Gene Muller is the founder of Flying Fish Brewing Co. When Gene thought up the brewery in 1995, he could only hope Flying Fish would go on to be New Jersey’s largest craft brewery. It has. Despite tremendous popularity and the busy schedule of a recent brewery move, Gene took the time to sit down with me and talk beer, New Jersey history and of course, that bitch Sandy.
The Brewery: Flying Fish has an incredibly unique start, can you tell us about creating an online brewery before creating a real one?
Gene: Well, back then the internet was pretty young, the web was an infant. There was no Google, there was no spam. We didn’t have a lot of money, but it seemed like a good way to kind of get some attention and build some name recognition. There was a connection between kind of tech savvy folks and good beer. We got the idea to create the website and, it was actually a blog before there was such things as blogs. You know, it was like the making of a brewery. We sort of went through all the steps of making that happen. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. We got a lot of attention for that, and then some media coverage which attracted some banks, and investors. Just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
What beer was it that sparked your interest in starting a brewery?
Umm… not a specific beer. I traveled a lot back (laughs) when I had a real job and 4 weeks’ vacation. I traveled a lot. And I tried a lot of beers either New Belgium out in Colorado, or Harpoon up in Boston, Santa Fe Brewing. Just seeing the infancy of the whole industry. I started home brewing, and once you start liking the different flavors of beers it’s like drinking good coffee, you don’t really go back. It lead me to that, and then I got into it to be a brewer. I quit my job and went to brewing school. Then I got the idea to start a brewery and realized pretty quickly that somebody had to run the brewery. That was me. So, I know how to brew, I don’t brew here.
Where does the name Flying Fish come from?
Well, I wish I had a good story. At the time in 94, there were a lot of breweries in the Philadelphia area that had stark names like “Independence” and “Red Bell” and “Dock Street”. So we didn’t want to do that, and there are no mountain ranges in South Jersey, so we couldn’t really do like a lost address, Sierra Nevada. And all the good animal names were taken, so we kind of came up with a list of about 1000 names. I asked everyone I could run into “Hey, give me some ideas.” And I liked “Flying Fish” we have the ocean, we have the bay, we have the Delaware River and it was just kind of a fun name and we came up with an image. We didn’t want to do just barley and hops. We’re from New Jersey, so we wanted something a little edgier and came up with the flying fish skeleton with the propellers.
It’s a fantastic logo.
So you recently moved the brewery from Cherry Hill to Somerdale, New Jersey how is the new facility?
Well, after two years of construction I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. It was a big project. We went from 13,000 sq. feet to 45,000 sq. feet. Plus 5 acres of land. It was a pretty tired building, so we had to redo the roof, and pretty much redid everything. And in the process focused on making it as energy efficient as possible. It was most recently a mill workshop. They did a lot of carpentry for the casinos. So there was sawdust everywhere. We’re still finding sawdust. Yeah, it’s in a comfortable spot. It’s going be the world’s largest home improvement project. There’s never going to be a day where it’s like “Oh gosh, we’ve got nothing on the to-do list.” We’ve already expanded we’ve gotten 4 new 150 barrel fermenters in since we’ve opened. We designed everything for expansion, so it works out well.
I can’t wait to see it. It’s no secret that Flying Fish has won several awards over the years, what award stands out the most for you?
Well, we just got a few weeks ago the World Beer Cup. It’s the most recent, so that’s kind of fun. We got Bronze for the HopFish. But I think the first medal we got at the Great American Beer Festival, which was the Abbey Double was a silver. The next year we got a gold and a bronze. So, that was kind of cool. It’s always nice to win.
So what Flying Fish offering wins your heart?
Well, it comes down to two. It’s either the one in my hand or the next one. (laughs) I like the seasonals. You know right now it’s our Farmhouse Summer Ale, we had in the winter it was our Exit 1 Oyster Stout. So I kind of focus on that. We just released our NJ350 Anniversary Ale. I’ve had a couple of those. I am sure I’ll be enjoying those over the spring. I kind of mix it up, it depends on what food I’m eating, what the temperature is, what I haven’t tried in a while. I’m like everybody else, what’s new, what’s different, what haven’t I had in a while?
Speaking of the NJ350 Anniversary Ale, that’s a beer commemorating New Jersey’s 350th Anniversary. Can you tell me about the decision to brew an anniversary ale?
Sure, I didn’t think I was going to be around for the 400th. (laughs) We thought it would be a fun thing to do. We’re very New Jersey-centric. We have the whole EXIT series of beers about the Turnpike. New Jersey history through Turnpike exits. So we wanted to do something for the Anniversary, so we researched it, it was an English colony, so we figured an English Stock Ale. We used blackstrap molasses, which was a common ingredient at the time. We used cluster hops which is the oldest hop cultivated in North America, and then we used a couple more modern hops, cimco and centennial. And Centennial because of the 350 years, so we did 3 and a half additions of the centennial, just to kind of tie it back. We just wanted it to be kind of fun historic roots of the state and then add some modern touches to it. It’s got a really good hop character and a nice malt backing to it.
You mentioned the EXIT series which was wildly popular, will we ever see any more Exits?
Yeah, we’re planning on doing two this year for the first time in 3 years. That was sort of the casualty of the move. At the old brewery we just didn’t have any capacity. And then here it just took so long to get everything up and running. Our sales were up 40% last year and we didn’t change our distribution at all. I mean, it’s a good problem to have, but we were scrambling to catch up. So, this year we’ll be doing two new EXITS. They’ll probably come out October, November timeframe.
Who is your favorite native New Jerseyian?
Well that’s a tough one. You’ve got Sinatra, Jack Nicolson, Springsteen of course. That’s a tough call. I’m gonna say no comment on that one.
Have you ever actually eaten a flying fish while drinking a Flying Fish?
(laughs) No, I guess that’s on my bucket list. A lot of people have had it, like in Barbados. I said “well what’s it like?” And they say it’s the kind of thing you eat on vacation.
What’s next for Flying Fish?
Well we just released the Anniversary Ale, and we’ve got the 2 EXITS coming out this year. We’ve got our fingers crossed, we’re hoping to release the FU Sandy Beer this summer in a limited a release just to bring that back out. Last year we were able to donate 75,000 dollars to Storm Relief Causes. So we’d like to get another release out just to generate more money. Since the re-building is only about 25% done, we want to see if we can help out a little bit more.
Your Hurricane Sandy Relief efforts have been amazing.
Thank you. It was one of those ideas where we weren’t sure how it was going to work, it went way beyond what we ever imagined which was great. You know, a company our size donating 75,000 is a pretty hefty contribution.
Of course we thank Gene for his time and for his and Flying Fish’s amazing efforts towards helping rebuild the state after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. We look forward to the two new EXIT beers from Flying Fish in the future. Make sure you great some Flying Fish and support New Jersey and be sure to grab an FU Sandy anytime you see one. Finally, we here at The Brewery hope Gene gets to dine on a flying fish soon so he can mark it off his Bucket List. Cheers!