Interview with Jim Caruso, CEO of Flying Dog Brewery

Jim Caruso, CEO of Flying Dog, talks about how he got his start in craft beer, his thoughts on the industry and what's new at Flying Dog. 

How did you get your start in the craft beer industry?

After serving as president of a public company for 7 years, I was eager to jump into the world of entrepreneurship. So I hooked up with John Hickenlooper, who was then operating one of the largest brewpubs in the world. We began buying and acquiring historic buildings across the country. We were as much interested in historic renovation as we were beer, and our solution for these great old buildings - the train station in Green Bay, the old theater in Omaha - was to convert them into brewpubs. We then started a brewery in 1994 in Denver, Colorado. It was called Broadway Brewing, a joint venture between the Wyncoop Brewing Co., that I was a partner in, and Flying Dog. That eventually became known as Flying Dog Brewery. John Hickenlooper later went into politics, served two terms as the mayor of Denver, and is now in his second term of Governor of Colorado. So we exited the brewpub business; and I stayed on with the brewery.

How has the craft beer industry evolved since you’ve been a part of it?

The industry, in terms of its evolution, is pretty extraordinary. There were about 50 breweries or so in 1978, and just a couple hundred when we started the Flying Dog Brewpub in 1990. Today, there are thousands. This is tremendous growth. The challenges, back when we started, were very different than what we see today. In the 90s, the challenges were knowledge and skills, none of us really knew how to produce beer commercially. There was a lot of trial and error, and nobody to turn to for help. We are very fortunate to be one of the survivors of that first shake out. Then came explosive growth. I never even dreamed that there would be 5,300 breweries in America and that American brewers would be so highly regarded. It is also a very concentrated industry - 50 breweries out of 5,300, .1%, account for half the industry sales, and the top 100 breweries account for about 75% of the sales. This means that the top 100 breweries average about 100,000 barrels, and that the other 5,300 breweries average about 450 barrels. As long as you’re in that big fat head, and Flying Dog ranks 32nd, I think you’re very well positioned.

Flying Dog is expanding and recently purchased a 32-acre plot of land in Frederick, Maryland. Can you tell us about your plans for the new facility and when it’s expected to open?

A new facility is only one of the options. We did acquire 32 acres of land just a couple of miles from here, it’s right in the city of Frederick. It’s a great piece of property, so we don’t have any capacity issues now. However, what I’m really interested in the short term is doing a farm brewery, where we can do open fermentation, experimental beers, wild yeast and just stuff that you typically wouldn’t incorporate in your standard primary facility. We also want to have a music venue. We like to do concerts here at the brewery, but we can only accommodate 1,000 people. I would like to have concerts for 6,000-10,000 people.

Flying Dog has distinctive label art and creatively named beers. We can thank Ralph Steadman for the eye catching illustrations, but who can we thank for the ground-breaking names?

We’re a brewery that is committed to the freedom of expression and the freedom of creativity, because that directly relates to free enterprise. Everything you see comes from the people here at Flying Dog, including the names and interesting beer styles. We have an annual beer meeting where anybody in the company has two minutes to present a beer style. I think 66 different styles were presented last year. People from accounting, the warehouse and brewers all participated. We pick 8 to 10 of those styles to brew each year. The names, on the other hand, usually come from our people sitting around with a blank dry erase board writing down stuff that we think is funny. Without being modest, the market for something to believe in, the market for companies to believe in, the market for people to believe in is infinite. You often want to believe in a company, you want to like a company, but then you scratch below the surface and you find out it’s pretty phony, created by an advertising agency or something like that. The weirdness you see, the fun stuff you see at Flying Dog - on social media, at our events and everything – is real. It’s all inspired from the people here. The goal is that when you walk into Flying Dog, it shouldn’t feel like you’re walking into work and have to put on a “work persona”, it should feel like “ahh, I can be truly myself here.” I want our people to come up with funny, interesting stuff and to be part of this program. I could take the sayings written on the chalkboard in the break room every day and do a book. It would be a best seller, it’s so goddamn funny.

Snake Dog, rumored to be your favorite beer, was recently revamped for its 20th anniversary. What changes were made to the beer?

All our babies are beautiful! But ever since I’ve been at Flying Dog, Snake Dog has been my go-to beer at the end of the day. When I have a Snake Dog, everything is right with the world. However, everything we do sort-of evolves as we evolve and as our palates change, so we’ve had to tweak Snake Dog up a bit. We’ve made it more perfect than ever with the addition of a little Mosaic and Citra, which weren’t even widely available years ago. It is just phenomenal. I used to just have one beer at the end of the day, it was my Snake Dog. Now I have two Snake Dogs at the end of each day ever since we’ve tweaked it.