How did you get involved in the beer brewing business?
I was a home brewer since college, but fell into banking by accident (psychology/english major!). When I moved out to Seattle in 1990 from New York, I began brewing with Todd Carden (Elliott Bay Brewery) and talking with Dick Cantwell (brewer at Pike Place Brewery then) about a brewery. Dick and I began to have some concrete ideas about opening up Elysian but needed the sales knowledge. Todd was not ready to make the leap just yet and Dick had met Dave Buhler at a conference. For me, it was the opportunity to leave a rather dull job for something where I could direct myself, I thoroughly enjoyed and got free beer as a perk.
Elysian has so many beers to choose from, both seasonally and year round. What inspires you to create the flavors?
The innovation side of brewing for me is like baseball – if you fail at it 70% of the time, you’re an all-star! You have to be comfortable with things not working out the first time. Space Dust went through quite a few incarnations before we hit on the recipe we have today. Acceptance of that risk also pushes you to really discover something new rather than just following the latest trend.
As an avid Men’s Room listener, tell me how that collaboration happened.
I had met the guys from the show at Elysian Fields before a Seahawks game maybe in 2007. A few drinks into things, we talked about brewing a beer for fun. Add a charity to do some good as well. We asked Entercom (parent company for the station) for permission, then forgot about it until we all got word back that it was a go. The intent was to brew one 10BBL batch (20 kegs) one time. We brewed the first version (a blonde ale) and had 450 people show up for the tapping. The beer was gone (just at Elysian Fields) within three days. The second batch didn’t last much longer. We made the decision to move to a red ale and brewed a 20 BBL batch. Again, in under a week it was gone. About 6 months later we moved to bottle it and offer it further in the wholesale market. In the first year there was a waiting list for draft beer longer than the account list that had it. Grocery stores were ordering pallets of beer (72 cases) as opposed to a few cases. I don’t think any of us had a plan, we just tried to catch up. It’s a rare thing when the brewery, the show and the charity all grew from the exercise. Still going strong today!
Among all my friends on the east and west coast, Space Dust seems to be the most popular. I was also at my colleague’s restaurant, Flat Stone Tavern & Grill, outside of Atlantic City, New Jersey, and he had Space Dust on his beer menu. I literally screamed when I saw it (he thought something was wrong with the food, I had to tell him I was just excited). Two part question, what do you think it is about Space Dust that is universally appealing (I dislike IPA’s and I like Space Dust) and how does beer distribution and marketing work?
Space Dust definitely has somewhat of a “cult” following! As with all of our beers, the trait I’m most focused and proud of is balance. It is 8.3% alcohol, but does not taste “hot”. The hop profile is citrusy and fresh as opposed to many IPA’s that taste of pine tar or too bitter. It drinks refreshing and quaffable beer after beer. Packaging also pulls you in I think – definitely a happy thing! As far as distribution, we’re expanding as fast as we can! We’re trying to make more of all our beers, but are very protective of quality and consistency. We won’t let it out until it’s perfect. Once the capacity is there, the model we use is to enter a market is with brewer visits, events, merchandise, etc. That all takes time and effort so the process isn’t necessarily the fastest. More than likely, major markets in states will be first followed by smaller ones. Keep watching the shelves!
Tell us the story about your newest year round availability of Dayglow. What do consumers love about Dayglow and how/why did you decide to make it available year round?
Dayglow is a mosaic hop based beer with a small amount of wheat in the grain bill. Wheat gives it a very nice mouthfeel and compliments the hop profile giving it a very unique flavor profile. The graphics were a pretty funny exercise. We had talked about Space Dust graphically being an alien shooting lasers out of her eyes (as we were brainstorming about the label). Everyone gave me a hard time about the lasers. When Dayglow came up, the brewer (Steve Luke) had named it in the trial phase and we decided to keep the moniker. We Googled the word “day glow”, found all these pictures of day glow clothing, hats, etc. On the third page of the search there was one image titled “day glow tiger” It was a tiger with day glow colors in the background. For some reason, the tiger really pulled me in. Collectively, we thought the higher with day glow colors on it would look great. Our graphics artist (Corrine McNeiley) came to the next meeting and exclaimed “here’s the day glow tiger you all wanted, and Joe, here’s the day glow tiger with lasers coming out of its eyes!” The rest was history! Armed with a day glow tiger with laser shooting eyes, how could you not make it year round?
Elysian holds many events throughout the year, including the upcoming Great Pumpkin Beer Festival. What goes into planning events like the beer festival?
Events for me are incredibly important. They are the best way for our customers to really participate in the brand and get a deeper understanding of exactly who we are. There’s a huge amount of effort and thought that goes into each one, especially the Great Pumpkin Beer Festival. It’s about the beer, but it’s not all just beer. It’s about the personality of Elysian, we have to show something deeper than all the other breweries. If there was a personality description of Elysian I’d say it had an endearing sense of mischief! Very playful, in kind of a punk rock kind of way!
What charities is Elysian involved in and why are they near and dear to your heart?
Charities have always been big for us. We definitely like to do some good as we grow. Vetting them is a big process – not too much money used for administrative costs, a cause that needs the help and is relevant in our marketplace, etc. The Fisher House has obviously been a big one with Men’s Room Red, but there’s also Obliteride (Fred Hutch Cancer Research), Bailey-Boushay Hospice Center, Team RWB, Puget Sound Bloodworks, and the Base 2 Space climb, which is coming up on October 2nd. We’re always looking to add to the list.
With the seeming explosion of so many microbreweries over the last decade, is there a competition between local brewers or do all of you work in sync to provide your amazing brews to the public?
There are definitely a few breweries out there. There’s also some fantastic beer! As we grow, I’ve always felt compelled to help out other breweries even if they are in competition with us. There’s plenty of beer drinkers out there. Elysian was founded on our desire to make better beer. We had a lot of help from most of the local breweries when we were getting open. They gave us advice, physical help, and lots of encouragement. Later on, we started collaborating. Two competitors working on a beer together for the sake of the beer, not the sales. I like the idea of a coin toss for which brewery gets the ownership regardless of where it’s made. If that beer becomes a great success, congratulations! The spirit of collaboration is for the beer and the exchange of ideas and techniques. As we grow, I think it’s important to keep that spirit alive, it grounds you and keeps the focus on the beer above all else.
Does Elysian have any new beers coming to fruition in the future?
We average about 100 different beers per year. Roughly half of those are experimental, so there’s always something new. Look for those in our Manic IPA series, Experimental Series and the draft-only Capitol Hill Series. Next up is Saison Elysee, followed by a Saison brewed with apples. I kind of like the farmhouse styles lately!