DCB: How did you get started in brewing and what led you to start Three Floyds?
Nick: I started home brewing when I was 18. I originally hated beer because all anyone drank in high school was warm Old Style or warm Budweiser. I’m like, “why are they drinking this shit?” Then I tried some good beer, then around 18-19 started home brewing stuff. I decided when I was 21 to go to brewing school and do it professionally. Then I brewed pro at a couple places, The Florida brewery, Falstaff, and Malta which is a horrible unfermented porter. But some people like it for breakfast so that’s cool. Then I worked for the wine cellar, which is like a German style brewpub out in the west suburbs of Chicago.Then in ’96 we opened Three Floyds, with the help of my brother and dad. We opened in Hammond, which is north of here. We opened in Hammond because, and everyone asked, “Why’d you open in Indiana, and not Chicago?” In Hammond we had 5,000 sq ft., rent was $500. That’s why we opened in Hammond. If we opened the same size brewery in Cook County, IL, rent would have been $5,000. And we started with very little money! You can see our original brew house, it was just a small 5 barrel kind of ghetto system.
DCB: It must feel kind of good to move from little finance and a little place to here.
Nick: Yeah, and we’ve done it without really any debt, so that’s good! Some people are like, “Well why aren’t you at 20k barrels, like so and so…” Well, because we don’t want giant loans or giant debt load or have partners whose philosophy we clash with.
DCB: So you guys have been open about 11 years now. Certainly a lot has happened in that time, you guys have gotten a lot of acclaim in the beer industry. You’ve gotten some awards. Has there been a difference… is there a pressure now that people have an expectation about what comes out of Three Floyds, when you guys are developing new recipes.
Nick: Yeah, if we don’t make gigantic… I hate to call it “extreme” beers, but that’s what they’re calling them… Like we just made a Helles and people just shrugged their shoulders. But, a terribly good, clean german helles, people are like “eh, boring.” But, if anyone else made it, some other brewery or brewpub, then you know people would love it. Yeah, I guess there is some pressure to always make bigger more alcoholic more hoppy stuff. But we make the whole gamut now.
DCB: Yeah, it seems like things are already starting to diversify. Are you guys trying to make sure that you keep a wide variety of beers open to the public despite that pressure to create extreme beers.
Nick: Yeah, at our pub especially, there’s the very strange stuff and stuff we only make in a 6bbl tank to serve here. But every month now we come out with a new 22 oz seasonal which we’ve never done before. But we’re making more and more beer, 20% growth every year, but shrinking our reach to just Indiana and Illinois. We can’t even keep up with Chicago.
DCB: Yeah, you used to distribute out to Rhode Island, and we used to drive down there to try and get stuff from you guys.
Nick: If you can only deal with 3 distributors, instead of 15, that’s way less headaches and the beer doesn’t have to travel as far and be fresher. When we’re bigger, we’ll be back in those markets.
DCB: Do you have any plans for increased distribution? Or are you working on saturating the current markets right now.
Nick: Our immediate goal is 10k barrels. After that, if we go to 15k, then we can possibly rethink about that. But there are 8 million people in this area so I think that’ll keep us busy for the next couple years at least.
DCB: We also happened to notice that Chicago seems to be a pretty good beer city… With all the quality breweries right in the area and it’s all getting drank.
Nick: Yeah it is, but the distribution laws are terrible. Bell’s pulled out for that reason, New Glarus isn’t here for that reason. And a lot of national brands don’t want to get a bloody nose in Chicago because of the distribution laws. Which are a result of Al Capone and what Chicago is infamous for back in the early part of the 20th century.
DCB: It definitely sounds unfortunate. The more breweries you talk to out here, they all sort of subtly mention the distribution and the franchise laws that exist.
Nick: Well the distributor in Illinois owns you.
DCB: They own your brand and can sell you however they please.
Nick: And if you want to leave them, you have to, in some cases, pay them 3 years of profits of what they would have made. So to buy out a big brand is millions of dollars. If you want to switch distributors, most people can’t or can’t afford it.
DCB: That’d be a good way to get into debt right there. So, speaking of you say you introduce a new 22oz every month, what do you use as inspiration when creating a new beer. Do you test it first, or do you have a good idea of what it is and it gets brewed.
Nick: Both, now that we have a pub we can totally test things in out own weird way. Basically, we’ve always just made stuff that we want to drink. We’re small enough that it all sells. If we made 5,000 barrels of something that wasn’t popular, then that might be a problem. I guess, regardless, we make stuff we want to drink, regardless of what the public wants.
DCB: It seems to have worked so far.
Nick: Like Alpha Kong, I don’t know how that will sell, but I’m sure we’ll sell it all!
DCB: Everyone’s kind of looking out for the new Three Floyd’s beer. It always gets buzz when it comes out. They all seem to be well received too.
Nick: Well, you try your best and make it as clean as possible, with the best ingredients and we try to do the best we can
DCB: Switching gears a little bit, there’s been a decent buzz around Coors coming out with their new craft beer division. Do you have any thoughts on how that will affect the whole industry and how you feel about that?
Nick: I guess they’re already kind of deceiving people with Blue Moon and I guess they’re going to continue on with that. For us, it turns more people onto trying new beers. So I guess it’s not a bad thing. Will our $8 or $9 six-packs be competing with that? I don’t think so. People will always be looking for genuine hand crafted micro. So, overall, I guess it’s a good thing. The big breweries have been slipping in percentages, so I mean they’re just turning to what’s working.
DCB: It’s really a testament to you guys. It was ignored by the macros for so long, now when they start to enter the game it acknowledges a legitimacy that there’s something real there and it’s not a fad.
Nick: Well, we’ve grown consistently and, micro nationally is 5%... that came out of their percentages, so…
DCB: Along those lines, we thought it was kind of interesting when the CEO of SAB Miller came out and said craft beer is a fad and going away, yet their two biggest competitors are venturing in to make fake craft beer.
Nick: Miller tried in the 90’s with Amber Reserve. It wasn’t half bad. But I don’t know for their CEO to say that is kind of … stupid. You go to any big city and see a new pack of micros. Or to any part of the western United States, it’s everywhere.
DCB: So, going along, obviously you have a lot of small releases at the brewpub. Do you have any big upcoming releases that will go to production soon?
Nick: Well this summer we just started doing Gumbalhead in 6-packs. That’s kind of our biggest release in years. Other than that just the seasonals and, of course, we’re now known for Dark Lord Day, that’s our other big release. That’ll be in April 2008.
DCB: This is kind of a weird question, but it seems that you guys get pigeon-holed a lot, especially with the Dark Lord… if anyone knows one beer it’s Dark Lord. Everyone kind of comes out here for that. But you always notice there are a few beer geeks who are like “it was better last year… no it was better the year before.”
Nick: Yeah, they’ll always do that. As long as you annually date it with different color wax… people always say stuff like that. All those British barley wines: “’85 is better than ’88… ’89 is better than all of them.” There’s always going to be that. And that’s a good thing. Some years will be prized over others. I mean, it’s bound to happen.
DCB: We always notice that people say, “Last year’s was better, they’re ramping up and selling out…” There’s always that guy.
Nick: If we turned the whole brewery into a Dark Lord factory, maybe they could say that… but we only made 90 barrels of it. And it was heavier than ever this year, so you can’t say that no matter what.
DCB: One of the interesting things is the way you package your beer too. The wax dipping, the art work is certainly unique. Is that something you wanted to do right from the beginning to have a powerful image along with the beer?
Nick: Well, yeah. When we started, everyone had a tree or a mountain or was named after a town, so we used characters. Then, on top of that, buying the best ingredients and making the best beer possible, trying to make the best graphics that we could. The brewery’s motto is, “It’s Not Normal,” so make the graphics and art totally not normal, and use the best graphics we could find. Randy Mosher, he’s a famous home brewer and he’s written a couple of books, he does our graphics, he’s done a really good job.
DCB: When you do the wax dipping, does that present challenges as you try to scale up your production?
Nick: Yeah, that sucks! At Knob Creek, you can tell which lady dipped it by which way the wax drips. We actually got a better wax machine, so it’s 2 or 3 days of hand dipping. It makes the beer stand out, though… and it dates it… and it looks cool.
DCB: One of the things that’s interesting is this term: “extreme” beer. Right now there’s this interesting thing happening in craft beer as a whole where some people are starting to turn away from that term… or trying to.
Nick: Well, extreme you think of guys with barbed wire tattoos. I guess it’s a bad moniker. But, I guess, some of them are extreme in a way. But that’s what micro brews do. Not many are making corn or rice adjunct lagers.
DCB: Going back to the brewing, what’s inspiring you out there? When you’re looking for something knew, where are you looking to right now?
Nick: Everywhere you go… you go to brewpubs or beer bars and it could be any brewpub anywhere that’s made a one-off weird sour this or wine-barreled this. There’s no one source. It’s all diverse. It comes from I guess everywhere. For me at least. It’s not just Trappist breweries… it now comes from everywhere. And now Europe has some amazing micros, so that’s good. They’re making some inspiring stuff now.
DCB: Just looking around and seeing those barrels… [pointing at barrels nearby] we’ve seen a lot of people doing the sour thing lately… experimenting with it…
Nick: That’s the newest thing. Those are all just straight up bourbon, though. We will be doing some sour stuff. A real Berliner Weisse… some krieks… and framboise I think.
DCB: Wow! That’s quite an interesting departure from everything else.
Nick: Well it’s the one place we haven’t really ventured into. It’ll be cool. We’ll make some weird fruit flavored ones. It’ll only be available here. I don’t know if we’ll ever bottle them. We’d have to napalm the whole bottling line.
DCB: Everyone keeps talking about bringing sour barrels in. And they’re skeptical about bringing it into their brewery.
Nick: It should almost be another brewery if you’re going to do it. We’ll just keep those fermenters on the other side of the building. You don’t want to contaminate the whole facility just because you’re trying one new thing.
DCB: Well, 10,000 barrels is definitely exciting… especially with very little debt and without big investors. And we’re sure people will be psyched to hear about the sour beers you guys will experiment with. Good luck in the future and thanks for hanging out with us for a bit!