We love getting to know people. We figured you might too. So our man Austin sat down with our new brewmaster and asked him for an interview...
Interview with Matt Couch, Lazarus' new Brewmaster...
What are you up to right now?
Just getting ready to head down to Austin and get started putting together the brewhouse and starting the brew.
Today I was out in the mud planting our hopyard all day here at Victory, and it took a little bit longer than expected, but it is nice too.
Just got the planting done today, turned into a longer day than expected. Had rain every day for the past two weeks, slow going. A little dirty
So you literally got your hands dirty?
Yeah, there was a lot of that. I wore my best farm work clothes today, and that was the extent of it.
How is the process going for you?
A move like this you get involved with the stress and trying to plan everything. First week I am starting to relax a bit, things are getting checked off the list, getting done. It’s go time now, it’s everything I wanted it to be so far.
I keep getting emails from people here, but I am going to have a lot of visitors in Austin.
So, now that the list is getting more checks, what are you looking forward to?
I am really looking forward to exploring Austin, in a lot of ways.
What’s your story, how did you get into brewing beer?
That’s a diverted story in a sense.
Well, tell it.
Being raised on a dairy farm, I wasn’t any stranger to work by any means. Worked with raw materials a lot as a kid. A lot of cows, lot of land, got started with field work right off the bat.
I was really more of a dreamer. I enjoyed the work, but I didn’t really want to do it the rest of my life.
So you knew it wouldn’t be dairy farming, so what was your dream job?
As a kid I read a lot of books about archaeology and convinced myself that is what I was going to do for a living. That and I watched a lot of Indiana Jones.
Decided to go to college for classical studies, archaeology as a part of that, and minored in philosophy. Definitely one of those things that when you get out of school you realized you chose a life path that isn’t everything you thought it would be in a lot of ways.
Treasure hunters are a very few-and-far-between breed.
So they didn’t give you a leather satchel and whip with your diploma?
No, not quite.
I realized I didn’t want to end up working in a museum, so I went back home and helped my family open up a restaurant and grocery store back on the farm. And part of the odd hours and jobs I had at the time, I started making wine of all things. Made wine, and did some stuff with what was growing out at the farm, raspberries among other things.
So wine first, and then into beer?
So I moved into brewing from there, I said to myself, “I like beer, I think I can make my own beer.” So I started homebrewing on an extract kit only.
So, like a Mr. Beer?
Yep, exactly, a Mr. Beer.
The brown plastic keg?
Yep, the two gallon batch.
I immediately knew there was more to it and immediately also knew it was something I wanted to do. I fell in love with it right off the bat. So while I was working I did some digging into schools first, because after looking at jobs I knew I would need to learn a bit more about brewing before I could get into it.
So how did you get to brewing school?
On the farm, I deconstructed an old stainless steel silo and sold it for scrap to raise money to pay my way to go to England. Got there, just fell in love with the atmosphere, the knowledge, the science and immediately knew it was a good decision. Popped around England and a few breweries in working during school to get the experience as part of my degree and walked away with a diploma in brewing.
Not quite an archaeology degree?
Nope, kind of an add-on.
Where to from there?
Looked at staying in England, but nothing available felt like a good fit, so came back home and took a job at a small brewery in Williamsburg, Virginia, using a very English system that I was very comfortable with, a classic direct-fire, old, old English brewing system.
Learned a lot from the head brewer, who was a huge influence on my brewing career, a phenomenally smart guy. And then the paychecks stopped, because they were struggling a bit, so I decided to look for another job to make sure I was safe.
Saw Victory was looking for brewers, so I applied, after talking to them felt like it was a good choice, a bigger brewery where I could learn a lot more. They hired me on.
What was it like at Victory?
I started off when they were expanding massively, growing faster than they could plan for. so I started out as a shift brewer when they were doing 3 days on, four days off, four days on, three days off, shifts, running 24/7 basically, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
I spent all my time at the brewery, any free time I had I would be there just to learn more, trying to get as much as I could out of the experience.
Pretty soon, a senior brewer from the brewhouse was moving on to another position at the company and asked me to take on his role, so within a couple months I am a senior brewer unexpectedly.
Now, I'm teaching other guys how to run the brewhouse, how to hone in on efficiency, time, consistency the whole works. Trained a lot of good guys, lot of good brewers who are still there, some that have moved on, had a great experience developing talent there.
So you got comfortable doing that for a while?
Well, now Victory was still growing at a crazy rate.
Victory was expanding again to the new facility in Parkesburg and asked me to start that facility up, working with the director of brewery operations, and did that 4 months nothing but that, day in and day out, 18 hours a days getting things rolling.
Although I was exhausted and probably lost a few years off my life, I absolutely loved the experience, it was fantastic.
After a year of doing that and getting things up to bar and honed in, they told me, “You work too much. You need to take a break. Why don’t you go back to the Downingtown facility, which you know so well and run that.”
About that same time I started doing all the hop contracting for Victory in the United States, New Zealand, Australia and England, covering a lot of basis there and doing planning and forecasting. Gathering raw materials as well as coming out with new recipes and new releases just working out they would work in the market.
Been doing that for the past year, working on a lot of different projects like the hop yard and fleshing out the much broader reach Victory wants to establish.
So how did you find Lazarus?
Met Christian, and we talked about the plans and how they wanted approach to brewing, and it fit extremely well personality wise and the concept was perfect. Absolutely perfect, well laid out. Went down to Austin for three days and fell in love with the city immediately.
So how did you realize it, what was it that made Austin stand out?
Got to Austin, it is nice and sunny, really warm, get right off the airplane and meeting Christian and get in his truck and head over to a taco truck, right off the plane. Grabbing some street tacos, sitting outside and chatting on a beautiful day, it was very comfortable. Thought, this is a really nice city.
Any other moments of your visit particular stand out?
The guys took me to the Skylark Lounge of all places, for a night out, and the music was just unbelievable. Amazing talent, fantastic atmosphere, just great people.. Everyone wanted to talk and tell their stories, and listen to yours, culture of feeling accepted without actually being a part of it, it was immensely different than the east coast.
The beer though, what did they have at the Skylark Lounge?
Wasn’t a whole lot of choice in that one, Sierra Nevada, a Founders, a Live Oak—I had one of those while I was there.
You had a Live Oak Hefe?
Yeah actually. Kind of a different atmosphere.
Was it in a can?
Yeah, it was in a can.
Now that it is in a can, you can get it at some random dives, which is awesome.
Yeah, it is a fantastic, fantastic beer. It is a world class hefe, honestly it really does nail it.
For dichotomy, the next day we went to Jester King. Whole different end of the spectrum, but to see a place like that in Austin, they have a little bit of everything going on. Very easy to find diversity.
So you are sitting there, listening to music and you decide I want to come help open this place?
Pretty much. Seeing a music atmosphere where somebody who is extremely talented and playing as the headliner is calling up guys from the crowd. Who just so happened to be there that night, to play and sing, just see the immense amount of talent and diversity that was involved in that show was definitely one of those experiences you will remember forever.
There is so much potential in Austin. It’s a huge opportunity of a city in general. Really is primed for people who are passionate and people who want to share what they are good at.
So you are thinking this is my kind of place, where I should share my passion?
Yeah, and is much as learn from the talents of other people as well. The opportunity to see so much diversity and creativity, to not be a part of it you are doing an injustice to yourself.
In the short little time, I got a picture of a city that is on the rise, even for a city that has grown as much as it has the past years, still has a lot of potential to be untapped and honed in on.
What was that first beer you brewed on that Mr. Beer?
It was actually an export lager, that they did, they had a kit for. A higher alcohol lager. I remember it came out pretty tasty. Which for the time it was about as simple as you can do, it was easy. Looking back it was very, very easy.
It was a pretty interesting thing to see, and I definitely didn’t do it right on fermentation temperatures or anything.
So you threw it in a closet?
I put it in the basement, said it would stay relatively cool down there, and it probably got a little warm.
Did you drink it all yourself?
I did create it for myself, but I had some friends over who had never tried homebrew before and not really stood out from your standard Yuengling that we got up there.
Which you just call a lager?
Yep, that’s a lager. That’s what you order. And that’s what you get. You get a Yuengling if you order a lager anywhere.
I told them it was a lager, and they tried it, and went well, wow, this is different, this is really good. Having the reception from sharing it with other people was huge.
I had a friend who was a pretty serious homebrewer, did all grain, was in a club, really got in it. Every time we talked about beers, shared beers back and forth, which he did a pale ale that was really, really good, and I had a brown ale for him to try, and we would just sat there for a couple hours and talk about brewing, how to do this, how to do that, that was the point I realized it was more than this than meets the eye.
So how many batches did you brew on the Mr. Beer?
I probably did six before I decided I was going to school. And I never touched it again after that.
Is it in a closet? Or did you give it away?
I gave it to my brother, actually. I told him to go ahead and get started, make his own beer. That I would love to try some of the things he worked up, and it’s still sitting in the closet, he never picked it up. It is still waiting for its next user.
Maybe he will pick it up and soon enough you’ll be the new rival brother brewers.
Oh gosh, I know who you are talking about.
First beer you ever had?
Probably, the first one I had was Lion’s Head, that's a local PA.
You willing to share where and when that might have been?
It was a high school party, I will say that much. Definitely was not of age at that time. It was a field party, and I was 15 at the time, but we definitely had some easy access to beer in the rural part of Pennsylvania.
So what was your initial thought about beer?
My initial thought was, “I am an adult, and I am doing adult things out in a field with other high school students.”
That was the first concept of beer for me, and then a few years later I actually had Franziskaner, and realized there was a lot more to beer than Lion’s Head in a field.
So you started to develop a taste for other beers?
Realized there were other things out there I wanted to try and check out. One of the things that helped that a long, was my brother, the one I gave my Mr. Beer too, for a Christmas present when I was 22 signed me up for a beer of the month club, of course you get a lot of different craft beers, had an Abita, actually had a Victory at that time, just realized there is a much better breadth and spread of beer than what you are used to. More than your Budweiser, your Coors Light, your Keystone.
So you were already in to craft beer from college, or just dabbling?
In college it was more the most cheap and effective form, for a long time. A lot of Keystone Premium, and a lot of Old German, which I would not recommend ever picking up a case of. Right around 21 is when I started drinking a lot of Franziskaner and liked that a lot, and at 22 really got into the American side, of IPAs, and had a Golden Monkey, a Hop Devil, a Hopback Amber that Tröegs did, started to see that hops where the way to go.
And from there, there was no going back?
Nope, once your changed you know there is no going back from there.
Then you saw you were spending so much on beer, you might as well do this for a living?
Whenever they give you those PET bottles, you realize that is a lot of beer, I could make a lot of this pretty quickly, have a nice stock rotating for a while. It has been worth the investment for sure.
What was your experience like at Victory, a well-recognized force in the American craft brewing revival?
The first time I got to feel it [the importance of Victory’s brand], was when I got to spend some time with our sales rep in Ohio. He was taking me around to his accounts and introducing me to the people who we sold beer to, that were really interested in what we are doing. And talking people at an event that night, who were saying, ‘I love Victory. I love everything you guys do. Prima Pils is killer, your Hop Devil is killer, coming out with DirtWolf now is huge, Hop Wallop is amazing.’ Just hearing the feedback of people genuinely enjoying what you were working on to maintain that consistency and the freshness of product was a huge boost to helping me understand where I was in my career and who I was working for.
This was everything I wanted brewing to be, and the fact that they wanted to talk to you, as the brewer, and wanted to know how you did it, or what you were thinking when you did it, or how you get it this hoppy or this consistent. Wanted to know how you work, and it was an awesome experience to get the feedback from people who just adore what you do, was a lot of validation.
So, what moment stands at the most from your time at Victory?
The best experience was definitely the first year I went to the hop harvest, which is every September in Yakima, and a lot of brewers go out. And there is two bars in Yakima that you can go to, and brewers all go to these bars and they’re there. So you are talking to the guys from Founders and New Belgium and Bell’s, finding the head brewer here and the director here of this brewery, it was amazing to see that there is not just a huge cult following of consumers, but a great community of brewers who are willing to talk, share and just want to hang out and talk about life and share experiences.
What are the bars there in Yakima called?
The best one is the Sports Center.
What does the tap list look like there, what is everyone drinking there?
Bale Breaker. You’re drinking a lot of Elysian. A little bit of O’Dell’s once in awhile, Founders makes it way up there and then a couple of local guys right down the road, Deschutes and Yakima Brewing Company are always on tap.
I remember having a Bale Breaker, which is owned by the Smith family that owns the Loftus ranch as well, and thinking, ‘Wow, these guys have it figured it out, you go to the place right where the hops come and have this fresh, hoppy beer.”
That’s in September, we are going to have to go?
Absolutely, that's a whole n'other interview in and of itself. Amazing stories, amazing people, old hats from the hop industry, it’s a fascinating amazing place. Fantastic people out there and they love beer.
How would you describe your brewing philosophy?
Discovering the new exciting brew—one of the favorite things I like to do is listen to people who drink and interpret their feelings, what their experiences are with different beers. Trying to find a beer that fits a time and place for them that they’ll remember forever. The connection you make with people from a product, is what I drive my creativity in brewing towards...finding a beer for everybody.
Where are some of your most favorite places in your beer life so far?
One of the memories that will definitely stick with me forever...I was over in England, and it was a beautiful spring. It was sunny in England, which is extremely rare, obviously. It was really beautiful weather and a couple guys from brewing school and I went to a local pub, a little chain over there called Fitzgerald’s. Beautiful day, we were sitting out on the patio, and I had a Timothy Keller’s Landlord, which is an English pale ale. The sun was shining, the beer tasted phenomenal, and it was one of those beers that you walk away thinking, ‘This is one of the best beers I have ever had in my life.’
And it was as much the time and the place and the feeling as it was the beer. And the beer was great.
Atmosphere, friends, sharing life together just does something to make beer taste better?
When you are in an atmosphere of comfort and you are having a beer that helps you relax and enjoy the moment, it really does make a difference.
Any other places have a particular special place, you were only in England a little bit?
In Downingtown just down from the brewery, there’s a little craft beer bar called “The Station Tap Room.” It has an immense variety of fantastic beer. The place is tiny, it is always packed, elbow to elbow, but the variety that you get, the ability to try beers from all over the country in this little spot in a town that is not very big. Great food and really good beer selection, and a nice culture of people, it’s one of my favorite spots to go when not at Victory.
A fantastic little joint right by the railroad station.
So who’s there at the Station Tap Room?
Usually just friends from around town, that I’ve met over the years. It’s a nonwork crowd, just people who are there to enjoy the food and the beer and catch up on what is going on in everybody’s life.
What are you eating and drinking?
My choice there is either a Racer Five if it's on, because they do rotate pretty quick, and their Tired Hands Anniversary beer that they have there is always a good choice, they have one made specifically for them from Tired Hands locally. And I love anything that Founder’s does, and if Bell’s is on I’ll have a Two Hearted, for sure.
Yeah, it’s hard to beat a Two Hearted.
They have nailed it with that one. It’s a fantastic beer. Whenever you have a beer that is full on grapefruit without all the bitterness, it’s a delight. That much flavor and that much aroma, it is hard to resist.
Have you ever visited Austin before you came for the interview a few months back?
No, that was the first time I had ever come to the city. I had tried to get down there a couple years ago for South By Southwest, just wanted to see the madness, but it didn’t work out.
What had you heard about Austin, what was your impression of the place?
The first time I had heard about it was, I used to listen to a lot of outlaw country. Willie Nelson at the time, and hearing about him spending a lot of time there in Austin, and where he congregated with the guys like Haggard and Waylon, hearing the stories about them roaming through Texas and Austin was always a place that would stop by and spend a lot of time in. And so I knew there was history there, and it was a place to think about.
Then, years later I was listening to a lot of Gary Clark Jr., and discovered him and knowing he came out of that music scene and knowing that there was still a music scene happening down there. Something is going on down that way.
I talked to a lot of friends who had gone to ACL, and they said, ‘You gotta go to this city at some point. You’ve got to travel down there at some point, because there is so much music, so much culture, it’s a really fast-rising city.’ Which is why I was looking at South by Southwest, thinking now there is a good chance to go see a city and hang out there and get a feel for it.
And then I heard that they had barbecue that was unbelievable, and it gave me even more incentive in the back of mind that yeah, I’d like to check out Austin sometime.
So it was the barbecue?
There are a lot of cities where you are supposed to go for the barbecue, but my friends were like, Austin is still the best, hands down.
So, did you grab barbecue when you were in town?
No, we didn’t get a chance to. We were visiting other spots, so I haven’t got to check that out yet.
Well, when you get down here will have to do that, we’ll even do Franklin, five-hour line and all.
I have heard that Franklin is a long wait. [Laughs].
What was your impression of the craft beer market here in Austin?
That amazed me the most, the breweries are doing a solid job, but the city is still finding an identity, and it hasn’t really settled on anyone yet, there is a lot of diversity but it hasn’t quite found something to become unique to Austin yet. It is extremely inviting to be a part of that, and the potential that is still there for craft brewers.
So what does being a neighborhood brewery in Austin mean to you?
You can be a location where you see a lot of regulars from within a walking distance from where you are at. Those are the people that are going to drive your success as well as the appreciation of what you are doing. They will feel like they will have a unique spot for them to go to as well. It is really sharing that community.
Had you ever had any Austin beer before getting down here, heard anything?
The only thing I think I had, which wouldn’t necessarily be Austin, Real Ale I had something from them years ago. One of the brewers there was a former Victory employee and he came back up for a visit and brought some with him and we all tried it and shared it.
I had heard a lot about Live Oak, but had never tried anything up in PA. Their hefe was their legendary beer, honestly. Besides that it seems like a community trying to supply its own consumers and not getting out beyond the walls much. I had heard about Jester King too, but hadn’t had anything. Coming down and seeing the breweries there and what they were doing was cool to get immersed in the culture and what they have worked on.