Behind The Beer-Jim Matt, Head Brewer, Rhinegeist Brewing

Jim Matt, Head Brewer at Rhinegeist Brewing in Cincinnati, has helped the brewery witness explosive growth in just a few short years. Fittingly, I spoke to this former chemist where he probably feels quite comfortable, inside the lab at Rhinegeist.

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photo by Rick Burkhardt

Jim Matt: As far as beer goes, I grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and the main brewery there was Genesee Brewing, and so I think my first full beer before I was of age was Genesee Cream Ale. And I thought it was kind of awful so I thought beer was a bit of an acquired taste back then, and when I was in college in Buffalo (State University of New York-), I drank a lot of Canadian beer, actually.

It’s funny to hear everybody say, “Oh, it’s so much better if you go up to Canada to buy it, it’s so much stronger.” I’m like, “No, it’s not.” I think the thing that people fail to realize was the alcohol level in Canada was reported as alcohol by volume and in the United States it was reported [back then] as alcohol level was by weight. Alcohol by weight is a lower number so a beer that is 4.6% by weight is actually 5.2% by volume. They were exactly the same beer but there was that whole mystique of going into Canada to get it. Toward the end of my time in college I started trying things like Samuel Adams, it was coming around. Sierra Nevada hadn’t quite gotten that far out east yet, then I just kind of drank whatever came my way as a poor graduate student (Indiana University).

I started working at a pharmaceutical company here in Cincinnati in 1990, and then a good friend of mine back then kind of introduced me to some different beers. I started drinking some German hefeweizens and some English beers, and I tried beers from all over the world and realized the whole wide variety of flavors different beers styles gave. Still the beer scene in the United States still hadn’t picked up much yet. That was in the mid-90’s, then in ‘96, my pharmaceutical company got bought out. I moved to Indianapolis and worked at Eli Lilly.

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photo by Rick Burkhardt

Another person that was a catalyst for getting me into enjoying beer more and homebrewing, was my co-worker, Steve Quimby, and he was like, “You’re a chemist, you should try homebrewing sometime.” Ok, yeah whatever, I’ll get to it. The thing with hobbies for me is when I get into, I really get into it. I got into homebrewing with no illusions of ever getting on the professional side of it because my philosophy was, I’m a decent homebrewer but there are literally thousands of other guys that are professional brewers that can do it better than I can.

No interest whatsoever and I had a really nice paying job in the pharmaceutical industry. So the hobby grew and entered beer competitions and I won a few medals here and there, joined a homebrew club, MECA Brewers. It was a really small homebrew club that was started by a metrologist, an electrical engineer, a chemist and somebody from academia.

So four guys started this club, they entered the Indiana Brewers Cup for the first time and killed it. They won the homebrew club of the year with four guys and beat the big homebrew club, FBI [Foam Blowers of Indiana] that had 50-60 members. I joined MECA the following year, we brewed together and we won homebrew club of the year for several years running.

Three of us actually turned pro. Two guys that won the most awards in the homebrew club, Bill Ballinger and Michael Pearson, they started Daredevil Brewing [Speedway, In.].

Kind of backtrack a little bit. In 2010 Lilly started this exercise they called reallocation, which means we’re eliminating your job but don’t worry, you can look in-house and find another job, right? Except they did this with 5500 people so invariably, some people lost their job and I was part of that exercise.

So, then I needed to figure out what I was going to do where I grew up again. I kind of looked around and I knew the guys at Sun King pretty well, and they were like, “Well, while you go through the summer of 2010 deciding what you want to do, why don’t you come work at the brewery?” As I said, “That’s great!”

So I worked at the brewery as a volunteer, helping them out on the canning line, I was filling growlers, and I was just learning by being in the brewery. I appreciated it and I think they appreciated it because at the end of the summer of 2010, Dave Colt, the head brewer and co-founder, came up to me and said, “We’re going to offer you a job. You’re going to have to take a massive pay cut and get a frontal lobotomy but we’d like you to start our quality lab.” And I said, yes.

That entire process started with me doing just about everything possible in the brewery to learn about the process, so I could learn about the quality role better.

They were ramping up production so much that I was also doing an assistant brewer role. And as an assistant brewer basically what you’re doing is cleaning tanks, harvesting yeast, helping out on the brew deck as much as I could. They gave me a few turns at brewing on my own over there, and I really enjoyed it. I like the lab side but I like the brewing side so I didn’t really have a chance to fully immerse myself on the lab side, I was doing more brewing.

Everything was great and I probably would have stayed with Sun King for a lot of years except this one, small, little issue…and that is, a young lady I was dating lived here in Cincinnati. So I was spending my weekends here and my weekdays there. I’d wrap up on Friday, I’d jump start my work for Monday on Friday. It was great experience.

Increasing your skills and brewing professionally 

JM: The middle of 2011, I noticed an article by a local beer blogger here called The Hoperatives, and The Hoperatives wrote a story about the Christian Moerlein Lager House that was under construction. They had just hired their brewmaster, Richard (pronounced Ri-shard) Dube, and read about his career with Molson, Labatt’s, Samuel Adams.

Given his background, he’s a biologist/microbiologist, heavy QC [quality control] background, some brewing, some recipe formulation. I thought I could really work for this guy. Sounds great.

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photo by Rick Burkhardt

There’s a homebrew competition here called Beer and Sweat, it’s a keg competition only, I ran into Richard there. I’m like, “Hey, I want to be your brewer at the Lager House.” I can imagine how many homebrewers come up to him, and “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” I was like, “No, I actually have real, relevant…I’m actually working at a real brewery now.” So I sent my resume in and applied, and sure enough at the end of 2011, I was brought on.

I moved back here and then the Lager House was under construction, and put in a lot of long hours and days. It was a brewpub environment so it wasn’t exactly what I signed up for but I feel like I have a lot of skills that I learned there, that were kind of missing from the skills I learned at Sun King. What’s the brewpub model like, brewing on a totally different system. That really expanded my skill set a lot, and then working with Richard himself, was really a great experience. 

The plan for Rhinegeist Brewing unfolds

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photo by Rick Burkhardt

JM: There’s a gentleman here named Bob Bonder, who owned a coffee shop and I would go into his coffee shop a lot, and he was like “How are things going at the Lager House?” It was a challenging environment, they bought all of their equipment from China and it invariably had some issues. We were making it work the best that we can but it was a headache sometimes. And so Bob said, “I’m thinking about opening up a brewery”, and I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I hear this like a thousand times a day.” He was like, “No, I’m serious. I’m looking at opening up a brewery, I’m getting a plan together. I even have a brewhouse and it’s a JV Northwest, and it’s in Mexico.” I joke around in retrospect now and say, “Bob had me at JV Northwest”, because I’m working on this Chinese system, and I’m going back on this system I’m more familiar with.

Towards the end of 2011 Bob introduced me to Bryant Goulding, the other co-founder. At the time he was working for Golden Road in Los Angeles, he’s a heavy marketing guy, he used to work with Dogfish Head and Anderson Valley. So Bryant and Bob and I had some beers, and we got talking. We all have a lot of the same visions, we want to open a brewery and it would be like this, that and the other thing. They kept me for information, and I was like, “Guys, I’m employed already so if you want to be serious, make me an offer.”

They made me an offer in February of 2013. I said yes and considered it for 48 hours, and gave my notice over at the Lager House. I don’t think they were too happy about it but it gave me the chance…I didn’t think I was head brewer material. But I guess if you go into a job that you’re fully comfortable with then you’re probably over qualified.

Once all of the construction was done we put the brewhouse together, and started brewing beer on June 8, 2013. So construction was very fast, started at the very end of February, 2013 and we were brewing beer by June 8, 2013. That’s very fast.

And that’s how I came into this. So when I look back at my original theory of, there are all these guys that can brew better beer than I can, I still think that’s true. But I think that my chemistry degree gives me an edge. I have a masters degree in organic chemistry (Indiana University), so it’s not entirely applicable to brewing but it gives me a lot of insight into things that a lot of other people might not have.

The Brewers Association reported that Rhinegeist was the top selling new craft brewery in the country in 2014. Infused with an additional $10 million for expansion in 2015, complete with a rooftop bar, Rhinegeist realized growth far beyond expectations.

JM: The plan was to grow sustainably and at a reasonable pace so in five years to get to that point in brewing 10,000-15,000 barrels a year. In our first six months we brewed 2,000 bbls. of beer and in the next twelve months we brewed 15,000 bbls. or so. That was 2014. In 2015 we did 30,000 barrels so between that 15,000 bbl. point and the 30,000 bbl. point is when we decided we needed a bigger brewhouse. That’s when we got the BrauKon 60 bbl. [German] brewhouse.

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photo by Rick Burkhardt

Essentially, a lot like what happened at Sun King, your business plan goes out the window and you just kind of fly by the seat of your pants. So we have to revise our projections and I think part of it is, the Cincinnati market was thirsty for craft beer. The market was pretty empty back when I started.

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photo by Rick Burkhardt

We’re a few years behind where Indy is and where Indiana is in general but I think your average craft beer drinker in Ohio is quite educated, and I think the beer laws and the beer distribution agreements in Ohio have introduced the general Ohio craft beer drinker to a lot of high quality beers.

If you’re a new brewery coming into the city and you’re not making good beer then good luck to you, because quality is going to be the yardstick by which some of these breweries succeed and others fail.

The truth is odorless and colorless, and most often you don’t know it when you see it. Except here. Jim speaks the truth about “Truth”, and its inception.  

JM: I think the thing that we were shooting for with “Truth” was, I’m a big believer in having an intention, a beer intention. Because if you don’t know what you have an intention for the beer to be, then I think you can taste it in the final product. And doing a lot of beer judging I get that a lot of times.

The intention for Truth was…actually a couple of different intentions. It was inspired by one of my favorite IPA’s which is Sculpin IPA by Ballast Point. I really like the hop profile on that. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, it gets its profile from a couple of hops that are relatively available-Amarillo and Simcoe.

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photo by Rick Burkhardt

So back when this brew was under construction, I hesitate to use the term “test batch” or “pilot batch” but that’s effectively what I was doing and not necessarily meld the recipe but meld the flavor profile. So if I hit it on a flavor profile then I could take that and scale it up, although it’s not as easy just scaling it up. So playing around with the Simcoe and Amarillo, and a little bit of Citra and some Centennial, that’s how we came up with Truth.

We wanted to hit on that similar flavor profile with a slightly different malt profile because we didn’t think there were any IPA’s in the area, in this region, that were made that were hitting on this. The only one that I can think of that’s made in Ohio that hits anything like “Truth” is Fat Head’s “Head Hunter”, and that’s a really great beer.

So we hit this profile and then we brewed it, and I can still remember the first time we brewed it, pulling out of the bright tank and this aromatic…it hit on everything that we wanted it to.

Another Truth inspiration and paying homage to his Sun King brewing roots

JM: It (Truth) also was inspired to some degree, by (Sun King’s) Osiris Pale Ale because in Osiris I kind of learned from Dave on a big scale; what is your intention?

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photo by Rick Burkhardt

One of the grains that Dave likes to use is flaked rye, he’s a big fan of rye. The flaked variety helps add head retention, that kind of thing, it’s got a lot of proteins in it. So as kind of a tribute to Dave I used flaked rye in “Truth”, but the rest of the malts are not at all like “Osiris.” It’s just the flaked rye. We use that in a lot of our IPA’s, and that’s my inspiration from Dave, he uses a lot of flaked rye in IPA’s.

Base malt is actually pale malt, we use a darker version of 2-row. I like that for Truth because it doesn’t add too much more malt character but it does add that color and I like the IPA, that particular IPA, to be a little darker in color. There’s a little bit of German crystal malt in there called Carared, and it adds a little bit of color without adding overly, crystally.

When we do a batch of “Truth” over here it’s almost 4,000 lbs. of malt and we use one 55 lb. bag in there, so it’s just over one percent. So Carared, flaked rye, we use a little bit of Vienna malt too, not a lot, just for that touch of malt character and that touch of extra color. It’s very understated. We want the hops to shine in “Truth”, and I think that they do.

Maintaining friendships and brewing relationships

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photo by Rick Burkhardt

JM: We have a really great community that comes together. Generally, great relationship with all of the breweries in the area. I know if Scott [LaFollette] at Blank Slate needs some lager yeast, I can get him some lager yeast. And sometimes we’ll borrow hops from the guys down at Mad Tree, really a great relationship.

I still maintain a great relationship with the guys at Sun King and all of the Indiana breweries really. When I go over for the brewers festivals, they always give me a warm welcome. 

I owe a lot to the guys at Sun King, they’re like the big brother down the road. Clay Robinson [Sun King co-founder] said, “We’re not your big brother anymore, you’re brewing more beer than we are.” But they’re still our big brother from the aspect, I learned from them and I’ll always look at them as a bigger brother, because they really are. 

I owe a lot to the guys that I homebrewed with. And a guy named Ron Smith who runs the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), I wouldn’t be the brewer I am today, and Ron still teaches the class. I got into the beer judging ranks and worked my way up through the ranks. 

The ties that bind. Beer and people.

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JM: I’m glad you asked that because I have a very strong philosophy on that. I think beer is the most social beverage that’s out there. Like if you think about people drinking wine, about the bouquet of the wine, and the legs, and the vintage and all that…sometimes snooty. They generally don’t argue over beer as much as they do about wine. In the case of bourbon and distilled spirits, they’re talking about their dog that died and their wife that left them, and listening to bluegrass music. I’m generalizing of course.

In the case of beer, they drink beer and they talk about life, and they get to know one another over beer. I think that some people make beer pretentious and there are people out there trading beer and all that, and that’s great. It’s a good way to get to try other people’s beer from around the country. But by and large, the biggest beer community, sit down and have a beer and talk about life, that kind of thing. It brings people together. 

You can catch Rhinegeist Brewing at Sun King’s CANvitational festival on Saturday, Sept. 10th, though Jim will be busy working on a new collaboration in Denver. Also keep your fingers crossed (wink, wink) for a new collab. with Sun King.

Cheers!

Rick

Rhinegeist Brewing is located in the Over The Rhine historic district in Cincinnati, Oh. 

Please find me on twitter @indybeersleuth.

 

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