Brewer Spotlight - Steve of Bullfrog Brewery
TapRm: When was Bullfrog Brewery founded and where do you hail from?
Steven Koch (SK): I’m a part of the area. From age two on up, I lived outside of Williamsport. Williamsport was always the big city for me - it’s the county seat of Lycoming which is the largest county in Pennsylvania. We opened in 1996 and we were the only brewery within a 100 mile radius. Now, there’s got to be close to 100 breweries in that same radius. It’s like that everywhere. We’re past the pre-prohibition numbers of breweries where every town everywhere has its own brewery. It’s neat to see the resurgence of the American Ale and how it has come back from being pushed to extinction.
When we opened in the middle of August 1996, it was during the Little League World Series in town here that’s held every year. I remember we flew a banner over a LLWS game where there’s 40,000 people announcing that we were here and to come see us. Now you can’t get anywhere near a stadium with an airplane. It was pretty cool how all that went down.
TapRm: Williamsport is known for its art scene, it’s food culture, and probably by many as the home of Little League baseball but how would you characterize the craft beer scene in Northcentral Pennsylvania?
SK: It used to be pretty barren. I had hitchhiked across the country in 1993. I bought a nice backpack and was going to hit the road. One of my buddies said, I’ll go with you and we “thumbed it” across the US. We got to the Seattle area and I ended up finishing up college out there at Evergreen State (in Olympia). Overall, I spent about 2.5 years out that way and really enjoyed the robust beer scene in the Northwest. Instead of sticking around and adding to it out there, I thought there was value in bringing that back home - so that’s what I attempted to do and miraculously pulled off.
Williamsport is a fairly friendly scene with everyone helping each other out. As more places open and competition becomes greater, it’s natural that it will tighten up and I’ve seen that happen in the craft beer industry overall.
TapRm: Can you talk about, not just the beer community in Williamsport, but the small business community there and how the community feeds off each other? How do you feature some local Williamsport businesses in your beers?
SK: We have great relationships with local growers and farmers. We get 26 steer per year for our beef program from Misty Mountain Farm here in Trout Run, PA just 15 minutes from here. We work with another farm for local hogs. We have locally grown mushrooms. We work with a local greenhouse that provides us greens year round, as well. We do whatever we can do to complete those smaller circles and to keep the community more vibrant, keep the money here for the people in the community, and support one another.
Carl at Alabaster Coffee Roaster & Tea Company down the street, opened up six or seven years ago and we’ve exclusively used his coffee. He has a roaster and he’ll come in, we’ll sit down and try the beer in question, and he’ll guide us to the right bean and the right roast. His guy roasts it up and walks it down the street to us a couple blocks. We have a coffee stout going right now that should be ready for tap any day.
TapRm: The Bullfrog name has manifested itself in a couple of ways as it relates to your company including your brew pub being known as “The Frog” and your banquet Hall dubbed Jeremiah’s (the world’s most famous bullfrog). How did the Bullfrog moniker come to be the namesake of the brewery?
SK: I’ve threatened a thousand times to come up with a more interesting story but never have. My parents, myself, and Charlie Schnable (the original brewer at Bullfrog) were on our way to Stoudts Brewery in Adamstown, PA to see another example of a Pennsylvania brewery and someone who had been open for a while to have a couple of pints and further discuss our direction. On the ride we had been trying to come up with names and Charlie threw out Bullfrog as a possibility. That’s the one that ended up sticking. We liked the two “B” words for some reason (Bullfrog Brewery) and bullfrogs are certainly indigenous. I liked what they stood for and they had a light, playful, and friendly kind of feel that worked for a pub.
TapRm: Three of your brews are featured on TapRm in Bullfrog’s initial offering on the site. Those are Le Roar Grrrz Black Raspberry, Le Roar Grrrz Kriek and Le Roar Grrrz Cocoa Framboise. Can you explain what the Le Roar Grrrz collection is?
SK: We started playing around with wild yeast and sour beers close to 15 years ago. It was very early ahead of the trend and it gave us a jumpstart. It was the kind of beer that I wanted to drink. The beer that I loved from Belgium. Nobody was making it. Belgians were holding out on how to make it. There was a lot of, I think purposely, false paths so they could keep the thing they have. We kept experimenting until we found way to achieve certain flavors. There’s so many different aspects to change when making a beer, so many little tweaks you can make. We started putting stuff in barrels and we started blending those barrels. We started getting some very strong barrels and keeping those and refilling those, keeping the culture in them alive. We weren't handcuffed by the way things were done in Belgium so we were able to innovate a bit and come up with our own way to approach these flavors. It’s been a lot of work and a lot of fun and it’s been rewarding. The whole Grrrz series is at least a three year process from when the beer is first brewed to when we sell it. What we’re doing now is making it an even longer process. Sometimes we’re putting it on a fruit for close to a year then we’ll put it on fruit again for just a month because the first fruiting gives it all the color. We’re experimenting to see what the best product is that we can put out.
TapRm: What excites you most about working with TapRm and the potential to break into New York State - or more specifically New York City?
SK: We haven’t had our beer in New York before. It makes perfect sense to bleed over into the market -it’s certainly a large populous. We’re a higher end product and we don’t have a whole lot of it. That should be a good fit, I think. We’re not for everybody. You’re either really passionate about beer and really care what you imbibe or it’s more of a celebratory thing. The people that find us and drink us, really get into it and really love and appreciate what we do.
TapRm: What are you first impressions of the TapRm platform and the idea of selling craft beer online?
SK: I like breaking molds. I like innovative thinking and that’s what attracted me to the TapRm platform. There’s a lot of things about the current distribution system that are antiquated and broken and don’t address the things they should. I loved the idea of forming a relationship and working together because we wanted to rather than because I sign a paper and we have to. I feel like it’s a model that will allow TapRm to work on our behalf more than if I simply sign our brand away to someone with 180 other craft beers in their offerings. It feels to me like a smaller interaction like we try to keep within our own community. It’s a “feel-good” thing.