a Mustard Seed IPA. It will likely be a small release, but we decided to add it to our plan for the brewing year without any experimentation or pilot batches of the beer. I think this speaks to the fearlessness of the group and our trust in each other to keep working at it until we get it right.
MM: Are you working on anything new, hush hush or top secret at the moment, and if so what, if anything, can you tell us about your new beers…?
Ben: Right now we have about 20 to 25 beers in the R&D phase. This means brewing small test batches and working on a very small scale in the lab with ingredients to fine tune the recipes and get them dialed in before brewing the production size batches. We will have another group of four pepper beers in our Heat Series coming out for 2017, as well as couple cocktail-inspired beers. Throw in a smoked beer, a sour or two, and a few IPAs, and you have something for just about everyone.
MM: Don’t think about it too long, straight off the top of your head, what are your five absolute favourite beers of all time and why are they your top five?
Ben: I am a big fan of hop-forward beers, and any beer with some solid tartness. Right now I am into trying any Gose I can find, they are slightly salty and sour and very refreshing, perfect for the warm summer days here in Maryland.
Another solid sour I often indulge in is Sour in the Rye from The Bruery. This beer has an aggressive tartness, nice spicy notes from the rye and a subtle funk.
When the weather cools down a bit, I enjoy sipping on some Rodenbach or Duchesse De Bourgogne, this gives me a range of a drier and sweeter Flanders Red depending on my mood.
My everyday drinker is our Bloodline Blood Orange Ale or The Truth Imperial IPA. In both beers I love the huge hop notes in the flavor and aroma, but I am a sucker for any hop-forward beer that has a huge hop aroma and flavor and finishes nice and dry.
What to find out more? Then pay Flying Dog a visit