Before catching a flight to Munich, Co-founder and Brewmaster of Terrapin Beer Company Brian Buckowski took a moment to fill me in on all of the happenings down at Terrapin. We talked about beer, Gold Medals, mascots and some state confusion early on. But before all that, he told me to refer to him as “Spike” because everyone else does.
The Brewery – Let’s start small, why do they call you “Spike”?
Spike – I had spiked hair in high school, and then when I went to college it was still spiked. And all the seniors in the dorm just nicknamed me “Spike” and it stuck. After I graduated college I moved down to Florida and about a year and a half later I moved to Georgia where I moved in with a fraternity brother,. He knew me as “Spike” so, that was it, Spike stuck. So, it’s an old college nickname.
Was becoming a Brewmaster always your dream?
Umm… not really, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. When you go to college they sit you in a room and say “okay we have this, this and you can do that.” And then they said “we have Corporate Video Communications.” And I was like “What’s that?” And they said “Well you do TV and radio and communications stuff.” And I was like “Alright, I like music.” So I got into that. And when I got out of college I was doing AV jobs, jobs in video and stuff like that and never really liked it. I picked up home brewing as a hobby. I actually was winning some awards as a home brewer. I asked for a leave of absence to go to brewing school and they granted it to me. And I thought I’d make a career out of a hobby. Back in 1996 I went to American Brewers Guild, took the course and became a professional brewer and got my first job in 1997.
Ninja Turtles, Franklin the Turtle, Tortoise and the Hare, why choose a Terrapin and risk falling into obscurity among the other famous turtles?
(Laughs) Well, it’s kind of funny because people think we’re from Maryland because we’re called Terrapin. That’s absolutely not true. I used to follow the Grateful Dead when I was in college. You know, “Terrapin Station”, Jerry Garcia, I mean, that’s where the name comes from. So if you ever look on our packaging, our Terrapin Rye Pale Ale has the little Garcia glasses on it and all that. Then our artwork, the guy who used to do our artwork used to work for the Dead. They had done some posters for them and stuff like that. I’ve just always been a big Dead Head and Terrapin was the easy name.
You actually stole a question from me. I was going to ask if a lot of people assume you’re from Maryland?
(Laughs) I didn’t tell you the whole story. We got our start back in 2002 contract brewing. I was contract brewing in Atlanta. And then after we won the Gold Medal with the Rye in 2002 we were taking off. We were pushing the brewery to their limits. So we were looking for another spot. We looked up and down the east coast and decided to contract out of Frederick Brewing Company at the time which is now Flying Dog. So we were contracting in Maryland. So it was kind of funny because we would walk in and go “Hey would like to buy our product?” And people would say “Oh Terrapin, are you guys from Maryland?” and we would say “No.” So they would ask “Well where’s your brewery” and we’d say “Well we don’t have one yet, we’re contracting.” And they’d ask “Well where are you contracting?” And we’d say “Maryland.” So it was kind of funny for the first couple years trying to get it off the ground that we weren’t a Maryland brewery, but we were brewing in Maryland. (laughs) It was kind of funny.
So what’s your favorite part of the day at the Brewery?
My best part of the day is when we brew a new beer. We’re in the process right now of brewing something called “Moonray”. Any time we put a new beer through the system, it’s obviously a challenge for us. But just seeing how it comes out. That’s my favorite part of the day. That doesn’t happen every day. But if it was an everyday occurrence my favorite part of the day would be coming into the brewery and hearing the packaging line running and smelling the mash. Smelling is making beer, you know?
Speaking of smell, have you ever drank beer from a turtle shell?
(Laughs) You know, I have not.
So what’s your favorite Terrapin offering at this point?
Umm… right now I would say, well, it’s all gone, so I can’t even say that. I was going to say Cinnamon Rolled Wake n Bake. You know, Rye Pale Ale is really my sentimental favorite. It was the first beer we ever did. It’s the first one that won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. It’s really, the beer that put us on the map. My sentimental favorite is Rye.
What’s the beer that actually got you into brewing?
You know, I basically tell this story to anyone I can when I’m doing interviews like this. Jim Koch from Sam Adams got me drinking craft beer, great craft beer. And John Maier brewmaster from Rogue got me brewing great craft beer. It was Sam Adams who got me into it, but it was John who got me brewing great beer.
How’s the craft beer scene in Georgia?
It’s getting a lot better. There’s actually I believe 14 breweries scheduled to open this year in 2014 ironically. I got my start in 1997 and it was a barren wasteland. There was just two breweries at the time. It’s really changed. I wish the laws would be more favorable. But we are seeing a big insurgence like everywhere else of good local craft beer.
For a person who is first encountering Terrapin, what style would you want them to seek out?
You know, our number one seller right now is Hopsecutioner. Everybody’s drinking IPA’s these days. So I would say go for the Hopsecutioner. That’s our flagship, so I say go for that.
So what’s next for Terrapin?
We are going under, gosh about a 2 and half million dollar expansion this year. We just got into cans last year. We’re actually contracting cans. So we are installing a canning line, we are installing more fermenters, tiling the floor, putting drains in. It’s a big expansion. We expanded about a year ago, we went from a 25 barrel system to 100 barrel system. So I think the next step for us is growth, again.
The oldest living turtle was aged over 250 years. Can we expect Terrapin to be around just as long making great beer?
You know, I won’t be around that long, but if the Terrapin legacy is around that long, I would say absolutely yeah. You know, slow and steady wins the race right? We’re just going to keep on trucking and move at a turtles pace and just keep it
strong and steady.
That was a SHELL of an interview. We appreciated Spike’s time and look forward to the next great thing from Terrapin. We hope you readers head out and grab some Terrapin. The amazingly designed packaging complements the incredible brew inside. Cheers!