Friday, February 10, 2017

Weird Beers and Ancient Aliens: A Conversation with Joe Short

Ashley's co-owner Roy More, Joe Short, and yours truly.

Interview with Joe Short, founder and CEO of Short's Brewing, conducted December 8, 2016, on behalf of Ashley's.

Like many in the brewing business today you started out as a homebrewer, but unlike many, you were really young when you got into beer. Can you talk a little bit about your early years?

I started construction on the old hardware store that would become the Short’s brewpub when I was 23 years old. I made my first batch of beer when I was 19. A lot of it stemmed from growing up as a poor kid in Rapid City and watching my parents fight over money or the stress of being gone for work and I decided, “This isn’t gonna be my life.” And so I was adamant about getting ahead – I wanted to be a working man at 10 years old. I’d walk up and down the road and try to get old ladies to pay me to shovel their driveways or rake their lawns.

Finally, when I turned 14 I was able to get a job legally – and that was working in a bar and restaurant on Torch Lake. I learned a lot about the hospitality trade and as a shy kid, I was able to blossom in the social environment of a bar. As I turned 18, I was able to wait tables and also as a late teenager I began to experiment with beer, hanging out and drinking with the older kids who worked at the bar. This was 1996, 1997, when I was in high school.

It was interesting as a waiter because we’d have all these people who were vacationing up north, and they would bring their tastes from their regular life downstate in more sophisticated areas. I remember the day when I decided to write down every time someone asked me for a craft beer. By the end of that day I’d filled up two sides of a page in a legal notepad. They’d ask, “Do you have any craft beer?” and back then it was like, “We have St. Pauli Girl Light, St. Pauli Girl Dark…”

This was 1997?

Yeah, when I was 18. So I showed this legal pad to my boss at the end of the night and I was like, “We gotta get some Bell’s in here, we gotta get some craft brew.” I had the proof and so I convinced him to get rid of Pete’s Honey Brown or whatever that shit was, Killian’s Red, all those garbage beers. And then the following year I went to college and being a do-it-yourselfer, I thought, “Man, trying to find someone to buy beer is a real pain in the ass – I’m just gonna make it myself.” So I started studying how to make beer, and I obsessed over it until I got it right. It wasn’t until 1999 or 2000 when I could make a drinkable batch of beer. That’s how it started for me.

You were homebrewing five-gallon batches?

Yeah, I came home from my freshman year in college – June 1, 1998 – and I brewed a nut brown extract kit on the stove. I didn’t have a thermometer or anything – it was all kind of gross. But I was determined to make something I could drink and in the process I learned a lot about beer history, recipe design, simple science, and that was it for me. The switch went on.

Then you decided you wanted to open a brewery?

During my early years as a bus boy I distinctly remember this time I was washing glasses and these two guys were sitting at the bar bickering at each other. Suddenly they’re like, “Hey, Joe! We’re a bunch of old crotchety guys here and we hate life. Whatever you decide to do in this world when you grow up, just make sure it’s something you enjoy.”

I never forgot that. So once I started brewing I thought, “I like making beer more than anything else in the world right now, and this should be my profession.” I was 21 and I figured if it didn’t work out, I could go back to college and try something else. That was when I cycled through a few jobs at different Michigan breweries, got my bearings, and learned a lot about what to do and not to do.

I remember coming home from my last brewery job, going over to my girlfriend’s folks’ house, and trying to figure out my next steps. I was on a sinking ship, so I either had to get a job at another brewery and work my way up or else figure out how to do it myself. So I was sitting in the woodshop with Bill [Sohn, an early investor and inspiration for Woodmaster Ale] drinking homebrews and telling him about my plan and how I had found some brewing equipment for sale online. He said, “Why don’t you call those people tomorrow and tell them you want it?” So he bought that equipment – in fact, he still leases it to us to this day.

He provided that early seed money, and I went to work. The early years were rough, especially the winters. I wasn’t really prepared for those. We made a lot of mistakes. It was fatiguing, it was 24/7, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just knew I had to keep treading water to survive. But I wasn’t about to go down and fail people who had lent me $5,000 here, $10,000 there. I wanted to pay those people back, one way or the other. So I fought tooth and nail to crawl out of that hole. In some respects, we’re still doing that.

Do you think it’s easier or harder to start a brewery in today’s environment?

You know, I talk to other brewers and there’s a certain era of us who got into this, kind of piecemealed our equipment together, and figured out a lot of stuff on our own. Now I think breweries starting up – it’s a novel idea, everything looks great on paper, your uncle’s got a million dollars, you can design and build everything. The idea’s romantic – like, “I own my own brewery, I get to pour my own beer, I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

A lot of us earlier generation brewers, we loved the grind. We loved the process, we loved the art, we loved figuring out a way to build something out of nothing. I think now we’re sort of in a market of ADD consumers. We still have to fight for our right to party, so to speak. Being the brewery we are, this is how we’re gonna roll in 2017: Here are our core beers, the beers that keep our brewery floating, and here’s the fun stuff to keep all you ADD people occupied. We’re gonna continue to have fun with it, to think about new weird shit no one’s done yet, and we’re gonna do it better than anybody. I mean, people can really fuck up beer easily by saying, “I’m just gonna throw a bunch of weird beer out there and call it ‘extreme.’” But if you can’t drink it, it’s not worth anything.

That’s a great segue to my next question. People used to ask Ray Bradbury where he got the ideas for his science fiction stories. He said he woke up in the morning and lay in bed listening to the voices in his head until he’d heard enough to begin writing it all down. Was that how you come up with some of your wilder beer recipes? And how did you even decide Short’s was going to be a company that essentially specializes in “weird” beers?

We identified the fact that once you’ve figured out how to make beer – you can make a porter, you can make a stout, you can make a pale ale, you can make a wheat beer – then in my mind the question was, “What is gonna distinguish our brewery from the next? What is gonna make us more sought after?” Because for one, people gotta work harder to find us. We’re in the middle of nowhere. So it gives people a reason to come see what we’re doing. Well, let’s do stuff that no one’s ever thought of. To me, it’s the most fun part of what I do – figuring out how to do stuff nobody would attempt to do or would think is possible.

The inspiration comes from anywhere in life. It could be while I’m watching TV or while I’m waterskiing…

You’re still directly involved in recipe formulation?

You know, if there’s something I wanna see made, I’ll either toss it out there or else write the recipe myself. That happened with Melt My Brain, which won a silver medal two years ago at GABF. I was mowing my lawn and I have this giant juniper bush that’s overgrown and I got in close to it and managed to kick up all this juniper aroma. And I thought, “Oh man, a gin and tonic sounds good after I finish mowing.” But as I continued my mind started drifting, “So what is in a gin and tonic?” Tonic is this thing that somebody made out of ingredients, so I betcha I could deconstruct tonic and use wort as the base. We’re very familiar with using herbs and spices and roots and stuff like that. We’ve made juniper beer before. Juicy Tree, right? And then there’s lime. We’ve made lime beer before. So this should be easy, right?

We still haven’t made the version that I wanna make by deconstructing tonic, although I did make my own tonic for a micro batch. But by this time we were trying to get ready for our 12th anniversary party, so we just bought tonic concentrate and then made the beer with it. So essentially the version we produce now is a shandy.

Other beers like Bloody Beer, Woodmaster, Black Licorice Lager, these are things – I mean, I’m a guy who likes to put a shot of beer in his Bloody Mary. I’ve put vegetables in beer before, I’ve put spices in – these are all things that universally can be transcribed into a recipe. We just happen to be able to fucking nail it most of the time.

So how are these things born? From social gatherings, usually after a couple of beers, is the apex of where great ideas come from. That’s the truth. I remember being on the boat with Tony [Hansen], our head brewer, Jon [Wojtowicz, sales], and Curt [Guntzviller], one of our production brewers. We got into this conversation about bonfires and that led to s’mores and then, “Can we put all that stuff in a beer? We probably could. That’d be pretty good. Let’s do that.” So S’more Stout we’ll actually be bottling for the first time in a decade.

These stories are great, but how do these beers affect your business strategy? What is the market for them?

I never worry about it! When I originally started Short’s I always thought I’d be the guy living in the apartment upstairs, brewing in the basement, and hanging out in the pub in the evening. In the business plan I said we would always have this personal connection with the consumer because this beer is something I’m really passionate about, that I take personally. The plan called for establishing relationships with all our customers – I mean first-name basis, handshake type stuff.

So the business model for me was to pour my heart and soul into what I was doing and show it to people and talk to them about it until they understood why I made it and why I was so proud of it. I figured people were bound to like it if they knew the story behind it. And it was that passion that drove our business model up until the day I had to pull my head out of the sand and say, “Fuck! There’s a million breweries out here and we’re getting lost in the shuffle. We have to go out of state.” So for the first time in my professional career I had to make a business decision.

About that decision – your slogan was “Michigan only, Michigan forever…” 

Yes, and then there was our massive expansion. We were exceeding the municipal wastewater allotment. We couldn’t go back to 2009 production volumes, so we had to put in our own $1.5 million wastewater treatment plant. Halfway through construction, the contractors went out of business, and they took all the money we paid them to build our plant and used it to pay off other projects. We had to buy it back for another $500,000 out of pocket to complete it. Meanwhile we’re having to haul our waste away for $7,000 a week.

So inventory’s building up and cash flow is completely crippled and we got a product and a company and a brand that’s powerful and majestic and unique with fans all over the Midwest. I’m like, this is time for a decision right now.

It seems that when you announced this decision, there really wasn’t a lot of backlash. Did you get any or did people sort of understand?

Unfortunately, it wasn’t gonna happen. I mean the market is what the market is. There’s only so much real estate where beer sits.

But it could have gone sideways with how passionate beer geeks are about buying local.

It could have. I was prepared to go to the people and – I think I’m a person with enough integrity and humility, with no doors to hide behind – and tell them this is the way it is. And if you can’t see the landscape of the craft beer industry right now, you’re blind. That landscape is flooded.

What beers do you send out of state? Do these other markets get only the flagship beers, or do they also get the “special” brews, too?

Every state’s a little different. This was a reactive decision for us. We didn’t have a two-year planning process or anything. We shot first, and we’re asking questions now. We regrouped with our Great Lakes distributors and found that Bellaire Brown does great in some markets and Space Rock does really well in others. Cider is great in some markets, not so great in others. In Pennsylvania, we can’t sell Soft Parade for the life of us. It’s an IPA market out there. And Soft Parade’s our No. 1 SKU – there’s no other beer like it on the planet.

What are some of your biggest challenges now? You celebrated 10 years in 2016 – where do you see the company at its 15th anniversary?

I’m excited because for the last three years, as I mentioned, we had internal stuff go awry. From here on out I think I’ll be back in the sweet spot of doing things I’m good at, like being creative with stuff like Psychedelic Cat Grass and the Super Hoppy Holiday variety pack. I hope to be the guy leading the charge, saying, “We’re gonna do this. It’s gonna blow everybody’s mind. We’re gonna change the game again. Forever.” That’s my plan. So even at our anniversary party next year, I plan to make some announcements that will change the landscape in terms of how we do things.

What is something you want people to people to know about Short’s – or even about Joe Short himself – that they might not be aware of?

I’m obsessed with aliens. They’ve totally visited us. I watch Ancient Aliens on History Channel. I can go off on tangents about that, but one of the things I wanna do – I’m a parent now, and my kids are 5 and almost 7. And I’ve been hearing stories from other parents with kids a little older that there’s this window where your kids are just your kids. You get past the rough early years and there’s this window where you can all do stuff together and everybody likes each other. And then next thing you know, they’re growing up and doing stuff on their own. So I want to take a couple years off and work from the road and bring a tutor with us and homeschool our kids through adventures throughout the globe. Start with the Great Lakes region, dovetail it with some event promotion, do the U.S., but then I also wanna visit all the Ancient Aliens sites, all over the world. There’s a lot of phenomena around them that pre-date the Bible. It’s fascinating to me. I’d love to be president of the United States only so I could learn the truth about extraterrestrials.

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