Josh Matthews

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Josh Matthews says his first legal beer was a Yuengling. He started drinking the simple stuff, but quickly developed a taste for the more refined. Shortly after he turned 21, Matthews remembers taking his first sip of a HopDevil IPA by Victory Brewing Company. That hooked him.

“I drank Natty Light in college. This was something different,” he says. “I wanted to only drink good beer from that point on.”

Now 23 years old, he’s helping represent a new generation of American brewers—a younger, barely legal set that was raised during the rise of American craft beer. While these twentysomethings might still get carded at the bar, they’re helping to redefine the beer styles previous generations made popular.

There’s probably no one better than Matthews to represent this generation. At 22, he was the youngest person in Maryland to apply for a commercial brewing license. And when he opens Bulk Head Brewing Company in Columbia, Md. this fall, he’ll be one of the youngest owners of a brewery in the United States.

In just three short years, he’s gone from an obsessive homebrewer to the co-owner of a three-barrel brewery. Like all storybook start-ups, it began in his parents’ place. Instead of the basement or garage, Bulk Head started on the back porch, and for good reason: the screened-in deck had drainage beneath it.

It was during his final years of college that Matthews decided he wanted to open a brewery. He was living at home and studying environmental health at Towson University, but all the while, he was homebrewing and sharing beer with friends.

“I loved that people wanted to drink my beer, which is why I decided to go into wholesaling,” he says. His uncle cut him a check for $3,000 so he could expand his brewery to a commercial scale, and he sold kegs of beer to bars in Columbia and Clarksville, Md.

“All the beer I made was from the porch. In the first year, I was making more of a metaphorical profit than anything real,” he says.

Then came his first, real challenge: rezoning his parent’s house from a residential property to a home business. “My parents don’t even drink beer. At first they were nervous, but they obviously supported me through this.”

Matthews says there are more challenges ahead. He’s standing in the middle of an empty 7,200-square-foot office space that once housed an interior design firm. With blueprints in hand, he points out where the tasting room and bar will go with capacity for 160 people. And in the back warehouse, there’s enough room for a delivery bay, a barrel room, and a canning line.

On paper, Matthews’ plan is ambitious. Most of the construction will take place this month, and he hopes to be making his first beer soon after.

“I’m looking to differentiate myself here,” he says. “I have a different approach to beer… The great thing is that beer styles are always changing, and with younger people coming out, they can add to it.”

There are five beers in Bulk Head’s rotation, and many of the styles reflect Matthews’ upbringing as a beach bum, surfer, and Virginia Beach native. He calls them “tropicalesque beers,” meaning they’re fruit-forward and feature ingredients like organic honey and peaches, guava jam, charred pineapple, and citrus hop varieties, like Amarillo and Citra.

Most of the commercial expansion now underway would not have been possible without Matthews’ business partner, Jonathan Staples. Matthews calls him the “MacGyver of the beer industry.” His wife, Hilda Staples, has a prominent foothold in the restaurant industry as a partner at Graffiato, Family Meal, Lunchbox, Range, and Volt. Jonathan Staples, on the other hand, has years of experience helping to launch breweries and distilleries. Most recently, he partnered to start Penn Druid Brewing in Sperryville, Va. and the James River Distillery in Richmond.

“Jonathan is my saving grace,” Matthews says. Staples invested in Bulk Head earlier this year and helped move it to a commercial space. “For him to come here and put his trust in me, it’s definitely a risk, but I don’t think age has anything to do with it.”

Matthews is not the only young brewer in town. Two years ago, Jake Endres opened Crooked Run Brewing at the age of 25. He calls his Leesburg, Va. brewery a “nanobrewery” because the space is only 600 square feet. It’s located in a rustic mill, and the beers are sold in the tasting room only. At any given time there are about four beers on tap, which come from a 1.5-barrel brewing operation. The biggest challenge is keeping up with demand for his small supply.

“There was a budget, so I had to go nano size,” Endres says. “We’re brewing 45 gallons at a time, and whether you’re making five gallons of beer or 900 gallons, it all takes the same amount of time.”

The work is blood, sweat, and tears… literally. When Endres first started, a pressurized keg popped, sending a chunk of the metal keg close to his head and into a wall. Then there was the time he got his finger caught in the grain mill, or the time the brewery flooded with beer. Really, Endres says the main challenge he faces as a young brewer is simply to persevere.

“This is the definition of bootstrapping, because we didn’t have the money. We had to build most of the brewery on our own,” he says.

Endres’ route to owning a brewery is different than Matthews’. He wrote a business plan and posted a campaign on Kickstarter in February 2013. Within a month, he had about $11,000 to open Crooked Run. He hired Lee Rogan (who was 26 at the time) paying him $10 per hour as a once-a-week assistant brewer. Eventually though, Rogan became a partner.

“We’ve pretty much been undercapitalized since day one. The weekend that we first opened, we had to open, or else we would have gone bankrupt,” Endres says. “Luckily, the beer caught on.”

Their flagship beer, Red Kolsch, is a cross between an Irish red ale and a German Kölsch. It’s a light beer with caramel and chocolate malt flavors and served through a nitrogen tap. “It’s kind of like drinking red velvet,” Endres says.

The plan now is to expand production on the Red Kolsch and eventually distribute it. They recently contracted with Beltway Brewing Company in Sterling, Va. to brew the beer at a higher volume, and there’s an expansion plan in place to eventually move out of the mill and into a ten-barrel brewery.

“At this point, I think our age is our benefit,” Endres says. “People want to help us, and they have gone out of their way to do it. Having some youth in the business is good too. We’re embracing the American brewing tradition, but putting our touch on it with new techniques.”

CORRECTION: The initial version of this story erroneously stated that Jake Endres brews five gallons at a time at Crooked Run Brewing. He brews 45 gallons at a time.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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