Full of Hops and Dreams
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — well, it was New Jersey and the year was 1994 — but back long before you could Google the possibility of executing that change-your-life-for-the-better epiphany — heck, long before “Google” was a verb — Drexel alum Gene Muller quit his advertising job and created the world’s first virtual microbrewery, persuading investors to finance the development of an actual brewery before he ever brewed a single drop of beer.
By Jacob Harte
Photos by Adam Jones
If you tried to pitch Gene Muller’s story to a movie producer, they would call it a big fish tale. But his success epitomizes the risk and reward conquests of the Internet boom. He conceptualized an Internet startup before Mark Zuckerberg could get into a PG-13 movie without his mom. He created a beer blog before there were blogs.
And though he may be considered a second-generation microbrewer (following the pioneers of the 70s), he’s a first-generation Internet trailblazer, whose persistence and instinct for progress eventually led him to open the largest — real life — craft brewery in New Jersey: Flying Fish Brewing Company.
In the beginning, Muller’s ambition wasn’t enough to convince potential backers; he had never worked in a restaurant or managed a brewery, let alone run a business.
“I just kept at it,” he says. “I was living off my savings. I just had this instinct it was a good idea.”
For almost two years, Muller “kept at it.” He trained at America’s oldest brewing school, Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology. He developed his business model and researched the industry, and just when he was about to call it quits, he decided to utilize the skills he had developed over the years — as a writer for his college newspaper, as a staff writer and graduate student at Drexel, and in a career in marketing and advertising — to start the Flying Fish blog.
At first, the blog wasn’t even about marketing, says Muller: “It was just about telling our story.”
“I got a lot of information about the [craft beer] industry during the process of starting the brewery,” he says. “And because of what Drexel taught me — to take technical and scientific concepts and distill them for the average reader — I was able to talk to keg machine manufacturers and bottling machine manufacturers and get all of this information and make it available to a mass audience. Then I was able to say, ‘Ok, while I’ve got your attention, here is a question about my project.’ I was able to build a bit of a network.”
In the year Muller graduated with his master’s in science and technical communication from Drexel, the University’s then-president, William Walsh Haggerty, announced that every student would be getting a personal computer.
The year was 1984.
“It was just amazing,” says Muller, throwing his arms back. “Seeing the potential of technology at Drexel made it more real for me: [the Internet] was no longer so abstract.”
And so it came to be years later, that, without a product, Muller began to sell an idea.
He posted on the Flying Fish blog every so often, explaining the intricate details of trying to start a microbrewery, while selling t-shirts and pint glasses for a brewery that did not yet exist.
As the blog gained traction, The Philadelphia Inquirer sent reporters to Muller’s house to view the website — the newspaper itself did not yet have the Internet.
By 1996, Muller was fully funded and the brewery of his imagination had become a reality. He continued to grow the business, increasing his beer offerings, expanding his distribution area, and taking home medals in major competitions like the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Championship. And although he had succeeded in many ways to materialize his ambitions, he couldn’t help but feel the absence of one important element from all the years before: his community.
At that time, New Jersey law prevented retail sales and on-site consumption in breweries, which meant there could be no tasting room and no way to make good on that personal, share-a-beer-and-an-idea mentality the brewery had been built on.
In early 2010, as the craft-beer craze reached its full manic stride, Flying Fish had outgrown its home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. To meet the rising demand, Muller was going to have to build a new facility — but, he says, if he was going to build it, the way he had really envisioned it, he would first need to take on the law.
Teaming up with Mark Edelson of Iron Hill Brewery and others in the industry, Muller pushed to get new legislation approved in the state. A year and a half later, he achieved what he considers his proudest accomplishment: the new law was adopted granting microbreweries the right to sell their brews for consumption on premises as part of a brewery tour and in retails sales for off-site indulging.
“That definitely helped when tourists came by and wanted a better souvenir than a t-shirt,” says Muller.
Brewpubs also made out well in the deal. The law granted them the ability to brew 10,000 barrels a year — up from 3,000 — and gave them the power to distribute their product via wholesale distribution to liquor stores and restaurants, rather than restricting sales to adjoining restaurants.
“Since the new law passed, 15 other businesses have been able to open,” says Muller. “We’ve almost doubled the amount of breweries in the state.”
And for Muller, more breweries don’t mean more competition; they mean the potential for a brewery tour.
“Our industry is interesting. It’s collegial because we all came from somewhere else — we all kind of did what I did. It’s not like my grandfather owned a brewery and Mark’s grandfather owned a brewery and we’re not going to talk because we have trade secrets,” he says.
If Muller has a question, he doesn’t hesitate to call up one of his brew-buddies or even to post the question on the Flying Fish website, which he still attends to personally.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, people are more than glad to help you out.”
That openness to share experience has remained with Muller since the early days of Flying Fish.
“It’s about making things possible,” he says. “When people look to start a brewery or they look to do something new, I say, ‘Let me tell you about my mistakes so if you make a mistake, at least it will be an original one.’”
Muller’s desire to share information and his capacity to build a community extends far beyond beer.
“[The Flying Fish staff] is all local,” he says. “We all live in the area; we support local organizations; we serve in community groups. We try to be good citizens and be part of the community.”
The main hall of the new brewery is designed large enough to host community meetings. This summer, they hosted a bike race and native plant sale, and Muller says he has plans to build a nature tour in the future to support endangered local flora species.
“I’ve always been a big believer in sustainability and protecting the environment,” he says.
The new brewery — now four times the size of Flying Fish’s first home — is fully loaded with eco-friendly features, including 370 solar panels, which generate about 10 percent of the brewery’s electricity. A new brew kettle captures steam that would have been vented into the atmosphere and allows Muller’s team to reuse the water in the brew process — nearly one gallon of hot water for every five gallons of beer brewed. A rain garden was also recently installed.
“Approximately 15 percent of the rainwater that hits our roof will now be diverted to a rain garden,” says Muller. “The garden will capture the water and let it percolate back into the ground rather than rushing into Cooper Creek.”
A tour through the brewery is like a tour through the Batcave (but better because there’s beer). Muller gets especially excited about his passive solar light tubes: “We have 19 of these solar prisms, which are the coolest thing. It’s just sunlight; there’s nothing to clean, or turn on, or repair, or replace.”
Through their eco-friendly tech enhancements, Flying Fish has cut its ingredient consumption by 40 percent per barrel of beer brewed.
“All of these [changes] make good business sense,” says Muller.
But it’s clear they make good people sense as well.
“The solar light tubes add a lot of light to the brewery area at no cost after the initial installation. But it also adds the element of natural light so that we aren’t just a fluorescent-lit warehouse. It makes for a much more comfortable work environment.”
Muller’s ultimate dream for Flying Fish is that it be a place “where you can learn a little bit and have a beer.” In essence, he wants it to feel like a home.
“I grew up in a suburb of southern Camden County that was kind of rural. My mother grew vegetables and cooked a lot of scratch meals at home and my father was in construction; I liked to use my hands. Brewing is both art and science — it allows me to work with my hands and my mind.”
During the infancy of the Internet, Muller envisioned its potential to build a tangible community — a potential many are still only now coming to fully realize. And although he might sometimes question whether he took his idea in the right direction — fantasizing about being on the inside of a startup like Google instead — it’s clear he’s built himself something bigger than a brewery.
“It’s a lot of hours but it’s a lifestyle industry,” he says. “There are a lot of fascinating people that are into craft beer. Going to a beer dinner or cheese pairing and talking to folks who are interesting and interested in good food and beverage is a pretty good job. I don’t consider it work — I’m happy in beer.”