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7 Sips With … Matt Spann, Slate Creek

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 Matt Spann, who won numerous awards for his work at Idaho Brewing in Idaho Falls before coming to Slate Creek in Coeur d’Alene last October as a partner and head brewer; the avid outdoorsman seems at home in the similarly themed brewery.

Q: So how did you get into brewing, and what were you doing before you came to Coeur d’Alene?

A: I have a degree in environmental science and I was working for a private consulting company in Wyoming, and doing homebrewing as a hobby. I was spending an awful lot of time in North Dakota, out in the oil fields, I was gone for weeks at a time. That was kind of taking a toll on everything else in my life, and I decided it was time for a change. I love the outdoors, I grew up on a farm (in Wyoming) and never had an inside job in my life, so the thought of an inside job was kind of tough. And the thought of turning your hobby, which is your getaway from your reality, into your reality was a scary thought. I was really worried that my hobby, my escape, would just become a job and I’d lose my passion for it. But on the other side, you hope to be one of those people who dares to do the thing they love to do, and can spend the rest of their life doing that and being happy doing it. So it was worth a chance. I took a Seibel Institute course to help get my foot in the door. I applied to numerous places and interviewed in Salt Lake City and Idaho Falls, that was on the weekend and by the time I got home on Monday I had a job offer in Idaho Falls. So I landed out there in 2011, I started as the assistant brewer and six months later I was in charge of production and the head brewer. I was there until October, when I came up here.     

Q: What brought you here, and how do you like it so far?

A: The major reason was I wanted to have greater involvement in the goings-on, the overall strategy of the brewery.  I was going through a business plan for opening my own, and this came along. It was kind of a ground-floor entry, we’re not real big yet so it was a chance to get in at the bottom and work our way up. Also, I was looking for places I wanted to live. I grew up in the West, I want to live out West. So this was a great location at the right time, I was ready to move on and do something bigger and better, and there was the opportunity to work with people like (Slate Creek founders) Jason and Ryan (Wing) who want to do the fun things I want to do. We want to come up with fun names for the beer and do fun things with it, things we weren’t doing at Idaho Brewing and I didn’t see us doing that much in the future. Jason and Ryan were open to the ideas of new and different beers, beers that I had made that they didn’t have the experience making, and that was a big part of it. So I came up here to help out and be in a different area, an area where I could see myself wanting to stay. I love to do outdoors things like fishing and hiking and skiing, and it offers all of that. I like the community, I like the size of the community, I just bought a house here. So I’m looking forward to getting out and doing more.

Q: What are your goals at Slate Creek?

A: Straightforward, it’s to no less than double production over the next year, get to the 1,000 barrel mark. What I really want to do is get us streamlined in the back (the brewery) so we’re running at our optimal efficiency. And then we’ve had numerous meetings about marketing, what beers we want to market and why, and where, and what form we’re going to do it in, whether it’s cans or bottles or draft. This year it’s simply upping production, so we can reach a point where we’re sustainable and can start being profitable, so we can start putting that into expanded growth.  When we have that, we’ll have better flexibility to do some of the fun things that breweries get to do. But if you’re just trying to get by all the time, your chances to have a barrel program, things like that just don’t materialize. We just want to focus on the core business of being sustainable, putting out a really consistent, high-quality product, and streamlining everything in order to accomplish those goals. We are relatively new still, so we don’t have a whole-hearted commitment to just doing things one way. We’re constantly going to be reassessing our core beers, and hopefully getting really honest feedback from people.

Q: Do you have a particular brewing philosophy?

A: I’ve been asked that before, and the best thing I can come up with is, truly, balance. Everybody says they want to make balanced beers, and balance is pretty subjective. But really having a balanced beer is every piece of that beer being truly balanced. If it’s an IPA, is the malt backbone enough to balance the hops, is the citrus component balancing the fruit component, and the yeast, the finish and everything. That’s true to every style, and it’s very different criteria for Bavarian hefeweizen than it is for an American IPA. The other thing would be a real uniqueness to the product. Even if we have two IPAs, I want them to have different profiles, even if some of the ingredients are the same. I’m always disappointed when a brewery’s brown tastes like their pale, tastes like their Scotch, tastes like their whatever else. It’s a challenge to make that economical without buying wild ingredients and totally different yeast strains all the time. It’s working on your recipes to make sure the body of this one’s bigger and this one’s lighter, just to make sure there’s a difference.

Q: You’ve done some things here so far that are based on some of the beers you won awards for in Idaho Falls, such as an oaked Scotch and a schwarzbier. What else do you have coming up along those lines?

A: Three beers I’m looking forward to that I think are going to make the biggest impact here are the Bavarian hefe in the summertime – I’ve had an amazing amount of people show interest in that. It doesn’t seem to be marketed other than a couple of the big guys, and that’s an American style. This will be slightly tart, very effervescent, lots of flavor, lots of banana, a little bit of clove, not at all what a Widmer hefe is – it may not be the same type of beer drinker who drinks both of those. An Oktoberfest recipe I wrote down there we won a couple of awards with, I’m looking forward to making that in the fall, it’s one of my favorites. And then making our saison. For the first time I made a saison last year in collaboration with another local brewery. I wasn’t really a saison fan before that, and I can’t say when the other guys decided to make a saison that was my first pick. But I’m sure glad we did it, I learned a lot about making that beer, and it really opened my mind up to some different flavors. And we’ve got a Vienna lager coming up, and we’re going to try to do a lot of one-off single batches. We’ve got some New Zealand hop varieties, we want to truly to get to know them and play around with some different profiles.

Q: One question I ask everybody is, what’s the first craft beer you remember trying?

A: I would say probably Planet Porter, from Boulder. In college, it was really about quantity, not quality, we didn’t always have an appreciation for craft beer or anything with flavor, but I started out with an amber beer and those were pretty good, then one day my friend and I, we would go out and get a six-pack of something good and something different, and we came home with this Planet Porter. Here was this beer that was completely different from what I normally was OK with, that had lots of flavor, it was drinkable, and I just remember really enjoying that one and going back to that occasionally in my early days. I’d say that was the first one that really got me into drinking different kinds of beer. 

Q: And the other question I always ask is, if you could be drinking any beer right now, other than something you make yourself, what would it be?

A: I have a go-to, and it’s Odell, their 90 Schilling. No matter how many years I’ve had that beer, it always hits the spot, resonates with me. Recently I had a truly excellent beer from Pfriem, their pilsner. That was very, very enjoyable, it’s wonderful to see somebody putting out something like that pilsner, which is not an easy style to pull off. We always enjoyed drinking Sockeye when I was in Idaho Falls, and I’m just getting used to some of the new breweries up here. I’m trying to have something different every time I see it out there.