Paul Philippon of Duck Rabbit Craft Brewery

Going Pro by | Aug 2008 | Issue #19

The Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery celebrates its fourth birthday this August. That’s four years of plying the Southeast with dark, full-bodied, flavorful beers—and proving the cynics wrong. Founder and brewmaster Paul Philippon explains why it’s better on the dark side.

1. Love it? Do it
Paul Philippon began homebrewing more than 20 years ago, and decided to turn his brewing passion into a career when the one he was in—teaching philosophy—looked to be heading toward a dead end. “I love philosophy, but the job prospects are grim,” he says. “I thought, ‘What else do I love? I love brewing more than anything. Let’s see if it’s possible to make a living doing that.’ And, it turns out, it is.”

2. Learn before doing
Philippon initially caught on by working with a tiny brewpub in Cincinnati. From there, he jumped to a microbrewery in Louisville, Ky., and then to a production brewery in North Carolina. At each stop, he honed his brewing skills—and his familiarity with the industry’s business side. Duck-Rabbit is succeeding, he believes, because he didn’t leap directly from his kitchen into a brewery of his own. “There’s a freedom to learn in a certain way,” he says, “when you’re not the last guy in charge, and you’re not the guy worrying about if the bank account’s got enough money to pay the bills at the end of the month.”

3. Learned? Then make the leap
The decision to go it alone and found Duck-Rabbit was an easy one. Terrifying, but easy. “All the risk is on your shoulders,” Philippon says. “If this doesn’t go, I’m in debt forever and ever and ever. I’ll never make enough money to pay off these debts. So, yeah, that’s scary, but I felt like I had something to contribute to beer culture, and I always wanted the opportunity to try to make that happen.”

4. Seek out the seekers
He couldn’t have picked a better place to launch. “The market’s really booming,” he says. “It feels to me like beer culture had a ways to catch up, but there’s a lot of enthusiasm to get caught up. A lot of people are wanting to be adventurous about beer.” A year after the opening, North Carolina lifted its ban on high-gravity beers. The legal change has “opened people’s minds to the spectrum of flavors, the spectrum of traditions. It allows people to know that they’re drinking world-class beer.”

5. Practice perfection
As a homebrewer, Philippon brewed “anything when a whim struck.” But as he prepared to go commercial, he confined himself to a handful of styles, refining his recipes, experimenting with ingredients and processes, and chasing excellence. That discipline is now paying off in the form of Duck-Rabbit’s core portfolio, he says. “That experimentation was valuable in getting these beers where I wanted them to be, and in helping me to be confident that, when I release these, they’re going to be what they should be.”

6. Kick it old school
“I have always been fascinated by traditional styles,” Philippon says. “I really have an abiding respect for brewing tradition. I wanted to get my hands around, where did Porter come from, why does it taste the way it does, and where’s it going? So I brewed a ton of Porter.” He doesn’t believe that brewers can’t distinguish themselves within traditional style guidelines. “There’s a lot of room for expression within those styles,” he insists, adding, “It’s these traditional styles that got me to love these types of beer. When I started, I came to love Porter and Stout. It’s an expression of the source of my passion.”

7. Everybody’s got a dark side
A contrarian streak, and a desire to carve out a niche in his market, led Philippon to confine Duck-Rabbit to dark beers. “I love dark beers, and I absolutely felt they were underrepresented in the Southeast.” He heard complaints that, in a hot, humid region, consumers would shy away from full-bodied beers. He ran right through that criticism. “Anyone that’s willing to pay the prices that any microbrewery has to charge, and that values this kind of product, is not going to be scared away by the fact that there’s flavor in it,” he insists. “No matter what the temperature is outside.” So far, he’s right: Milk Stout is his top seller. Even in the heat.

8. Think differently, brew purposefully
Duck-Rabbit won’t brew Pale Ales or Double IPAs. That’s not because Philippon doesn’t drink those styles, though. “It’s actually out of respect for them. A lot of people are doing IPAs beautifully well—they don’t need another one from me.” Instead, Philippon gives consumers well-crafted niche beers brewed with a purpose. For instance, each of Duck-Rabbit’s Imperial beers has a kinship to a year-round brew. Baltic Porter is a new incarnation of Philippon’s most brewed, most refined recipe, his Porter. His Barleywine has been reworked so it’s bitter, not sweet, to properly reflect its kinship to his hoppy American Brown Ale. And Rabid Duck Russian Imperial Stout introduces consumers to Milk Stout’s dark, brawling side.

9. You’re a brewer, act like one
Limiting its portfolio necessarily limits the pool of customers Duck-Rabbit might reach. That’s fine. Philippon isn’t chasing the masses; he’s chasing people chasing great craftsmanship. “If what I wanted was to make a bunch of money, I’d go be a banker,” he says bluntly. “What I want is to brew beer I’m proud of and that I love. So, since it’s my company, that’s what I do.” The craft beer industry, he says, is one of the few that consistently rewards such iconoclasm. “We’re lucky to be in a time with a clientele that is not just willing to put up with the crazy things we do, but encourages it. The beautiful thing is, that group of people is growing.”