Brian “Spike” Buckowski of Terrapin Beer Company

Going Pro by | Aug 2007 | Issue #8

Photo by Kelli Guinn

Five years after launching Terrapin Beer Company—and shocking the world at the 2002 Great American Beer Festival—company co-founders Spike Buckowski and John Cochran are about to see a long-deferred dream come to fruition. Lacking a base of operations beyond their own kitchens, the pair took on a craft beer market in its infancy, and they’re now on track to ship 10,000 barrels this year. With the doors to a new 45,000-square-foot brewhouse in Athens, Ga., set to open this month, things are just starting to get good.

1. Do what makes you happy—especially when you can drink what makes you happy
The homebrewing bug bit Buckowski in 1993, and after brewing, he realized quite quickly that he needed to get out of his job (running audio-visual operations for a hotel). “I wasn’t happy,” Buckowski recalls. “My dad owns his own business, so from day one it was: ‘As long as you’re happy in what you do, you’ll love your job.’ I loved homebrewing, so I figured I’d at least give it a shot.”

2. Light beer: Worse than unemployment
Buckowski left the hotel, graduated from the American Brewers Guild and took a job brewing for the Atlanta Brewing Company. It was there that he befriended his business partner, Cochran, but he was stuck downgrading his beers. The local market was saturated by mainstream beers, and his brewery showed no signs of breaking that mold. The last straw? “I actually developed a recipe for a light beer. That’s when I’d pretty much had enough. They were going in a direction I didn’t want to go into.”

3. Ask yourself: “Why not?”
Terrapin Brewing started as a joke—literally. There was a falling out with a brewery boss one day, “so, we were like, well, we’ll show him—we’ll build our own brewery. I came up with the name Terrapin, and we made these little turtle signs, and it was just a joke that kept us going during the day. We finally said, ‘Heck with this.’ No one in the South was really putting out any aggressive, big, hoppy, flavorful ales; so John and I thought, ‘Hey, we can brew, why not try to make a go at it?’ ”

4. However you do it, get into the game
Years passed between Buckowski and Cochran’s initial decision to try and make Terrapin happen and the day they brewed their first batch of beer. They had to weather a severe downturn in the craft beer market and redraw their business plan three times in response to economic booms, busting bubbles and recessions. Eventually, they set aside their dream of opening their own brewery as the cost of entering the market: “After years of trying to raise capital, we threw up our arms and said,‘Let’s try to contract brew.’”

5. When lightning strikes, catch it
In those early days, Buckowski was brewing Terrapin at a microbrewery near his house. Just six months after their launch, Terrapin struck gold at the 2002 Great American Beer Festival: The only beer in their line, Rye Pale Ale, bested 92 other beers and took the gold medal as the country’s best American Pale Ale. “We’re brewing a draft beer at somebody else’s brewery, and selling in a college town,” Buckowski marvels. “There’s some damn big heavy hitters out there, and here comes little Terrapin, six months old, and we take the gold in one of the most coveted categories at the festival. It really put us on the map.”

6. Love what you drink, and love what you brew
When he brewed for somebody else, Buckowski had to make beers that he’d never drink. Those days are over. “Taste any of our beers, and you’ll understand what types of beers I like to drink,” he says. “Our Golden Ale is our training-wheels beer. Everything else is out of the box, over the top. My beer has to make me think, ‘If I didn’t brew this, I would buy it.’ That’s the bottom line.”

7. Next up: Jell-O-shot Pilsner?
Buckowski’s Rye Pale Ale was his attempt to reconcile his love for bold beers with the reality that, at the time, few others in the Southeast shared his passion: “Everybody I talked to complained that, a half hour later, you can still taste the beer.” Buckowski reached back to his Jim Beam-soaked college days (“Rye whiskey dries you out, and it’s got that little spice to it”), and started experimenting with malted rye. At 45 IBU, Rye Pale Ale isn’t a wallflower, but all that bitterness is loaded up front; rye is the last flavor to hit the palate, making for a dry, crisp finish.

8. Balance innovation with tradition
Terrapin’s newest brew, India Brown Ale, nicely illustrates Buckowski’s approach to recipe development. “I go to the old style books. I’ll read about the tradition, and as I’m reading, I’m subconsciously going through what kind of malts I want to use. Once I got my malts together, I went into the IPA books and did the same thing; I was more concerned with the hops at that point. I read about hops, what kind of flavors it’ll give off, I put it on paper, and boom—first time through, out came the IBA. I’ll use the traditional styles as my base, then put the Terrapin twist on it.”

9. Keep your eyes on the prize
Terrapin is finally in the process of moving into a home of its own. In many ways, the move means more to the company than its GABF medal. “For the past five years, I’ve been basically a transient, moving from brewery to brewery, getting the job done; but our main goal has always been to build a brewery in Athens.” Buckowski was, after all, a contract brewer by necessity, not choice. “I want to brew the damn beer. These are my recipes, this is what I love to do, so I want a home. I’m not saying it’s been the quickest thing in the world, but if I’d had $2 million five years ago, the brewery would’ve already been up and running.”