food

Talking about the craft-beer life with Flying Fish's Gene Muller

Michael Klein

Updated: Sunday, October 2, 2016, 9:49 AM

Gene Muller in the tasting room at Flying Fish Brewing Co. in Somerdale, N.J.

We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.

In 1996, Gene Muller opened the first microbrewery in South Jersey. Before the first batch of Flying Fish was kegged in Cherry Hill, Muller had built a following by marketing on this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. Over the years, Flying Fish has racked up awards, moved to a larger facility in Somerdale, sold a majority stake to an investor, and this fall will lend its name to Flying Fish Crafthouse, a bar-restaurant in Philadelphia's Brewerytown neighborhood that will serve its beers.

Muller sat down last week to recap - as they say in the beer-bottling world.

How did you get started?

At the time in 1993, I was working as a writer at a health-care advertising agency in Philadelphia. I was a home brewer. I was doing pretty good at that and decided I was tired of having four weeks’ vacation and working 40 hours a week. I got the idea to go to brewing school. The idea was to work at a brewery somewhere. I did some shorter courses and then got the idea to open up a brewpub.

At the time, this is how far back it was, it was going to be in Old City, at Second and Chestnut Streets. There was Jimmy Tayoun’s [Middle East restaurant] and like one or two ... Nothing else. I would go to investors and they’d say, ‘You’ve never worked in a brewery. You’ve never run a restaurant. You’ve never run a business and you want me to invest?’ I’m, ‘yeah.’ That didn’t work. Then, it morphed into ... I quit my job full time. Went to brewing school in Chicago. Then, came back and got the idea to do a production brewery in New Jersey. The law had just passed in New Jersey to allow breweries and brewpubs. There were just a couple of them at the time, like Triumph up in Princeton.

How did you find this place?

Well, the original location was in Cherry Hill. I happened to be doing some freelance marketing for the health club next door and met the landlord. I didn’t know he was a landlord. He was this friendly older guy, always drove a beat-up car, wore a flannel shirt with a torn pocket. I’m thinking, ‘He’s the maintenance guy.’ They’re, ‘No, he owns this whole industrial park. He built it.’ He took a chance on me. I said, ‘I really want this spot.’ He had a wetlands back there. I said that’d be really cool with sustainability. He held onto the spot for us until we were able to afford rent. It’s an entrepreneur helping out another generation of entrepreneur.

And you moved in 2012 to Somerdale.

It look us about over three or four years to find this building. It’s really tough. Now, we have towns calling and saying, ‘Hey, we have these buildings. We’ll give you space. We’ll help you out.’ When we were looking, they were like, ‘Oh, a brewery?’ They had ideas of smokestacks or toxic chemicals or whatever. Now, people get the idea, ‘Wait, it can drive tourism. It can drive development.’ Our mayor got it. He was excited about the idea and made it happen for us.

If you had to do it from scratch again, knowing what’s going on in 2016, would you do it again?

I might do it in Pennsylvania. New Jersey is so tough to do business in.

Why’s that?

We have a tasting room here, but every time you come in, you have to take a tour, watch a video or take a physical tour. By law, I’m not allowed to operate a restaurant or sell food. I can sell you beers, but I’m not allowed to sell you a potato chip — whereas in Pennsylvania, by law, breweries must offer food. We’re behind the curve on a lot of things. Our town’s great to deal with, but it’s the state. I think we’re in a craft-beer bubble now. I mean, we’re about the 100th or 101st biggest brewery in the country, which means there’s 4,400 people smaller than us.

This facility’s impressive, but in the scheme of things, we’re still a pretty small brewery. There’s a lot of smaller folks getting started. In the late ’90s, it was like that.

If you remember in Philadelphia, there was independents like Red Bell and Gravity and all these guys that were either trying to sell stock and get rich that way. There was a lot of bad beer out there. We’re seeing that again now with a lot of these. I was a home brewer, but I didn’t just say, ‘I’m going to open up a brewery.’ Now, you have a lot of home brewers who really aren’t looking at the quality control.

The most telling thing here is that we have folks come in and say, ‘I was at this new brewery or that new brewery. We’re, ‘How as it?’ They’re, ‘It’s OK.’ Somebody says that about a restaurant, it’s not a enthusiastic endorsement.

How did you learn to operate the brewery?

I was tenacious. I had Robin [Tama] who founded the brewery with me. Andy [Newell], who was our banker, did sales. It was being tenacious and figuring things out. That’s the toughest thing — it’s a lifestyle. It’s when the forklift breaks. It’s not like we call maintenance.

At the time, we didn’t have money, so we figured out how to fix it. You learn by doing.

Just like accounting. I went to college and was going to be an accounting major and after one semester, I’m, ‘This sucks.’ Until two years ago, we finally got an accountant, so I did all the accounting for 18 years, which was like, ‘Is this my payback?’ It’s sticking to it and being willing to commit to it.

Tell me about the Brewerytown project, at 31st and Master Streets. How did that come to be?

It’s something we’ve toyed around with for years. We’ve been approached by folks to brand their project. This one was interesting to us because it was in Philadelphia.

Originally, it was going to be a brewpub with an actual brewery. It got to be too complicated with restoring the building and all the construction and the licensing. It was going to be too much. This first one is going to be the Flying Fish Crafthouse.

Hopefully, if it works as well as we think, we’d like to do another one and actually put a brewery in it. … Victory’s done it and Dogfish has. They work really well. What they’ll be is 16 taps — 14 of them will be Flying Fish, including 3 to 5 that will only be available there. That’s why we have these big foedres, the wine tanks. We’re aging different beer, wood aging, that will just be available there. We’ll have two guest taps. We’ll pick other local brewers and feature their beers for whatever it is a month or two months or whatever.

I keep hearing the date of Nov. 18 is a soft opening.

Tell me about the location, Fairmount @ Brewerytown.

It’s all rental, but it’s walkable from Penn and Drexel. They have 131 units, but people will be able to order their beer and their food and have it delivered to their apartment. They’ll also be a rooftop hang-out space. We’ll have growler fillers there. They’ll be beer to take out as well. Then, we’re really looking forward because it was a warehouse, it has a loading dock, which is like four feet high. There’s a space between the dock and the sidewalk that you can put tables down there. You can do ... It’ll be open air seating because the garage doors will pop up in nice weather. They’ll be heaters out there. We can do Oktoberfest with smokers or whatever and really make it an event space. All the things we can’t do in New Jersey.

Do you ever feel like you have to stop creating new brands and just keep going with what you have?

Actually, the pressure is now the other way. I mean there are breweries now that are doing, 50, 60, 70 different beers a year, which is insane. This year, we’ll probably end up with about a little more than a dozen, which is really on the low side. Consumers are in the ‘What’s new? What’s different?’ I mean, we have 12 taps here.

People come in and say, "Don’t you have anything different?’ I’m, ‘There’s 12 beers. Come on. Aren’t you thirsty? You’ve got to find something.’ We don’t fall into that. We really want to have our beers be consistent. We’ll have fun doing different series. … The first beer we discontinued, which was probably my favorite, was our porter, which was a great beer, but nobody bought it. We held onto it as long as we could. Sales just kept going down. I still have people coming in. We discontinued that in maybe 2002. I still have people asking for it. I’m, ‘If you would have bought some of it at the time, we’d still have it.’ There’s a lot of enthusiasm among drinkers for trying new things, but the reality of it is, that we can’t brew a different beer every day.

What are your plans down the road?

We actually just finished a strategic plan, so we’ve planned out the next step and how we’re going to grow and what succession is. We’re still sorting that out. I am not going to be here until I’m 90. I mean, I hope I’m here until I’m 90, but not working six days a week. It’s a lifestyle business. At the end of the day, today at 6 o’clock, I’m meeting some malt salespeople. We’re going to have a beer. I could say I’m working or I could say I’m enjoying a beer and gossiping about the industry.

That’s how I look at it. It’s a great business. You can travel anywhere in the country, walk into a brewery, and start up a conversation with folks. Especially in Philly, a lot of us started at the same time. Victory, Yards, Iron Hill, Dogfish. We all grew up together. It’s still pretty collegial. I’ve seen other markets where people are sniping at each other, especially as they get bigger.

We don’t see each other at all hardly anymore, but still shoot out emails and they’re still that interest, so it’s fun.

Michael Klein

Read full story: Talking about the craft-beer life with Flying Fish's Gene Muller

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