Jim Matt of Rhinegeist Brewery
The Rhinegeist Brewery cranks out flavorful, modern ales from an old pre-Prohibition bottling plant located in the heart of Cincinnati’s historic brewing district. It was founded by Bob Bonder, the owner of a local coffee shop, and Bryant Goulding, a sales and marketing veteran from Dogfish Head and Anderson Valley. To put recipes to their vision, they turned to Jim Matt, a longtime homebrewer who was brewing professionally only because his day job as a chemist had abruptly ended. “It was always a hobby, purely something to do in my basement,” Matt says. “When you get a bunch of friends together and give them beer, they’ll tell you, ‘You should open your own brewery.’” The dynamic is similar now that Matt runs the brewhouse at Rhinegeist, but the circle of people crying out for more beer has expanded to encompass Cincinnati.
1. Go all in
Back when Jim Matt was in college, a beer run with effort consisted of hopping the border from Buffalo into Ontario, for some Canadian-label Molson. That all changed when Matt was introduced to Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada. “I thought, wow, this is different, it’s good,” he recalls. And once he’d acquired a thirst for flavorful beers, it wasn’t a large leap to homebrewing, and then homebrewing nonstop. “When I get a hobby,” he says, “I go all in on it.”
2. Visualize flavors
Matt spent two decades working as a chemist, and homebrewing fed the scientific half of his brain. The hobby was particularly satisfying because it reached beyond science, and used reactions grounded in biology and chemistry to chase down a specific artistic vision. “You have the intent of flavors, you visualize the finished product, then you go through all the work to produce it, and it’s gratifying,” Matt says. “It got really fun once I got to a point where I could create flavor profiles that make a beer I liked to drink.”
3. Roll with change
Matt never intended to make the leap to brewing on an industrial scale. “I knew homebrewing doesn’t necessarily translate to a large scale, and I knew there are a lot more talented brewers than I, so I figured there was no way for me to break into the industry.” That changed in 2010, when he lost his job. His friends, the owners of Indianapolis’ Sun King Brewery, put him to work filling growlers and working on the canning line. The gig turned into a job setting up a lab and running quality control, which meant spending time on the brew deck. “They gave me a nugget of brewing responsibility,” he says, “and I got fully hooked.”
4. Take yourself seriously
The first few times Bob Bonder pitched Matt on Rhinegeist, Matt had a hard time taking him seriously. When it turned out that Bonder, the owner of a Cincinnati coffee shop, and his business partner, Bryant Goulding, were for real, Matt initially didn’t think they should be talking to him about running their fledgling brewhouse. “I was taken aback a bit,” he says. “I thought I was a pretty good number two. But I talked to a lot of friends about it. And if you ever think you’re fully qualified for a job, you’re probably overqualified.”
5. Turn tradition on its head
Rhinegeist’s brewery is steeped in Cincinnati’s brewing history. It sits in Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood that once contained dozens of breweries run by German immigrants. Famed brewery Christian Moerlein used the building for its bottling operations. All the same, Matt says, Rhinegeist isn’t confined by tradition. It released a Double IPA during the city’s Bock fest, and skips the city’s Oktoberfest in favor of a release party for Franz, a Festbier that replaces lager yeast with Scottish Ale yeast. “We see the tradition in the buildings and in the people,” Matt says, “but we have this goofy, edgy attitude, and we put a modern spin on tradition.”
6. Seek the Truth
Matt, Bonder and Goulding are all hopheads, so they knew they wanted Rhinegeist to lead with a big, bold IPA. Truth, their flagship brew, sprang from an effort to profile beers they all loved, pulling out the elements they liked best. After refining their hop combinations, they ended up with Truth, a beer that’s a nod to Matt’s “desert island” beer, Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA. Truth shines with Amarillo and Citra high notes, Centennial in the middle and Simcoe bass notes. “It’s not a clone of any beer, but it ends up being heavily inspired, yet lighter in body and drier, than Sculpin,” Matt says.
7. Forget the training wheels
Many breweries start new craft drinkers off with lighter offerings and then ramp up complexity. Matt likes to start the uninitiated off with a Truth IPA. “If it’s too hoppy, you can always dial it down,” he says. “But some of the most favorable compliments I’ve gotten have been, ‘I don’t like IPAs, but I like yours,’ or, ‘I don’t even like beer, but I like your IPA.’ When someone has an idea in their head of what craft beer is like, and it changes, and you see the change in their eyes, that’s the most gratifying experience.”
8. Revel in lupulin
Most of Rhinegeist’s seasonals are playgrounds for hops in one form or another—Hustle, a red rye Pale Ale, celebrates spring baseball; Fiction, a Belgian Pale Ale with New Zealand hops rings in the summer; and Dad, a hoppy Red Ale brewed for the winter. On top of those releases, Matt adds a series of rotating hop-forward Pale Ales. The champ from that series is Zen, a session-strength Pale that heaps Cascade, Mosaic and Citra hops on top of a base of light crystal malt and flaked rye. Matt meant the beer to be a one-off, but demand was off the charts, so now he cans it year-round, a juicy but restrained counterpart to Truth.
9. Hunt rare game
The most sought-after beer in Rhinegeist’s portfolio is Saber Tooth Tiger, an Imperial IPA that lays Amarillo and Citra hops over a thick base of Simcoe. The beer clocks in at 95 IBU, and it only makes an appearance twice per year. The limited runs are mainly due to the fact that Matt doesn’t have enough hops to brew this monster year-round. But it’s also because Matt believes the beer’s scarcity makes it pop in a crowded market. “When we have the release parties, there’s a whirlwind of excitement,” he says. Scarcity can benefit a beer. I know I appreciate it when it comes back.” ■