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The Virtue of the Mutt
The Virtue of the Mutt
And other lessons on creativity from a brewmaster

I recently sat down with Mitch Ackerman, mad scientist and brewmaster at the soon-to-open Four Day Ray Brewing. He’s been brewing craft beer since he was in college, and I wanted to hear more about his work. From brewing to branding, every creative discipline shares some common threads.

Here’s what I learned about craft brewing that’s useful for anyone who considers himself or herself creative:

Lesson One: Meet Your Audience Where They Are

Most people think beer equals watered-down, light American lagers. After all, those are the labels that surround us and sponsor all of our favorite sporting events. To introduce the uninitiated to craft beer, you have to serve them the right beer at the right moment with a flavor they already like—coffee or chocolate or citrus.

My gateway beer was a Blue Moon at a BW-3 in 2005. For Mitch, it was a Guinness at his favorite college bar in 2004. Neither of these beers is remarkable, but they opened our eyes to a world beyond mildly hoppy or malty water that calls itself beer.

Unfortunately, many people never try a craft beer because the barrier to entry is so high. As breweries race to create the hoppy-est, funkiest, most badass IPA around with IBUs in the stratosphere, a lot of potential converts are left behind. (Don’t get me wrong. I love bitter beers, but they’re not for craft beer newbies.)

That’s why Mitch focuses on brewing high-quality, complex, but accessible beers. Flavor-forward and low-ABV. Not that he doesn’t also create towering Russian Imperial Stouts and DIPAs, but he recognizes those are something to work up to. Introduction and education have to come first.

It’s the same in marketing. You have to meet the audience in their world instead of expecting them to join you in yours. Respect your audience by taking the time to understand them. Lower the barrier to entry. Then you’ll have their attention. And once you do, show them some love.

Lesson Two: Why It’s Okay to Fail

In college, I had a professor who preached the importance of failure. At the time, it sounded like an art school mind game. But much later, I understood—if we accept the possibility of failure, we’re going to try something new. We’re going to take risks. We’ll dare to do great things and, in the process, we’ll learn what works and what doesn’t.

In the craft brewing world, home brewers have room to experiment and thus, more room to fail. Because they brew in much smaller quantities, they can challenge what’s been deemed “correct” or “acceptable.” They are, literally, the taste-makers. That’s why the professionals follow them. Home brewers can put new spins on old ideas, but craft brewers have the ability to bring it to the masses. And the big boys like InBev and Anheuser-Busch find themselves playing catch-up. Your sweater is that color because Meryl Streep picked it out for you.

Lesson Three: Know the Rules to Break Them (a.k.a. The Virtue of the Mutt)

Every industry has its own set of rules. Some people call them “best practices,” a heinous piece of jargon that needs to die a slow, painful death. (But I digress.) Each industry’s unwritten rules come from collected experience. Without them, we would have to keep learning lessons someone else has already learned. But if we let them box us in, rules can become the enemy of progress.

After all, sometimes the best things in life come from breaking the rules. I have a dog who’s a mix of an Australian Shepherd and a Border Collie. He’s the coolest and greatest dog of all time. The looks and brains of the Border Collie with the tail-lessness of the Australian Shepherd. He wags his butt to compensate for the lack of tail, and it’s my favorite thing about him. He gets compliments everywhere he goes on how beautiful and well-behaved he is, but it’s his waggy butt that makes him interesting.

Similarly, some of the best beers aren’t brewed according to the rules of IPAs, Porters, Stouts, and so on. A beer like FDR’s “Identity Crisis” (coming soon) proves that. It’s a mutt of a beer—better than the sum of its parts because it contains the best attributes of each. It defies categorization. And that doesn’t matter one bit because it’s so good.