Interview with Fred Karm, Hoppin’ Frog Brewery

Everyone who ever got crushed by a B.O.R.I.S. will always remember that beer. In general we’ll never forget Hoppin’ Frog, as it was one of the first american breweries to be available in Switzerland. We met Fred for an in-depth interview in Copenhagen – or an imperialized one, which is rather fitting for him as you can read below.

Which of your beers would you have served beer hunter Michael Jackson?

B.O.R.I.S. The Crusher. B.O.R.I.S. stands for Bodacious Oatmeal Russian Imperial Stout. That is our leader and it got us distribution in Europe and seems to be universally accepted if not loved. So I would start with this Imperial Stout, despite me wanting him to try other beers and it’s usually the last one you want to have.
However, B.O.R.I.S. might lead to Michael trying a second one. I remember him going to the Great American Beer Festival and going to various booths and just have one beer. Michael came to the booth of one of my friends from Akron, it was like in 1994 or 1995, and had one beer. But then he had another. Which obviously excited my buddy: “Oh my god, Michael is getting a second beer of mine.” In the end Michael tried all four of his beers. My buddy was besides himself. And that year he won like three medals at the GABF.

You mentioned your friend, but when did you start brewing?

I started in 1996. I started Hoppin’ Frog in 2006.

Your beers have been available in Europe for quite a while. How did that happen?

In 2006 I’ve read my first article in the New Brewer on the Danish beer scene, so around the time I started Hoppin’ Frog. After the article, I was curious what this Danish beer scene all about. A couple of years later we started to sell our beers over here. I am very proud of us selling our beers over here since 2008; I’m telling everybody. There is no brewery in Ohio that I know of that sells their beer overseas.
There’s some difficulty in doing that: you have to have your beers extremely stable. And it’s a little bit of a pain. But it’s well worth it, because I always wanted to come overseas and drink my beers with people that might appreciate it. And now I am doing it all the time.

So that is what you do, you travel to other places and end up drinking your own beer?

Sometimes [laughs]. Of course I want to try others, but honestly, I want to try mine first to make sure that it travelled well. I don’t get a chance to get out every month: I do it once to twice a year, although I would like it to be more often. When I do get out, I feel obligated to test the beer to make sure it’s travelling well.
We make these flavorful beers and they have high alcohol and that helps them to keep stable, but we also have a really good process at the brewery to avoid oxygen pick-up; even hot side wort aeration, we are trying to reduce or eliminate that or oxygen pick-up after fermentation. It’s critical to eliminate that, especially with hoppy beers: hoppy aroma is the first thing that gets absorbed by any oxidation. So we are freaked out about that.

How exactly do you avoid oxidation?

With everything in our power and everything you can imagine. From having a really strong vacuum pump at our bottler and true double pre-evacuation. And it’s not just going through the motions: I’m an electrical engineer, so I always try to get the numbers in my favor. When I say a strong vacuum, I’m always trying to achieve the strongest vacuum. And when I say double pre-evacuation I’m always trying to achieve the maximum evacuation. So instead of using some CO2 pressure, we are using a lot of CO2 pressure. And instead of using some vacuum, we are using a hell of a vacuum. We are trying to maximize everything so our beers come out as good as they can. And I’m blown away at how good they travel. So I believe that we are doing as good as we can do.

One of your beers that I was actually very pleasantly surprised with was your Vanilla IPA, because on paper that sounds disgusting.

Yes, when it was first suggested to me, I said “Yukk! But we gotta try it!” We do something on Tuesdays called “Tower Tuesday”, when we get these long clear towers out, fill our beers in right from the tap and then we’ll infuse things like coffee or vanilla beans, hot peppers or sometimes even breakfast cereal – whatever we wanna do. And we are taking suggestions of our patrons for that. Someone suggested vanilla beans and IPA.
So while it sounded disgusting, we figured we need to try it, because we might learn something. And as soon as we did, we were all looking at each other with our mouths flapped open going “oh my god, this tastes really good – put more beans in there! What happens with a double IPA?” [laughs].
We started experimenting during our Tower Tuesdays for almost a whole year, before we realized that it was something we need to bring to market. I figured, people need to try this because it’s an insanely good beer and if I don’t do it, someone else will. I’ve got a feeling that in a year there will probably be a dozen to two dozen breweries making a vanilla IPA and it might be because of our Killa Vanilla.
I am very proud of this beer, despite the fact that it might cause some animosity, some purists might get kind of pissed – “what are you doing to my beer?” – thinking Hoppin’ Frog is going off the deep end. People in the tasting room absolutely love and cannot get enough of it. So I want the people who come visit us be able to get it and the other beers we bottle and sell. And when we did our tap takeover at Fermentoren last night, it was the first one that ran out.

Is this now one of your regular beers?

We just decided to bring it to market, because I wanted to do it before anybody else does it. But we didn’t plan to make it year round, but we’re going to make it as often as we can. What I told my brewers was that I want to work it in every six to eight weeks.

Is there a ratio you try to achieve when it comes to year round and special releases?

We knew that we needed a year round beer list; we’ve had anything between six and nine now. This year we have nine year round beers. Nine is about as many as we can stand to market all year. We bought some fermenters last year so have more now than we’ve ever had. That also leaves us a lot of room for creativity and collaborations, among those Killa Vanilla or Infusion A, which is a Peanut Butter Chocolate Coffee Porter. That one is groundbreaking too and it’s a ballsy thing to release it, as some purists might get mad. But I am not doing it for the purists, but for everyone.

You mentioned the purists for a second time. Elaborate.

I do think there are purists in the US and I actually think everywhere that think that beer should be, for example, without fruit. I don’t subscribe to that.
I used to be a purist when I first started brewing at home in 1994. But by the time I started brewing professionally in 1996, I kind of shed that. I realized that when I did a fruit beer, I liked it for what it was worth, maybe one glass and then I move on to another beer. Nevertheless, there’s value there.

Yes, there were a lot of discussion about that in connection to the proclaimed 500 year anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot, with people claiming that beer with fruits is not a beer.

Oh, it’s definitely beer. Beer can be great. And sometimes it can even be better than beer. One of my buddie’s sayings is “that’s better than beer”, meaning it’s better than “normal” beer. Like the Killa Vanilla IPA, which we cannot keep on tap. That is better than beer.

You started brewing professionally in 1996 and started Hoppin’ Frog in 2006. What happened in between?

I brewed for a local brewery in Ohio. We got to a point where we were doing three restaurants and in 2003 we took it to market and we had our beer contract brewed for us. That was very difficult. I had to make many concessions and I did not like that. We had to use different yeast, different malt in some applications. They would prefer to use one bag of Caramel 80 instead of four bags of Caramel 20. They’d say: But you get the same color. Sure, but the flavor will be completely different. The guy that owned the brewery said: Let’s just try it. So we did, and got the beer to market, but it wasn’t what I had in mind at all. And they ended up going down the tube.
In March 2003 a friend sent me an article he had found on the internet, in which the brewing system was posted for sale. I talked to my boss and asked him to sell it to me. He answered: “I’ll give it to you, if you make me 50% partner”. As I didn’t have any money, it took me about seven days of soul searching and I told him “no”. I didn’t want to be partners with anybody who would tell me which beers to make or to make a beer weaker or less expensive. I wanted to make the beers that my buddies love. The beers they keep in the fridge for years and really covet and save for a special occasion. I didn’t think I’d get fame and fortune for it, but I just wanted to make the brewery I’d be proud of. And as it turned out, we got a little bit of fame and fortune, which is pretty cool.

Why Hoppin’ Frog?

Well, I am Fred The Frog. That’s been my nickname my whole life. And I’ve gotten really good with hops over the years; we’ve won three medals at the Great American Beer Festival with my previous brewery with some very hoppy beers. So I’ve became known for being the hop expert in the area. Making our name Hop and Frog made perfect sense.

Do you still enter beers into competitions?



Because you can’t win unless you enter. I love to win, but then again I do it to keep fresh, to keep relevant and to keep my workers excited. They get psyched. And it keeps us focused. When we know that we’re going to enter a few beers into a competition, everybody works really hard, because it creates a lot of pride. Even if we don’t win.

In these events, do the breweries that enter get feedback?

When you enter these contests like the GABF, during the first round the judges are filling out small sheets of paper that you’ll get after the competition. And sometimes the feedback is consistent and sometimes totally inconsistent: I’ve had both too dark and too light about the same beer, or too bitter and not bitter enough. So the contests are just that.
The real contest for me are the rating sites. Ratebeer is the biggest one for me. They seem to be the most fair and most wide spread and have the most ratings. It is more like a ranking, because they take the ratings from tens of thousands – hell, millions of people nowadays – who have rated tens of thousands of our beers.
Ratebeer even says that we are one of the best 100 breweries in the world since we opened – so for nine years now. That puts us in the 0.5 percentile in the world. I couldn’t be prouder, man. I would have never thought in a million years that we would be at this spot.

Did you ever get a feedback, at a competition, on a site or in person that for some reason just stuck with you?

No. But what stuck with me is that feedback can be very inconsistent. And I’ve realized that contests, for example, are like playing craps. You’re just rolling the dice and you might get three judges that love your beer and you might win. And if you win, you can brag about it like crazy, because it is a large contest. But if you don’t win, it doesn’t make you feel bad, because you know it’s a crap-shoot.
Of course if you have a beer that’s not up to par, there’s no way you’re going to win. At the same time, so many great beers out there will never win anything. We were lucky enough to win a few things.
Now the contests are as such that you cannot enter nearly as many entries, because there are so many breweries in the industry, and so many beers that are entered. And the chances of winning are very, very small. I’m telling my brewers: Don’t expect to win anything, but expect to enter contests all the time. We always enter the GABF and the World Cup and we’re always looking forward to the Ratebeer ratings.
I always want to find the bad reviews to see what someone is not getting. Usually it’s a beer that hasn’t been stored properly. So what I have to take from many of these reviews is that many places don’t store their beer properly and as a consequence the beer doesn’t taste as good. You see that in comments like: tastes oxidized, tastes expired. That’s probably because the beer is.

I once had a Hoppin’ Frog beer that at the bottom had, say, a quarter of an inch of yeast. If I tweeted about it, who would have seen that?

My director Zachary and he would have forwarded it to me. I want to see all complaints. We might not have known back then, but we know now how to handle complaints. I really appreciate someone telling us if there’s something wrong with our beer. That is very helpful for us. It shows that people are passionate enough about our beer so they want to tell us. Those people are golden; you can’t pay for that. Now we don’t hear often that something is wrong, but when we do, we always talk about it with the brewers. Talk about new ways to do things.
Too much yeast in the bottle is always a problem with small breweries like us. We cannot afford a centrifuge like the Cigar Citys of the world: they can make a great beer without sediment and without filtering it. But there are alternatives: we are relying on isinglass or the better settling agents that are on the market. They will settle the yeast out proper without affecting the beer at all. We also just got new fermenters that were specifically designed for IPAs and to avoid sediment. The same manufacturer also made us a hop stirring device. It is a very large vessel, maybe three foot in diameter and a little over five foot high. It has a pump attached to it where you can control the frequency, so I can make it go very slow. We use it to mix our hops during the dry hopping. That ultimately has led to less yeast being suspended in the beer and less sediment. All of that now allows us to get almost all the yeast out of the beer, at least much more than we used to.
And of course we don’t want to filter our beers, because with an unfiltered beer the flavor is so intense, as it keeps even the most delicate elements in the flavor and aroma of the beer.

I guess my bottle was just one of the last of that batch to be filled.

Yeah, I guess one from the very end of the run. We always set the last case aside, because we are aware that can happen. With Double IPAs and things like that it can even be more than one case. Now when I get back, I’ll make us set aside the last three cases. We inspect them a week after bottling and if there’s too much yeast in there, we’ll keep them back.

You’ve been talking about all this new equipment, is it replacing and staying the same size or is this also growth.

We are growing. But not like some of our brethren in the industry who are buying big systems and are spending millions of dollars. We are growing organically and any money we make we are rolling back into the business if I see fit. I don’t need to take another bank loan; no one wants to do that. And the banks are a little less apt to loan you money then when I first started.
But more than that, I don’t feel like I have to. I don’t want to grow in leaps and bounds and then have the problems that I see many of my brewing brethren have. We are still brewing a really small amount of beer and I am really happy with that. I don’t try to make a million dollars or build a brewery that I can hand off to my children, because I don’t have any children. So I want to have as much fun as I can, rather than blow up my brewery to some massive, corporate brewing system. I wanna have fun. And be able to do things like coming here. That wouldn’t be possible if I’d build a big ass brewery.

As your brewery is now ten years old, I guess you’re going to have a celebration?

Yes. We are going to release a Barley Wine that’s patterned after an IPA. After barrel aging it for half a year in Bourbon barrels we are going to dryhop it just like an IPA. It should be one intense Barley Wine.

In ten years time you will be looking back on twenty years. What do you hope to see?

Isn’t it funny, I know our ten years is coming up and I’ve been brewing professionally for twenty years. So I’ve been looking back all year. It’s really amazing from where I came. And I really don’t have any high aspirations other than to keep doing what I’m doing, but doing it better. And I want to make a couple of new and cool beers, like the Infusion A or the Killa Vanilla. That’s the kind of stuff I want to do. So not more beer, but better beer.
This industry is great and I feel like an artist. I’ve been an artist in various aspects of life, one of the last was that I used to play hard rock-n-roll. And now I am expressing myself through the art of beer.

When was the last time you opened a malt bag?

When Pete from Pete’s Wicked Ale came in to brew with us. That was two months ago, when we brewed a collaboration beer that we call Re-Pete XX. We did a Pete’s Wicked Ale and timed it by two: It had the same color and the same kind of flavor approach, but I wanted to dryhop it with about three times the hops, wanted it to have twice the alcohol, but only about 50 percent more bitterness. It’s an India Brown Ale and a XX version, so 10.5 percent. And then I had Wayne from Cigar City come by three weeks ago and we opened bags for that. But usually I have my guys do it for me.

You just mentioned two collabos: One I remember fondly was with Fanø and it was a rye Stout.

Right, I’ve done “Natasha Røcks America” with Ryan, who’s now at Hill Farmstead. We’ve done that on Fanø island, at their brewery.

I was so happy with that beer and it made me wonder, why not more people put rye in their Stout. I was just amazed how pleasantly bread crusty and dark buiscuity the beer was.

That was actually rye chocolate malt, so rye that was roasted to a point that it was chocolate. When I go to places, people usually want to brew dark beers with me, usually an Imperial Stout, go figure. But I wanted to do something that’s indigenous to their area. Ryan mentioned a couple of fruits but then also mentioned that the guy he gets his malt from has a rye chocolate malt. Boom! The same year I also brewed with Amager and we brewed a Chocolate Wheat Imperial Stout. So, we did the same kind of approach for “Frog Hops To Amager”.

It’s rather unfortunate that many collaborations are only brewed once. Is there a collaboration you feel you’d want to brew again?

Yes. And when I do a collaboration, oftentimes I cannot get it in my state. And the one’s from over here are even harder to get. So for about a year now, if I’m doing a collaboration, I’m going to do the recipe in my brewery too and we can share our beers; also so my patrons can try them as well. In fact you might even want to come to my brewery for the tapping.
We just brewed a beer with Fermentoren yesterday; they started a brewery called Dry & Bitter. We did an Old School Baltic Porter. We used an old school recipe and ideas. I will do the same beer at home and we’ll see how closely I can make it to his and we’ll compare. And Soren is coming in October.

Bottom fermented?

No. That’s one of the old school things. When Baltic Porters first were realized, they started with ale yeast and they were more rustic. He has picked some Thomas Fawcett & Sons malts that has this rustic roasted character and also black liquorish notes. And we found some recipes from way back in the day that actually used black liquorish. And as the Danes love black liquorish, this couldn’t fit any better. It will be Imperial, so about 10 percent.
The first Danish liquorish I’ve had was about a month ago. My distributor had one of his guys come over and he knew that I’ll be brewing that beer. He brought me some that black liquorish that was extremely salty. I left them on the counter and my wife tried one. I watched her face and there was horror in it [laughs]. But as soon she had the first one, she wanted to try a second one.

Which collaboration would you do first, if you were to brew one again?

I want to do the one I did with De Molen again, because both of ours didn’t come out that good. But we had conceived such a cool idea: We did a triple IPA with a Belgian Saison yeast. Unfortunately, the Belgian Saison yeast is very hard to work with. About halfway through fermentation it often stalls and sometimes it just dies.
We tried to do what we can to make it take off again. I didn’t want to oxidize it at that point, although it probably would have helped to ferment it a little more. Instead we put oxidized yeast in there and it took off pretty good, but it wasn’t exactly what we wanted to do. Next time I would make a massive starter and probably oxidize it one third through fermenting, knowing that it wont get too far. We tried to create 11 percent alcohol and he was hoping it’ll go to 14.
From what I understand, Ohio finally rescinded yesterday their alcohol limit that only allowed us to brew up to 12 percent. So now I would also try to hit that 14 percent. And people probably expect us to make strong beers, now that the law has been rescinded.

Ohio. I don’t know too much about Ohio. What’s happening in your home state?

When I started 10 years ago, there were 39 breweries. Now there’s 140. That’s kind of reflective of what’s going on in the US. So, what’s going on in Ohio? Lots of new breweries. They aren’t as much production breweries as they are little corner breweries with a bar that’s selling most of their beers across the bar.
I actually think that’s where the industry is going: There will be a consolidation on the production side, while there will be more and more of those neighborhood breweries. The production breweries are getting snatched up by the big guys. Not necessarily AB-Inbev, but maybe someone like Duvel Moortgat who bought up several new breweries.
For new breweries, it’ll be about getting a name for yourself locally and making money locally. Distributors have a million people knocking on their door – it’s hard as hell to get a distributor if you’re a new brewery. So even if there will be more production beer sold, there will be more interest in the local beer pub. You wanna go to your local brewery, see where the scene is at and hang out with your buddies.
That is also why I focus on my tastingroom. Thrillist just said that we’re one of the fifteen best tasting rooms in America for food. I know I’ve got the beer figured out and now they are saying for food!

I think that’s something many European breweries still need to realize that there’s good money in taprooms. For example, we just were in Belgium and there are very few breweries you can visit with their own taproom – Cantillon being a notable exception. In the US the breweries have realized that a taproom can finance your brewery.

Yes, you get a lot more money from the beer going across the bar. So if you have enough going across the bar, you can really make a difference.

Last question. Your recommendation of five beers people should drink before they die.
De Molen’s Hel & Verdoemenis, that’s one of my favorites.

Black Albert by De Struise. Oh my god, I love that beer! But it’s difficult to get. It was a little higher in alcohol than they would allow in the state, until yesterday! So maybe I can finally get some Black Albert! I want my patrons to try that beer, because it is frickin’ phenomenal.

You have guestbeers in your taproom?

Yes. Because it’s a great way to showcase our beers. I buy the best beers that I can get my hands on, bar none. I don’t care what it costs. And I put them next to mine to show our patrons that our beers are decent. And of course to give them something else to try. It keeps our frequent beer shoppers coming.
A lot of people don’t think it’s appropriate for a brewery to sell other people’s beer. But I am only bringing the best beers, I’m not bringing in Budweiser.
But back to your question. Thomas Hardy’s Ale. It is one of the quintessential English Barleywines. Aged for over four years at cellar temperatures it reaches a nice friendly balance between sweet and bitter, and anything past eight years tastes beautiful.
Spaten Optimator Dopplebock. Balanced with caramel and toasted malts, it is complex, satisfying, and perfect! When lager yeast is pushed this hard, it creates a fruity ester all its own, and adds a welcome pizzazz to this malty beer style.
And the final beer in my Top 5 would really have to be the next kick-ass local beer that I can find – wherever I might find myself. I just love to go to where they have local beer.

The interview took place on 12 May 2016 in the parking lot of Warpigs.

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