You may remember Grail Point Beer Co. from the Monty Python-inspired video that accompanied their Kickstarter last year, but in the months since, the fledgling beer company has made progress toward getting into the market. Their Penitent Pale Ale is currently available in Maryland and DC, and this seemed like a good time to check in with them to see how things are going. We had the chance to chat with Jeff Kusterbeck, chief operating officer, about the beer company's plans, beers, inspirations, and thoughts on the local beer scene. What follows below is a lightly edited transcript. Thanks to Jeff for his time and be on the lookout for Grail Point.
What's the current status of Grail Point? You're contract brewing at DuClaw? (Or is there some other arrangement?) Is this just a stopgap until you can find/lease a production facility, or is this the long term business plan?
We're currently partner brewing out of DuClaw's shop. Keith [Wickstrom, Grail Point’s brewmaster] is always in control of the recipe and always managing the brew days, but the DuClaw team is a huge help. It has given us a chance to work with and learn from a full scale production team and operate on equ ipment much bigger and more advanced than we would have been able to afford as a fledgling operation. With that said, we've always planned to build out and move onto our own brewhouse once we have the resources. It will be a whole new hill to climb when we do, but we're excited about working towards having our own site and community.
Do you have some sense of where you'd like to open a production facility?
Grail Point is a Maryland brewery, and I think we'll be staying that way. The whole GPB team lives in Maryland, spread out across Frederick, Baltimore, and MoCo, and we want to become a real member of the community. The specific spot will be a big conversation for us, and it's going to depend a lot on where things stand when we're ready to move, both in terms of what we can swing as a business and where the state's alcohol laws stand.
Can you talk about your quest (no pun intended) to secure capital? You had a Kickstarter at one point, how did that fare? Would you say access to capital is the biggest challenge for a start-up brewery?
We ran a successful Kickstarter that wrapped up a little over a year ago that really got things moving for us. It was a really exhausting process, but it was extremely gratifying at the end. We've got a lot of really wonderful supporters out there that have been crucial to getting us to where we are.
Getting enough capital has definitely been our biggest hurdle, with navigating various bureaucratic and legal hurdles a strong second. Raising enough money to start operations has added years to our development time, and it has required us to be very adaptive in how we approach things. Finding a wealthy investor or waiting however long to try to become wealthy enough ourselves might have smoothed the process, but it wasn't really a feasible business plan for us. This way we can prove ourselves strictly on the strength of our product and earn our place in the industry.
Can you identify a "philosophy" for your brewery/beers?
Per Keith Wickstrom, brewmaster: I believe our beer should be memorable and delicious, always. It doesn't matter whether it's [a Russian imperial stout] or a lager, never skimp on flavor. And beer is just as much a science as it is an art. It's not as simple as mixing ingredients and hoping for the best. Knowing how those ingredients interact on a molecular and sensory level is what truly makes great beer.
Can you tell us about your current beer lineup? Are you doing a lineup of flagships/seasonals/rarities, just flagships for now? Just one-offs?
This year is going to be a rollout of our five core beers including the pale ale that's already on the market. Keith has seasonal and limited releases planned out, and we've started to talk to some other breweries about collaborations, but for now we're sticking with our flagships. Our core line-up includes:
- Penitent Pale Ale: an American-style pale that's easy drinking but big on flavor
- Priory de Saison: a crisp, spicy Belgian beer with a potent Mosaic dry hop aroma
- Antioch Amber: a Red IPA that balances strong hop character with sweet malt backing
- Iconoclast IPA: a juicy modern IPA loaded with tropical and citrus flavor
- Siegework Stout: Our big complex dark ale with the unique taste and texture of a Belgian ale
So, you guys really liked Monty Python and the Holy Grail and decided to really make a go of it or...?
It definitely played a role, but we're casting a wider net than that for our inspiration. Grail Point's lore covers the actual history of the era, folklore and myths, movies about silly knights that use coconuts, wild conspiracies about the Knights Templar, movies about violent archaeologists, fantasy roleplaying game monsters, religious stories, and any absurd puns we happen to think up. It's all fair game and on brand if it entertains us.
The area is getting pretty crowded. Why open another brewery in the DMV specifically?
It's something we keep in mind, but it isn't really one of our top concerns starting out. When you see how many breweries there are in smaller markets like Asheville, or Vermont, or Atlanta, that thrive and grow and create some very cool products, the DMV region doesn't seem dauntingly crowded. It's going to be an uphill battle to make it onto taps and shelves, but we have some very delicious beers to offer, and we aren't afraid to put the work in to succeed.
Given the DMV's competition, what makes Grail Point stand out?
We're a small operation, without the funding or resume to create a lot of buzz, so we have to be sure we're making a really distinct and memorable product. Every beer we put out is going to be either a top tier version of a classic style, or something delicious and unique even in an industry that's constantly innovating. We can't settle for simply "good" or we'll get lost in the noise, we have to be great every time. That extends to our attitude and look, too. We want to have fun with our brands, and keep our look and style interesting and eye catching.
Your team is fairly young from what I've read. What helped you to get on the path to becoming brewers so early?
We all sort of grew up with the explosion of the craft beer market in the area. We all saw the almost overnight change from parties full of cheap light American lagers to everyone bringing six packs of DC Brau or Bell’s or [Oskar Blues] Dale’s. I think individually and as a group we became kind of fanatical about finding the best and newest brewers and styles. We decided that if we were going to devote this much time to beer, it may as well be professionally. We were lucky enough to find an amazing undiscovered brewing talent in Keith through some family friends, and fortunate enough to have a range of important skills between us to make a go of it.
What are some aspects of the local beer scene that you think are done really well? Conversely, where does our beer scene struggle and need to improve?
I think the DMV does a great job throwing small community events and big festivals like Snallygaster and SAVOR [ed. note: SAVOR is run by the Brewers Association] that showcase brewing innovation and give the beer lovers a good time. I think the area's craft beer bars could also compete with any spot in the country in terms of selection, passion, and the care they put into the craft.
As far as issues, there's the age old struggle with hoppy beers. There's always complaints from beer nerds and bar managers about too many Triple IPAs and whatnot, but then it's what sells first and fastest. In DC particularly, we've got a long way to go with interacting with the local community. It's beer gardens and breweries set up in low-income neighborhoods with mostly minority residents, and pulling in big groups of drunk, young, well-off, mostly white people. It's alienating, and the complaints and fights with the community aren't good for anyone. There's no easy solution, but it's something we all need to be aware of and work to improve.
What are some breweries and beers you really admire and/or take inspiration from, locally or otherwise?
God, if I'm not careful this could be a crazy long list. I think in the region, 3 Stars and Denizens are both strong inspirations for us. They're making a strong line of core beers and churning out some top of the line experimentals, while maintaining a strong connection to their community and throwing some very cool events.
Bluejacket is the ultimate brewer’s brewery. A few of us visited Michigan a while back, and in close proximity Brewery Vivant, Founders, and Bell’s all had absolutely absurd brewhouses and incredible beer lineups we can only aspire to. And Maine Beer Co. is extremely admirable for its commitment to a simple, distinct style and strong portfolio.
And a few beers we love, off the top of my head: Cigar City Jai Alai, 3 Stars Two Headed Unicorn, Creature Comforts Tropicalia, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Troegs Sour Monkey, North Coast Old Rasputin, Half Acre Daisy Cutter, and Flying Dog Gonzo Porter.
Thanks to Jeff for his time and insight. We look forward to hearing more from Grail Point down the line!