By Rob Shomaker

It was the early ‘90s and an irate post commander marched swiftly across Fort Lewis just outside of Tacoma, Washington. Rumor was that illegal alcohol was being produced in C Company of the 2nd Ranger Battalion and this 2-star general was going to put a stop to it. As the General entered the barracks of C CO, 2nd Ranger Battalion he was met by a young private on guard duty who had strict orders; only authorized individuals on “the list” could be allowed entry. Since the Rangers fell under Special Operations Command, the general was not on that list. “It was pretty funny.  They called the battalion officer on duty as well.  He backed up the Ranger on duty stating something about operational security. The General stomped off and was furious. That was the last we heard about it.  My barracks brewery shut down a General. I thought that was the coolest thing since pelletized hops and conical fermenters.  My beer gained some street cred.  It was a great moment in my life.”

Matt “Doc” Simpson, a Sergeant in the 2nd Ranger Battalion, was not only a medic but also the resident brewer. By leveraging a steam kettle in the mess hall and some food grade trashcans as a mash tun and fermenters, Doc cranked out 30 to 35 gallons of beer that was served in the Ranger bar on the top floor of the barracks. Porters were the predominant style because, as he tells it, it was easy to mask flaws from the rudimentary equipment and technique.

The brewing culture in Tennessee is still very young in comparison to other parts of our country. While we have a handful of individuals who have been brewing longer than many of us have been legally able to purchase beer, they are few and far between. However, when individuals like this do put down roots in our fine state, with them comes a wealth of experience and a depth of knowledge that no book or degree program can match. They not only elevate the quality of beer for the brewery they’re a part of, but they also raise the game for the breweries around them. They also influence an entire group of young and aspiring brewers who learn through their example and their instruction. One such individual is a part of Tennessee Brew Works; Matt Simpson.

Matt greets me with a firm handshake just outside of the Tennessee Brew Works brewhouse. He stands just short of my five foot, ten inches. His shoulders are wide and deep, clearly from years of hard work in a brewery as well as years of adventure in both rivers and mountains. Behind a full and dark beard sits a smile that was chiseled from years of adventure and experience. Within a few short moments I could sense a genuine wisdom that as our time together unfurled, would be confirmed. As we settled into a table in a corner of the tap room, each with a beer in hand, we began to unpack the stories and adventures that led Matt to Nashville and Tennessee Brew Works.

A festival in Seattle is where Matt realized he wanted to brew. It was the early ‘90s and Rogue Ales, who had only been around a short time, was present. He bugged them for hours as he absorbed their suggestions and pointers. It was both this and frequent interactions with the team at Redhook Brewery that motivated Matt to pursue brewing which, at the time, was in his barracks.

In 1993 Matt brought his career as an Army Ranger to a close and moved to Denver. As a self-professed rock climber with a rafting problem, Matt didn’t have to pass the time too long before landing a job at Broadway Brewing Company.  Broadway Brewing Company was a joint venture between The Wyncoop Brewing Company and Flying Dog. It was here, on a 30 barrel system, that the importance of repetition and consistency in brewing was impressed upon him. Due to some changes with the staff, at one point Matt found himself the last guy that could brew. As a result, he brewed 6 days a week. It was during this time that the overall business picture came in focus for Matt. It was impressed that selling beer and financial management of the brewery may be harder than brewing great beer.  From this experience, a fascination for finance began to emerge.

Matt returned to his childhood home in Grand Junction, Colorado in the late ‘90s to work at a winery and also worked on a startup brewery that ultimately fell through. In the meantime, he kept up his climbing and rafting before finally fueling his interest of finance with a job as a commercial banker in 2003. As a commercial banker, Matt was working with numerous businesses and perusing their financial statements as they sought loans from the bank. “I got to see their mistakes and successes. This had a profound impact on me as a brewer as it helped me better understand business and ultimately, the business of brewing.”

Around 2008 it was time for a change. Matt tells me that while the banking industry paid well, “I hated putting on pants every day,” he laughs.  Matt left the financial industry and returned to his passion for rafting as a guide for roughly 2 years. Around the same time he began working with Kannah Creek Brewing Company on and off before they hired him full time in 2010. At the time, the brewery was primarily a brewpub with a 7 barrel system in Grand Junction. In 2012 the owners decided to branch out and open a production brewery with a 30 barrel system naming Matt as the head brewer.

It was while at Kannah Creek Brewing Company that a mutual friend connected Matt with Christian Spears, President and Founder of Tennessee Brew Works. Christian was seeking a head brewer and while Matt wasn’t on the hunt for a new gig, he was willing to listen. A phone call led to a trip to Nashville where Matt was convinced that Tennessee Brew Works was where the next chapter of his brewing career needed to be written. As he tells it he, “fell in love with the staff. While I knew it would be a lot of work, it was a really good team. People make a place.”

Matt brings to Tennessee Brew Works a level of discipline and focus that is propelling this team to a new level. As Tennessee Brew Works has recently moved into both Alabama and Kentucky, he touches on growth with a healthy dose of caution. He clearly recognizes the importance of not getting spread out too thin. Growth must be managed as it affects the brewery as a whole and not just those in the brew house. “Our sales team rocks,” he adds. “There’s no doubt that they are the best team in Tennessee. What we do is easy, what they do is hard,” he laughs and adds, “of course, they tell me that what they do is easy and what we do is hard. That’s why this is such a great place, we have great people that are great at what they do.”

When he came to Tennessee Brew Works he began to apply his years of experience to an established brewery and those efforts began to bear fruit. Matt has an enthusiastic team of 5 full time employees and several part time individuals that ensure the beer gets made and packaged. “Brewing is a team sport,” he shares. When he worked at a brewpub, it was often a one man show. “Working at a production brewery, everyone needs to be in sync”, Matt shares. While there are always challenges with equipment and materials, it’s the discipline of the team that ensures the beer gets made at the quality they expect. With brews occurring from 10 to 13 times per week Matt continually coaches the team to be in control of the process. “Are you driving the mash or is the mash driving you? You must be in control.” he says. He stresses the importance of technique and understanding your equipment. “Make it do what you want it to do,” he adds.  Matt is also a realist and while he’s been at this a very long time, he shares, “We’re always learning, every day.” However, he clearly recognizes the impact his time as a banker had on him as it has affected how he handles materials, demonstrates value and ensures that he’s running an effective and efficient operation.

Throughout our conversation the consistent themes from Matt are; discipline, consistency, focus and dedication to the beer and to the team. Making really good beer is no longer good enough in an industry with thin margins and hardcore competition. “People make the place,” Matt repeats. He’s right and that’s something we can all learn from. “There’s a lot of positivity around here,” he adds, “it keeps everyone going.” With a smile, Matt shares, “You only live once, do something you enjoy doing, do it well and have fun with it.”