Quality Conversation with Marty Scott of Revolution Brewing

AVONDALE, CHICAGO

Marty Scott Deals a Lesson in Quality,
with Revolution Brewing

INTERVIEWED DECEMBER 3, 2015
AT revolution kedzie – chicago

Everyone has their go-to beer when nothing on that tap list really sticks out. For us, that's usually a beer from Revolution Brewing. Whether it's the always solid Eugene Porter, or the ultra consistent and tasty Anti-Hero IPA, it's a safe bet we're going to get something we like, every time. And if we want something outside the ordinary, Revolution has us covered there too. Their barrel-aged and small batch brews are on-par with anything else brewing in Chicago. In short, Revolution has been a long-time THR favorite.

The consistent, reliable quality we've come to count on at Rev is no coincidence. Marty Scott, Quality and Innovation Lead, is one of the longest tenured employees at Revolution's Kedzie facility — one of the state's largest, and still rapidly growing, breweries. Quality control and experimentation at a brewery approaching six-figure barrel output is no small feat, as we found out during our conversation with Marty at the cavernous Kedzie brewery.

Cheers Marty, and thanks for having us. How long have you been at this gig?

I started at the brewpub as a volunteer two months after it opened. I went fulltime as soon as we opened up over here at Kedzie. There were just three of us then. The brewmaster, Jim Cebak, our senior brewer Matty Kemp — who's also on the Little Crazy cans — and myself.

This is a huge space for just three people, especially considering how many people we see buzzing around today.

When we started in April 2012, we were doing about 1000 barrels per month. For comparison, we did 8000 barrels in the first eight months here, between the three of us. Then we had two guys join us on the packaging side to help us on the bottling line. We did 24,000 barrels our second year, our first full calendar year... so about 2000 barrels a month. The next year we did just over 50,000 barrels, about 4000 barrels a month. This year, we're going to hit about 75,000 barrels. Next year we're hoping to do between 100-120 thousand.

That must have been quite the jump going from the brewpub to here.

We did just south of 2500 barrels a year when the brewpub was at its busiest. We were producing all this beer without Kedzie going so we had three full time brewers and an apprentice over there to get that capacity out. Now there's just two full time brewers there.

“Quality” is the first part of my title. Innovation can’t outrun quality.

What does your day look like as the "quality and innovation guy?"

Well, yesterday we brewed our first sour beer as a company over at the brewpub. We had a couple of barrels that we'd set aside and inoculated in the past to make sours. We haven't released any of those yet. But yesterday we mashed in with the intent of making a full 15 barrel batch of sour beer. So that's going to go into French Oak Rioja barrels from Spain and then we're going to do a little bit of experimentation. It's not going to be one beer, it's going to be four beers across eight different wine barrels. We're going to make essentially four different beers out of one beer, rather than doing one beer at a time.

So you're using the brewpub as kind of a test facility?

I wouldn't necessarily call it that. They're a small batch facility. They used to be doing 2500 barrels at max capacity. Now they're doing 12-15 hundred. They're still gonna produce maybe 50-60% of the styles we do annually. We're going to be putting out the volume.

Are sours a personal interest of yours or is it the market driving that?

Well if it wasn't marketable we couldn't do it. We're a business first and as much as I love sours, we've got to sell the beer and we all have to eat. The timing was just right here. We had all these reasons why we shouldn't do it because we were doing all this other stuff, but now that we're no longer as grossly undermanned as we have been, it was time.

What's something that you've made in the past that you're really proud of?

"Quality" is the first part of my title. Innovation can't outrun quality. So we run a tasting panel twice a week, and getting more employees engaged actively with the quality program. That's the heart and soul of my job, that comes first. If everything else is good, then it's time to work on radlers, running the barrel program, experimenting with new products. I've been making radlers just because I love the Steigl Grapefruit Radler. If I'm hung over, it's a great first beer, last beer type thing. What's cool about Radlers is that if it takes me 14 days to make 300 barrels of beer X, if you turn beer X into Radler X, it takes 15 days for 600 barrels because it only takes you a day to make the soda component in the 50% mix. So it's a lower ABV thing and you can double your output just by adding one tank day. Also you get into a different market.

Something small breweries always struggle with is consistency between batches. That has to be a huge focus for you.

Absolutely. Defining "quality" is something that we're just starting to get into. What is quality when you're packaging one batch at a time... and it's a different thing entirely when you have 15-20 batches in every single package. To me, what's most important is that it's consistently high quality. Whether the balance is the exact same batch to batch, we'd be kidding ourselves if we thought that was the case. But it's still something to strive for. We want to make sure we're consistently eliminating oxygen in our packaging. We want to make sure our distributors are doing everything they can to hold the bar accountable for their purchasing habits. If you can't sell ten cases of beer, don't order ten cases of beer. I can't stand it when I got to a local place and find an Anti-Hero on the shelf, and it's sitting out warm and 140 days old. Someone comes in, tastes that beer, and says "Oh, it tastes like shit. Revolution is growing too fast! I'm done with them." So many things can go wrong with these beers. The more we put into it here, the more can go wrong with it.

It's in your interest for distributors to get your stuff out as soon as possible. How do you manage that?

It's a give and take. Really, I can't speak authoritatively on it. That would be something for our beer traffic controller or our director of sales. But we sold 50,000 barrels last year, 45,000 barrels of it to Chicago-proper. So we can't even fill our own pipeline. The demand is so much higher than our supply. Look at 3 Floyds. You don't see stale beers sitting out there. It's because the beer just doesn't have the chance to sit around. That's not true of every account and every kind of beer.

The other thing I want to do is tell people to check the date on every one of our packages. Check the date every time. If it's Eugene, or Wit, or something that doesn't have a whole lot of hops that fall off due to age, you're probably ok. But when it comes to Fist City or Anti-Hero, check the date and hold the market accountable for it. When you buy something, you're voting with that dollar. None of this beer is worth anything until someone exchanges money for the product.

Is there one aspect of quality control that really sticks out more than others for you?

I think quality is really a concert of initial quality, subtracting every single slight that's happened to that beer. From the harvesting of the malt, to the hops, all the way to packaging, until you open the can or the bartender pulls that fist tap handle. Time, temperature, light, oxygen. I can't really think of one thing that defines quality. It's an aggregate of what's happened to that product since it was born.

What's your background pre-Revolution?

I was in the Air Force out of high school–I studied avionics. After I got out, I wanted to do something totally disparate from that because I hated it. So, I went to school to study psychology, where I went on to work for a non-profit for a few years after. 

Well, you might not have studied it formally, but you clearly have a sense of chemistry here...

Yea, I got a base for it from homebrewing and doing some independent studies. But I always thought it was painfully dry. Then I did a two-week program at Seibel–same program our owner and our Brewmaster did. Then, really you just learn the rest as you go, as it pertains to the brewery you're working in.

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As we walk into the new portion of the brewery here, tell us what's changed back here.

We can start in the cellar. Here we've, I believe, the largest fermenters in Illinois. They're 800-barrel fermenters, and we've got four of them; three are designated as fermenters, one as a brite tank. And we've got room for the next four all set to go here–they should be arriving in April [2016], from Germany, provided the Great Lakes aren't still frozen then. And all four of the new ones will be fermenters, too–so, seven total. These will be fed from Brewhouse #2, which isn't up and running, yet. And all of where we're standing right now was parking lot just a few months ago.

This is certainly one of the largest systems we've seen. While obviously much larger, how does this compare to the brewpub?

In its busiest year there [Milwaukee Ave.], we did about 2,500 barrels. In the whole year. We're doing what used to take us a year, in about two weeks.

Wow. That is incredibly impressive, in a little over five years. For someone who's been here since the beginning, you must be proud of the progress.

Yea–well, I'm lucky more than anything. Our cast of leaders is unparalleled as far as I'm concerned. Josh Deth is the smartest guy in any room that he's in. And our Brewmaster, Jim Cibak, has 20 years of experience; he was a head brewer at 3 Floyds, he brewed with Matt Brynildson [Firestone Walker] over at Goose Island, and then worked with Matt again out at Firestone. He's not the lost-in-the-cool kinda brew guy. Jim loves an English Mild more than a hog loves shit–ya know, very unsexy traditional English styles. That's his bread and butter. But I'll tell ya what, he makes a double IPA as good as anyone I know.

And that's the guy behind one of the fastest growing breweries...maybe in history. All the while not looking for recognition.

I think that's one of the attitudes that seems to set Revolution apart–some humility for a brewery that's grown so fast in just a handful of years. That, and balance. I mean, you see it on the beer menu each time you visit here.

Yea, balance is the buzzword. If on the list of importance, 'quality' is the first five, then 'balance' is number six. Jim has never made an unbalanced beer, whether it's a 100-IBU IPA or a 10-IBU Wit. He gets balance. And he understands that, if you're gonna have a hop bomb, you need to have the right platform for that hop bomb. The same is true for any style, just look at the BJCP guidelines–it tells you what's too sweet, what's too bitter, what's too dry. We try to color within those lines, while having as much fun apart from that as possible.

I think quality is really a concert of initial quality, subtracting every single slight that’s happened to that beer.

There's a lot of shiny new equipment, some with the shrink-wrap still on it. Considering your humble home-brew days, how do you stay grounded at this scale–and not just come in to all of this hyper-technical equipment and just think, 'holy shit, this is overwhelming...'?

I think you have a respect for what's at stake. We've had our moments where ya sorta say... "shit." But you just have to keep your composure. It's sometimes a lot of put your head down and just work. And sometimes, ya just ask for help. And if your boss doesn't know, and your boss's boss doesn't know, then you phone up another experienced brewer who's gone through growth like this at some point in their career. 

I imagine you've needed to look that way with some of this new-to-you equipment. 

A lot of it too, is just taking a Buddhist approach to it, knowing that shit is sometimes just gonna go wrong. No amount of worrying is going to keep something from going wrong at some point. You can have plans in place for when it does–but when you've gotta tell your sales side that "Hey, our centrifuge just went down, and it's gonna be down for another week and a half...we can't produce any of this beer..." These things are gonna happen, and you just have to accept that. The worrying isn't going to make you any more efficient. It happens.

Alright, apologies if you've gotten this question a thousand times, but what'd you think of the movie, Drinking Buddies? We just have to ask.

It was a really cool experience. Everyone was like, "You got to meet Olivia Wilde!" Yea, I did–and I was in a scene with her, too. Haha, I had to be told who Olivia Wilde was. But when I found out Ron Livingston was gonna be in the brewery, I was like, "Yea, dude! Band of Brothers, Office Space!" I was geeked out, I was nervous to meet him. 

But yea, it was great for us as a brewery. It was great for the City of Chicago. It was a fantastic and interesting and fun thing that doesn't happen to everyone all the time. Ya know, the only reason we even have branded pint glasses is because of that movie, too. We didn't have glasses with our logo on them, but they wanted 'em. And Joe Swanberg, the writer/director, is one of the classiest guys I've ever met. When I see he's in the taproom, if I can drop what I'm doing to go shake his hand and welcome him back, I don't hesitate to. 

Chicago is part of our identity. Yea, we could probably market ‘Chicago’ to California for example. But, why?

Revolution is the largest independent brewer in Illinois–and second largest brewery overall in Chicago. We've seen the recent trend of breweries getting snatched up by the bigger guys. In order to expand the Revolution footprint, do you think there's a possibility of looking in that direction?

I guess there's a possibility in everything. I haven't heard any specifics by way of that. I think Josh [Deth] doesn't want to sell. We've gotten to this point being totally independent. The 300k barrel mark is likely as big as we'd want to get. We want to be a regional brewery. And from my job's perspective, that's great–I can't guarantee the same quality for our beer in South Florida, nor can you be the hometown brewer in South Florida. But we can here in the Midwest, and that fits our ethos.

We don't need anyone's help getting to 300k barrels. We'll probably all need therapists and a lot of ibuprofen. But, I certainly hope we stay independent.

With the recent expansion, is it a conscious effort to now push further into the Midwest? You already mentioned that 90% of your beer is staying in Chicago...

Yea, that's just Chicago proper–getting that 90%. Greater Chicagoland takes up another 5%. And the other remaining 5% of that, last year, went to the rest of Illinois and Ohio, where we're distributed. But yes, it's definitely on our radar to expand in the Midwest, probably over the next ten years.

Chicago is part of our identity. Yea, we could probably market 'Chicago' to California for example. But, why?

When you're at home, what are you drinking that's not Revolution?

Firestone Walker Pivo Pils. Firestone Walker Velvet Merkin. Firestone Walker DBA. Full disclosure, my girlfriend works for Firestone Walker, hah. But I am always happy to have that stuff in my fridge. But yea, quality beer. Uhh, Half Acre. Piece, whenever I can get over there and get a growler filled–I love me some Top Heavy Hefeweizen. You know, Chicago has some great beer to offer. And if you come across anyone here who happens to be producing beer for more than a month or two, chances are they're making some pretty awesome beer. 

And a bar in town you're going for a pint?

Small Bar! On Albany! Love that place.

Well, we like that we know we can get Revolution nearly anywhere in Chicago. You see those fist tap handles all over. It's nice to know.

Well, it's nice to know that it's nice to know!

You can get a can of Anti-Hero at just about any bar in town. 

Check the dates. Hold them accountable. If it's stale, old, or it doesn't perform exactly how you want it to, then don't buy it there. Tell 'em you want to switch to something fresh. That drives quality. We as beer drinkers care about quality. It's why we're not gonna pay $2 for a can of PBR every single day. Hey, there's nothing wrong with a can of PBR–when ya need it, ya need it, brother, no one's judging! But when it comes to enjoying the beer, do everything you can to influence the market. 

Check the dates. Care about what you spend the money on, because you're voting with that dollar. If you demand quality out of these craft products, and you don't want un-fresh Fist City, then Joe Schmo Liquor Store Owner is gonna be motivated to do a little more disciplined inventory management. 

You buy 'craft' to have a quality product, and we are trying to produce that.

 

–THR–

 
 
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Photography by Robert Battista

A huge thank you to Marty for walking us through the huge Kedzie brewery and even opening up their beer cellar to us for some post interview drinks. Look for Revolution Brewing's cans and bombers across the city, or better yet, stop into the brewpub or the Kedzie brewery to drink from the source.