Brewer Spotlight - Brian of Departed Soles
Welcome to the first of what we will be a regular feature on the TapRm blog where we will be highlighting the brewers that we are lucky enough to partner with. Every craft brewer has a story. We can't wait to tell those stories to add a little extra flavor to each of their brews.
First, we spoke with Brian Kulbacki of Departed Soles at his renowned taproom in downtown Jersey City. Without giving away too much, Brian's touching story led him to a gluten free focus. The gluten free selections from Departed Soles are the first and only gluten free craft beers available on TapRm!
TapRm: Can you share the story of Departed Soles' founding?
Brian Kulbacki (BK): When I turned 21 and really started exploring Boston (Brian is a graduate of Boston College), I took a tour of Sam Adams and it blew my mind as to what beer could be. Our family wasn’t big into craft beer but after that brewery visit, one of my roommates and I started going to a craft beer bar instead of the usual dive bars and we fell in love with it.
I moved to Miami after college and, at that time, there was no such thing as craft beer there. The closest thing you could get was a $14 Heineken Light at a club on South Beach. I started reading about home brewing while I was down there but eventually the pieces aligned for me to come back to Jersey in December 2009.
Around that time, my best friend, Chris, had gotten diagnosed with Celiac Disease so going out changed to the point where we would go into the City to watch a BC football game and I’d be drinking a $10 pitcher of Bud Light with a straw by myself and he’d have to sit there with a vodka cranberry. We’d be tailgating and he wouldn’t be able to play beer pong anymore so we started talking about ways to change that. He was a teacher by trade but helped manage a restaurant in Princeton at night so we thought we’d start our own “nichey” brew pub catering towards people with dietary restrictions. Unfortunately, he passed away that year (2010) in a car accident. I more or less trifled about life for a solid two years until my parents basically said “you gotta get your shit together.” I was brewing beer with a buddy a week after that.
Something my uncle always said to me was if you’re going to work in an industry, you need to have a degree in the industry so that your peers will respect you so I looked up brewing schools, which at the time was either Siebel or the American Brewers Guild Brewing School. I applied to American Brewers Guild and they called me two or three days later and they said it sounds like you’re interested in starting a brewery and not going to work for one. I told them that I wanted to do gluten free (GF) beer and no one was going to let me do that on their system. They said - cool, we’re adding a program for breweries and planning, you’re in, you start in May (which was less than a month from that date). The plan got thrown on its head a little bit but here we are.
TapRm: Departed Soles has a really powerful founding story but even more impressive is how much of that story is packed into just the name of the brewery. Can you touch on the name Departed Soles, and again, “Soles” is spelled like the bottom of a shoe?
BK: Chris and I had a propensity whenever we were “slightly” intoxicated to purchase ridiculous sneakers and, unrelated, my family runs a funeral home. It made sense to try to tie everything together. As a home brewer, I was calling my company Dead Man’s Brewing Company but that was before Chris passed away. We didn’t want the name to be something terribly morbid or sad or depressing all the time so one of my other friends suggested Departed Souls which was still a little too sad and morbid to me. The brewery was supposed to be about turning the page and moving forward so we settled on s-o-l-e-s because it tied together - pun intended - the sneaker thing, the family thing, and the whole mission behind it. If you look at our cans, we use the Statue of Liberty on almost everything. We like to say the Statue of Liberty is the original symbol of Departed Soles in the sense that it’s people that leave a situation to pursue a dream.
TapRm: You aren’t exclusively Gluten Free but have a major emphasis on the genre. According to your website, you are the first brewer specializing in GF beer to graduate from the American Brewers Guild. We know the reason behind your concentration on this corner of the market but why was no one else doing it before given that everyone knows a gluten free person…or ten?
BK: I think there’s a lot of reasons why other people aren’t brewing GF. For one, it costs about four times as much in terms of the ingredients to do. Also, there’s just not as many ingredients out there to do the cool crafty stuff that breweries are putting out these days.
It’s funny because we’ve been here for 3.5 years now and people are still hesitant to buy our non-GF stuff because they think we’re a GF brewery so our other stuff can’t be good. We’ve been doing GF for 3.5 years and out of nowhere this summer it was like a light switch went on and people fell in love with our GF beer. Whereas before we always had two or three available, it got to the point that we could barely have one available because it was going out the door that quickly which is a huge reason we are now entering into New York City.
TapRm: What can you tell us about gluten free beer that the gluten drinking public might not be aware of?
BK: Even from the time we started to right now, the ingredients available to us have changed so much from the grains we’re using to the yeast we’re using. This isn’t Redbridge anymore. People are investing their lives and their names into this. We’re not going to put out a GF beer for the sake of being GF. We’re brewers. Most of us that are brewing GF are not GF, we just like them and/or know somebody. We want to be able to drink what we’re brewing - it’s half the reason we got into this. GF is no longer a stigma that means the beer is bad. The quality in the ingredients has changed so much that we can blind taste test people and they probably wouldn’t know our beers are GF anymore. If you haven’t had one recently, you should try one. You’ll probably like it.
TapRm: What would you consider your “big break” to be along the craft brewing journey you’re on up to this point when you look at your body of work and admire what you’ve accomplished?
BK: We like to submit pilot batches of beer to these big fancy competitions. Right when we first opened, we were only brewing two GF beers: Four My Homie and Dark Knight. We sent them both into the World Beer Cup. We still weren’t canning so I was packing them up in bottles “home brew style.” WBC happened to fall on my 30th birthday that year in Philadelphia. I was down there all week for the conference. Friday night rolls around and I decided I didn’t want to spend my birthday in a ballroom full of people and then get my heart broken if I didn't win something. I came back to Jersey City and worked in the tasting room that night. A bunch of friends and family came up to celebrate my birthday. I put my phone on the charger and an hour later it caught my eye that my screen was going off so I decided to check it out. Sure enough we won the bronze medal in the GF category and that year was the biggest entry to that point in the category. That was the biggest break but last year we won the bronze and the gold at the Best of Craft Beer Awards.
TapRm: So much of the founding story of Departed Soles revolves around this dream two friends had and one keeping it alive in memory of the other. The brewery itself and making a living off of it was once a dream and now it’s a reality. How do you and the brewery continue to honor Chris’ memory now that you’ve created this reality?
BK: We always joked at the beginning that if the GF aspect of the brewery didn’t work, we’d have to make the business decision to cut it. I think it’s really funny that over the last three of four months, it’s really been the opposite. The GF aspect of the business is growing really quickly and we’re getting recognized finally for the fact that the beer is really good. We have bars and restaurants putting GF beers on draft and not even putting that it’s GF on the menu. They’re just putting that it’s an IPA or a Stout and then if someone asks they point out that it is GF. The fact that we’re still brewing these things is huge to me.
We’re in the process of rebranding all of our GF cans. It’s inspiring me to work hard and do what I’m doing but I’m not trying to profit off of sadness. We’re going to acknowledge (on the cans) why we started. Moving forward we should start seeing the new GF cans roll out that say our story at the top. I think that’s a great way to honor Chris and a great way to build a relationship between our brand and people. I want you to know why we’re doing GF beer and that our heads and our hearts are in the right place while we’re doing it.
TapRm: Craft brewers, of course, have more freedom of expression than the big corporations that the masses may be familiar with. You guys seem to take that to another level naming your brews with titles like New Jersey Ninja, Rick Rolled Oat Coffee Stout, Playoff Beered, Ghost of Pumpkins past and so many more. What’s the name you’ve had the most fun with and the one that you’re most proud of either because of the story behind the brew or maybe even just the pun in the name?
BK: Four My Homie, also known as GoodbIPA (pronounced “good bye P-A”). When we first started scaling up these GF beers, they weren’t necessarily coming out the way they were tasting as home brews. We had to evolve them as they hit the market place and figure out why. On the fourth try, I finally got GoodbIPA to taste the way it was supposed to, the way it was as a home brew when it won third place at Homebrew Alley out of 777 entries. To differentiate it we added the "Four My Homie" moniker to it - which captured why we’re brewing what we’re brewing so that one has a special place in my heart.
TapRm: When did your partnership with TapRm begin and what are your first offerings on the site?
BK: We reached out to TapRm two months ago because we got to the point where a bunch of bars and restaurants in NYC wanted our beer and we couldn’t get it to them. We were at the point where we had to increase our GF production and we didn’t want to just do that and then have beer sitting in our cooler and going bad - especially with so many of them being IPAs. In order to justify increasing the production, we had to increase our distribution. To us, as I’ve said, I think our story is so important to the brand that I wanted to work with people that let me tell the story, let me interact with the accounts, and let me help them. I really like the idea of working with startups - that way you grow together, work together, and succeed together.
Our initial offerings are GoodbIPA: Four My Homie and Dark Knight - both of them are sorghum based GF beers. Dark Knight is a 5% Session Black IPA that's dank and resinous - definitely a little more bitter. GoodbIPA is more floral and citrusy. At 6% it's more West Coast IPA. They’re the two GF beers that got us started commercially, but we'll be rotating in a bunch of others!
TapRm: Is there anything you can identify as the calling card of New Jersey craft brewers?
BK: At the end of the day if you look around New Jersey, the vast majority of the brewers are friends. We don’t need a festival to get together. We’re all just buddies. Everyone is brewing whatever makes them happy. A lot of us work together and help each other out in binds. We’re all in it for the common goal of putting great beer out and encouraging people to drink local. We don’t see each other as competitors, we see each other as friends. New Jersey as a whole has an us versus them mentality. We brewers embody that with our product selection and the way we're trying to take on big beer, while boosting up our towns, each other, and our state.
TapRm: What are your long term goals for Departed Soles?
BK: Short and long term, my goal is always to elevate the brand. Improve my skills, be a better brewer, be a better boss, be a better friend - to make our supporters and customers happy and prove our detractors wrong. The beer is already great and sells well! In the long term, let's just keep that upward trajectory going - you can always improve and learn - brew more, sell more!