Jason Malone of Good People Brewing Company

Going Pro by | Sep 2014 | Issue #92

When Good People first launched in Birmingham, Ala., in 2008, the brewery was somewhat constrained—by Alabama’s legal restrictions on brewing, and by what they thought the market could handle. “There wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of craft beer here,” says co-founder and head brewer Jason Malone. “The market was certainly not mature.” Those constraints have disappeared. Now, Malone says, “I couldn’t throw out anything in Birmingham that would shock anybody. We’ve grown and matured as a market, and we’ve also converted a lot of folks who are now drinking better beer. When you’re doing that, you’re not only growing volume via wider distribution, you’re growing the number of drinkers in your home market. And we’re not all the way there by any means.”

1. Do your homework
Before Jason Malone drank craft beer, he was a light lager drinker tackling good beer like a homework assignment. During graduate school, Malone studied abroad in Ireland. “I’d heard the beer over there was gross,” he recalls. “It’s dark, they serve it warm—it didn’t sound too great to me. But I knew I’d be spending time there, so I’d better get used to it.” He forced himself to start drinking Guinness and Murphy’s, and discovered he actually liked the dark stuff. He fell in love with Ireland’s pub culture and never looked back.

2. Tap in
When Malone and his homebrewing buddy Michael Sellers decided to make the leap to professional brewing, they seized on Birmingham. They both had roots nearby, but more importantly, the city offered robust infrastructure for their fledgling company to tap into. There was a shuttered brewery in town offering used equipment, and a grassroots movement of beer activists, Free the Hops, building community and educating novices about craft beer. It was leaps and bounds beyond what Birmingham’s first-wave brewers were up against. “There were several breweries, back in the ’90s, that didn’t make it around here,” Malone says. “The market was more accepting in 2008.”

3. Join a movement
Malone credits Free the Hops with opening up Alabama to modern craft brewing. Between 2009 and 2012, the citizens group got state lawmakers to lift an alcohol cap prohibiting bigger beers; legalized the sale of 22-ounce bombers and 750-milliliter bottles; and enabled breweries to sell beer out of tasting rooms. To Malone, the way Free the Hops built a movement to liberalize Alabama’s alcohol law—and not just the fact that the laws were changed—mattered. “A lot of energy went toward getting the people to clamor for it. There were lots of tastings. Beer education was a big part of getting people riled up, and organized into taking the right course of action, to get the law changed. As the only brewery in town, and only one of two in the state, we were the fortunate benefactors of the education and buzz that Free the Hops created.”

4. Put roots down
Good People launched with a 7-barrel brewhouse—one it outgrew soon after opening. Malone’s crew has been in expansion mode ever since. He notes that although growth has come quickly, it’s also been organic. Aside from some distribution in Nashville, Good People sells everything it makes in Alabama; it will produce 12,000 barrels this year, and is working on an expansion that will triple its capacity. The brewery is growing because its neighbors are thirsty for good, local beer. From the beginning, Good People has tried to stay loyal to the retail outlets that got the brewery off the ground. “If someone took a chance on us and put us on a shelf or on a menu, the last thing we want to do is to have their supply be in question, just so, for prideful purposes, we can say we’re in X states.”

5. Dive deep
Good People mainly brews styles its brewers love to drink. This means lots and lots of IPA. The brewery keeps a citrusy West Coast-style IPA and a massive Double IPA in production year-round, and complements them with a light, juicy, floral version in the spring, and an earthy, spicy Rye IPA in the fall. Rounding that out are limited-release plays on session IPAs. “We tend to do a bunch of them, but every one has its own objective,” Malone says. “There’s too much room to play in, too many directions to spin recipes off in, to just stick with one or two.”

6. Be obnoxious, but have a plan
Malone uses taproom exclusives to keep his brew crew engaged and experimenting, and to reward loyal customers. At the same time, there’s a good deal of planning and rigor behind Good People’s small-batch brews. If Malone is brewing a 20-barrel batch of session IPA, it has to be a recipe that he’s able to reproduce or scale up and put into distribution. “We have to use ingredients we know we can get a year or two or three down the road,” he says. “There might be a New Zealand hop everyone loves and is going crazy on, but unless we know we can get it again, it doesn’t make sense, from a business perspective, to use it. But if we’re just doing a 15-gallon batch? Heck yeah, we’ll use that hop to obnoxious levels and have fun with it.”

7. Listen to the locals
“We talk a lot about how having a brewery in town is a quality-of-life issue,” Malone says. “There has to be a relationship between people and the brewery, something more than just walking into a store and seeing a name on a shelf.” One of Good People’s flagship brews sprang from that relationship. Malone asked Free the Hops members to vote on a new style for Good People to brew, and they came back with a request for a coffee Stout. The resulting Coffee Oatmeal Stout, which pairs cold-brewed locally-roasted coffee with a grain bill that includes flaked oats, roasted barley, and pale, brown, black, and Special B malts, was a hit.

8. Seek converts
The most difficult beer Malone has ever designed isn’t an IPA with a hop schedule that rolls twelve deep, or a massive Imperial Stout. It’s Bearded Lady, an American Wheat Ale Good People brews for the summer. Malone felt the brewery had to offer an approachable beer for light lager drinkers, without compromising on its craft. “I had to retool the way I thought about recipes,” he says. He wound up with a light, citrusy wheat beer that’s heavy on late addition hops, and ferments cleanly. “It’s something we’re proud of and we like to drink. I think we nailed it. It’s been a huge success in getting folks to give our beer a try, and hopefully they bleed over to our other styles.”

9. Keep marching forward
When Good People was young, it was a production brewery operating like a brewpub. Growth has meant focusing on quality over quantity and refining recipes, rather than turning its portfolio upside-down. The mandate now, Malone says, is to make Good People beer 10 percent better every year. “We’ve put a lot of money into our lab. We’re constantly looking at procedures, whether it’s in the kettle or the packaging line procedures. We take our sensory panel very seriously—how that experience matches up with the quantitative data we have coming out of the lab. We’re really shooting for that 10 percent.”