By Bob Townsend
Less than a year after opening on Atlanta’s far Westside, Scofflaw Brewing has created an unlikely buzz with a portfolio of winning explorations of India Pale Ale.
In fact, last month, Scofflaw tripled its capacity to meet growing demand — a surprising turn of events for a new brewery entering such a highly competitive market.
Then again, everything about the Scofflaw story is a tad unusual, beginning with the way co-founders Matt Shirah and Travis Herman got together to start the company, and conceived the brewery’s wildly popular debut beer, Basement IPA, during the fermentation-science equivalent of woodshedding.
One muggy afternoon, Shirah and Herman are trying to tell the tale while taking a break to drink a beer or two at a table in the Scofflaw tasting room, where a Big Ass Fan is cranked to gale force.
Beyond the vertical expanse of black vinyl-coated chain-link fence that cordons off the brewery, workers get busy at the mash tun and drag hoses to fill a fermenter.
“Maybe we went too far putting the barbed wire on top of the chain link,” Shirah says, coaxing a laugh out of Herman.
Shirah, who grew up in North Carolina, graduated from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, and spent most of his career as a corporate turnaround executive, met Herman through mutual beer-business friends in California.
“I had the crazy idea to do this here,” he says. “I thought there was an opportunity for the product we wanted to put out. I wanted to bring West Coast beer to the East Coast. But the only way I knew to do that was to find the right guy.”
Herman, who grew up in Kansas and Oklahoma, took a degree in chemistry and microbiology and worked in pharmaceuticals doing commercial fermentations, before earning a University of California, Davis brewing science degree.
But gigs at two of California’s most esteemed breweries, Lost Abbey and Russian River, are what gave him an extra measure of beer-geek cred in Shirah’s mind. And as it turned out, like Shirah, Herman had a young family, and was looking for a place to put down roots, and open a brewery of his own.
In October 2014, he moved to Atlanta with his wife and two small children. Soon after, he got to work in the 2,500-square-foot daylight basement of Shirah’s mother-in-law’s ranch house.
“We turned it into a brewery,” Herman says, still seeming surprised. “We sealed the floor up and put in drains. I welded together a one-barrel, gravity-fed brewing sculpture, and we tapped into the gas line out back by the swimming pool so we could do crazy things like a 12-hour boil.”
Those underground modifications, along with a glycol chiller and electronic temperature- monitoring system, plus a micro lab and clean room that allowed Shirah and Herman to begin propagating their own yeast strains, were the ticket to perfecting the recipes that later led to building the full-scale Scofflaw brewery.
But back then, along the quiet streets of the Margaret Mitchell neighborhood in Buckhead, there was concern that something more like “Breaking Bad” was going on.
“My mother-in-law thought it looked like a meth lab,” Shirah says, shaking his head. “When the pool guys would come over, she would come down and cover all the windows. I think she was worried she was going to jail.”
When it was finally time to come out of the basement and let everyone know what was happening, Shirah had an idea.
“It was Halloween,” he says. “I took a BOB stroller that holds two kids, and I put two kegs in it with a jockey box on the front. I pushed it around and just sampled the beer all over the neighborhood.
“Suddenly, people were coming to find me, and trying figure out what path I was taking. We drained both kegs within an hour or so, and figured out that people really liked the beer. Later that beer we made in the basement made its way to the distributors, and they wanted to sell it.”
From his point of view, Herman sees the creation of Basement IPA as both the foundation of the company and the evolution of his skills as a brewmaster.
“Just the ability to use all the new hops that are out there, like Citra, and other things that didn’t necessarily fit into West Coast-style recipes, was a huge excitement to me,” he says.
“Honestly, I thought the name was probably ridiculous, but it just makes a statement, and we stuck with it,” Shirah admits. “It’s a basement beer. That’s where it came from. And it’s been spectacularly successful, accounting for about 50 percent of our sales right now.”