local suds: Flying Fish

New Jersey’s Flying Fish Brewing Co. has been a part of the craft beer movement since before there was a craft beer movement. We sat down + enjoyed a nice cold beer with founder, Gene Muller, to learn more about how his brewery got it’s start online + how sustainable practices make for a greener future + superior suds.

hg:  what were you doing prior to founding Flying Fish?

gene:  I had a job in Marketing, worked 40 hours a week and had four weeks of vacation; I became bored with that. I was doing a lot of home brewing at the time + I’ve always been interested in cooking. I’ve kept a vegetable garden since I was six and my family worked in construction…so I’ve always liked the mix of using your brain, your hands + your creativity. Brewing is all of those: you’ve got the technology part of it, the creativity part, and you’ve got flexibility. I decided to quit my job and go to brewing school, and then came the idea to start a brewery—originally it was going to be a brew pub. I was going to investors and they were like, ‘Let me get this straight: you’ve never worked in a brewery, you’ve never run a restaurant, you’ve never run a business + you want me to invest?’ and I was like ‘Yeah!’ It took two and a half years to get the idea moving and get the money—but the big thing that really got us going was the website.

hg:  we read that Flying Fish Brewing Co. first started on the internet in 1995, back when the internet was used by only about 14% of American adults and was still considered a fairly new medium. What made you decide to start there?

gene:  it was free and cheap. I’m techy and nerdy and thought this is really cool and a great way to advertise—people who were into craft beers were using the internet. It was a really good fit. I had some friends help design a website, and I learned basic HTML. At the time so few people were using the internet. We had the Philadelphia Inquirer saying, ‘This is what the internet is + this is a website’—using the Flying Fish website as an example. We received a lot of media coverage. This sparked the attention of a bank and attention from investors. We were selling t-shirts and glasses that didn’t have our location on them, because, well, we didn’t have one…

"...they noticed that this guy is selling stuff and creating a brand that doesn’t exist. It got the whole ball rolling."

I still answer all the emails that come to the brewery through the website. It all comes to me first. I want to hear everything: the good things, if someone received an old beer…if they just have a question; it keeps me in touch with our consumers.

hg:  what is the story behind the name Flying Fish?

gene:  the story is: there is no story. I wish I had a good one. Back then there were a lot of breweries in Philadelphia with historic names like Independence, Red Bell + Dock Street. We didn’t want to do that. The other big motif for breweries was mountain ranges like Sierra Nevada or Wasatch and all the good animal / mammal names were taken (laughs). We were going to people and saying, ‘give us ideas.’ We had a list of about 1,000 names and we whittled it down. I liked Flying Fish because it was different.  In 1995 if you said ‘his beer is from New Jersey’ it was like the needle scratching across the record. We wanted to have fun with it. With the logo too, we didn’t want to have hops + sheathes of barley. Since we are from Jersey we wanted to have a bit more of an edge.

hg:  you moved to a larger facility in 2012 that boasts a ton of amazing sustainable features, can you tell us what some of those are?

gene:  with the [new] brewing system we only use 60% of the ingredients that we used to. We have a high-efficiency boiler that is only 60 gallons as compared to 1,000 gallons that would typically be used in a plant this size. It goes from cold to 150 pounds of pressure in about 10 minutes. It’s super efficient—kind of like an on-demand hot water heater, but on an industrial scale. All the windows are energy efficient; all the HVAC systems + lighting are, too. We have a rain garden with all native plants; the goal eventually, is to do more rain gardens out front, it’s going to be a bigger project. We also recycled the wood from the old water tower + our packaging has a high-recycled content. Wherever we can, we look at the payback. We’re going to be here a while so it makes sense to invest in something that may be expensive up front, but down the road will pay dividends…

"…this is an agricultural product: if you don’t have clean water, good air + good soil, you’re not going to have good beer."

hg:  was sustainability always important to you or did you have an “ah ha!” moment and realize that this was an important direction for the business to move into?

gene:  I’ve always been environmentally conscious—I didn’t know there was a thing called sustainability, but when we started this building we had a blank canvas since we had to gut the place. Fortunately New Jersey has some great programs for energy efficient fixtures, they pay 70% of the installation cost. Even our power; we’re using 660 power which is kind of scary, but it’s so much more efficient than using 220 or 110. I don’t fully understand the technology…but it’s a lot more efficient to use it. Whenever we do anything we look to ‘what is the best way to do this? what is the most environmentally friendly way to do this?’ Now we are tweaking our processes, like the bottling line: when bottles come in they get turned upside down, rinsed, filled, and on the other end they get rinsed again to remove the beer residue. We capture that water, recycling 50 gallons a minute. The boiler helps, too. We can now sanitize with steam and use a lot less chemicals. It's more effective sanitizing with steam.

hg:  can you tell us about the creative process to develop a new recipe?

gene:  we have this pilot system. Everybody in the brewery comes up with ideas—we have the outlet for them. We had a pro-am competition among the entire staff last fall that was one brewer paired with a couple of other people. Then we hosted a night here where the customers were able to vote. It was a lot of fun and the beer that won is now going to be produced and aged in tequila barrels. Sometimes it’s serendipity and sometimes we have to think ‘where is there a hole in our portfolio?’ A lot of people out there are just doing versions of their beer and it’s like taking the same beer and just changing it a little bit each time, but we want to do all discrete beers. So we look for opportunities; what's in the market to see what’s right. Sometimes a vendor will reach out and have a brand new hop they they are testing and ask if we want to brew some beer with and play around a little.  

hg:  what goes into naming the beers?

gene:  originally we were pretty straightforward naming the beer after the style, like Extra Pale Ale or Abbey Double. The Exit Series is it’s own thing and we’re at 11 out of 18…yeah, naming is the tough part. We have the Gone Fishin’ Series every Thursday where we showcase experimental beers brewed by staff members so often the staff comes up with names. I came up with a session IPA in cans that we’re producing this year—it’s a summer beer—I used to call the Summer Ale ‘The Official Beer of Daylight Savings’ so that was named ‘Daylight Savings IPA.’ It tells you what the beer is made for—it’s a mix of ideas.

hg:  what is your top selling beer?

gene:  normally it’s the seasonal. Right now the Hop Fish (of the year-round beers) is our biggest. It used to be the Extra Pale Ale, but in the past year or two the Hop Fish has taken over. We are kind of unusual, we don’t have a flagship beer, we’ve never had one that accounted for 70% of all sales. Ours all sell a similar amount. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it’s the way it is.

hg:  do trends in craft beer influence your recipe development?

gene:  we like to follow our own path. We don’t say ‘everyone’s doing sours and we should, too.’ It’s about what feels right to us. There are times when we have discontinued beers because consumers moved away from that product, like the ESB for example. Our Porter, too; people loved it, but they were not buying it. I still have people asking ‘why did you discontinue the Porter?’ and I’m like ‘you should have bought more of it!’ (laughs). We listen to the marketplace; if this beer is selling or are the sales dipping…the consumers tell you what they are going to drink. They are so finicky right now. They want to try everything, rate it on their app and experience everything out there. What’s nice about this facility is having so much flexibility to do one-offs and experiment. We’ve done some barrel aging and bottling which we were not able to do at our old facility. My definition of a great beer is whether or not I’ll order a second one. I’m just like consumers though; I’ll go to the bar and ask ‘what's new, what’s different?’ At the end of the day, I just want to have something that I enjoy. It can be maddening in the summer, like in August, when all the beers offered are over 8%. I just want a crisp helles, farmhouse or summer ale, something that you can drink a few of.

hg:  how does Flying Fish stand out amongst all the newcomers?

gene:  when we started we told people we were “local” and local didn’t mean anything. In-fact being local was a negative. The perception was ‘if you’re local, why isn't your beer cheaper?’ or if you’re local ‘eww, you’re using Jersey water?’ Now we have bars saying ‘you’re not my local brewery, I have one that’s five miles closer.’ I’m friendly with a lot of the newcomers and there's a lot of chaos in the marketplace at the moment. You have people doing five kegs a week, and they are put on the tap. There used to be a lot more loyalty—bars would put our Summer Ale on tap from when it was out until Labor Day. These days beers come on and off the taps daily. Overall I think it’s good though, craft beer consumption is up.

hg:  is there one overwhelming misconception about beer brewing that you’d like to rectify?

gene:  it’s not about brewing, but we get this question a lot. People ask about when a beer is cold, then becomes warm and then chilled again, is that what skunks it? I don’t know where that started, but everybody asks about it.

hg:  so what does skunk a beer?

gene:  sunlight and florescent light! It reacts with the hops and it happens quickly. I always tell people to take the second six-pack out of a beer fridge because of those long fluorescent tubes at the front illuminating the beer fridge. We actually do high six pack carriers to help block the light along with a brown bottle to help keep things fresh.

The other misconception is that we’re drinking all day long…or just dreaming about what awesome hops we can use. But it is hard physical work. We have a lot more automation in the brewery now. You used to have to do a lot more lifting and racking out the grains. All of our brewers were super thin guys—now we have a few muffin tops back there (laughs) because you can just push a button and the machine takes care of it. These days it’s more about think-time: every time we get hops or malt, it’s slightly different in terms of nitrogen or the alpha acids in the hops. Minor tweaks are made to the recipes to maintain consistency. We also do a lot of lab-work because there are no preservatives or pasteurization. You need that freshness. If you’re making 2000 cases of beer, you’ve got to make sure it’s just beer in those cans without wild yeast or other critters.

hg:  craft beer has become practically “the norm” these days for young people looking to get entrepreneurial and “craft-y”—any advice for those just starting out?

gene:  you have to ask yourself: do you want to brew beer or do you want to run a brewery? A lot of people are getting in because they want to brew kick-ass beer. The thing some people forget is that we are a highly regulated industry. We are the only industry in the country that has two constitutional amendments: one banning it + one legalizing it. There is a lot of paperwork, a lot of legal issues…things like that.

"Some folks just see the beer part and think ‘it’s just like homebrewing only a little bit bigger.’ It’s important to know that there is marketing, packaging, consistency, paperwork—it’s just a ton of stuff."

I didn’t know all of this when I got into brewing, I’m kind of glad I didn’t (laughs). It’s this whole other universe of work.

But, it’s a fun time in the industry. I just did a presentation for the NJ food processors association, and I was talking about craft brewers. Now we have craft distillers, mead makers, cider mill + wineries in New Jersey. We’re all starting to do cross-over projects. The distillery in Camden took eight kegs of one of our out-of-code beers and distilled it. It was amazing! The hop character came through in this jar of moonshine. The rest was aged in an oak barrel for 7 or 8 months. Where it gets even more fun is they gave us the barrel and we’re now aging beer in it. Then we'll give it back to them to age something else. It’s really fun redefining what a brewery does and what a distiller does.

hg:  of the beers in your stable, which is your favorite?

gene:  the one in my hand or my next one (laughs). I like the seasonals, I go through all of them—it’s my job. We started out pairing beers with food. When we started, that was kind of a new concept. So it really depends on what I’m eating, depends on the time of the year or if it’s just a quick beer before I mow the lawn. I mix it up. I also go through phases.

hg:  what’s next for Flying Fish?

gene:  we have a lot of stuff coming up this year. We have a tequila-aged beer in the works and it’s also our 20th anniversary—we’re doing a special brew for that. We’re working with a group out of Colorado called “Beers Made By Walking” you basically take a hike someplace and create a beer inspired by the walk. They host an event in Denver for this. We started ours last year and worked with a plant biologist at a place in the Pinelands called William Parker Preserve; it’s an amazing place. It was like hiking with Google: we'd say ‘what’s this, what’s that?’ and he'd say ‘here: try this, sniff this, never eat this!’ We collected all of these ingredients, had to have them approved by the Feds; we had pine needles, yarro + something else that I can’t remember. We’re really hitting our stride now that we’ve been here for a few years. We can start doing a lot more special things.

hg:  final question: what’s your favorite dish at honeygrow?

gene:  Red Coconut Curry with Tofu!

The Flying Fish crew keeps a busy schedule. Peep their event calendar here to find out where + what they are pouring, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter + Instagram.

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