When tragedy struck brewer Matt Smith’s family, he channeled his grief into a beer project that has since gone on to help others cope with and address loss. He’s the owner and founder of Wandering Soul beer based in Beverly, Massachusetts and he shared his story with All About Beer editor John Holl.

John Holl: Tell me about the brewery and how it came to be.

Matt Smith: The way it started is not really a typical path to starting a brewery. And actually in fact, I don’t have a physical location for a tap room that people can come visit. There’s a shed behind my house here in Beverly that is a fully licensed brewery. I have a state permit for the shed, as well as a Federal permit and an FDA registration. So technically, and legally, I can brew beer out of that shed and sell it directly to people. But they can’t drink here because they would literally be drinking at my house on my property.

So really, it’s just a formality for me to be able to take my recipes that I’ve accumulated for many years now and just produce them at other breweries in the area. Then I can self-distribute all that beer to local stores, bars, events and things like that.

The brewery has actually been a grief project for me. We lost our first daughter Melody in 2017. My wife was full term in her pregnancy, almost 36 weeks pregnant, and we found out that Melody’s heart stopped beating.

Our worlds were shattered. We had just moved into a new house, which is the house that we still live in. She was our first child, and my wife could have lost her life.  I had a stable job with another brewery. She had a stable job as a teacher. Everything’s going great. And then all of a sudden, everything just falls apart.

I had to leave my job with Clown Shoes Beer which, ironically, operated the same way I currently do; they didn’t have a physical location. I learned the business that way. If you’re making the beer somewhere else, and you’re relying mainly on wholesale, it’s a little different than having a place where you can invite people in and they can drink your beer there.

Basically, I entered the worst time of my life and the way that I grounded myself was to apply for the paperwork to start a brewing project which ended up being called Wandering Soul.

I wanted to release a beer in honor of Melody as a way to have a legacy for her. I was always afraid that her name would just get lost. And no one would ever remember, aside from us.

I didn’t think that I would get approved for the state and federal permits. I thought it was kind of a long shot.But it was approved at the end of 2018.

So I reached out to my friends at Castle Island Brewing in Norwood. I’m good friends with the owner, Adam. And I’ve become good friends with all of them. And I reached out on a whim saying like, ‘Hey, I got this permit, can we brew a batch of this beer that I want to call Melody Maker’?

It was a recipe I was working on prior to Melody’s death for a New England style IPA that’s 4.9% ABV. This recipe, I tweaked and tweaked and tweaked for years and did like 20 versions of it. And I finally reached a point where I was comfortable producing on a larger scale. I designed the whole label. And I donate some of the profits to a charity that helped me and my wife called Resolve New England.

The beer is brewed with two 2 row, Vienna malt and flaked oats, and I use Citra, Mosaic and Motueka hops. It’s fermented with a version of London Ale III.

Castle Island helped me make the beer and it sold out, and we made another batch and that sold out and it just became a business that was never supposed to be. But it did and it’s been amazing.

It’s the thing I’m probably most proud of in my whole life. And it’s been hard. I mean, this industry is not an easy one to operate in, especially when you’re tying your business and your brand to a story that’s so personal and not necessarily bright and cheery.

I’ve always designed it as a symbol of hope, because every beer is dedicated to a person or a concept, but there’s dark elements to it.

People can go through these things in life that can be labeled as sad, tragic, transformative, whatever the word is. And to produce something out of it, I think is very important for other people who are grieving and suffering to find some sort of creative outlet or something that they can use as a mode to get through the grief process. If I didn’t have this, I don’t know what I would have done.

John Holl: Have you been able to connect with folks through this? You’re talking about being hopeful, has that been able to forge a deeper connection with people you’re interacting with through this beer?

Matt Smith: The community around it is pretty amazing. I heard from a lot of people through Resolve New England. We’ve since gone on to have two other living children, they’re three and five years old now. The beer sort of opened up this conversation with all these people that were willing to share these things with me, that are so deeply personal,things like life and death situations. It was just so incredible, that people were willing to trust me. Because I think they saw that I was willing to take the step of talking about this in a very public way.

Especially for dads that go through this kind of thing, there’s really very little support. I think that for women that literally shoulder the load of losing a child during pregnancy, it obviously takes a much different toll on women. But also, women are a little bit better at talking about these things and finding community.

For men, it’s really hard, because I think men are supposed to be the stoic ones who just try to power through and not necessarily talk about it. That wasn’t an option for me. I knew that I had to talk about it.

John Holl: If other brewers go through extraordinarily terrible circumstances, like you did is there a path for them for this? Can projects like this have a larger place in beer?

Matt Smith: I was a little bit hesitant in the beginning about putting this out. Because I do know, a lot of other brewers. I had been in the beer world for a pretty long time before this and met a lot of people that way.

I was a little worried about what people within the industry were going to think. I was always very cautious of not trying to seem like I was trying to exploit some sad story to sell beer. This was a  very personal thing that I felt like I needed to do for my healing.

It did really have an impact. I’ve met so many other brewers through this and I’ve done at least 20 collaborations at this point with people, some who have become some of my best friends.

I want to help people at the end of the day, I want this story to have an impact not just for me, but for other people that might feel lonely or isolated or deep within grief.

Everybody’s going to be up against this at some point in their life. And it’s one of the hardest things I think to get through. Because in the end we are all in this together. It’s a human experience. And the only way to get through some of these really tough things in life, is to lean on people around you, or just find people that have gone through things similar to what you’re going through.

Maybe you come out on the other end a little different, and maybe a little damaged and scarred from the experience, but you’re still here. And you carry this stuff with you.

I carry the memory of my daughter every day. I wish she was here every day. But in a way she’s kind of been my copilot.

Pull Up a Stool is a regular feature on All About Beer. Reach out to editor John Holl at JohnHoll@allaboutbeer.com with suggestions on brewing professionals that should be featured. And to support our journalism, pleasvisit and donate via Patreon.com/AllAboutBeer