TT with HD: Matt Greff
[Ed. note: In the 'Greff sandwich' alluded to here, the first slice of bread was René Greff, who pioneered the teeter totter on 9 December 2005. A year of meaty tottering later, the second slice of bread was added in the form of Matt.]
HD: Welcome to the teeter totter!
MG: Well, thank you for having me!
HD: It's a Greff sandwich, a year-long Greff sandwich! So you have a tasting that you're headed off to after?
MG: We are! It's at the \'aut\ bar. They're serving our beer in bottles there, and Keith and Martin, who own the \'aut\ bar, are having a staff training. So we're going there to pour our beers for their staff, and talk about them, and tell them why we think they're special, and how they're made, and the history of the styles, the whole nine yards.
HD: The \'aut\ bar will be serving the full line of Corner Brewery stuff?
MG: I think they're rotating right now. They started with the Alt and then after a few weeks they're going to rotate through to a different bottled beer. As they get feedback they'll probably go down to maybe carrying two permanently.
HD: Do you happen to know off the top of your head whether Old Town will be carrying Corner Brewery beer? Because that's my neighborhood bar.
MG: [laugh] Well, any suggestions that you could put into their ear to carry our beer would be greatly appreciated! One thing that we've kind of seen-and Old Town falls into this category a little bit--is, since the Arbor Brewing Company is right down the street, do they see it as promoting the Arbor Brewing Company, and therefore helping another restaurant out? Or do they maybe have some customers, who maybe would stay at the Old Town if they had our beer, rather than going down to the Arbor Brewing company to get the beer? It's been pretty split so far, and I think that the longer we're out selling our beer, the less nervous people are going to be about that type of thing. We haven't seen any change in our business at the brew pub, and the places that are carrying our beer are selling quite a bit of it, so.
HD: So it's not like people are saying, Hey, this bottle of beer, I can get it on draught down the street, so why don't I go down the street?
HD: The closest place, I think, to get the bottles around here is at the Party Center at the Y--the Y in the road, not the new YMCA ...
MG: ... I was going to say, Hey, if we on the shelf at the Y, then we're making progress! [laugh]
HD: Yeah. But no, it's where Jackson and Ann-Arbor-Dexter Road split out.
MG: Right, yep.
HD: And he has a program--I don't think the Corner Brewery stock is a part of that program--but the guy who runs the store has this program where you can mix and match for six-packs.
MG: Oh, nice! That's great!
HD: Yeah, so I told him he ought to throw the Corner Brewery stuff into that program. Now is that something you even have any control over? Can people just do that if they want to?
MG: They can! We're learning all the ropes as we go and what we're learning is that retailers are going to do whatever they're going to do in terms of pricing, in terms of how they sell it, in terms of where they place it, and we don't really have a lot of say over that. Once we get a little bit more time, we're going to start making the rounds in January, we're going to visit accounts where we're selling beer well, and talk to them about how it's working and anything we can do to help them out. But anything like that, I think: we want to sell a lot of beer. So we're in favor of it, if they are going to sell more beer doing mixed six-packs and joining it with other beers and other breweries. We're totally comfortable with that.
HD: It must give you an immense sense of satisfaction to walk into a store and see your product stacked up in a big pile, or sitting there in the refrigerator door, or wherever they have it.
MG: Yeah. Yeah. Well, we laugh, because it hits you at strange times. I think you are probably aware of this, but life is just kind of normal. Whatever situation you're in feels normal. So once we started bottling and selling beers to stores, it wasn't as tremendous and exciting as we thought it was going to be, because it just became kind of normal, and it was really hard, and we were working a lot. But, it was 11:30 at night the other night, and we were out of dog food, and I run up to the corner party store to get some dog food, and without even thinking of it I just spot our beer on their shelves. And that's when--when you're not expecting it--that's when you go, That is so awesome, that is so cool to see it there.
HD: Did it make you want to say to the clerk, Hey, see that--that's my beer!
MG: Yeah, how can I say that without sounding like a tool, you know? [laugh] But yeah. Arbor Farms did their November specials sheet, where they had a couple of different wines and a couple of different spirits and then a couple little superimposed pictures of our Sacred Cow six-packs saying, "Arbor Brewing Company Sacred Cow plus these other Arbor Brewing Company beers now available". When you see it at times like that, it feels very real that way. At Whole Foods, we just had this experience, they did a little shelf-talker for our beer.
HD: A shelf-talker??
MG: Yeah, it's a little laminated information sheet right under our six-packs that says, "Buy Local, Arbor Brewing Company owners Matt and Rene Greff began home-brewing 15 years and now have opened a new micro-brewery that allows you to take home their six-packs" It's crazy to be in a store the size of Whole Foods and actually see your name on the shelf.
HD: Okay, so when you say shelf-talker but it's just a sign?
MG: It is. It's an industry term. These are all the things we're learning! A shelf-talker is when you're in the wine section and you're looking at Merlot and there's a piece of paper under there that says Wine Spectator rates this a 95, it's got plum and flavors and this and that. That's a shelf-talker. It's telling you about the beers or the wines.
HD: Okay, because from the name, it's sounds like it's actually an audio thing, where you know ...
MG: Hi, my name is Matt Greff! Thank you for buying my six pack!
HD: Well, that would be like a whole 'nother level.
MG: It would be. We should develop that one.
HD: So a question about the Shadow Art Fair. Part of the promotion for that--Summer as well as the Winter--was '9,000 gallons of beer'.
HD: So why only 9,000? I mean 10,000 would be a much rounder number. Where does the figure 9,000 come from?
MG: [laugh] I'll have to go back, because I did this math back in April. Each of our vessels of beer hold 1300 gallons of beer. And so when they're all at maximum capacity, which is fairly frequently, if you add up all the tanks that we have that hold beer, it's roughly 9,000 gallons of beer, that's where we came up with that.
HD: But you could add to that by adding bottles?
MG: You could, if you went into the cooler and added up all the kegs that were in there, and all the cases that were in there. So maybe next year, to promote the second year of the Shadow Art Fair, it could be 10,000 gallons of beer.
HD: Yeah, because, it just maybe has a little more impact.
MG: [laugh] Does it sound like we're underachieving?
HD: Yeah, well with 9,000, I sorta think, Well, why not 10? That's my reaction.
HD: So you say you want to sell as much beer as possible. As I understand it, though, there's limits to how much beer you're allowed to brew and sell.
HD: It's a quarter million barrels, is that it?
MG: It depends on your license. We have a micro-brewery license and I believe the limit on that is 30,000 barrels. If you become a brewery, it goes up to a quarter million barrels.
HD: Alright, so I assume somewhere in the future you'd like to ramp up to brewery status, or?
HD: Would that entail adding more equipment ...
MG: ... it would ...
HD: ... or could you just run the bottler 24 hours a day?
MG: No, it would entail buying more equipment and expanding the brewery. Just to give you an idea where other breweries are, Bell's, being the biggest brewery in the state, does about 60,000 barrels a year. And the next biggest brewery is Arcadia, only does about 10 to 12,000 barrels a year. So there's a pretty big drop off.
HD: So this quarter million mark, it's not like anybody's pushing that.
MG: Yeah, if you have a brewery license in Michigan, if you're up around 100,000 barrels, or even say Bell's at 60,000 barrels, you start to become known as a 'regional brewery' because of how many states they're in and how many barrels you're actually producing. So getting to quarter million barrels would be pretty miraculous.
HD: So when you first got the bottler running and the bottles were running along the conveyer belt, did you re-enact the opening montage from Laverne & Shirley?
MG: [laugh] We actually have a little homage to Laverne & Shirley on the bottling line. The labeler itself has a little spool that spins and we have a work glove. It's actually been duct-taped into flipping you off. [laugh] It spins in circles on the labeler. So that's our little twist on the Laverne & Shirley thing.
HD: [laugh] That's cool.
MG: You can't help it, when you're on the bottling line. Every single person who comes back, when we're running it, starts humming the theme song. It's inescapable [Ed. note: Everybody take a minute now: "On your mark, get set and go now, got a dream and we just know now, we're gonna make our dream come true, and we'll do it our way, yeah, our way ..."]
HD: Alright, well that's good to know. It gives me a sense of comfort that I'm not the only one it would occur to that you need to do that.
HD: You know, if you owned a newspaper printing press, then while printing out a newspaper, at least once, you'd have to say, Stop the Presses!
MG: Exactly. Just for fun.
HD: Yeah, you need to do that. Now my understanding of beer is very limited. I know that the German Purity Law says that it's only barley and water and hops that can go in. So it seems to me that beer recipes are kind of constrained. So you can play around with proportions I guess. And then you can roast the grains?
HD: You do the roasting there onsite?
MG: No, we don't.
HD: So you buy stuff already roasted.
HD: What is it then that you're futzing around with when you futzing around with, uh ...
MG: ... the recipes? Well, it's amazing the variety of beers you can make with four basic ingredients. Let's say you're brewing by the Purity Law and you're only using those three ingredients plus yeast, which is obviously what ferments the beer, that'd be your fourth ingredient. So you've got your yeast, your water, your malted barley and your hops.
HD: So strictly speaking, the hard-core German brewers, do they look askance at yeast?
MG: No, not at all. You can't make beer without the yeast. I just think it was a given, when the Purity Law was written. It was before they had started micro-biology to get down to pure yeast strains. So what they were doing was using wild yeast strains. They'd make the beer and leave it out in open vessels and let wild yeast from the air ferment it. So I think that's why it was left off the books, because it was just kind of what happened naturally. But the base of all our beer is what's called Pilsner malt or Two Row malt, which is just a very light malted barely, light-colored, about the same color as amber waves of grain, to give you a visual [laugh].
MG: And that makes up anywhere between 80 to 95 percent of the different types of grains we use in a batch. The other 5 to 20 percent of grain, there are probably 40-50 different kinds of what are called specialty malts available to the brewer. All of them go through different roasting processes, different kilning proceses to give malt different colors, different flavors, aid with head retention when you carbonate your beer. There's just a whole wide variety. There's malts from the US, there's malts from Germany, there's malts from the Czech Republic, from Belgium, from England, that all kind of impart their own character and flavor. So in that one ingredient, there's a plethora of different colors and flavors and tastes that you can get. And the same goes for hops. Hops are grown all over the world in different regions. If you want to think of it like grapes, hops ...
HD: Do they grow here in Michigan?
MG: They do, actually. We've got them growing out in our beer garden. They actually do really well, and I'm not sure why people haven't really started hop farming in Michigan. But they do grow here, they grow like weeds. They're great.
HD: But for the Beer Garden, that's more symbolic?
MG: Yeah, it is. They're cool looking. Although we might do that. The thought has crossed our minds to do a small batch every year of a 'harvest beer' and kind of do it ourselves. But just like the barley, same thing goes for hops. If you buy English hops they're going to taste different from German noble hobs, which taste different from the west coast of the States. They all have different alpha acid contents, which gives you an idea of how much bitterness they're going to give the beer. So if you get something really high in alpha acids, you're going to want to use that in an IPA, so you get a lot of bitterness. You're not going to want to use it in a dark German lager, because you don't want as much bitterness in it. So again, with those two ingredients, you can see there's a lot of different variety. And then yeast, there's an infinite number of different yeast strains that are available to brewers these days to purchase and use, and they all give different flavors and work with different alcohol content. So it's not as limiting as it first appears with those four ingredients.
HD: So let me pitch you an idea, the idea being that the future of Michigan's economy does not lie in the automobile industry ...
MG: ... should I sell my GM stock? [laugh] ...
HD: ... [laugh] it does not lie in nano-technology, or computer technology, or bio-technology: it's beer. And what Michigan needs to do is establish a kind of a brand concept that supercedes all the individual breweries, where you could say that Michigan beers have this certain something, something unique to Michigan beer or at least unique to like a consortium of Michigan breweries. So the requirement would be that they be from Michigan and that the German Purity Law was followed. And you would call it: Misch-eigen Beer. So the German M-I-S-C-H for 'mixture' and then hyphen and then German E-I-G-E-N for our 'own' and the whole thing plays on Michigan, Misch-eigen sounds like Michigan, right?
MG: Right, right.
HD: See, I think you could brand that.
MG: Hmm. Maybe. [laugh] You think people would make that link?
MG: But I think you're definitely headed in the right direction. I think the Michigan breweries are headed kind of in that direction. The distributors in the state are having incredible luck with Michigan beers, especially when they lump them all together. Rave Associates, which is our distributor here in Washtentaw County and in eleven counties directly adjacent, their plan for Michigan beers is called "A door in every store". Which is every party store you walk into, they want one glass door in the cooler section dedicated to Michigan beer. And they're having a lot of luck going to stores and saying, Let's just do a whole Michigan section for you guys! And the Michigan breweries are actually very united and actually have a great collegial relationship with each other and are behind this whole aspect. So I think you're definitely onto something. And I'm definitely in favor of it.
HD: You know I've noticed actually that most stores tend to group the Michigan beers together, even if they're not explicitly labeled as, Hey, Michigan Beer! I think that would be really nice if there could be some signage. Or wait a second: a shelf-talker!
MG: There you go!
HD: That says, This is the Michigan Beer Section, so that your average consumer, as long as they're going to buy some beer, why not make it some Michigan beer?
HD: Why not trade dollars with your neighbor, instead of sending dollars to St. Louis?
MG: That's true. I think it's great. Like I said, I think distributors, for them it's all about revenue, obviously. And once this has started to work for them, they've been all over it. And I know Rave has been pretty good about lumping them together and doing some signage. But the Michigan Brewers Guild, which is actually an organization of Michigan brewers, is working on signage as an organization that they will, as an organization, give to different distributors around the state and to different retail establishments around the state to really promote the whole Michigan beer concept. So it's kind of in the works. There's a lot of very busy people running very small breweries in this state, so it's kind of at a snails pace.
HD: Okay, let me ask you about the Democratic Party. You and Rene are hard-core Democrats, right? That's fair to say?
MG: That is true, yeah, that's fair. Absolutely.
HD: So you were actually at that Howard Dean rally, when he had that infamous ...
MG: ... we were not at the rally. We were in Iowa working the caucus and we were watching it on TV.
HD: Oh, okay, got it. So I was wondering, you know there are folks who will refer to the Democratic Party as the 'Democrat Party'?
HD: And I was wondering, as a true-blue Democrat, do you feel horribly insulted by that, do you think it's a vilification, or is it just ...
MG: ... oh, it pisses me off.
MG: Yeah, because it is a blatant attempt by the Republican Party to remove the concept or the idea that we are the democratic party from the lexicon of American politics. And they are the ones, if you watch Fox News, it is mostly Republicans--if not all Republicans--who do not say 'Democratic Party' but rather say 'Democrat Party'. Because it implies that if you're not Democratic, then you're not democratic. I just feel like Republicans are so into vernacular, and words, and have been very successful in shaping the way that people think about a lot of different issues based on what kind of words they use. This is just the latest attempt to steer things in a direction that works to their advantage. So I feel very strongly about it being the 'Democratic Party'. Didn't expect that, did ya? [laugh]
HD: No, actually not! I figured you'd say, Oh, that's just silly, I don't give it two seconds thought.
MG: Because I think Republicans are so much better at that sort of thing, devious and insidious with small things like that, that end up making a big difference.
HD: But wait a second, I mean, choosing the name 'Democratic Party' in the first place, though, is a pointed attempt to trade on the fact that the ordinary word 'democratic' is a huge positive in our American tradition.
HD: So in the first place, choosing that name is an exploitation of the semantics of the word ...
MG: ... of course, but with the 'Republican Party' it's the same thing and probably more accurate in terms of what kind of governmental system we have, it's a republic not a democracy. So they did the same thing with the 'Republican Party'.
HD: So anyway, as hard-core Democrats, do you have an inside line on who you think might end up being the Democratic nominee?
MG: Mmmm, no. We have our own thoughts and people that we like.
HD: Is there anybody whose name is currently being mentioned, who you'd think, that if they became the nominee, that you'd be willing to put the same kind of energy that you put into the Dean campaign?
MG: Potentially, yes. I have to admit, I was not a big fan four years ago, but I've become a very big fan of John Edwards. Because I feel like what he's doing on urban issues, poverty issues, peace and justice issues, is extremely heartfelt and sincere, and not just because he wants to be President. And I feel like even his days as an attorney were spent kind of fighting for the little guy and protecting consumer rights from corporate interests. So I've really kind of come around on him, and I feel like he is somebody who could be politically acceptable to the U.S.--you know he's not a New Englander, a Massachusetts liberal. He's from the South, and he can talk about God comfortably, instead of looking really awkward. [laugh] I mean I hate to say it, because that's not important to me at all, but the other stuff is important. Apparently you do need the whole package, if you're going to be successful in a general campaign.
HD: But it seems like it's almost already distilled down to either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
MG: And I'm a huge fan of Barack Obama, too. I really do think he's incredibly inspirational. And I thought his speech at the convention last time was the highlight of the convention.
HD: It was a good speech.
MG: Yeah. But I think because of our wounds from the Howard Dean campaign, I kind of watch the Hillary versus Obama scenario right now and think it's so far away right now from the election. I mean, you have no idea what's going to pan out. I think all of the other candidates are more than happy to let those two take all of the publicity, all of the shots right now and they'll kind of hang out in the background and see what happens. So I don't know if it's going to come down to those two or not. You know, I'm a big Hillary fan. But we tend to go after candidates who generally don't win, because we have what we call the goose-pimple test. Which is, I want goose-pimples when I hear my candidate speak. I want them to speak to issues that I'm really passionate about and that I care about. Somebody who's really going to inspire the nation and inspire us. And I think that's been lacking from our political process. And I think when people are inspirational, they really get lambasted in the media for being sappy or what have you. That's the reason I'm really happy Obama is doing as well as he is because he is inspirational and does kind of rally your feelings as an American, as a community, and all of that kind of stuff. So it's going to be interesting to see what happens.
HD: So DeVos and Granholm. Does Granholm give you goose-pimples?
MG: No. Not at all, in fact, maybe I shouldn't say this, because this is going onto a website in a very Democratic area, but all of my friends were sick of listening to me for two years going, I absolutely positively refuse to vote for Jennifer Granholm!
MG: Until I saw my first Dick DeVos commercial, and I went, Oh man, now I gotta vote for Jennifer Granholm! [laugh]
HD: So is it that you just don't find her inspiring, or is it some policy positions of hers that you don't agree with?
MG: We got behind her campaign heavily the first time she ran, because I thought she was goose-pimples. She was an incredibly charismatic, attractive woman. Everywhere she went, her speeches were great. We were actually fortunate enough to have a relatively small lunch with her at Zingerman's. We were never up that close with Bill Clinton, but whatever she has is what people talk about with Bill Clinton all the time: where you feel like you're the only person in the room, and she cares about your issues and your story. And she wins her election and she's got a 75 percent approval rating, and I feel like she squandered it. I feel like she was pushed around by the Republican legislature ...
HD: .. with respect to some particular issue?
MG: Nooo, and that's kind of the hard thing, where I can't really place my finger on it. But when Engler was Governor and he's got a Democratic legislature, I mean he was out there all the time on the bully-pulpit, pushing people around, driving his own agenda. And I felt like she was too much in the background, too afraid to take any risks, playing too much defense and worried too much about re-election. So I actually have high hopes that now that she's re-elected, her confidence level will go up, and so far she seems to be--with the single business tax--she seems to be really pushing back on the Republicans. I'm really hoping that her charisma is going to really come out this term, which was missing the first term.
HD: So Dick DeVos didn't give you any goose-pimples at all?
MG: Nooo. [laugh]
HD: Actually my favorite ad of the campaign by either candidate, was the ad by Dick DeVos where he pitches his closet organizer. He says something like, Well, if you don't want to vote for me, perhaps you'd be interested in this closet organizer! And to me that was exactly the tone that was missing from both sides, most of the time. It would have been far more welcome to me to see more of that kind of message. Both Granholm and DeVos towards the end, but really through the meat of the campaign, were running very very negative ads. But the closet organizer ad said, Hey, I've got a sense of humor, I don't take myself all that super serious, but here's what I'm pitching to you, I'm a business guy, here's my thing.
HD: But I guess the evidence shows that negative ads work.
MG: That's what's discouraging.
HD: Yeah, it's discouraging with respect to our species, I guess. We're just not a very pleasant species.
MG: I agree. I thought that commercial was brilliant. And I would love to see more of that. Unfortunately, all of the psychological studies and surveys that are done say: people say that they hate negative ads, but they're deeply affected by them, way more so than they are by positive ads, so. Proof's in the pudding there.
HD: We suuuck.
MG: Yeah, it's discouraging. We go through that a lot.
HD: Well, listen, is there anything else on your mind today?
MG: No! Other than I'm very impressed with what you've done in a year with your Teeter Talk. The list of people who you have put together for this is really impressive.
HD: Well, thanks!
MG: And I'm honored to be a part of the Greff Sandwich on December 9th. And since I'm about a year younger than Rene, I think we can say that we actually did Teeter Talk on the same day!
HD: Ah, relative to your life journey, huh, the same day.
MG: So I just wanted to say congratulations to you on your one year anniversary!
HD: Well, thanks a bunch!
MG: We should probably have a beer to celebrate it.
HD: Yeah, we can crack one of those open.