I love beer, but the people who make and sell it can be just as fascinating. That’s part of the fun of doing a beer blog -you get to meet the people behind the beer. Two of those people are Ryan McWhorter and Mike Harper, the founders of Panther Island Brewing. Panther Island beer, which has only been around for one year, is already drawing attention and can be found at Magnolia Motor Lounge, Poag Mahone’s, Rodeo Goat, The Pour House, Brass Tap, and Craft and Growler.
It’s been two months since I visited their northside brewery just off Main Street. As often happens in the beer business, things have changed since then. They now have air conditioning and Harper has left the company to try other ventures. I still remember having a blast at the hour-long interview, which was sprinkled with raunchy jokes, diversions into pop culture commentary, and philosophical musings on music’s role in beermaking.
DocHopHead (DHH) contributing writer Edward Brown: What are your backgrounds and how did you get into brewing?
McWhorter: I used to work in sales, and I was in a band. Did that for about six years then I got into the screen printing business. I started with the Mr. Beer kit that you can get at Walmart. That became a 10 gallon system, then a 20 gallon system, then an industrial system.
Harper: I started at Starbucks when I moved up here in 2007. I started playing in a band, the Dick Beldings. We’re still playing. It’s a 90’s cover band. Ryan started to get into brewing and I said “Hell, I can do that.” So I started working with him on the social media stuff. Last year I went to Vermont to study in the American Brewer’s Guild to get a certificate in brewing science and engineers. The program was a little shorter than six months. We spent the last week actually in Vermont with hands on big brewing systems. There are certain things that you can get passionate about. I like beer and they got down to the minutia of water temperature. If you add these different minerals how does that affects the flavor? There’s super geeky stuff in there most people can’t appreciate like how the temperature affects the head of a beer. So I was really able to really nerd out.
DHH/Edward Brown: How do your personalities/backgrounds shape your beer recipes?
Harper: I knew about science going into this. I knew microbiology would be a part of brewing, but I’m more artistic so I wanted to learn how to do the science and balance both the art and the science.
McWhorter: I’m more right brain/creative. Michael and I definately work well together as far as that goes. Right now I got sales here. I went to school to study management. I know how to talk to people. I’m learning a lot about extraction when you go from extract to whole grains. It’s all about temperature control and consistency. There’s a difference between cleaning and sanitizing. Cleaning gets rid of any bad microorganisms. Sanitizing is another step that makes a surface okay for beer to touch.
DHH/Edward Brown: How do you come up with your recipies?
Harper: Its just like writing a song. Music is like a second language and there are some people fluent in that language. I want to get to that point of understanding all my grains, all my hops and put it all together to say what I want to say, especially with the IPA. The ones most of my friends were trying were the ones their friends were forcing on them [so they got a bad impression]. That’s why we use coriander so the hops aren’t the only thing standing out. So recipes start out with a simple idea.
McWhorter: Especially when we’re trying to create a beer, there’s a certain type of music we play.
Harper: The [American cream ale “Real Good”] is kind of an Americana sound . Blue collar, simple, and there’s a beauty to it. Our scotch ale is more rock like the Foo Fighters -straight up and no apologies. The IPA is more metal. When people listen to hardcore [metal] there’s more layering than most people know, kind of like in an IPA. There’s actually more things going on here. It doesn’t have to be just all one thing.
DDH/Edward Brown: What’s in the future for Panther Island Brewery?
McWhorter: I’m trying to create a butterfinger beer. We’re planning to look into canning in a year and a half, maybe two years down the road. We really want to get our brand and logo recognition out there before we start doing any of that. We want people to know who Panther Island Brewing is first. Canning is a little safer.
Harper: Canning is better for the beer too. This is how I see the debate of glass vs. can.
There are people who are old school who say if they use cans it’s going to taste metallic. That may have been the case in the ‘70s or ‘80s, but it’s not now. Personally, I like the tactile feel of can. I know when it’s empty and I can crush it. With cans, you don’t get any light in there. There’s less oxygen in the can if you do it right, it’s easier to transport and cools down quickly.
McWhorter: Plus, you can take it to pools and lakes.
Harper: I don’t see one reason to bottle over can.
Harper: One thing I like about being available in bars is that we’re out in the public. Getting a distributer is a whole other thing. You can’t just buy a few cans. Unless you order 250,000 they aren’t going to talk to you.
McWhorter: We want to focus on the beer, and our customers.
There’s hardly a craft beer pub in town now that doesn’t serve at least one brew from Panther Island Brewery. I also know from talking to bartenders that Ryan is staying true to his word and making sure his deliveries are always on time and his customers are always taken care of. That conversation with Mike and Ryan was a reminder that behind every craft beer, local or otherwise, are passionate men and women who see brewing as more than just a business. They see brewing as a test of one’s creativity and knowhow and something that gives pride to both the maker and consumer.