This is one in an occasional series of 7 Sips interviews, where we sit down for a pint and seven questions with someone active in the local craft beer community. Today we catch up with Tom Applegate, a former Army EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) specialist who opened Mad Bomber Brewing in Hayden in November 2013 along with his wife, Stephanie, and two bomb squad buddies. After soldiering through with a makeshift 1-barrel system, including plastic fermenters with little temperature control, he recently upgraded to a shiny new 7-barrel brewhouse and began distributing beer around the Coeur d’Alene area.
Q: The new system is up and running. How much of a difference has that made?
A: It’s dramatically improved the quality of the beer. I think it’s cleaner, with more well-defined flavors. Consistency we don’t know yet, because we’ve only done, out of the 23 batches (so far), I think we’ve only had maybe three repeats. … Just having real equipment, getting a real boil, knocking it out into stainless steel (fermenters), where you can actually clean them – our fermenters are air-tight now, which I’ve heard is really important to brewing, and temperature control, that’s a big one. So we’re back to having the homebrew level of control, where we started (before opening the brewery), where you’ve got your tiny little batch that you just love and take care of. More of that’s in our control now, so now we can take the recipes and manipulate them to the beers that they should be. Before, you would make a batch and it would turn out however it turned out. You could try to replicate it, but you didn’t know if a good batch was the wild card, or if that’s how the beer was supposed to taste. So the quality of the beer has improved a lot, and consistency, I’m sure we’ll get there, probably.
We’re still learning a lot, because the first time any of us worked on commercial equipment is when it showed up at the brewery. So we’re learning how to be professional brewers instead of homebrewers brewing commercially, that’s a much different thing. It’s removed a little bit of the spontaneity of it, and that’s one thing I miss. We used to have a stockpile of grains, and it was, what do you feel like brewing? On a seven-barrel, it’s not, oh, I’m going to use 20 pounds of this, it’s I need 120 pounds of this, and you usually don’t have it lying around. So now I know what we’re brewing next week, I know what we’re brewing tomorrow. That’s not how we’re used to brewing.
Q: Part of the charm of Mad Bomber has always been the steady stream of new beers. Is that going to change now with the larger system?
A: Beers are still going to rotate, though it’s almost impossible to rotate with the same frequency. It takes folks in the taproom a long time to drink seven barrels, when there’s eight beers on tap. (With the old system) you would come in two weeks after your first visit and there would be a whole new lineup on the board. … The idea to keep things rotating quickly is to keep them rotating on the distribution side. So we can continue to brew new beers, and just keep pushing them out – we’ll keep two kegs for the taproom, and send the rest out the door. That way, a week later, that one’s gone and we rotate another one in. (And) we should be adding more taps soon. We’re going to add eight more taps, so we might not rotate as often, but the goal is we’ll have a root beer, a cider, and 14 of our beers on. So they might not rotate as often, but there will be more variety.
Q: How’s the distribution going so far?
A: It’s been great. People have been really receptive. People are excited to have us, we’re even more excited to be on tap. There’s so many choices, how do you stand out? We’re still trying to figure out the production side, and how that meshes with the distribution, but we’ll get it down. We were brewing like crazy so we could get a stockpile of beer up and try to have a surplus to start distribution, you’ve got to have your variety and what you think people are going to buy, and I was wrong – so we had a big stack of beer, but all these other styles got wiped out behind it, so now we’re brewing those styles that got wiped out and accounts are picking up different beers, because the one they grabbed before is gone. Everybody we’re working with is really forgiving, and really willing to make it work, and that’s a testament to the area and the people, the way people do business here. There’s a lot of places where if you said, oh, yeah, I know you like that amber but we don’t have any more of it, they’d say, OK, well there’s 2,000 other breweries in the country who would love to give me an amber. … We’ve sold the most of our amber, and then the Fat Man IPA.
Q: What’s the first craft beer you remember trying?
A: Probably Sierra Nevada pale. Nothing too exciting – that’s a good beer, I like that beer, I like Torpedo a bit more. My first beer was a Bud Light. I was probably 14. My parents were gone, and I’m like, I’m gonna drink a beer, this is great, I’m gonna get wasted! They were only going to be gone for a little bit so I grabbed one, I was in the kitchen, I opened it up, I chugged it and then I threw up in the sink. … And is Guinness considered a craft beer? I used to make fun of people, you’re drinking whatever stupid beer you have, I’m drinking Guinness, look how dark and awesome and manly this is. It’s like, 4 percent (laughs).
Q: If you could be drinking any beer right now, other than something you make yourself, what would that be?
A: I was going to say Utopias, from Boston Brewing, because I was just blessed to have a small taste of that. It’s 29 percent (alcohol by volume), beautiful brandy and port notes, just a great beer. But honestly, if I could have anything it would be Powder Hound from Big Sky – not the one now, the old Powder Hound. The first craft beer I remember enjoying was that Powder Hound, I fell in love with it. No words can express my disappointment when it came out as a light(er) beer. It used to be dark, hoppy, just mmm – before I had any idea what good beer could be, I drank that one. I remember I was at Fort Lewis and I was at one of those little stores getting some breakfast, and one of the end caps was nothing but Powder Hound. And they were selling it for like 10 bucks a case – it was a year old, actually. I went, I’m going to take the whole thing. I had a little Corvette at the time, and I filled it up. I was like, do you have any more in the back? I think the gal at the hotel thought I had a problem – my fridge was sagging from all the Powder Hound, and I had cases of it in the cabinets in the kitchen. I had macaroni and cheese, and Powder Hound.
Q: Do you ever miss taking bombs apart instead of making beer?
A: Every single day. That was probably the greatest job in the world. You’re only scared the first couple of times, then you just quit – you quit being scared, or you quit doing it. I think it’s helped us out in this, it’s hard to get worked up or worried or excited or nervous or anything else after that. What’s the worst thing that could happen? It’s not going to blow up. You mess up a batch of beer, you don’t lose any fingers. … I burned my foot (with hot water while brewing), it was a nasty little burn. So eight years on the bomb squad, I’m fine, a year and a half into brewing I’m in the emergency room.
Q: It looks from Facebook like you’ve sort of been back in action, right?
A: We got this bomb suit in the mail, I don’t know where it came from, there was no return address. It had been so long since I’ve worn a bomb suit, and I just love it. So I’m in the brewhouse playing around, then (partner) Alan (Longacre) puts it on and he goes walking around the parking lot. There’s people driving by real slow and making weird looks. I said, I’ve got an idea, we took one of our mortar shells and set it in the middle of the parking lot and he was doing the slow approach to it, people were almost stopped looking at it. This guy pulls in and he takes a real wide berth around the “incident,” parks way over there. So Alan – it was perfect, he didn’t miss a beat – he picks it up, very gingerly starts walking toward the guy, walks over to the driver’s side, puts it in the guy’s lap and runs away, just arms flailing. We were really fortunate that guy had actually been in several times. … We’ve decided that for at least this summer, any events we do, especially downtown, we’re going to start a couple of blocks away, put the suit on and do keg deliveries.