Thursday, April 17, 2014

Interview with Seth Treptow, Head Brewer/Co-Owner of Regular Guy Brewing

With the number of breweries in America at a record high, we are seeing more and more breweries pop up everywhere. Amongst these breweries in the works is called Regular Guy Brewing based out of Granite City, IL; Which is situated right across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, MO.

Intrigued by what his brewery will have to offer to beer drinkers, I connected with Seth Treptow, one of the owners of Regular Guy Brewing. I asked Seth to sit down with me to discuss his plans for the brewery as well as the challenges associated with starting a brewery.

You can also find Regular Guy Brewing on:

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Seth, tell me a little bit about yourself. What is your background?

Well my background is in communications. My college degree was in broadcasting; Worked in television and radio production and currently work as a communications director for a non-profit in the St. Louis, Missouri area and I started really getting into beer here and there during college and went through the cheap beer phase just like everyone does. After college I decided I wanted to try something other than swill and dabbled a bit, tried some different things and really became a fan of craft beer and gained more and more appreciation of it.

Sometime shortly after getting married, my in-laws gave me my first Mr. Beer kit, so I learned the basics of making beer and played with that for a few years then a few years ago me and my two partners with Regular Guy Brewing really got serious about it and went All-Grain and have been more and more with every brew that we make.

What's the story behind Regular Guy Brewing? What's the story behind the name?

Well, you know, we kind of looked at craft beer and there is a perception of who drinks it. You know, there is the artsy hipsters with their big black glasses and their tiny, skinny jeans. And then you have the yuppie crowd with the import kind of thing and really the average person, just the regular Joe, the average guy is just kind of dismissed. I think they are dismissed way too often as the Joe Six-Pack kind of idea where, you know, your Bud Lights and Budweisers are good enough for just, you know, guys who work blue collar and white collar jobs and we kind of take a different point of view.

We say: You work hard, you earned something better than watered-down corn water. You don't need to have your tongue and mouth assaulted with hops to feel like you're doing something good for you and good for craft beer. We want to create a beer that's for everyone and figured what better way to make that clear with our brand and just be upfront about it. We're regular guys making beer for regular guys. 

Now I was reading an article today about the number of craft breweries in America. At the last estimate, there was about 2,500 craft breweries in America right now with countless others in planning. I know here in Minnesota, I can name at least 5 off the top of my head that are not even open yet and people are already paying attention to them. What, besides from appealing to the Average Joe, makes Regular Guy so unique amongst the new contenders in craft beer?

It's tough to say to be unique because you're right, it's a fast growing field. You know, I look at the St. Louis area and just a few years ago, you had Anheuser-Busch and really beyond that, there wasn't a whole lot on the beer front. You had Schlafly (Brewing) and it was certainly there and you had a few small production breweries but really only in a few years has craft beer exploded. Now there's dozens of them all around. Another place that really comes to mind to me is Ashville, North Carolina, which is one of my favorite places in the country and I was there a few years ago just on vacation and was really impressed by the beer scene there. Then I went back about a year ago for my sister's wedding and just in a few years, somewhere that was already known for craft beer, had exploded even more. So there's more and more stuff out there.

You see ideas that sound original for the first time when you see it, but before long you see them everywhere like Hoppy Wheats; They're everywhere. So it's hard to find a way to differentiate yourself because as far as the beer goes, it's like anything, there's only so many original ideas out there. So really what it comes down to is not just what you put in a bottle; Well that is a big part of it but really it's how you present yourself and there's a lifestyle thing, it's a style, it's all that part and I really think that does separate Regular Guy Brewing apart. It's the fact that we're not going to turn our nose up to you if we see you drinking a Keystone. We're not going to give you a high-five and a thumbs up because you're drinking an Arrogant Bastard Ale. Beer is good for whoever it is and whatever you like, we're okay with that. You want to drink it from a fancy glass? Awesome! If you prefer it straight out of a bottle, we're okay with that too. So really, I think that's what where we're approaching from is that it is what you make of it and whatever it is, we're cool with that. We're not sure if that'll be enough to stand out when the time comes but we hope it is.

Speaking of beer, and this is probably what everyone will want to know. What kind of beers do you plan on offering? I looked on the website and it was talking about a Rye-Red Ale...?

It was a Red Rye and that was...I don't know if you saw my blog post but it's what I described as the Mean Girls of beer: It was beautiful to look at but a bitch to try to drink. It was way too rye, way too bitter; We went a bit too much.

We want to try things that are outside of the convention. It's kind of like when my two buddies, Justin and Brian and I made short films years ago. We didn't just want to do a romance, we didn't want to just do a comedy, we didn't want it to be just a Sci-Fi; We wanted it to blend and find ways to kind of merge and approach one idea from multiple angles and that's what we are kind of carrying over to our beer too.

So you'll see things like our Hot Blonde, which is a Blonde Ale but we've infused it with jalapeƱos. So you have a very light, low body but kind of sweet beer then adding a little spiciness in kind of adds a dimension and that's kind of what we are looking at. You're not going to see chamomile or cinnamon in anything we do but you're going to see ingredients that any man....or woman would enjoy. Just your average kind of person that would say "I can appreciate that."

The Red Rye-Der...we kind of want to go with something like an Amber ale but then we'd want to go with just your general Irish Ale. We wanted to go with something with a little bit of a different flavor to it. In my travels I've found several different Red Ryes I kind of liked and thought "Let's give that a go!" There is nowhere around here that I know of that has something like that so it'd be something different. It just didn't work out for us on that one, maybe next time it will but we'll see.

And what about the Smoked Apple Porter?

That is our Smokey Grove, which we just brewed another batch of on Friday night. If you had to find it, it would probably be as far as the beer judging criteria, it would fall right under that robust porter category. But it also has quite a bit of smoke flavor to it. In addition to my love of beer making, I love smoking meat, so I have a nice array of smokers on my back patio. We took a quarter of our grain and smoked it for about an hour with applewood to add a little bit of extra flavor to it for the smokiness. Then we add apples into the boil and to the secondary to add a bit of extra sweetness. So when it's all said and done and it all ferments out, you're going to have a good amount of sweetness with a little touch of smokiness and a little bit of that apple-y flavor to bring it all together. Porters are kind of a darker beer & has a lot of malty characteristics. These additions: The smoke, the apple will kind of enhance that to another level.

Aside from making sure your equipment is clean as I've learned with my experience in homebrewing, what are some of the challenges you have run into so far?

The biggest challenge for me is knowing when to stop. I love adjusting, I love tinkering. Every single brew I think of something new that we can try in the next brew that might make things more efficient or make things a little bit better or easier for us or better for the beer. Part of...especially when you are brewing to build a business it's not just about the quality of the beer but the consistency of the beer. We really do try to operate as much as we can as a....even though we are probably at least a year away from getting our licensing and being able to sell it to anyone, we've been operating from the get-go with the mentality that every brew we make is research and development for what we're going to do. So we take notes, do all that stuff but because of my tinkering nature the hardest part I have is dialing it back because every little change that you make can change what the beer becomes. With that idea of consistency, at some points I just have to put the brakes on and just reel it back in and it's something I struggle with.

As far as planning goes, you had mentioned licensing and being able to distribute. Where exactly are you at in those phases?

We are very early but we are seriously early. Looking at the whole brewing thing, I think anyone who has brewed their own beer has had someone say "Dude, this is great. You should sell this!" And yeah, everyone has probably had that thought "Yeah, I could do that!" I've had many good homebrews and many that are better than professional, giant brewers out there. What separates it really is the drive and ambition; It's a lot of work that goes into it and it's easy to brew beers on a Friday night in your garage but to actually go through the steps of your licensing, getting your equipment, the scale, opening the doors and doing all of that. It's a lot of hard work that goes into it and that is hard work we are not afraid of. We know what we want to do, we have a basic idea and plan. It's really fine tuning things, dotting I's, crossing T's, then finding the right spaces, finding the right things that would work for us and all along, just fine tuning things out.

I really don't want to go into too much detail with what we plan on doing. Despite many articles I've read and blogs to the contrary, what we actually are going to be starting out is what we call a "Test Kitchen Stage." We are going to be a nanobrewery or nano-production brewery. We're talking 1 BBL (barrel)......maybe less initially at launch and we're not opening our doors to the public. We're going to self distribute to two or three bars at very low quantity. Probably for the first year, it might be enough to cover the bills but it'll certainly...hopefully add up to break even compared to what we are doing for homebrewing right now. And really take that time to build relationships with those small number of locations, build relationships with clientele, get feedback; Get active feedback. Concentrate on being really small and being really good at being small and then organically grow from that point. Then seek investments, seek all that other stuff then grow as we have demand to grow.

From what I understand, beer is unlike restaurants, unlike a lot of other small businesses and entrepreneurial ventures. People love beer: At the best of times, people love beer and the worst of times, people buy beer. I know, and I'm sure you have too, you've drank bad beer. You don't have to have the world's best beer to make a profit making beer but when you start small, you have to have relationships and this will give us a chance to do that in a very effective way and then know our small footprint and kind of grow out and take our time and doing it right every step we take.

When you are talking about opening a brewery, but what is one thing that people absolutely need to know if they want to open one up themselves?

I'll tell you, the one thing that scares me the most is...and it might sound crazy but it's just the whole drainage and wastewater issue. You can't just figure "Oh, I'm going to open up my own brewery in my garage," or "I'm just going to a warehouse," or something like that. When you brew beer, we do five-to-ten gallon batches now and we probably spill a gallon of hot, steamy liquid and it's not abnormal to spill a half-gallon or a gallon at a time. Now you suddenly boost that volume up and you've got hundreds of gallons potentially being spilled on any brew day and you have to have drainage in your floor that could handle that and there's only spaces where you can have piping that can handle high, sticky wort and processing it through and not melting pipes, not causing issues. You have to look for slope, your finishing on the floors; Your space is really just a huge portion of what you have to look into. I see is one of our biggest challenges going into it is finding a space that has a floor big enough to do what we want and not to have too big of a hole in our pockets. It's going to have the basic amenities and something like that will make it work.

The other big part of it though, and you touched on it with the homebrewing and cleaning, the making the beer portion of having a brewery is really like this much of it (holds up his hand with a small gap in-between the thumb and index finger).

Brewing is going to be the easy part, it's the part we already love. Even the cleaning part: I enjoy cleaning after....I'm a slob but I don't mind scrubbing out a kettle at the end of a brew night because I know I did something to make it that nasty. But when you go to that big of a scale, you have a giant kettle that you have to scrub out and seeing things get cleaned but even with that part, that's making something you love and that people are going to love. So that's almost still tolerable it's going to be then having to, on a regular basis, change your hats, go out and have to basically live this business outside the brewery portion of it; It's definitely going to be a challenge. You aren't just brewing beer while you're there, you're running a brewery all the time.

Now when I think of St. Louis, I think of the big player that is Anheuser-Busch. The other big brewer I can think of is Boulevard (Brewing). What kind of market is there for a nano-brewery in St. Louis?

The great thing about craft beer it's really opened up the whole appreciation of local much more than any other type of beer has. We're at a great time between social media and increasing awareness of craft beer, what it is and the quality and the time that goes into it where it's really become a destination thing. A craft beer lover will go out of their way to try a craft beer that they have heard about. You're not going to go out of your way to have a Bud Light. You're not going to go out of your way to have a Heineken. You're not going to go out of your way to have a Coors or a Stag, but you will go out of your way, 20-30 miles, to go try out a beer that you read about or saw on Twitter; You'll go out of your way to try something out that a friend talked about on Facebook. Like tomorrow for instance, I'm travelling to Springfield, Missouri for a couple of days for a press check for a magazine for my work and I've already put a little bit of time looking into what kind of craft beer is available in that area that I've never tried before.

As far as nano-breweries, it's tough to say. I don't know the steel of every brewery I goto. Most nanos, and just to be clear when I talk about nano, I'm talking about 3.5 BBL or less. Most of them operate as retail operations, so it's either a taproom or they have a brewpub situation. I don't know of any that are going to be starting off at the scale we're talking about that distribute but there are more and more popping up all the time. And because craft beer drinkers have a respect for local, much more than any other things and because they are willing to go out of their way to support the thing that they love, I think that as long as you put your word out there about who you are as long as you get a little bit of feedback and a little bit of positive reinforcement I think you can sell your product, no matter how big you are.

As far as reception goes, what has the whole general consensus been?  

Well to be honest our feedback so far has been pretty good. Being a homebrewer, you only really have so much distribution you can do. Friends, family, we pass along for family, friends of friends, family of friends, and friends of family friends. So you maintain a little distribution and build your network and it's been good enough that we've had people say that "I don't care if you get in trouble or not, I'll pay you next time...make sure you get a six pack," which we are not gonna do at all. We've gotten so far very positive response. Now I am also cognizant of the fact that some people might be being nice because they like us as human beings. Now we have gotten a little bit of honest criticism from people that we have respected and we appreciated and we've incorporated that in and I think we've evolved from that as well.

So it's tough to say right now; We're actually planning this year to enter into every competition we can and just so that we can get some honest assessment. Maybe a year from now if all those assessments come back and say "Your beer sucks," we'll be scraping our plans and going some different directions but we're pretty confident that we'll fair okay. We'll take our feedback and we will apply it to make it the best we can and I think that every bit of feedback is a learning experience. Like I said, it's tough to say because the people who do get your beer when you're technically a homebrewer have some attachment to you and so I don't know if we had what I'd call Objective Feedback but what we have and especially from the people we respect has been positive and we appreciate every bit of it.

One final question for you, what's your favorite style of beer?

I'm actually a big IPA (India Pale Ale) drinker which my co-horts, Brian and Justin, they are not hop-heads at all. I started out as a wheat guy following into the Hefeweizens and kind of evolved. Went from very malt and over time to the extreme. I will drink an Arrogant Bastard Ale on occasion but I don't like to have my mouth raped with hops on a regular basis but I do love a Red Hook Longhammer. I actually really enjoy the Sierra Nevada Torpedo. New Belgium's Ranger is actually my goto IPA; Something sessionable but still with enough flavor to give you a bit of a kick, to let your mouth know that it's alive.

The ironic part is that because the other guys are not on IPA and because IPA is the "vogue" craft beer style, we've kind of put an unofficial decision that we're not to be making an IPA. We are, instead, going to be doing an Extra Pale Ale which we actually have in the fermenter right now which we are really excited about. It's not as hoppy as an IPA but it's a little bit hoppier than an American Pale Ale so that's why we're using the "Extra." We figured it'd going to be a nice compromise between the two.

A big thank you to Seth for sitting down to talk with me and to the rest of the guys over at Regular Guy. I'm really looking forward to seeing how their brewery turns out in the near future!

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