God, Politics and Beer
An Interview with Spencer Nix of Reformation Brewery
This is a story about God, politics and beer. This is also an interview, but first a bit of history.
Some time ago, around the year 1517, a guy named Martin Luther wasn’t happy with the Roman Catholic Church. He had some gripes, namely 95 of them, which he called Theses. Luther took these Theses and nailed them to the front door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany sparking what is known as the Protestant Reformation. The Catholics got wind of this and were annoyed. What followed was 30+ years of religious war and plunder.
While all of this was going on good beer was being produced across 16th century Europe. Lots of ales, not the hoppy ales of today but rather a simple refreshing brew that, along with bread, sustained entire villages between pillages.
This brings us back to Reformation Brewery of Woodstock, GA, which is celebrating its second anniversary, or as the partners like to call it, Reformation Day. These guys have fought the good fight, declaring their independence and nailing a declaration of freewill to the door of the industry status quo.
The “good liquid”, as they call it is a less hoppy affair, heavier on the yeast and made in an all grain brewing process. But, it’s not easy being rebellious…the independent route is an arduous affair. So, we asked Spencer Nix, managing partner of Reformation Brewery about the journey and perils of standing up for what you believe.
Todd Semrau: You woke up one morning and decided to open a brewery? What led up to this idea?
Spencer Nix: It definitely was not a lightning bolt experience. It was years in the making and never in my life did I think I would open a brewery. You could say it was providence that led us to it, and no not the beer. Nick, (Nick Downs is Spencer’s friend and one of five partners), and I used to share flavorful yeast forward beers that he would bring home from Europe. This was a time in Georgia when finding anything worth drinking was hard to come by. So Nick and I started home brewing. When we realized it was a lot more beer than we could drink ourselves, we started inviting friends and family to join us. We always had a great time brewing, enjoying well-made beers and really just sharing life together through those times. Our brew sessions grew over time and we had a lot of people showing up at Nick’s house, so we started scheduling brew nights for every third Friday night. It wasn’t long before we could expect 100+ folks. And it was a beautiful community of people from all different backgrounds and experiences. That’s really when the light bulb went off and Nick and I realized this was really bigger than us, even bigger than the beer we were making. We still weren’t sure if the beer was good because we were giving it away for free and everyone loves free beer. So we entered our first certified homebrew competition and won. That gave us some confidence that the product was good and we soon began building a business plan rooted in the values that were at the heart of brew nights. Three years later we created our first production batch of beer on Reformation Day 2013.
TS: You’re married…what did your wife think of the idea?
SN: Much like the business developed, it grew on her. It’s been a journey for all of us but she fell in love with the community that gathered around the beer and through that started falling in love with the beer itself. When your wife knows the nuances of a Belgian tripel, you have a great wife. I have the best in so many ways.
TS: Why now and why Atlanta?
SN: I am as indigenous to this city and community as one can find today. I was born, raised and have lived my entire life, (minus a few years in seminary), in the metro Atlanta area. Woodstock, Canton, Buffington, Waleska, Hickory Flat, Roswell are all places I’ve called home. While I’m a north of the wall wildling, the city has shaped me from my youth and my wife and I still love exploring her enclaves. In a city of transients I’ve experienced a lot of change in nearly 40 years, so when the opportunity arose to become Cherokee county’s, (a county with a deep and messy history), first brewery in my hometown of Woodstock, it seemed all too obvious.
TS: The time between making that decision and bottling your first beer must have been a struggle; financially, logistically?
SN: There is nothing easy about managing a microbrewery in this state. The archaic system is set against success which I guess you could say is partly what attracted me to it. I love to be told, “you can’t do that” and then find a way to do it. We have put a lot of energy and thought into how we’ve grown. I have tried to build a team of really smart people who share our values. We have a Cambridge grad, a microbiologist, a chemical engineer, a pilot, a successful entrepreneur, and a preacher, what could possibly go wrong? Sure there are struggles, getting access to capital in order to grow a sustainable brewery, which in this state has to be fairly large, has not been easy. The logistics of getting beer from four ingredients and into package and into a customer’s hand is complex. But we are doing it one day at a time with a vision that will carry us into the future.
TS: Is Georgia a beer friendly business climate? What still needs to change legislatively?
SN: No, Georgia is not friendly to small independent breweries. Yes, it’s very friendly to big macro, multinational, corporate beer. We need a huge overhaul in modernizing beer laws in this state. And really we just want to be treated like similar businesses in this state, such as the wine industry. We are not really asking for anything extreme, just equal rights in the existing system. It really shouldn’t be a big deal and the fact that it is should cause all of us alarm in regards to our state government. I truly believe there is a solution that benefits all the current players including our wholesale partners. I think there is a lot fear that’s holding us all back to a fair and free market.
TS: Reformation Beer…”set beer free”…what’s behind your brand?
SN: There is a lot behind our brand. I probably geek out way too much about it but it tells a story and it keeps us united in the narrative. We believe beer is a very good gift. Like any gift, it’s to be savored and enjoyed. Not necessarily because you’ve earned it, but because it’s truly a blessing. We, largely as a people, don’t take time to cherish our blessings today. Everything is so busy, rushed, temporary, offensive, low-grade, and forced. We want to elevate the experience around well made beer, so we are intentionally minimal with our brand as we see it as such a stark contrast to our surroundings. Set Beer Free is about liberating the good gift of beer from institutional tastes, intolerable trends, and social extremes.
TS: Tell me about your products…what sets you apart…what do you want your customers to know about Reformation?
SN: We want them to know that we are not in it to just move products. We’ve intentionally grown from brewing 1 Barrel to a 17.5 Barrels at a time over the course of two years because we wanted to be sure we could walk before we started running. We try not to let our egos get in the way of the bigger picture so we focus on the quality of the product first and not making extreme beers for the sake of being extreme. The trends are all over the place, we hope our consumers find a refuge and relationship with our beer. We don’t think beer should be a one night stand; it should be something you want to get to know and develop a longer term relationship with. Therefore we pay a lot of attention to every ingredient of beer and we love the subtleties of water chemistry and yeast. We are in the Upper Etowah Watershed which gives us access to one of the world’s most bio-diverse and best water sources. Just ask that big brewery in Cartersville, why do you think they located there? We share the same watershed and it’s really good water. We then add salts and minerals to the water to get the water to the standards we want for each beer we are creating. Hopefully you notice the difference in the mouth-feel of our beers. We have a microbiologist on staff and being a yeast forward brewery with many Belgian style beers in our lineup, we pay a lot of attention to yeast. Yeast is a miracle ingredient which is so often overlooked. The nuances of esters that yeast can produce are just as numerous and exciting as the various hop varieties available today. Hops are indeed the sexy ingredient in the industry at the moment and we love hops. But dry hopping a poorly made beer isn’t doing our industry any favors and, in my opinion, can be a lazy way to make a dollar. We want our customers to have a great experience with our beers from start to finish. Even if it’s harder for us to not jump on every trend, we hope our beers stand the test of time and that they are enjoyed as a true gift. We work really hard to make them.
TS: Why has the craft beer industry become so hot? Will the heat last or is craft beer a flash in pan?
SN: I’m often philosophical when it comes to beer but I think the industry has tapped into something innate in humanity, the desire to connect with the maker. We want to know where stuff comes from; we want to know where stuff is made, how stuff is made, why stuff is made. Local, independent businesses and breweries give people the opportunity to connect more deeply with the product and also with others who enjoy it. It really is a beautiful thing that keeps attracting me to this industry. I don’t think the industry is a trend, yes there are trends within it, but overall it’s really a historic narrative and we as a nation and world are hopefully reconnecting to it. The empirical data backs it up. Craft beer is the only part of the beer industry that is growing and we have tons of room for more growth.
TS: You’re now a big shot beer guy, what’s it like to have groupies? Brewpies?
SN: I’m an INFP on the Myers-Briggs so I’m not all that comfortable with being a big shot anything and honestly we are still a pretty small brewery trying to get our brand in front of others. But I have to admit it’s weird to sign a bottle or to be accosted at the urinal at a ballgame from a fan of the brewery who identifies me. As the CEO, I recognize that part of the job is being the public face but I hope that I’m grounded enough to see it as a privilege and not just an opportunity. I like the term brewpies, we have an army of rebels that might fit that term, and truly we are indebted to and inspired by their passion to set beer free. Reformation Brewery is much bigger than one person, but I’m honored to represent the story and values of the brewery.
TS: There are five partners now?
SN: Yes, Nick Downs, Bjoern Jemsby, Brad Nix, Clay Mahaffey and myself.
TS: Can five guys run a brewery and be friends at the same time?
SN: Yes, but the process has tested our relationship through hard times and good. We’ve definitely had to navigate through each other’s personalities.
For more information on Reformation Brewery…http://reformationbrewery.com/