Interview with Eric Crigger of Rocket Republic
October 16, 2014
Say hello to Eric Crigger of Rocket Republic Brewery! Check out our interview with Eric about how he started brewing and about opening up his very own brewery. Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and Rocket Republic: I am a craft beer lover now, but that wasn't always the case- there used to be a time in my life that beer, to me, meant Miller Light or Coors, so because of that, I didn't drink it very often. It wasn't until I discovered Dogfish Head beer, a craft brewery in rural Delaware, that I developed a taste for it, and with that came the realization that there was obviously a lot more to beer than I originally thought.
About 11 years ago on my first Father's Day, my wife bought me a Mr. Beer kit as a present and the rest was history- I had literally brewed up a new passion in life. Through using the kit, I began to develop a true appreciation and a deeper understanding for the craft itself. The kit broke it down into an easy to follow step-by-step process, but the best part was that at the end I had this amazing reward, which I had a hand in creating!
The leap from extract brewing into all grain brewing was a bit more of a challenge, but Mr. Beer was like a tool kit that gave me what I needed to make that step. I've always taken a keen interest in chemistry, mathematics and engineering, and the brewing process involves all of these things to a certain degree. Mr. Beer also helped me establish good processes such as proper sanitizing. I think that's why where I live is so supportive of craft breweries- as a city (Huntsville, AL) filled with scientists, contractors and engineers, they can readily identify with and truly appreciate the process. In fact, our business partners, John and Lynn Troy, are both rocket scientists that own a local rocket engineering corporation- Troy 7. Now, that's not actually how we came up with the name for our brewery- that was purely coincidental. Or maybe not, if you're like my wife who believes there is no such thing as coincidence and that our business partnership was "written in the stars". I met my wife Tatum when she was living in Key West, a.k.a. the Conch Republic, and after we got married we moved to Huntsville, a.k.a. Rocket City. So we decided if we ever had our own brewery, we'd combine the two names to make Rocket Republic. Well now we do! Our flag logo is even based on the Conch Republic flag of Key West- we just replaced the conch shell with a rocket and replaced the sun with the moon. Q: Tell us about your first brewing experience: My first brewing experience was with Mr. Beer in the kitchen- I believe it was a Pale Ale- and I remember thinking how surprised I was at how good it tasted for my first attempt making beer. I immediately went online and started researching and ordering other kits that were more advanced to create. My first all grain brewing experience was in the ditch of my backyard- I couldn't be in the kitchen if there were going to be accidents with a 5 gallon batch of beer- which was a Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA clone recipe. I remember wondering how it was going to turn out because the hops had to be added continuously throughout the boiling process. But I loved everything about it- I knew there was no going back, just going bigger. After several years of practice with that, that's when I went from 5 gallon batches to over 900 gallon batches…it was a bit of a leap. Q: What has been the biggest challenge in the transition from homebrewing to opening your own brewery? Well first let me start by saying that it's lucky for me that I like a good challenge, because if you want to open a brewery you will be faced with those on a daily basis. Okay, I'm lying- maybe more like hourly J But seriously, the transition is a huge one and not just in terms of making good beer-which almost anyone can do- but in making groundbreaking beers, which your success as a craft brewer depends on. Homebrewing is a great testing ground for the real thing- I always homebrew first. Because by the time you are doing the real thing in bigger batches, you had better know what you are doing or else all that money gets poured right down the drain- literally. Talking in terms of the brewing process only, that becomes more challenging just in the scaling up of a recipe. You're not brewing small batches for family and friends anymore; you're brewing for big cities in larger quantities. Which basically means taking each ingredient in your recipe and using formulas to figure out how that translates into equipment used for a much larger scale/brewing capacity. You are also faced with issues you might not have had to deal with at home before. For example, at home you can easily monitor your beer. In fact, you can even wake up in the middle of the night to make sure things are going smoothly during that crucial point in the process where temperature is monitored so the yeast can start to take off. But you really can't do that if you don't want to live at your brewery. And if you're a Brewer, chances are you are going to be living at your brewery enough, without the sleepover scenario involved! On top of making beer, you are involved in every other aspect required in overseeing the day-to-day operations of running/owning a brewery, so you have no choice but to become a bit of an expert in many areas. For me personally, that can mean anything from navigating social media to get our name out there, to attending any/all events that might help promote our beer, in addition to being involved 100% in the buildout of our own brewery while still maintaining a full time job that has nothing at all to do with the beer biz. Fortunately for me when it comes to brewing, it's like the old saying goes, 'If you choose a job you love, you will never have to work a day in your life'. Q: What's next for Rocket Republic Brewing? Top priority right now is transitioning from contract brewing under someone else's roof to getting our own brewery doors open as soon as possible, which means getting more of our beer out there to the people, especially through canning and bottling. And since our next step in doing that actually involves both the public and Mr. Beer, I guess there's no time like the present to make the official announcement. We enjoyed collaborating with Mr. Beer so much on our Astronut Brown Ale that we've decided to do it all over again, only this time by involving you, the people, through our upcoming crowd sharing campaign, Operation: Launch Rocket Republic. So that means the power is in your hands, and you get to determine how quickly the beer gets in them! Since starting our brewery, it has been our mission from the beginning to involve the community, and eventually, even the country as much as possible in the process- hence our name, Rocket Republic. It was our desire to create a brewery for the people, by the people. This campaign will help us accomplish our goal, but I can almost hear you all asking…how? Q: Our Mission: Constellation Collaboration Starting in January 2015, the first of 12 specialty craft beers will be created for the people of RR, by the people of RR. Each month a new, limited small batch beer will be released, named after each constellation in the astrological zodiac. Those people whose birth month corresponds with the appropriate zodiac sign will vote on the ingredients/flavors used in that beer, and that beer will be available exclusively at our brewery. Whatever Constellation Collaboration Series beer recipe becomes the best-selling and most well-received at our brewery, Mr. Beer will be turning into another homebrewing recipe for all of you to make! By making a contribution to our campaign you will automatically become a Citizen of Rocket Republic, which immediately qualifies you to vote in the Constellation Collaboration. You will also become eligible to receive special edition, limited merchandise (t-shirts, glasses etc.) exclusive to our brewery and the campaign. But the best part is that one of those specialized premiums offered will be a Mr. Beer kit with our very own Astronut Brown recipe included! To find out more about our campaign please check out Indie Gogo, where Operation: Launch Rocket Republic will be going live, right around the time this newsletter comes out. So join the BeerEvolution by becoming a Citizen of Rocket Republic today! Q: What is your favorite beer to brew? I love IPA's. Not just drinking them, but brewing them- it's the smell of the hops going into the kettle…it's like an aphrodisiac for brewers. Too bad we can't bottle that up…oh wait- we do! (Or will soon. J) Q: If you could share a beer with one person, who would it be? Well I guess that depends on what you mean by "share a beer"…whether you are referring to talking with someone else over a pint of beer, or collaborating on a beer together with another brewer. But come to think of it, my answer would be the same either way- Sam Calgione with Dogfish Head brewery. His story was influential during my years of learning about craft brewing and as far as I'm concerned he was one of its early pioneers. I consider him an innovative genius when it comes to thinking outside the box…or in this case, the bottle. One year at GABF (Great American Beer Fest), I met him in person and, like the beer geek that I am, I was star struck. He autographed his book, Brewing Up a Business for me and I clearly remember the message he wrote inside: Dear Eric, Brew up some crazy sh#*! Well, I followed his example and took his advice, and now our Pomegranate Planet and our Peanut Butter AstroNut ales are two examples of our more popular offerings, as proof that people obviously seem to gravitate toward crazier side. I'd like to think that all our beers send people to the moon and back, so I'm hoping that means Rocket Republic fans are the biggest lunatics of all. And it's humbling to think that maybe someday I could have a similar impact on someone else the same way Sam did with me, inspiring them to brew up some crazy sh#* too! Q: Any advice for new homebrewers? Any advice for homebrewers looking to take the next step in opening up a brewery? Advice for homebrewers: Make bold choices…always keep experimenting. Not all batches are going to be winners- they only become winners through trial and error. If you are reading this, you are where I was once- you started somewhere and that somewhere was at home with Mr. Beer. And now here I am years later as a brewery owner, collaborating with Mr. Beer to bring homebrewers my very own recipe…it's surreal! Advice for homebrewers who want to open a brewery: Go to your local brewery and volunteer your time like I did, so you can learn all the ins and outs of the business to decide if you really want it. Brewing is actually only a very small part of the business itself. There's nothing like standing inside a steamy hot mash tun while cleaning out sticky grain to help you figure out if you really have what it takes to get involved in every aspect. Things like this put it all into perspective, because you really have to love it all, and not just as a hobby.