Q&A #1: Eric Williams and Ryan Maloney of Mispillion River Brewing Company

We’re going to try something new here at Al Dente. Rather than just write about the beer I drink or food I eat, I want to learn more about the people that make, grow, and get the food and/or drinks to us. And, I want to share what they know with all of you. I’m working out the kinks, so if this is a little long, I apologize. I also don’t know what to call this yet, but all in due time.

Admit it. At one point in your life you wanted to own a bar. You may not remember this thought because it’s very possible it crossed your mind while you were at a bar. For me, it was in the late 1990s or 2000s. Now? I want to own a brewery.

Eric Williams woke up one morning and announced that he wanted to open his own brewery. It was his 40th birthday. His wife did what any wife would have done. She nodded, patted him on the head and went about her day. Four years later, Mispillion River Brewing Company is on track to produce 5,000 barrels in 2016 with a distribution network that reaches as far as Baltimore’s doorstep and is poised to break into Philadelphia.

Al Dente interrupted Eric while he was doing his Maryland tax paperwork for some samples and a chat.

 

30-gallon fermenters and conditioning tanks

30-gallon fermenters and conditioning tanks

How did you get to brewing?

I started homebrewing years back and really enjoyed it. I was working a corporate job in sales and management, and was homebrewing on the weekends. I learned a lot from a friend of mine, who is also one of my business partners. I just hated my job and really enjoyed (brewing beer). I started to really get worn out from the corporate world and resenting going into work, and I decided I didn’t want to live my life like this. I didn’t want my eulogy to say he spent 40 years at one company. I said I believed that I could form a company where people want to come to work every day. And so here we hire on passion and train on the rest.

Ryan (Maloney, head brewer) is maybe one exception. He’s got an education from the Siebel Institute (of Technology, a technical college in Chicago specializing in brewing) but the people that we hire like Brandon, our assistant brewmaster back there, he interned for us for a few months and we saw stuff in him that we knew we could work with. So we hired him on full time to assist Ryan, so Ryan could stop working 18 hour days.

So you guys got up and running in 2011?

I started the process in 2011, which was my 40th birthday. My wife tells the story that I woke up on the morning of my 40th birthday and said, “I’m opening a craft brewery in Milford.” It went something like that. She, of course, was supportive and said, “Suuuure you are.”

And I said, what do I got to do. I knew I needed a business plan. I knew I needed the idea, the concept and I needed to seek out people, not just in the brewing industry but in other industries. And so, I did that through a couple of groups, through the state and started the process of writing a business plan. So, I wrote it about 2 or 3 times just to refine it. And my wife started to notice that I was serious and that I wasn’t sitting on my ass on the couch drinking a beer, that I was sitting at the table with my laptop typing away until late. She kinda jumped on board and said, “Hey let’s take a trip to the craft brewer’s conference in San Diego.” This was 2012 now.

So, we went and we were catching the red eye back and were standing the airport and she said, “Eric, I’m sold on the idea. I support you. Let’s do this.” She saw the brotherhood and sisterhood of craft brewers and the fact that we’re 99 percent asshole free, and that 1 percent, you can point them out pretty quick. We want to make people happy and brewing beer is just a cool job. It’s the coolest job I’ve ever had. And we’ve been able to do things since then that we weren’t expecting.

Eric’s glamour shot from the local fish wrap. (Source: The News-Journal)

What’s your distribution like?

Our distribution is all of Delaware, which is our bread and butter and our main focus, but we’re now in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which is Elkton and Harford County by Baltimore, and all the way down to Ocean City, and all the way back to the (Chesapeake Bay) Bridge. So, that’s actually been fun because they say I was just in Baltimore and saw your beer. To go someplace and see your beer, that’s cool. Especially when someone is drinking it and you’re not asking them to drink it and they don’t know you.

People don’t understand that I pay for my own beer. Heck yeah, man, I support it. We just got into a minor league stadium with the Blue Rocks with our Beach Bum Joe and that was cool. It’s really difficult though, because you need more money to buy more tanks, but you need more tanks to make more beer to make more money. You’re constantly searching for ways to get money. I had a local brewery owner, a very well respected guy, told me to buy more tanks whenever you can. Put them on your credit card. They will pay for themselves.

Once we get ours here, we’re going to be doing some tricky stuff to get them setup to stay here.

You’re getting into the Philadelphia area. What’s your growth plan for the next few years?

Our growth plan is pretty aggressive. We’ll probably do 1,800 barrels this year. Next year our goal is to do 5,000 barrels. From that point we hope to have another brewery online with a bigger system, bigger fermenters. Our two year plan is to break ground and in a year, decommission this, sell it off, clean this place up and go to the new place. We’re working on it.

From l to r: Megan Williams, Eric’s wife and the brewery’s co-owner; Eric; Ryan; former head brewer Jared Barnes.

You said your wife was on board with everything. What is The Wife Factor like for you, going back to the old saying that behind every man is a good woman?

Well, in this case, it’s the awesome woman supporting the man, because truly, and this is the case for any small business, your people get paid before you do. And you pay the electric bill before you get paid. I’ve never made this low amount of money but I’ve never been happier.

Getting back to my wife. She’s a medical professional, a nurse practitioner with a doctorate of nursing. She’s a great resource because she looks at things differently. Having her not just support me but be a part of it is important. But it’s difficult because you work a full time job and then you walk into here and there are four people who are engrossed, it’s hard to wrap your brain around it.

(Noticing the U.S. Marine Corps flag hanging in the brewing area) Were you in the Marines?

No. Ryan served eight years. I came in one day and looked up and said, “So we’re flying the Marine flag?” He said, “Yup.” And I said no problem. (Motioning the collection of police and fire patches behind the bar) As you can tell we support all…

Photo Jul 15, 11 24 34 AM

The Alcohol Enforcement patch is my personal favorite.

That one’s a funny story. I got a call from the ABC and this is Officer So-and-So. These guys carry guns, they’re cops. And I’m like, great, what happened? We’ve never been in any trouble. He says, “I’ve got a couple of new guys I’d like to bring by and tour your facility and have you tell them how beer is made. So, they came in, sat down, we toured the facility, showed them the whole process, opened the books and showed them everything. And then we sat down for two hours and talked about the law and the things that they’ve seen so we don’t make the same mistakes. So, I said, do you guys have a patch? People laugh at that up there. The nice thing and one of the smartest things we did was we sought out people in our industry, the commissioner or deputy commissioner or these cops that try to enforce the liquor laws in Delaware. I’d rather talk to them and have a relationship with them then be on the receiving side of a fine or a closing or something like that.

Ryan (left) and Eric on opening day for Mispillion River. (Source: http://livecheapmakeartusa.blogspot.com)

You brew a lot of different stuff here. A lot of one-offs and seasonals. We’ve talked about your demand and growth plan, but how do you keep up with the demand for the core beers and still have capacity for the fun stuff?

That has been the biggest challenge for us this summer. Having the one-barrel system makes having variety in this room easier. Having variety outside of this room is difficult because we have such demand for Reach Around UPA in cans and on draught. In the summer, Beach Bum Joe, the demand goes up in that because it’s a seasonal beer. We wanted to do Chupacabra, which was a first-place medal winner in Battle of the Brews last year at the state fair, where all of the breweries got together. We got to walk up as the new guys and say, “They chose us.” We were pretty proud and pumped after that one. That was better than the World Beer Cup for us because WBC was some guys standing around and saying, “This is a silver medal beer. “ That’s cool and I don’t want to discount that, but when you got the drinkers in the state with all of the other breweries in the room and they chose ours for first and third, that’s pretty special. Our variety for us is taking a toll back here, especially with only two 30-barrel fermenters, so we can only do two 30-barrel batches of cans at a time. Having one bright tank kind of hurts us because everything goes through that bottleneck. As we go into Maryland, our seasonals go like that (snaps fingers). And, we have to pull 20 kegs just to last a month here. We keep 10 on draught at any time. We would be at 14 here if we could, but we can’t do it.

So, yes, it is difficult and has caused issues, but we’re committed to being innovative and create variety. Not to be even more long-winded, but craft beer drinkers, myself included, we’re not loyal to one brand. We want to taste something different. Everyone else is just like us, so we want a wide variety of beers in constant rotation. We want people to come in and taste something different. It’s fun to brew, it’s fun to sit and taste, and it’s fun to sit and listen. That was the main philosophy when we started. As we get bigger it’s getting more difficult but down the road if we get a brew pub, that will be one way we can do that.

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Eric Williams in the warehouse

In the same vain, when you’re looking at the next new beer, do you look at it based on the end product that you want to get to, or do you say, “I have these hops and this sort of malt available to me, what happens if combine them?”

It’s a little bit of that, but more a long the lines of Ryan saying, “I want to do a gose.” And I said, alright. I’m a sour fan. So he does a lot of the research. My brain is going in a bunch of different places. He’ll come back to me and say this is what I’ve got. And we’ll sit and talk about it and he comes up with the recipe. He went and sought out Himalayan sea salt for that salinity part. What I really liked about that beer, and we want to bring it back because it was such a good beer, the higher pH in the salt brings the lower pH from the sour up. So you still get that sour, which I love, but at a little higher pH, it’s a little easier on my stomach. I can drink Orange Drank. I love Orange Drank, but I can only drink about one of them and then I’m on to Space Otter, which is a pale ale. This is one of my favorites. It’s a pale ale at about 5 percent (ABV). It’s uses Citra and Azacca hops. Azacca hops are somewhat of a new hop and we thought we were getting in on the ground floor. And now it’s getting close to the end of the year and we’re begging, pleading for Azacca. It’s one of those beers that is coming out in cans (release part on August 8 with distribution to it’s footprint). It captures that typical fruity Citra nose. He actually brewed that beer in honor of me. Otter is my spiritual animal, according to my marketing person, Lauren, so we came up with some ideas and talked to the artist, who came up with some great ideas. It will be a year-round can when it comes out.

We’re going to move to three year-rounds, a bunch of one-and-dones, and some seasonals. I don’t want to make just three beers, even though I drink the same beer all of the time, but as long as the three are Space Otter, Black Tie, and Reach Around, I would be happy. But, there’s so many things I want to try. Like the White IPA, Here’s Johnny. It’s different because its very cloudy. We don’t filter anything, but we’re able to do it out of good brewing practices and the right materials.

Photo Jul 15, 10 30 00 AM

Brandon (left) and Ryan setting up bottles for the day’s work.

Are you doing a lot with bacterias?

We aspire to do more, but it’s very difficult due to the fear of infection. If you know anything about brewing, you can infect your brewery with brett yeast or lactobacillus, which is even worse. But the funny thing is it’s floating around everywhere. And, also, if you do, your cleaning regimen should be looked at. The sign of a really good brewer is one that cleans almost better than he brews because then the beer is going to taste better. But, if you clean, you take care of your hoses, you’re fine. We have a small tank back there that is a 1-barrel tank stuck back in the corner, and it’s infect. Ryan (Maloney, Mispillion River’s head brewer) has all of the details of what’s going on in there. When we build the new place, there will be a room dedicated to those sour beers.

Goses are my thing right now. 

You just missed it. We just had a gose on called Sea Gangster. Yeah, they’re delicious.

Orange Drank, if you like sours. This version is much more solid. The tartness, the aroma on the tartness just comes out. It smells and tastes so much better. My wife even drinks it and she doesn’t drink anything but Reach Around (an American-style IPA). (JARED’S NOTE: I took a growler of this back to our vacation house and refused to share with anyone else.)

My wife and I have this joke that it’s nice having this beer and my wife will go, “Yeah. High five for owning a brewery. We don’t get paid a lot of money but we’re excited and passionate about the beer.”

The original 1-barrel system.

The original 1-barrel system.

Speaking of the IPA, you have four plus two more pale ales. Do you feel a pressure in terms of hops given the movement’s focus on hops and IPAs, and there being an East Coast style, and a West Coast style and now Founders and Boulevard have carved out a midwest style. Do you feel some sort of pressure to hop the hell out of your beer?

Eric: I’m going to say no because we tend to brew our beers on our schedule. Ryan might have different insight. Do you feel pressured to overhop the beers or do you just hop them to style?

Ryan walks in from the brewing area and joins the conversation. 

Ryan: I’m not a big fan of the huge bitter hop bomb and I’m guessing the average person isn’t.

Eric: We have the Devil’s Doorbell with 80 IBUs but you’re not going to taste that super bitterness.

Ryan: It’s all about trying to balance it. I’m sure maybe I’m missing out on something, but I believe in keeping it drinkable. I don’t mind bittering at the end of the beer when you’re going to get some good flavor.

Eric: IBUs are the mark of a good beer in some people’s eyes, and in some people’s eyes it’s the mark of a bad beer. IBUs, I would say, are a somewhat useless measurement of a beer. Holy Crap is 55 IBUs but it’s balanced out with a nice sweet maltiness that keeps it from being super bitter.

Ryan: Reach Around seems more bitter to taste but the IBUs don’t reflect it. It turns people away. I would rather lose the IBU on the board altogether.

Eric: I would too.

Because there’s such high demand for hops, has that caused problems for you guys?

Ryan: I battle weekly. I’m on the phone with all my hop guys every week. Do you know guys who got this? Especially at this time of year. By the end of the year, it’s close because some beers do better than others. I’m calling other brewers asking, “Did you use all of your El Dorado? I’ll trade you some New Zealand stuff.” I’m trading with West Coast brewers right now, sending them New Zealand for their El Dorado (Jared’s Note: This is the primary hop in the Black Tie IPA) because we’re out. Craft beer is awesome in that since. It goes back to Sam’s (Sam Calagione, CEO and Founder of Dogfish Head Brewing Company) thing that we’re 99 percent asshole free.

So, how did you hook up with these guys?

Ryan: I met Eric at a homebrew meeting. I was getting ready to go to Siebel. He said he was opening up a brewery and we kind of hit it off right out of the gate. And, the first day they came in here to start demolition, I was here sledgehammering walls. I have a little bit of carpentry skills so that helped.

Obviously having synergy with your boss is a good thing, but how does the relationship between you guys work in terms of what you (Ryan) want to do and what (Eric) is willing to pay for?

Ryan: There’s always a balance there. We don’t really argue too much about it.

Eric: I see him more as a partner than I do he’s working for me. A lot of times, I’m working for him when I go back there and he let’s me help him. (Ryan laughs) Going out I knew that I had to have somebody that knew more about that than I do back there. Because while I’m out here doing taxes, he’s back there doing this (pointing to a glass of beer). But, we work very well. He thinks about the money part and I think about the quality part.

Ryan:  It’s a passion for the beer. If it’s a good beer, he’s going to say that we’re going to find a way to do it anyways. It’s about putting quality first. There’s always a business side but you put quality first.

Eric: But then there’s beers that are getting ready to come up that we know, financially, we’re not going to make a lot of money off of it but it’s such a kickass beer…(Eric looks at Ryan) so, the beer is called Threat Level Purple and we’ll be releasing this in August in cans. It’s an 11 percent double IPA. It was actually designed for my wife. Ryan got on this kick for designing beer for other partners in this business and my wife loves a big hoppy beer and loves the higher alcohol beer. It came out and instantly when people had it on tap it was “This is the best beer they ever made.” We didn’t expect that. So, we said, all right, let’s do this in four-packs with a kickass label and we’re releasing it on our Beerolympics on August 22. We’re pretty proud of it, but we’re probably not going to make a lot of money on this beer because of the amount of hops and the amount of grain and what we sell it for. And, we’re only going to sell it out of here. We can’t even afford to distribute it because then we’ll make no money.

But, it’s something we want to do and something we want to do once a year. It’s a double-brew day for one 15-barrel batch. There’s a lot that goes into it.

Ryan:  It’s a bit of a struggle to make that beer.

Eric: But, It’s important for us to do that. It’s a struggle in this industry to stay relevant. You have to make quality beer, because those who don’t are going to be found out so quick. In seconds. All their friends on Untappd will find out if that brewery is making bad beer. We’re doing this one for the fun of it.

Ryan: It’s fun too.

Eric: Well, yeah.

Photo Jul 15, 11 29 35 AM

That ratio of people per craft brewery is shrinking and shrinking with new breweries coming online all of the time. It seems like its unsustainable.

Ryan:  I think we’re getting closer to a peak personally, though I don’t know if that’s our company stance. I think it’s going to become more of your town’s brewery and less people making the jump to regional breweries. You’re going to be the local center of your town and we’ve seen that model work. People come in here and this is where they make friends.

Eric: We’ll be out and about and see this retired city manager that helped us get here. He sees us and tells us how proud he is of us. And the Boys and Girls Club (located one block away) tells us that it’s great we are part of the community. It was a shocker for us. We weren’t setting out to become “part of the community.” We knew it was a community-based business, but we wanted to make beer and make money, and that was one of those shockers. Milford really supports us and now Delaware really supports us.

Ryan: Delaware is it’s own thing anyways. It’s kind of like one big city.

Based on that, Delaware has such a reputation as the home of Dogfish Head. I imagine it’s tough to feel like you don’t operate in a little bit of a shadow of Dogfi… (Eric begins shaking his head no and interrupts)

Eric: I would say, personally, they’ve been the biggest help not just to craft beer in Delaware, but the whole region. Sam’s a superstar and very unique, but I don’t think we operate in his shadow. I think his whole company can hold everybody up and say, “This is Delaware and these are the breweries around us.” I mean, we’re not moving out of Delaware.

Ryan:  Not long ago they brought us in and all of the local breweries got to pour in their bar. We’ve got a pretty good group. And it’s all tight knit. Every brewer knows every brewer and you can earn a bad reputation or a good reputation. They are top notch. First class.

Eric: They’re obviously popular and know how to make good beer. And they know how to grow a business, but they are humble. I’m at Firefly (Music Festival) and I saw Sam. He came up to me and gave me a high-five and talked to me for a few minutes.

Ryan:  He left the governor to do that.

Eric: Yeah, he walked away from the governor. And it’s not me like we’re best buddies. But it’s the person he is and the business they are. It could have been anyone. I don’t know how he does it. That whole business helps craft beer in Delaware because it draws people.

Ryan:  Especially beer tourism. You come down from New Jersey or Pennsylvania. Sure, you’re going to Dogfish Head, but now you have stops along the way.

Eric: They direct business to us. “You need to go see Mispillion.” It is a good, positive thing. Dogfish and Stuart’s Brewing Company in Bear have paved the way. Get a brewpub license in Delaware and you can distill liquor and that’s because of Sam.

Ryan: Brewing period in Delaware is because of Sam.

The Chad Spicer fermentation tank.

The Chad Spicer fermentation tank.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but what is it with craft brewers and beards?

Ryan: I don’t have much of one.

Eric: I don’t have one.

Ryan: You have something else.

Eric: It’s a squirrel. (Eric laughs.) There’s so many jokes you can make about it but I think it’s a sign of freedom. I grew this when I got fired from my last job right  before I opened up the brewery. I had a small one and I said, “You know what? I’m my own boss now and I can do whatever I want.” It’s saying, “Hey. We’re somewhat corporate, but then again, we’re not.

Ryan: I think craft brewers historically have had beards. Maybe there’s a little homage to the past, which is what craft beer does as well.

Eric: It looks really cool is what it comes down to.

Ryan: It looks good with Carhartt pants.

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