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It's time to introduce the first installment of a monthly series on Beer Goggles: Question and answer time with local head brewers and brewmasters.
On Tuesday, I had the awesome pleasure of hanging out at MadCap Brew Co., a fresh new nanobrewery located at 883 Hampshire Road in Stow. MadCap is about as small-scale as it gets: It's been putting out craft beer for two years and can be found on draft at a handful of local establishments, including Ray's Place and Newdle Bar in Kent, Bellacino's and On Tap in Stow, Kevin O'Bryan's and Ido Bar & Grill in Akron, and The Office and the Clubhouse in Cuyahoga Falls.
In September, MadCap moved to its current location and upgraded its system to produce about 1,600 barrels a year -- 20 times more than what it made last year.
Ryan Holmes, head brewer of MadCap, is about as enthusiastic as one can be when it comes to talking about his trade and vision for the company, and isn't afraid to admit he still has plenty to learn when it comes to cranking out the best craft brew possible. Still, I think their Green Bullet IPA is pretty darn delicious, and I look forward to trying more of their brews in the future.
Check out our conversation, which covers the brewery's start-up, goals, philosophy, production and Holmes' personal beer preferences.
1. What got you into brewing?
"It was about a 90-degree hot summer day. I'm mowing my lawn in Cuyahoga Falls, finish up dripping in sweat and I've got a half fence, not a full privacy fence. My neighbor came over, he's an older guy, and he's got this cloudy beer. I'm 20 at this point.
"He says, 'You look like you could use a beer.' 'Yeah, I could use a beer.' At that point I was drinking High Life because I'm still in college, and the beer was awesome. I'd never had anything like it. It was a U.S. Wheat -- a beer that this guy brewed.
"I started talking to him about it and building a relationship with this guy and he'd been a home brewer for quite some time, had some good stuff going on and I thought, 'I've got to get into this.'
"The first beer I did was a dunkelweizen and the rest is history from there. I think I did probably five or 10 extract batches, then I started getting into all-grain, then I bought this SABCO system.
"As a home brewer, every batch is different. It took me a while to get back and try to duplicate some of the old things that I did or tweak them, because you're wide-eyed and just want to brew whatever is out there -- every weird thing you read in a magazine.
"That's what got me in and there's been no looking back from there."
2. How and when did you decide to pursue it as a career?
"I was brewing on the SABCO and I'd have friends or family that were having a wedding, or graduation party, or cookout or whatever, and would ask, 'Hey could we get a couple kegs off you,' and it kind of just started spreading from there.
"It got to the point where unless I was going to those events, which typically I was, I wasn't drinking any of the beer I was brewing. People would give me money for kegs and I was missing out. It already had a business-type feel to it, which was cool because people wanted different things.
"I started looking into what it would take to legally sell this. I started to get into some spots where it was like, 'Can I do this legally?' You can only have so much homebrew in your house at one point and I was maxing that limit out. My wife can attest to that.
"This was right around the time when beer lobbyists in the area did a really nice job. Every state has a different licensing fee. All the states that have the big brewers -- and we have Anheuser-Busch in Columbus -- the licensing fees are through the roof. It was $3,900 until a couple years ago, when it went down to $1,000, which was really nice.
"Basically, I was at the point where I could cover ingredients. We built our couple-hundred-square-foot brewery that just housed our SABCO and a few fermenters off of my buddy's dad's house, which was already commercially zoned, so there was no overhead there. We covered licensing fees, we covered equipment repairs and ingredients and had a little bit of money left over to start pouring into something bigger.
"It was real slow. You want to talk about baby steps -- starting a business on a SABCO is the worst business model you could possibly have because there's no money to be made on it. We really need to be seven to 10 barrels to really make a living out of it. We're pushing into six barrels now.
"We got to the point where we looked at the numbers and I knew we could get into a place like this, pay for all of our overhead, pay for ingredients and pay off the equipment. In three years, this will all be paid off and that's when our lease is up and we'll start looking to expand from there.
"It was real organic. It was a natural progression of people are wanting it, more places are asking for it, and so I hadn't yet had to make a sale where people hadn't already contacted me. It's not always going to be that way, but it made it easy for me to make the decision of 'All right, let's put some money here and see how it goes.' And that's how we got to this point."
3. Does MadCap have a particular philosophy when it comes to making beer?
"I think the philosophy is a very grassroots homebrewer philosophy. I'm going to brew beer that I want to drink and is going to make me happy.
"Now, you still have to keep up with your market and you still have to make the people buying it happy, but when it comes to any particular style that we're going to choose to brew, we're not going to follow the model of skimping on ingredients and worrying about the profit margins.
"We're going to brew the best beer to that style that we can possibly brew. We're going to continue to tweak those recipes to make them the best. We want to be best. We are the snot-nosed brat in the market right now, there's no question about it.
"The reality of it is, when we go into a place like Ray's Place, and we have a ton of options and our tap handle is sitting amongst those, we want to be just as good if not better than all of those options and that's the bottom line."
4. How much beer to you produce?
"Last year was our first year. We started in March and we produced 83 barrels, which is probably the least amount of beer produced by a brewery on the entire planet.
"Right now, we've already exceeded that amount. We upgraded our system, and it's like 20 times the size.
"About 1,600 barrels is where we'd like to be at the end of the year.
"By the end of the year, we're going to have another fermenter to try to keep up with some more volume.
"Hopefully, it doubles next year."
5. What new brews are you currently working on?
"We've got a couple things. Right before this started taking off and I was just homebrewing, I really started getting into sours, and I really want to get into that again. I kind of put that on the back burner because they're really not that popular and we're just trying to pump out volume right now. There's some really good examples of sour beers out there right now, but people aren't drinking them as much.
"I've got a buddy of mine from the Brew Kettle (assistant brewer Vince Rinaldo), and we're starting to work on some sour recipes and smoked beers -- smoked porters, smoked IPAs. I'm personally really into them. I'm hoping people will start to come around.
"A lot of our labels are the really hoppy beers and that's the popular thing right now, but I think we're going to start seeing people get more into some Belgian-styles, sours, smoked things. So, we've got four fermenters that we work off a pilot system and we're looking to basically tie those up with off beers and stuff like that, beers that I want to drink.
"I've had a thousand great IPAs, but I want to start getting into some other stuff, and I think the market's going to start turning that way because beer drinkers are getting more knowledgeable and they're expanding their horizons. When the rest of our equipment comes in, I'm going to start working on some sours."
6. What are the best and worst parts of the job?
"I have a full-time job. I'm an operating engineer. I have an anthropology major and I'm not doing anything my schooling career that I went into. I love being here. I love everything about it. I don't care if it's cleaning out mash tuns with 300 pounds of soaking wet grains. I love designing recipes, I love talking to guys like you, I like going out and making sales.
"This is what I want to do. It's awesome. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. There are no downfalls to this whatsoever. I think it has to be that way.
"There were some challenges certainly, stresses from taking money out of your bank account and buying equipment that costs tens of thousands of dollars, but if you love it, you challenge yourself and you want to be the best, and there's nothing better than that. That's where I'm at.
"There is nothing I don't like about this. I'm here, I rock out to some tunes, drink my coffee in the morning and beer in the afternoon and I'm good to go."
7. What is your favorite craft brewery, other than your own?
"That's like asking me who my favorite kid is. I'm not going to give you the easy answer.
"Abroad, I have a few, but one I'm really a big fan of -- and you can get their stuff at (Winking Lizard's) Lizardville -- is a brewery by a small Belgian brewer I was privileged enough to meet when he flew out here: De Glazen Toren -- it means 'The Glass Towers' - killer Belgian-style beers. Aside from your Trappist monasteries who do great stuff, this guy does killer stuff and I suggest his beers to anybody.
"I'm a homer. I love Brew Kettle (Strongsville), I love Fat Head's (North Olmsted). Hoppin' Frog (Akron) is doing great things. Thirsty Dog (Akron) is doing great things. Main Street Brewing in Garrettsville, they're doing some great stuff."
8. What's your favorite beer style?
"It depends on the time of year. I've been drinking a lot of (Belgian) quads and stouts in the winter. We're coming into spring, so I'm going to be drinking a lot of farmhouse ale and saisons. Pale Ale, IPA that's year round. Rye beers are great.
"If you want to put me at a style -- I'm going with something hoppy, and it doesn't have to be bitter. I love the flavor and aroma components to hops as well, and I think people associate hoppy beer with just a bitterness."
9. What are your top five favorite beers right now?
"De Glazen Toren and anything they do. Rochefort 12, that's a phenomenal beer. White Rajah (Brew Kettle) has crept up my list. I love B.O.R.I.S. the Crusher (Hoppin' Frog) -- that's a great one. A great session I'm putting in my fridge at all times is Sierra Nevada's Torpedo.
"That's a little bit of everything."
10. What advice would you give to someone thinking about becoming a professional brewer?
"Leave yourself plenty of capital while you're waiting on approval from the federal and state government.
"Taking it from a hobby to a profession -- if you feel like it's going to feel like a hobby when you turn it into a profession, you're completely wrong. It's not going to be a hobby anymore. You're going to wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares about meeting deadlines and is your batch ready and did everything come out right.
"If you love it, and you are willing to put the time and energy into researching and improving yourself, there's no greater reward than when you get it carbonated out of your tanker into your keg.
"You have to figure, with all these new breweries coming out, if you're doing a crap job, you're just giving craft breweries a bad name and the brewing industry in general.
"You have to be 100 percent dedicated to thinking, taking constructive criticism and tweaking your product from there. It's all about guys like you and me, nerds, who go out to the bar and want the best offerings that they can get.
"Set about six months' money aside for not producing any beer.
"Knowing that it's not a hobby anymore, you still have to have that mentality of putting the best product in a bottle or keg that you can, but knowing that your time, your energy is going to increase exponentially and it's a profession where you're competing with and against a lot of great people out there.
"So put on your brewing hat and get ready to go."