The Brewers

By Glenn Fullington

To watch Brian Miller's audio slide show on the Terrapin brewery, click the image.

To watch Brian Miller's audio slide show on the Terrapin brewery, click the image.

It’s 5:55 and the Terrapin brewery is packed. Well over one hundred people are already sampling beers and they only opened twenty-five minutes ago.  There is a caterer setting up for a private wedding related celebration that will take up the inside floor space later in the evening.  Taps are being manned both inside and outside.  Tours are shuffling from tank to tank sampling raw ingredients out of jars.  Industrial bags of grains and hops give the warehouse the oddly pleasant odor of a pet store.  Mostly people are standing around conversing with one another and the live calypso jam band is faintly audible in the boardroom on the opposite side of the 40,000 square foot building.  Brian “Spike” Buckowski and John Cochran are trying to put into words exactly what they wanted to achieve by opening Terrapin but the atmosphere outside gives the best explanation.  Plastered wide and genuine across both of their faces is the best answer I get out of them.

John and Spike met in Atlanta in the mid 90s while both worked at a local brewery.  Their shared passion for rich, exotic, and daring brew varieties led to collaboration in 1998.  Between then and 2002 the two worked to raise funds and convince investors that they could create a unique and tasty beer.  Contract brewing out of another facility at first, the pair produced their first offering, the Rye Pale Ale in April 2002 and sold it to a handful of bars in Athens and only then on tap.  By October, Terrapin had won gold in the American-Style Pale Ale category at the Great American Beer Festival.  That seemed to make a good impression with investors, John recalls.  

“We had to show them that we could make good beer and not tell them and the only way is to make a batch,” John explained earlier while walking past their bottling station. 

Spike styles his hair as his name would suggest and his sandals, shorts and streamline sunglasses are appropriate for the warm spring day.  John’s mop of sandy hair, almost imperceptibly thinner on top, denotes his far-from-corporate mentality.  His hat and shirt bear the company’s logo, a terrapin splashing in some liquid, presumably water, but it could just as easily not be.

The origin of the company’s name derives from John and Spike’s love for music.  The Grateful Dead’s 1977 album “Terrapin Station” was critically regarded as a departure from the band’s traditional bluesy folk style into a more progressive rock symphonic sound.  Likewise Terrapin Beer is Spike and John’s departure from traditional brewing. 

“Spike was a real deadhead in college,” John says, adding, “I came up with some really bad names before he came up with this.”

Music is a mainstay at the brewery and a part of their philosophy.  During a workday from atop a desk in the main warehouse, classic rock is blasted from a boom box into the sizeable expanse.  Nearly every weekend, during the tasting, there is a live band or two performing either on the permanent stage outside or set up inside for inclement weather.  It’s part of their image and they know that combining beer with live music is a tried and true formula for good times.

Soon after the Rye Pale Ale was released in Atlanta, some time after it’s debut at the Classic City Beer Festival Athens in 2002, Spike was attending Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and while perusing the vendor area he came across an artist by the name of Richard Biffle.  Biffle has illustrated album art for several bands including Government Mule, Phil Lesh and Friends and conveniently The Grateful Dead.  Spike asked Biffle to come up with some concepts for a label for their Rye Pale Ale, and when he delivered a banjo-wielding turtle adorning Jerry Garcia-esque glasses and a stalk of wheat resting in his mouth they knew they had found their man.

“We usually just tell him the name and the style of the beer and let him go from their,” John says of their relationship with Biffle.  This has produced a sitar playing reptile for their India Brown Ale, a kayaking one for the Golden Ale, and a terrapin frolicking among sunflowers for the Sunray Wheat Beer. 
Of the two founders, Spike is the recipe man.

“First we determine what kind of beer we want to make and research the history of it, then we sample as many beers of that style, and then I make my own interpretation of it,” Spike says.

The basic components of a style of beer are crucial to duplicate but putting their own twist on it is important.  For Terrapin it is all about breaking some preconceived notion or veering away from convention when it comes to creating new beers.  The Side Project series is a perfect example of what Spike and John think craft brewing of beer should be.  Side Projects are extreme recipes of which only one batch, or about 50 kegs worth, is produced.  

“It ties into the whole music theme as well, where one member of a band does some other project for a limited time.  It’s the same concept here, and the beers will never be made again,” John says.

Sometime around 7 p.m. the tasting is moved outside to make room for the wedding party.  There are two lines for beer, each roughly one hundred people long.  The band takes a break from some cover of an 80s song I canÕt name but can easily hum to.  Frisbees and baseballs are being tossed and a game of Cornhole is constantly in motion.   Several dogs and young children meander through the crowd.

John and Spike are outside too, holding a conversation with friends, casually standing off to the side, imperceptible from other patrons except for their specialty beer glasses that resemble brandy snifters more than the pint glass other revelers purchased earlier.  (Legally Terrapin is not allowed to sell beer but a commemorative pint glass costs only $8 and comes with 8 tickets stuffed into it, each redeemable for a half pint of brew.  It’s an ingenious business plan.  Open your doors to the public every Thursday, Friday and Saturday and “give away” beer.)  

Locally brewed beer in a college town renowned for its music culture almost lends itself to being a clichŽ but the atmosphere at Terrapin is genuinely couth.   

“We just knew we wanted to do it in Athens,” John says of their original business plan.

The community that supports Terrapin is much more widespread than Athens, however.  The entire East Coast is their ultimate goal for expansion and they can already claim a distributor as far north as Pittsburgh (because Spike loves the Steelers and a certain distributor conveniently happens to have season tickets).   

When it comes to beer it’s clear that the two are fanatics.  Both were home brewers before making it their living. John admits that his first attempt at home brewing was horrible, but the lessons learned then, on the small scale, are still relevant in producing quality beers today.

I asked the both of them separately what their favorite beer that they make is.  Both responded, without much hesitation, that they preferred the Rye Pale Ale, their flagship oat soda, to anything else.

“It was Spike and I making the beer that we love,” John answers.  

 Around 8:15, after John and Spike delay the last pour 30 minutes, the last of the crowd slowly makes its exit, most making a stop at the portable toilets before getting in their cars.  John stands at the gate of the fence saying goodbye to people.  The evening was one Terrapin will inevitably and gladly reproduce.    
Spike and John did indirectly answer my last question on what they set out to accomplish with Terrapin Beer Company.  

“People thought we were crazy making a beer that was so bold, says John.

But that was always their intention.  They wanted to break the mold and introduce a level of beer sophistication that wasn’t available in the Southeast while at the same time promoting a casual atmosphere that emphasizes the outdoors and live music.  The mold has definitely been broken and John and Spike will continue to redefine beer so long as people will show up to drink it.  I’d say they’re safe.


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