Pull Up A Stool With Jeremy Tofte of Melvin Brewing
At this year’s Great American Beer Festival, the crew from Melvin Brewing blared hip-hop from their bus, fired T-shirts from cannons and hung out with the wrestler Hacksaw Jim Duggan.
And these celebrations all came before the brewery won two gold medals (for its Wet Hop Melvin and Hubert MPA) and was named Brewery Group and Brewmaster of the Year.
Taking home hardware from GABF is nothing new for founder Jeremy Tofte, whose brewery started small in a Thai restaurant in Jackson, Wyoming. From those humble origins, Tofte has expanded into a large production brewery in Alpine, Wyoming, and a new brewpub in Bellingham, Washington–with more brewpubs in the works.
What was this year’s Great American Beer Festival like for you guys?
It was really fun because you might have known that in 2015 we got small brewpub of the year. And in that time from then to now, we built a production facility. And so it’s the first time we’ve had more than like five people at GABF at one time. There was a good crew of 20 or so of us, maybe a little bit more. In the festival hall, during the awards ceremony, there were about 12 of us. It just felt so good to know that we could take it from a 3-barrel with the team we’ve assembled up to a 30-barrel and still make amazing beers.
The feeling of us walking down the hallway to receive the gold medal for Hubert–that’s the beer we drink. That’s our beer that everyone drinks at work. And it’s always been kind of underrated because it doesn’t say “IPA” on the label. It just made us so happy to get a gold medal in that. It was nice to repeat in the fresh hop, and it was also nice to feel like we’ve worked so hard with the Hubert. And even though it’s kind of an industry event that maybe people in the outside world don’t totally understand, it felt really good to see our favorite beer get some accolades.
Like you said, you’ve won awards for a variety of locations, going back to beers you brewed at Thai Me Up, to small brewpub of the year in 2015, to brewery group this year. How do you do ensure consistency and medal-winning quality across all of these systems?
First thing we did was realize we were never going to change the recipes unless they were going to get better. So going into it, we knew we had to have a system that was built to have high-gravity beers, and that’s why we contacted Newlands up in British Columbia and worked with them to build a system that would work for the kind of beers that we make. Because we’re not going to dumb down the recipes. That’s why our prices are more of a premium price, but we didn’t change the recipes from the 3-barrel to the 30-barrel. Our CFO was kind of shocked when he saw the cost going into these beers, but it’s so worth it.
We just assembled the team that could take us from a 3-barrel to a 30. We found Dave Chichura [formerly of Oskar Blues], he’s very proficient on a large system. And he started assembling an A team below him. And then right away, the first thing we did after we hired Dave was hire a lab consultant that built our lab for us. We have a full lab now with lab directors in it making sure every single beer comes out the way it’s supposed to. I think that’s the biggest piece that gives us an advantage coming to market. We know before a beer’s even finished fermenting how good it’s going to be and if it meets our standards, and we have no problem sending it out to market.
So you’ve designed the system around the types of beers you want to brew, and also brought in a team proficient at brewing those styles as well?
Definitely. As you know brewing on a production system is a whole different ballgame than brewing on a pub system.
Speaking of pub systems, how are things going at the new brewpub?
In Bellingham, which we like to call Melvingham? It’s going great. I think people were ready for something like that. When you walk into the space, and it’s playing hip-hop and all the TVs have kung fu on them, it’s a little bit different. And people don’t always know what to expect, but they’re digging it. The hamsters are loving it, because there are so many great breweries there already, it just gives them another place to have a beer.
Does the Bellingham brewpub have its own identity as far as beer styles?
Yeah, the brewer that we hired spent 30 years in Sweden, and he brewed there professionally and as an amateur. And he also brewed in southern California, so he knows both styles. But we’re going to take a different approach. We already have the West Coast styles maybe not down, but we have them to our liking. And so the new pubs are all about experimenting with different kinds of beer, that may or may not work in that area. Like for this new brewpub, there are a lot of Scandinavians living up in the Bellingham area, so we’re going to use his expertise to make a few Scandinavian beers so we always have Scandinavian beers on tap. And maybe they won’t sell like hot cakes, but that’s OK, because we just want to make them. We just want to do what we want to do.
For those hop-forward styles you’re so well known for, how do you stand out when everybody’s doing IPAs these days?
It used to be so easy because no one knew about whirlpool hops, and it’ll sound funny to some people that have only been brewing a couple years that are making amazing hoppy beers, but that was kind of a secret five years ago. And now the secret’s out, so we just keep on staying consistent and doing what we’ve always done as well as trying to add some new tricks to our repertoire. It’s fun to keep on getting better with the balance, and the more balanced we get, the more people like the beer. If it’s too malty, which we don’t do, or it’s too bitter, which we don’t do, people don’t seem to like it. And I guess that’s the best part of having a pub system, is that we can experiment. If it doesn’t work, we know right away. And if it does work, then we start the process to build it up into the 30-barrel system.
So you guys have been doing late-addition hops for quite a while?
We were doing it in like 2010, when it was kind of looked at like a waste of money. There were a bunch of people doing it, don’t get me wrong. But it wasn’t accepted industry-wide yet. And since we were just on a pub system we didn’t really care about making money. We would just throw in as many hops as we could without it being too grassy or too piney, and we just found that perfect balance.
Obviously one of your most popular beers is your 2×4 Double IPA. How did you guys get the wrestler Hacksaw Jim Duggan involved?
Every time we searched #2×4 on social media, he would come up. We were like, ‘Wait a second, that’s our hashtag.’ So we figured let’s just get a hold of him and see if he wants to team up. He’s so fun. We teamed up with him again this GABF and we’re coming out with a really fun video with him in March to talk about International 2×4 Day.
Any big plans for next year’s 2×4 Day?
Yeah, it’s happening on Super Bowl Sunday. And since no one wants to throw a party that competes with the Seahawks winning, we figured we’ll do International 2×4 Day this year. International would be 4-2 instead of 2-4, so on April 2 we have about eight different countries that we’re going to do 4×2 Day in, including 30-40 bars in America. And they’re usually in a lot of markets that we don’t actually distribute to. That’s fun, letting people taste the beer that maybe they’ve heard of but never had. I’m excited to send beer to Korea, Thailand, Japan, Sweden, Norway, England, Belgium.
The beer bars we have are new to a lot of places outside of America, so it’s going to be great when customers show up at their bar and there’s hip-hop playing and kung fu playing on projectors, and everyone’s dressed up as ninjas and there are all kinds of activities and games that just make beer drinking fun. We’re just kind of all about goobering out a little bit. I think International 2×4 Day will give us a chance to show the rest of the world what we’re all about.
You mentioned a lot of new markets for 2×4 Day, but what’s your distribution like these days?
We’re just sending beer to Seattle, Portland, Boise and Denver, mostly, and then all over Wyoming. And then we decided to start sending a truck every once in a while to San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. We just sent one to Massachusetts because there are a lot of distributors taking an interest in us. Once we figure out the franchise laws in a state, we make an agreement with them. You try us out for a few months, we’ll try you out for a few months, and we’ll see if we work together. The good old days of getting married and sleeping together on your wedding night are pretty much over.
You’re not moving a ton of volume in some of these markets. Is the goal just to get out in front of beer drinkers in some of the most popular beer markets?
Yeah, test them out and if the customers like us and continue to drink us and there’s enough demand, once we get capacity we know that’s a market we’ll enter. It could be two years away, it could be two months away. But we’ll have more capacity online this winter and be able to possibly start opening new markets, but after GABF Denver’s just soaking up more beer than ever before. That was our biggest market, and now it’s even more so. We have a difficult time getting semis to our brewery, because we’re in the middle of nowhere. We’re having a hard time getting beer out. We’re looking at starting a shipping company, and that will just take beer back and forth to Denver.
It has to feel good to be doing so well in such a competitive beer market.
That’s our whole model, is just to go to the most competitive markets and see where we fit in. Our whole business model is that we have to ship outside of our state. I think we’ve done enough flirting with those markets over the last four years that it’s working out. Even when we had the 3-barrel system, Kirk [McHale, co-founder and brewmaster] would fill one of the 7-barrel fermenters with six barrels. Every month, some lucky territory would get 30 six-barrels. It would usually be Bellingham or Portland or Boulder. It’s still fun, but it used to be really fun in those days when we were so excited a whole pallet would go wherever it went, and we’d read the internet to make sure people liked it. It was good times because we didn’t know what this would all turn into. At the time we just wanted people to taste the beer. That’s still what we want, but now it’s getting around.
It has to be exciting still, but is it at all scary to see how much you’ve grown?
No, I think it was probably what we were meant to do from the beginning. Toward the last year of me bartending and working in the brewery at Thai Me Up, I was snowboarding less and less. I realized that maybe I didn’t want to bartend for another decade. I love bartending, but the late nights add up. We actually got a state grant, and that was the catalyst. I said, ‘I guess I’m not bartending anymore. We got $3 million dollars from the state of Wyoming. It’s time to get real.’
Is that what led to the production brewery?
Yeah, we sent a business plan out to the state and got a lot of support. All we had to do was make 35 jobs happen in five years and it’s interest free. We hired 35 people I think in the first year and a half, so that’s taken care of and it’s interest free. We have 15 years to pay it off, and that is the catalyst that took us from a 3-barrel to a 30-barrel.
Are you guys still looking at building a brewery in Denver?
Yes, we are. We’re in negotiations with a couple different landlords in Denver, another in Olympia, Washington, and then we have a letter of intent in on a space in San Diego. My manager from Thai Me Up, Jamie Morris, I told him in four years we’ll have a big old brewery, and then we’ll start building brewpubs, and you’ll be in charge of all the brewpubs. And sure enough, almost four years to the date, he’s now running Melvin Brewpubs, LLC. He was just down here for San Diego Beer Week and we looked for spaces for a few weeks, and kind of honed in on the ones we really wanted to see. We found one that’s just perfect. We’ll put a 10-barrel system in there. When we find the place in Denver, up there we’ll do sour beers. We have a really good sour brewer ready to jump on that project, and he’ll get creative control. It’s all about bringing in these team members that want to do great things in their lives, but maybe they don’t have a way to do it, or they don’t have the experience or the financing. I’m all about bringing people on that are better than us and giving them the opportunity to perfect their craft without us micro-managing them or telling them what to do every minute. I’m just excited that we have a great team that is taking us to the promised land. It’s going to be such a good feeling to have this 2×4 Day all over the world, and showing people what American craft beer is.
–This interview was conducted and edited by Daniel Hartis, editor of All About Beer Magazine.
Jeremy Tofte At A Glance
Years in Brewing Industry: Seven. I worked at my family’s craft distributor since childhood–Redhook, Pyramid, Grant’s, etc. Started picking up kegs at breweries when I was 16. Fell in love with it.
Go-to beer from another brewery: Royale Pilsner in Portland, Oregon
Beer that inspired him early in life: Blackhook
Couldn’t live without: My radio
Favorite place to have a beer: North Shore, Kauai, post surf at a roadside break, during sunset.
Wishes he could buy a round for: Wu-Tang Clan
Biggest passion besides brewing: Surf/snow
Keeping him up at night: Gross margin
Jackson and Alpine, Wyoming
Founded: Pub 2010, production facility ‘15
Annual Production: 20,000 barrels in year two
Availability: WY, CO, ID, WA, OR, and parts of CA sporadically