A few weeks ago I noticed an anniversary worth noting.
Back in September 2016, Hopskeller Brewing Company was quite literally the newest bar-brewery in our area. A month later, a fire severely damaged the Waterloo brewery and it closed indefinitely.
It would take just over a year, but owner Matt Schweizer and his team would be back. They officially reopened with The Grandest Of All (Re)Openings! on October 13, 2017. Now two years later, Matt was kind enough to join me for a look back, as well as forward.
Here are 7 Questions with Matt Schweizer.
What has been the biggest lesson you have learned in the last 2 years?
Flexibility is key. Knowing how to adapt to fluid situations is an acquired, but necessary, skill for all of this. From something as simple as being willing (and able) to fill in on a shift to managing major disasters, these things can come out of nowhere — and fast.
I think I’ve gotten a better perspective on things in the past 2 years; ideas that I thought would go over really well didn’t, and things I didn’t give much thought to became mainstays of the brewpub. It pays to not to try to force things that don’t work and run with the things that do, regardless of whether or not that was the vision 2+ years ago.
How has the experience of the fire made you a better brewer, a business owner?
In its own way, the fire really forced a re-evaluation of what was and wasn’t working in the month we were open on the brewhouse side of things. The layout of the brewhouse, the capacity, and even the utility requirements forced us to think about what was feasible and whether or not the original plan helped or hindered long-term goals.
As far as the business end, a fire and an 11+ month rebuild is a harrowing experience. The paperwork, financials, insurance, and inventorying — to say nothing of seeing construction through yet again — is mentally and emotionally draining. It certainly helps give perspective on how big or small a problem actually is (i.e., on a scale of “minor annoyance” to “the business is literally on fire,” where does this problem actually fall?).
Explain how your beer is influenced by beers of Northern England?
English ales were some of the first bees I ever drank in any noticeable amount, and I fell in love with their depth of flavor, balance, and ability to pair with all different kinds of food.
There’s a kind of elegant simplicity in them that I still find refreshing. The English Mild, the Northern English Brown Ale (my personal favorite of all the beers here), the Tower Hill ESB (seasonal), the Market Cross London Lager, and the winter-seasonal Southern English Brown are all the most obvious examples of distinctly English ales at Hopskeller.
Many other beers here find some inspiration in English styles — for example, MoCo Mocha is a chocolate coffee milk stout that has English grain and yeast character, and our seasonal pumpkin beer (Autumn Harvest) is an English strong ale at its core.
Explain how your beer is influenced by beers of the Pacific Northwest?
I lived in the Pacific Northwest back in the late 2000s and, while English ales may have been my first real exposure to beer, my time in Oregon represented my first serious attempts (more often less successful than not!) at homebrewing.
The big, bold flavors we’ve come to expect from the traditional Northwestern styles was something I experienced for the first time in any meaningful way while living up there, and I loved the interplay of intense, layered hop aromas and flavors alongside big grain bills. Across the Pond (a Northwestern IPA made with English grains) is the clearest example of Northwestern influence in these beers. For some examples at Hopskeller that are less on-the-nose, the High Desert Pale Ale and the Maple Pecan Marzen are made 100% from grains from Mecca Grade Estate Malt, a family farm and craft malting operation outside of Bend, Oregon. Borealis, our seasonal spruce ale, also uses 100% Mecca Grade grains — with spruce and juniper sprigs thrown in for good measure.
Discuss Hopskeller’s role in the close-knit Waterloo brewing community?
I like to think that Hopskeller is a welcome atmosphere for homebrewers and professional brewers alike. I’ve been inspired by homebrewers such as Scott Kurtz and Kyle Wolf (who were instrumental in the creation of the Maple Pecan Marzen), as well as the Waterloo homebrewers who have helped me in any number of ways — from volunteering for events, to assisting in the brewhouse, to giving insight and advice on different beers made in-house. Professionally, Chris at Stubborn German has been a great resource; while we tend towards different styles of beer, it’s still fun to bounce ideas off of him and work on collaborations together.
What local brewer (brewery) inspires you?
There are so many to list here, For what it’s worth, and this is purely off-the-cuff: I’m inspired by the flavors of beers put out by Civil Life and Heavy Riff, the vibes of 2nd Shift and Earthbound, and the dedication of Old Bakery and Recess. Scratch is always an experience and one that I take whenever I feel like I’d do well to have a paradigm or two shifted. I haven’t gotten out much in the past couple of years, but the breweries in our area are solid enough that I can reliably seek inspiration or insight from any of them and come away feeling like I’ve learned something.
What’s next for Hopskeller?
Really pinning down what’s working and what our customers seem to like the most, really. So much of a brewpub’s charm is in the overall experience, and making sure that people leave Hopskeller having enjoyed their food, drinks, and the atmosphere is *so* important. Bonus points if they leave having learned a thing or two they had questions about!