I stopped by New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado during the 2013 Great American Beer Festival to interview Matty “Smooth” Gilliland. I can’t start without giving a quick shoutout to Michael Bussmann, the social media guru for New Belgium, for setting up the forthcoming awesome interview and treating us like royalty that day at the brewery. Both “Bussmann” and Mr. Smooth both make me want to move to Fort Collins so I can become one of their bestest buds.
Now, if only I had not left my velvet cloak back in my Denver hotel room. Well, onto the interview!
All Joking Aside
A Smooth Background
At the young age of 21, Matty was already homebrewing (he says this is a whole other story for later) and employed in the Colorado craft beer scene. He was working at Left Hand Brewing as their Head Brewer when he met the Cellar Manager of New Belgium at a beer-tasting event.
“I kinda had my eye on the prize.”
That prize for Matty was to join the rapidly growing New Belgium Brewery at a time when many other breweries were struggling during the late 90s downturn. Matty waited for months but eventually he got the call to come up for a visit.
“I got the call and came up the next day, with my resume that was all of 8 lines at that point.”
Matty was devastated not to get an immediate call back: after another 3-month wait, he received a job offer to be the seventh person to work in the cellar. It was quite an adjustment going from 2 brews a day to an around the clock brewing schedule.
At that time, Matty was the first cellar employee with experience outside of the New Belgium organization. He ran into some procedures that caused him to question how things were getting done, but in large part he just put his head down and forged ahead to get up to speed with the much-increased workload.
To complicate things even further, another worker gave his 2 weeks notice and another was fired on Matty’s first day. These events had Matty wondering if he had made some mistake in the move. He learned a very important lesson that day after speaking to the cellar manager- that people who don’t belong at New Belgium end up working their way out of the company.
As Matty reflects back on his 16 years there, he confirms that the manager’s lesson on that day has remained true.
“One, I belong here. Two, my skills have grown with the company.”
Matty’s role has evolved over time; from his start in the cellar, to time in the brewhouse, and on to his current role in the Hop Kitchen that he says he was largely able to create for himself.
“Part of it is that I’ve been able to keep it fresh and keep it challenging for myself.”
The challenge now for Matty is managing a couple of employees as he heads up efforts to tweak efficiencies in existing processes and implement some new processes. Matty is Six Sigma certified.
I ask Matty to tell us his “whole other story.”
At the age of 18, Matty had spent some time hiking the 500-mile-long Colorado Trail with a college buddy. He returned home with a full straggly beard right at the first upswing in Colorado craft beer. His beard made it easy for him to dip into any beer store to purchase any beer from the upstart breweries of the time. Eventually he shaved his beard and suddenly he was no longer able to buy beer.
Matty walked into his favorite craft beer store after shaving his beard when the proprietor said, “Hey, I need to see your ID.” Matty was surprised by the sudden challenge, only to be escorted out empty-handed.
Matty’s only recourse was to begin brewing his own beer. The choice with regard to seeking employment during college was an easy one for him. He realized he could either make $6 /hour at a hardware store or he could make $6/ hour on the bottling line of a brewery. He chose the latter and joined the bottling line at Boulder Beer Company just after his 21st birthday.
He’s been employed in the craft brewing industry for over 20 years.
What’s Matty’s Dream?
“Right now my dream is to raise my kids the best way he can.”
It is not easy when he and his wife both work very demanding jobs at New Belgium. He explains that his wife is responsible for all of the brewery events during GABF week and she is currently working 7 AM – 10 PM. They each try to step up with taking care of the family when either of their jobs requires their utmost dedication.
“It’s a lot of juggling.”
“That’s an interesting question for me because my only goal was to be a brewer here.”
“And then I was. Well shit! What do I do now?”
And to boot, his partner on the Hop Kitchen series is able to put up with Matty’s relentless sense of humor. Matty loves the work dynamic they have on the project.
I ask Matty to delve into his passion for humor.
His sense is that he is actually “hard of hearing” so he lightens the need to ask people to repeat something by responding in some joking manner.
Matty takes a “volumetric” approach to joking around, admitting that maybe only 1 in 10 of his jokes are actually funny. But that’s good enough for him. No question, he is still a kid at heart.
Thinking about what’s next is what keeps Matty motivated. He admits that he is not a “big planner” but spends a lot of time thinking about the next project at home or work, the next year of school for his children, or the next beer.
“I’m doing what I’m doing now, and that’s good. But thinking and talking and spending some mental energy on what the next thing is, is what keeps me going.”
Bouncing Back from a Setback
Not a setback per se but Matty reflects upon who he might be today if he had taken another path that was available to him during the college decision process. Instead of accepting a scholarship to the Colorado School of Mines, he chose to attend the University of Colorado with a couple of his friends.
“I think I would’ve ended up a different person, an entirely different person, if I had taken that path.”
He is familiar with a couple of stories of guys who went the “School of Mines” route. His sense is that while that route would’ve involved interesting work and travel, the guys had little life – work balance to speak of. That balance seems to be rather important to Matty.
“Again, I think that would be super – interesting, but I wouldn’t be here now and I’m pretty happy with where I am.”
Any Fear of Trying Something New?
“Why do you think I’m still here after sixteen years?”
“I don’t know, what is new?”
Matty had aspirations of opening his own brewery someday but has not even begun to research what it takes to write a business plan. It’s not that he does not like trying new things; it’s about getting through the initial discomfort of leaving his comfort zone.
He’s confident he could handle such a transition after traversing the initial fear but Matty is actually quite happy at New Belgium.
“They make it quite easy to stay here.”
I ask Matty to delve a little further into what is it about New Belgium that makes him feel so comfortable, happy, and stable.
He reflects on his early days when all they were really brewing was Fat Tire and then fast-forwards to all of today’s styles at New Belgium. He’s really proud to have been a part of this transition at New Belgium.
His sense is that now the capacity of production, cellar, and packaging is a great match so that the work will transition to something that he is keenly interested in- tinkering with systems to extract greater efficiency.
A recent project Matty started is to extract more beer out of the yeast slurry. His research indicated to him that the yeast slurry could be as much as 60% beer.
The Voice in Matty’s Head
Matty is very tuned into the mannerisms of other people; so much so that he wonders how much people notice his own mannerisms.
He says he’s had glimpses of himself at times and that it’s not always pretty.
I prompt him to share what he sees.
He says he has a phobia about people watching his hands as he is doing a task. He’s afraid his hands will start shaking…and they usually do in these situations because he’s trying so hard not to think about it.
“So I look like the shaky hand phobia guy.”
Matty’s Main Perspective Toward Life
(Thunder rumbles. We are sitting outside.)
Matty’s perspective on his life is that the people in his life are what make his life interesting. His conundrum is that he has so many interesting people in his life; he does not know how to fit in any more.
He wants to forge new friendships with the new and interesting people he meets all of the time but he struggles with knowing how to squeeze more people into his life.
Matty claims not to be a very talkative person. When he and his wife go out, she does all of the talking and he does all of the observing of other people’s mannerisms.
“It’s harder to recognize the successes than it is to really celebrate them.”
His sense is that so many things we do as individuals may be successes but we do them just because we have to get them done and move on to the next task.
For Matty, it’s just about taking the moment to recognize and reflect on even the smallest of successes before moving on.
“I’m not one to toot my own horn but toot toot motherfuckers! I just did that!”
If Matty Were a Style of Beer
(Big ol’ rumble of thunder across the front-range…running out of time)
All kidding aside, his personal sense of being balanced leads him to suggest he might be a Pale Ale.
“It’s quite balanced…but there is a lot of room to play with in a Pale Ale.”
One more rumble of thunder and the sky just opens up to an absolute downpour. The interview concludes as we run inside.