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The following story was published in SIP Northwest magazine.
Sometimes All It Takes is a Leap of Faith
by Kendall Jones
Many of us daydream about leaving our jobs to pursue our passion. Tethered to our desks, confined to our cubicles, we imagine breaking free and becoming the masters of our own destinies, chasing our own dreams and reporting to no one but ourselves. It sounds easy enough, but for most of us the longing for security tempers our desire for freedom and we cling to the safety of our work-a-day world. That does not mean we are weak, it just explains why we respect people passionate enough to go for it. We admire the courage it takes to let go.
For Matt and Heather McClung, the owners of Seattle’s Schooner Exact Brewing, fate dictated that they go out on a limb and reach for their dream. As newlyweds, one leap of faith seemed undeniably tied to the other. Like any great brewery, the story of Schooner Exact lies in the people as much as it does the beer: good people make good beer.
“When we got home from our wedding, the documents from the Secretary of State’s office were waiting for us in the mailbox.” Pausing for a moment, Matt McClung raised his eyebrows and slowly nodded his head as if accepting some inescapable truth, and then he continued, “Our anniversary and the founding of our company are the same day.”
Schooner Exact Brewing Company started out in 2007 as a nano-brewery working out of a small Active Space studio in West Seattle. A nano-brewery is a very small brewery usually operated on a part-time basis by someone that still maintains a day job. In those days, Matt brewed on weekends and evenings, teaching chemistry by day at Mercer Island High School. The pint-sized operation brewed no more than three or four kegs each week and provided beer for two regular accounts.
“We barely made enough beer for our two regular accounts: West 5 in West Seattle and the 74th Street Alehouse (in Seattle’s Phinney neighborhood). We hardly had anything left over to sell to new accounts,” said Matt. “It was all 3-Grid IPA, which meant we pretty much never got to make anything else.”
Heather did the company’s bookkeeping as time allowed. She also had experience working as a beer and wine manager for PCC Natural Markets so the beer business was not entirely foreign to her. Marcus Connery, an early partner in Schooner Exact who has since moved on to pursue other interest, delivered kegs out of the backseat of his car. Heather and Marcus also helped Matt at the brewery.
Fast-forward five years and Schooner Exact regularly brews more beer each day than it previously brewed in an entire month. In its first year (2007) the brewery produced 50 barrels. In 2012, the brewery expects to brew 3,000 barrels–the equivalent of 6,000 kegs of beer.
Expansion seems to be a never-ending process at the brewery and tap room, which is located in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood. On most days you’ll find Matt at the brewery overseeing his brewers. He supervises the brewing process as he tinkers with pipes, fittings, fermenters, glycol lines and pumps. He is mechanically inclined and insists on maintaining a hands-on approach to the brewery’s continuing expansion. Schooner Exact currently supports nine employees and the next round of expansion should create at least four more jobs.
The New Camelot
The craft beer industry is a tight-knit, friendly community and today Matt and Heather McClung find themselves firmly ensconced in the local beer scene. Truth is, you could refer to them as the first couple of the Seattle beer scene. If they were JFK and Jackie O, Schooner Exact would be the new Camelot.
Do not be duped into thinking that Schooner Exact is all about Matt McClung. Rest assured that Heather is in complete control. Matt and his brew crew are rapidly gaining a reputation for creating delicious and creative beers, but Heather plays a big part in everything that is happening at Schooner Exact. What’s more, she is the President of the Washington Brewers Guild. As President, it is Heather’s responsibility to lead the charge when the Guild wrestles with policymakers to protect the interests of the brewing industry. Heather is a smart, assertive and passionate voice for the cause. That’s putting it lightly. She’s a dynamo: a power-packed tornado in a petite package. Many people in the state capitol would agree with my assessment.
To top it all off, Heather is a new mother, having delivered the couple’s first child, Ellie, in February. I guess you could call her an over-achiever.
Matt and Heather are natives of the Pacific Northwest. They were both born in Portland, where Matt also grew up. Heather spent her early childhood in Montana before her family moved to Tacoma when she was 12 years old. The couple’s Subaru is a tribute to their sporty nature: the car-top carrier is permanently attached and a bike rack frequently hangs off the back bumper. You will often see the couple’s two Border Collies in the back of the car, eager to chase a bike down some windy mountain trail.
At the close of the 2010 school year, Matt and Heather McClung said good-bye to their careers as educators and directed their professional, full time attention to the brewery. It was not an insignificant decision. They both were heavily vested in their teaching careers. Matt earned his National Board Certification shortly before opening the brewery. Heather, who taught kindergarten and art, is a graduate of the Master in Teaching Program at Seattle University. Still, their passion for great beer and their desire to build something that they could call their own compelled them to abandon the relative security of their teaching careers.
“My Board Certification is good through 2016. If this doesn’t work out I can go back to teaching,” Matt said jokingly as he stood surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a busy brewery. Matt says it is now hard to picture himself anywhere else. There is no reason to believe that Schooner Exact will experience anything but continued success and continued growth.
The brewery’s achievements have not gone unnoticed. Schooner Exact has secured its place in the Seattle beer market, establishing an ever-growing local fan base. More than that, Schooner Exact is familiar to many brewers across the country, recognized in large part for successfully growing from its humble beginnings on a shoestring budget, during a bleak economy, fueled by little more than desire and hard work.
Each year members of the craft beer industry from across the nation attend the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC). It is a serious affair, primarily focused on education, at which brewers seek to learn from each other. In 2011 the CBC organizers invited Matt McClung to present a workshop. He spoke to a crowd of approximately 500 of his peers about the brewery’s successes and growing pains, and about the process of evolving from a nano-brewery to a microbrewery. Since then, Matt has entertained many phone calls and emails from small breweries, both near and far, seeking advice as they face the kind of expansion that Schooner Exact manages so well.
What’s in a Name?
Matt and Heather live a few miles from the brewery in nearby West Seattle with their new baby and two dogs. The name Schooner Exact is a nod to the neighborhood they call home. In 1851 the Denny Party landed on the shores of West Seattle in a schooner named Exact, one of the landmark events in Seattle history.
Most of Schooner Exact’s beers take their names from some aspect of Seattle’s lesser-known history. For example, Schooner Exact named its flagship beer, 3-Grid IPA, after downtown Seattle’s unusual and unfortunate street layout, which is based on three disjointed grids. Another beer, Seamstress Union Raspberry Wheat Ale, pays tribute to the working girls of Seattle’s early history. In frontier Seattle, prostitution was not uncommon but the City did not approve of random, seemingly unemployed individuals hanging around downtown. Anyone loitering on the streets of Seattle had to show proof of employment or union affiliation. The city’s madams created the Seamstress Union to provide sewing services and otherwise attend to the needs of the city’s gentlemen.
Schooner Exact’s beers are in themselves a history lesson. It’s not surprising, really. Although Matt and Heather McClung are no longer teachers, they just can’t help themselves.Filed under: Brewery Profiles