Chris Walsh – Owner and GM of River Horse Brewing Company  

On a recent rainy November night I cracked open a River Horse Oatmeal Milk Stout and made a phone call.  That phone call was to the General Manager of River Horse Brewing Co. Chris Walsh.  Oh his way home from being a guest speaker on beer at Hudson County Community College, Chris took some time out to not only get gas, and but to answer a few of my questions.  

The Brewery – Chris, can you tell us about being the owner and general manager of River Horse Brewing Co.?

Chris Walsh – Yeah, we have three owners. I’m the one that goes there every day.  Glenn Bernabeo my original partner and I bought the company in 2007.  We came from a financial background.  We have very similar backgrounds.  We first started in commercial banking, lending money.  I worked at GE Capital for a number of years, sort of leasing or lending money on everything with wings, wheels and trucks and over the road trailers, sea going containers.  Anything you can imagine.  I did that for a while.   I was living in Ireland.  I came back to the states and got a job in investment banking where I met Glenn.  We were investment bankers.  We sold or refinanced companies.  We didn’t manage them or take a position in them.  We were finance geeks.  Around 2006 we wound up selling our firm and looking for something to do.  So we were looking to buy a company.  We had a bunch of criteria.  It wasn’t like a mid-life crisis kind of thing where we rolled out to buy a brewery or anything like that.  We looked at a product that we understood.  So any tech would be out of the question because we can barely turn a computer on.  So our background was really in old economy manufacturing.  We felt really comfortable with a consumer product that we understood.

Where did you look?

We looked at asphalt businesses and screwmakers and stuff. This just sort of found us in a way where we sort of drank beer together, and talked about beer and neither of us were homebrewers or anything like that.  We just took this on.  We approached it totally from a consumer point of view.  We didn’t dilute ourselves to think we were going to brew anything.  Someone who’s a professional brewer has forgotten more about beer than we’re ever going to learn.  So we approached it from a consumer point of view, what’s the style?  What’s the packaging look like?  What’s it taste like?

So at that point you took over River Horse Brewing Co., do you know where the name came from?

Yeah.  The name had a couple of reasons behind it.  The former facility was right on the Delaware, so it fit.  But, in Egyptian hieroglyphics whenever the brewing process is represented the hippo is always there.  It didn’t represent brewing directly.  It represented sustenance.  Back then they weren’t really hopping up beers, they were basically malt bombs, a liquid loaf of bread.  So it was a meal.  And fertility, it represented fertility.  Yeah, so we all know what means, baby making liquid I guess…

BABY MAKING LIQUID!  That has got to be one of your beers in the future!

(laughs) Actually, Tripel Horse is responsible for two kids that I know of.  People come up to me and mention a drunken mistake when there’s a 9 year gap between the kids.  Tripel Horse accounted for two of those. (laughs) Yeah, so that’s the history of the name.

What is the best part of your day as the general manager of the River Horse Brewing Company?

It’s seeing everybody’s dreams come true in a way.  You want to be able to effectuate change and touch your product and identify something.  We get to do that in a very direct basis where if we’re going to do a new beer, everyone has a hand in it.  There’s nobody at the brewery that isn’t involved in the tastings and giving their opinion about the samples or coming up with a funny hippo that’s going to represent the beer.  Everybody’s involved, and I like that energy that comes from a company where everybody’s going in the same direction.  The immediate gratification of being able conceive something and execute it within a relatively short amount of time as compared to, oh, let’s say, a great idea at larger, less nimble company.

We’ll be celebrating the 10th Anniversary of this interview before anything occurs at that level.

Ten years, you know?  But we can put out a new beer.  We did an IPA this year.  Revolutionary right?  But the whole company was involved.  We created something and now it has a life, and that’s kind of fun.  It’s fun controlling that.  Hey, you’re not always right, but you take the lumps and you get the good with the bad and you’ve got the ownership of it.

What’s your favorite River Horse seasonal offering?

It’s a tough one.  I tend to always like the season that I am in.  But I’m a real fan of our pumpkin beer (River Horse Hipp-O-Lantern Imperial Pumpkin Ale).  I think it’s very well done.  I think it’s a good representation of the style.  It’s very much what you’d expect a River Horse pumpkin to be.  Yeah it’s a joke that there’s so many ingredients in it, but it’s tough to pick one out.  No one likes a show off, that’s our philosophy.  So, that’s my seasonal favorite.

River Horse recently moved from Lambertville to Ewing, NJ.  Was that a big change?

HUGE!  It was a game changer.  We went from a 10,000 square foot building to 24,000 square feet, one floor, 4 high docks, and high ceilings.  It was a quantum leap.  We built the infrastructure of the brewery to handle a lot more capacity than we’re putting through the thing.  We’ve got it all set up.  All we’ve got to do is drop in tanks and we’re good to go.

Was one of the factors in the move getting to say “You can’t spell Brewing without Ewing?”

(laughs) It was probably the 37th building that I had went to.  Having the Ewing in Brewing was probably just convenient.  It had the high docks and everything we were looking for.  It’s nice to say it, but it wasn’t a must have.

Currently River Horse is only available on tap or in bottle.  What’s your preference?

I think beer is a very situational thing.  I think having a draft out with a group of people or at one of our festivals or something like that is a lot of fun.  There’s also an enjoyment I get from pouring a bottle into a glass and sitting on my deck, or watching a football game or something like that.  I guess I like my both my children is the way I look at it.

Well now I have to ask, what’s your favorite football team?

My favorite football team, um… I grew up in Buffalo, New York.  I sort of root for them.  It’s more out of pity than anything like that.  I was there for the 0 for 4 Superbowl years.  I sort of have a nostalgic hope for them.

If you could sit down and have a River Horse with anyone famous living or dead, who would it be? 

I’d go dead.  And I’d probably go with Abraham Lincoln would probably be my guy.  If I got to pick a cartoon it might be Eric Cartman or Stewie Griffin, though they might be too young to drink.

For someone who never had River Horse before, what beer would you want them to drink to hook them?  I’m assuming not the Baby Maker?

(laughs) Yeah, not the Baby Maker.  The IPA we just did I think is really nice.  I would be proud for someone to have that beer the first time.  I think it’s nicely balanced, medium ABV, nice mouthfeel to it, hopped, but not curl your toes hoppy.  I just think it’s a good beer you can really get to know the brewery through.

What’s the name of the new IPA?

It’s just River Horse IPA!  (laughs) All of the names were taken.  I actually Googled what hippopotamus or “River Horse” was in Swahili, you’re not going to believe this, it’s Kiboko.  And there is actually a Kiboko Bay IPA.  That’s when I gave up.  That was a last ditch effort.  All the puns and funny names are taken, so we just went with River Horse IPA.

That’s okay, keep it simple.  So have you ever played Hungry, Hungry Kiboko’s? (Translated to Swahili)

Oh god yeah!  To the point that the plastic screeching on the table made my teeth hurt.  We used to have the table top version in the gift shop for people to play on Saturdays.  But the employees just begged me to get rid of it because of the squeaking of the plastic and the banging and the people getting way too excited about it.  We actually have purchased an arcade sized Hungry, Hungry Hippos that needs some work.  But we have it in the gift shop ready to be fixed, and it’s a full sized arcade game.  We’re going to tie it into some event in March where we have a 64 person tournament down to the Hippo.  Hungry, Hungry Hippo River Horse Champion!

Please consider this my application.  What else is on tap for River Horse in the future?

We have a lot of new things coming online for River Horse in 2015.  You know, we’re changing up the beer schedule and the beer lineup a decent amount.  We have some styles, you know they’re performing, they’re just not growth engines.  We’re doing a lot of barrel stuff and some brewer’s reserves into our seasonal line up.  Just a lot of different things.  We’re trying to do a lot of small batch stuff and some draft only.  We’re keeping the brand going a couple of different ways.  You have your core beers and your year round beers that are your go-tos.  Keeping an open mind by having new stuff.  Sort of that balance between you can’t rest on your laurels, but you can’t spend your whole life trying to come up with the latest and greatest.  We think we struck a pretty good balance for 2015.

Sounds like some big things!  One final question, do you ever miss the days in finance?

You know, I’ll tell you, there are times when I do.  I’ll say “hey man, it wasn’t all that bad being a W-2 employee.”  There’s some comfort in that.  I’ll tell a story.  When I came to work and you think you’re responsible for everything, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.  We lost power at the brewery in Lambertville.  My thought wasn’t “oh we lost power” it was that “I forgot paying the bill and we got a shut off notice.”  So I casually wandered over to the gym next door and saw that their power was off too.  I sort of then realized that, if you work at GE Capital, you don’t really think about whether the lights are going to come on or who pays the power bill.  You just make a lot of assumptions.  When you’re the guy doing everything, it can be a little bit much.  Overall, I do not miss the cubicle days.  I learned a tremendous amount in the jobs and career that I had.  And I was lucky enough to do a lot of really cool things and have some really cool jobs.  It was time to take that experience and knowledge and bet on myself I guess is the way to say it.

I know I’m not the only one looking forward to that full sized arcade style Hungry, Hungry Hippos.  I’d like to thank Chris Walsh for his time and recommend that you head out and grab a River Horse today either at your local bar, liquor store, or directly from the new brewery in Ewing.  Just watch out for that Triple Horse, we don’t need another generation of Baby Boomers.  Cheers!