Strange Brew: The Story of Three Floyds' Success
Around 5 a.m., the first of the faithful form a line outside Three Floyds Brewing Company, intent on securing their four-bottle allotment of the legendary Dark Lord Russian Imperial stout. As the cold, blustery day dawns, a queue of beer-lovers snakes down the street of the industrial park in Munster. Hoods up and hunkered against the wind in blankets, the red-nosed fans await their moment. Beer-traders arrange tables of their bottled wares to pass the time, and a lively swap meet begins. A gust sends hats flying in the air.
Repeatedly ranked among the world’s best beers by ratebeer.com, a leading indicator of such things, Dark Lord is sold only one day a year. Usually held the last Saturday of April, Dark Lord Day attracts thousands.
“I think people come for the atmosphere,” says Terre Haute resident Clint Puckett, standing first in line with his parents, who drove from Nevada. “Of course, the beer is fantastic.” And after a pause, he admits, “Then there’s the ‘cha-ching.’” While the brew sells for $15 a bottle at the event, gray-marketers can make big money reselling their stash—often for $50 or more.
By 8 a.m., the temperature has only climbed to 43 degrees. Traffic around the brewery grinds to a halt with cars displaying license plates from dozens of states—Alabama, California, New York, and Washington among them. Coveys of cyclists continue to pedal in. Already, hundreds of locked bikes tangle in vivid kinetic sculptures.
A posse of tent-rental people tries to erect a canopy, but the gale snatches it from their hands. Chilly as it is, the crowd continues to wait. Many of them are already drinking beer, mostly stouts similar to the Dark Lord. As the line grows to nearly half a mile long, even the most patient check their watches. Just three more hours until the doors open.
Founded by brothers Nick and Simon Floyd, along with their father, Michael, Three Floyds opened in Hammond in 1996. Located in an old brick building across from the fire department, the brewery produced its early batches in a rig that was basic to the point of rusticity: a five-barrel system made of used Swiss-cheese tanks with a wok-burner underneath.
Emboldened by the enthusiastic acceptance of their brews, Three Floyds purchased a large warehouse building in nearby Munster in 2000. Their neighbors include wholesale distributors and the local school corporation’s service building, where yellow school buses sometimes park. Today, the brewery operates a gleaming, custom-made, 35-barrel brew rig that produces 10,000 barrels of premium beer a year—enough to make Three Floyds Indiana’s largest brewer, though well short of those like Samuel Adams that do about two million barrels annually. In 2005, the Floyd family established a brewpub nestled against their now-sizable production facility. Like the larger enterprise, it is wildly successful.
Three Floyds beers have been winning accolades from the very beginning, though the company received perhaps the ultimate honor when judges at ratebeer.com ranked the brewery the best in the world this year. Joe Tucker, president of ratebeer.com, says beer connoisseurs have long revered the Hoosiers’ work, calling them “a quintessential American super craft brewer.” Tucker notes that judges rated 110,000 beers worldwide for the 2010 ranking, and the results were remarkable: Three Floyds had three of the top 10 beers, with different versions of Dark Lord (standard, oak aged, vanilla-bean barrel aged) accounting for all three. Additionally, its Alpha King pale ale, Behemoth barleywine, and Dreadnaught India Pale Ale garnered perfect 100 scores.
The mastermind behind those recipes is Nick Floyd, a 38-year-old linebacker-sized guy with a cue-ball head, tattoos, and a laconic manner—until you get him talking about beer. “Nothing about our beer is normal,” he says, citing the Bravo hops they sometimes use as an example. Tough to access because of the tiny amount of acreage planted in the state of Washington, Bravo hops contain high alpha acids, giving the beer an especially bitter taste. The Floyds’ unusual, grapefruity Gumballhead uses the equally scarce Amarillo hops, out of Texas. They seek out premium imported malts, such as Simpsons from northern England and Weyermann specialty malts from Germany, to impart their brews with rich grain flavors.
Part of Nick’s beer education came during his travels around Europe in the 1980s, when he visited breweries in France, Belgium, and Germany. In the early ’90s, there were brief brewing
stints at the Weinkeller, a German-style brewpub in the suburbs of Chicago, and at the Florida Brewery in Auburndale, Florida, where he brewed on a 300-barrel system for the U.S. and Caribbean markets. In 1991, Nick studied at Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology, America’s oldest brewing school, to accredit his on-the-job experience. But long before he began his formal training, he enjoyed a head start. “Nick started secretly brewing in high school,” says Michael, who seems not to have been fooled.
A trim, raffish Englishman with a graying ponytail, “Doc” Floyd—Dr. Michael Floyd—still tinkers in the brewery at age 68. Always ready with a great story, the retired nephrologist once transplanted a kidney into Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. His medical work took him to the Pacific Northwest and Houston before he finally joined a large kidney practice in northwestern Indiana, where he settled with his family. Diverse foods abounded in the house when Nick and Simon (now a chef with Gamba Ristorante in Merrillville) were growing up, including complex Indian dishes and other exotic flavors. And there was always good beer.
That love of culinary experimentation and suds made Nick what he is today. After all, Three Floyds didn’t arrive at the top of the barrel by being conservative. Allying himself with craft brewers against the Evil Forces—bland industrial beers—Nick hopes to further push the envelope this year with Belgian-style, cherry-flavored kriek and raspberry-flavored framboise beers. He also dreamed up a Berliner Weisse,a sour wheat beer, though he worries that the new yeast strains could taint the moneymakers at his beloved brewery. “It’ll only be available here. We’ll never bottle it,” he told a trade webzine. “We’d have to napalm the whole bottling line.”
Great beer is nothing new to the Hoosier state. Indiana has been brewing since the pioneer days, beginning shortly after German brewers settled in 1814 in the utopian community at New Harmony. When the flood of Germans began to settle throughout Indiana in the 1830s, they both created the Hoosier brewing industry and provided the core market for its consumption. Indiana-German beer revolutionized drinking here. Prior to that, Hoosiers were a whiskey-drinking group. Within a few decades, beer-drinking became the thing, and it has remained part of our culture since.
Prohibition devastated the frothy revolution, and though the industry recovered somewhat after the Repeal, consolidation eventually winnowed the number of state breweries down to a few faltering behemoths. By the 1990s, they were brewing fairly anemic, mass-market lagers, and the last of them, the Evansville Brewing Company, closed in 1997. But by then, a different approach to making beer was already coming to a boil: microbreweries.
Unlike wine or liquor, beer lends itself to small-scale production. A fierce individualist can easily brew a few hundred barrels a year of great beer on a limited budget. With its roots in hippie do-it-yourself culture, American microbrewing began bubbling up on the West Coast in the 1980s. But when the trend reached Indiana a decade later, Hoosier brewers took to craft beer with a fervor. Generally defined as those facilities producing 15,000 barrels or less a year, 10 microbreweries now span Indianapolis alone, including Sun King, Oaken Barrel, and Barley Island. Around the state, there are 26 more—among them Mad Anthony in Fort Wayne, Upland in Bloomington, and The New Albanian in the Falls Cities area. And in a warehouse in Munster, there are the ultimate independents: the Three Floyds brewers, madly fermenting brews that have captured the attention of the world.
Nick Floyd’s creative spark, he says, comes from “traveling and trying other people’s beer,” not to mention his creative heroes, moviemaker Stanley Kubrick, Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax, and Genghis Khan. Pick up a six-pack of Three Floyds, and those influences leap off the bottles. Wrapped with quirky D&D-meets-mad-cartoonist labels, they are visual magnets. “Over the years, they’ve been among the most creative brewers,” says Siebel Institute vice president Keith Lemcke. “Not just with their beer, but also their packaging.”
Indeed, tattoos, a shaved head, and a Wild Bunch attitude seem almost obligatory for the Three Floyds brewers. They’re a band of merry buccaneers, rampaging the Midwestern Main with their flavorful, often idiosyncratic brews. “We do things in a technically sound manner,” says Three Floyds brewer and “minister of culture” Barnaby Struve. “But we want to do it our way.”
A cerebral South African with a shaved head and a Maori-warrior number of tattoos, the 37-year-old Struve marvels at the rise of Three Floyds into cult status. “None of us got into this to conquer the world,” he says. Instead, the dream of staying small to produce excellent unfiltered, unpasteurized beers sustained him and his craft-beer brethren. While Three Floyds now has worldwide renown, there are fewer than 10 brewers on staff.
Among their many beers, Three Floyds’ flagship is an unusually hoppy pale ale called Alpha King. Robert the Bruce, a Scottish-style ale, sells well, as do the company’s inventively named seasonal beers—the spicy Rabbid Rabbit, Moloko milk stout, apricot-hued Broo Doo, Topless Wytch Baltic porter, and Apocalypse Cow.
With their imaginative approach, Three Floyds beers often fall outside the rigid style categories that guide brewing competitions. “Usually our stuff is thrown out right away,” Nick says, chuckling. In spite of the Three Floyds independent ways, though, judges at the 2008 World Beer Cup in San Diego saw fit to honor the Behemoth with a gold medal, and the Dreadnaught with a bronze. The annual Great American Beer Festival, held in Denver, awarded a silver medal to the Gorch Fock helles in 2007. “The Great American Beer Festival is the Super Bowl of brewing,” Nick Floyd says. “The World Beer Cup is, well, the World Cup.”
But it was Dark Lord that brought Three Floyds into the global spotlight. A Russian Imperial stout, the beer amounts to a hopped-up version of those originally brewed by 19th-century British brewers for the Russian and Baltic markets. The Imperial stouts carried extremely high alcohol levels to help them survive the rough Baltic passage. Rich and porridge-thick, the Imperial stouts became favorites in the frigid northern climates, including among the Russian aristocracy. The famously wanton Catherine the Great was a fan, adding to the beer’s reputation as an aphrodisiac. By modernizing the historic brew and limiting the supply of Dark Lord (about 12,000 22-ounce bottles) to a single day, the Floyds created a beer festival that now borders on cultural phenomenon.
Just minutes remain before 11 a.m. on Dark Lord Day, and the 5,000 thirsty customers outside the brewery shuffle their feet impatiently. As the Three Floyds crew steady themselves for the crowd, thumps and electronic screeches from Viper, a heavy-metal band warming up inside, leak out of the brewery warehouse. When the hour finally arrives, a burly bouncer opens the overhead door, and Nick stoically welcomes the incoming throng.
With a shriek of guitars, Viper kicks into a scream-heavy, hair-flailing rendition of “Dark Lord.” The crowd, for the most part already lubricated by hours of blowsy camaraderie in the parking lot, streams into the utilitarian warehouse that on this day is the epicenter of Beer World. Eager buyers jostle forward with cash in hand, ready to snatch four precious bottles from the Three Floyds brewers-
turned-vendors. Whoops of triumph belt out as buyers hold the black-wax–sealed bottles aloft.
Up by the stage, beer geeks throng the merchandise table for Dark Lord T-shirts and hats. By a wall of boxed bottles, queues form for draughts. The viscosity of used 40-weight motor oil, the Russian Imperial stout fills the air with the pungent scent of roasted malts, coffee, Mexican vanilla, and Indian sugar. Happy folks toast one another, savoring flavors of dried cherries, molasses, and licorice.
With the Dark Lord frenzy still at full tilt, the Floyds seem almost relaxed. Over by the draught line, Doc holds a glass of stout to the light as he extols its virtues to an admirer. Simon takes a break from his chef duties to watch frantic fans pour through the door. And Nick—so often brusque or aloof—finally looks pleased. He holds court with a few fellow brewers who have dropped in for the day. They’re talking about beer.
Expanded from a chapter in the author’s book Indiana: One Pint at a Time (Indiana Historical Society), published in June 2010.