Mispillion’s Menagerie of Imagination

For brewery co-founder and president Eric Williams, the recipe for success infuses quality with wild creativity and humor

I would have never anticipated that I would have met so many dear friends in this room,” says Eric Williams as he looks around the tasting room at Mispillion River Brewing, a craft beer haven that’s been operating on the outskirts of Milford since November 2013.

Williams is the co-founder, president, operating partner, and current sales rep for a brewery that’s famous for its top-selling IPAs—Reach Around and Not Today Satan.

Mispillion has more than its share of off-the-wall humor, but here at the brewery, Williams’ crew are serious about one thing: making delicious, fun beer.

It’s not hard to imagine this dichotomy as a reflection of their leader, who exhibits a Bugs Bunny-like sense of comic timing and awareness. Williams’ wit and whimsy comes in slight contrast to his physical demeanor. As he praises his staff, he beams through a long, gray, bifurcated beard, which gives him the appearance of a biker at Sturgis or a mountain man.

Which, as it turns out, is appropriate. “I’ve always been an avid outdoorsman,” Williams says. “I [have] a degree in wildlife biology from the University of Montana. It was an amazing experience being out there.  We were all over those mountains. I worked for the National Forrest Service for a while. I got to study a lot of streams in that area, so I got to find all these really cool fishing spots.”

Perhaps those wildlife experiences have something to do with Mispillion’s use of animals in its beer themes. Maybe they also have something to do with how Williams deals with the other types of “wildlife” in and out of the breweryincluding the beer industry itself.

“The market is really crowded right now with a lot of great breweries, which makes it difficult to sell beer,” he says. “Even just six years ago, if you put up a brewery, people would come to it. Now there’s a brewery everywhere. So you have to do more with marketing and advertising.”

That said, Williams comes across as a man confident about Mispillion’s place in the ever-expanding frontiers of craft beer. Likewise, he speaks highly of his staff and  with humble gratitude when it comes to Mispillion’s fans.

“I love Delaware,” he says.

Here’s what else he had to say about his brewery’s place in the First State, where it’s been and what’s just around the corner.

O&A: Mispillion has done a really good job of using humor as a marketing tool. It’s a distinctive element to what you do in your themes and designs. What can you say about that?

Williams: The artwork on our cans is pretty awesome. Our artist, Tom Ryan, does an amazing job. He’s worked with us since winter of 2014.

We know that people come to our tasting room to relax, forget about the rest of the world, have a beer or two, and talk with some friends. I think that’s the essence of craft brewing.  Once you start to take yourself too seriously—in the business towards the public—I think you start to lose the allure.

We use humor because, No. 1, we love laughing. And No. 2, we know that kind of stuff gets attention. We named a beer Reach Around. We laughed for half an hour when we came up with that name. And it was just out of a joke.

So I think it’s important. There are serious sides to the business. But people don’t need to know that. They want to have a good time. They want to laugh. And if we can make that happen, we might gain another fan.

O&A: Talk a bit about brewing a beer and then naming it. You’re going through a creative process there with lots of things to consider.

Williams: Some names come really easy. With others we sit down and talk about it. Usually we try to do it in a relaxed situation. Or we’re already in a relaxed situation:  It’s an afternoon, we’re having some beers together, and we’re like, “What are we gonna name this beer?” And people start throwing names out there.

One name might start being the name, but will get shortened or get turned into something a little bit different. Lightning Bug IPA was pretty easy because we wanted to make a beer that basically told the Firefly concert promoters that we don’t have fireflies in Delaware, we have lightning bugs.

Little Dictator is another because that’s just funny. That makes us laugh. [Ed: The Little Dictator Jalapeno Hefeweizen and Lightning Bug IPA are both currently available at the tasting room.]

We do take a lot from pop culture and movies.

O&A: You use a lot of Star Wars references.

Williams: Nobody’s called us yet. We expect it. We did have the Olympics Committee’s lawyer send us a letter because we were doing the Beer Olympics a few years back. I called her, and she told me, “You can’t do that.”

I said, “You can’t really copyright Olympics.”

Then she said, “Our logo is on your Facebook page.”

And I was like, “Oh, it is?” [laughs]

We both started laughing. And then I told her we’d take it down.

Wild animals and off-the-wall humor play large roles in Mispillion’s marketing. Photo by Butch Comegys

O&A: You also seem to utilize a lot of fairly exotic animals in your beer names.

Williams: Pretty much everything’s got an animal. When we do a new beer, it’s like, “What animal are we going to put on it?”

O&A: Like the sloth on the Reach Around.

Williams: The sloth was the beginning.

O&A: Space Otter. That’s a great beer, by the way.

Williams: Thank you. That beer name started when Ryan Maloney, our brewmaster, was brewing beers for owners of the company. In honor of them. So, he knows one of my favorite styles—if not my favorite—is pale ale. So he brewed this pale ale, which he thought I would like. And I do.

Then it came time to name it. We were sitting around a local bar and decided on the theme of “spirit animals.” Someone downloaded an app that asks you questions, and it pops out your spirit animal. So I do it, and it gives me a butterfly.

I’m like, “No, no, no. We’re not putting a butterfly on my beer. It’s gotta have teeth.”

Ryan says, “I know you. Let me do it.” So he ran it for me, and it gave him “otter.” And from there, we went with it. We said it came from “otter space.” That’s how that came about. Sometimes that is the process.

O&A: So that’s your spirit beer.

Williams: Yep. And it’s still out there.

O&A: What new beers of yours should people keep an eye out for?

Williams: The most interesting new beer that we have out right now is War Badger, which is a “sports Berliner.” Basically, it’s a fruit punch electrolyte-infused sour beer.

It’s red. It’s delicious. It’s literally the dumbest idea that you could think of in the beer world. And I hated it.  Now, I love it. Not because it sells, but because as soon as I tasted it, I was like, “OK, we’re onto something. That’s interesting.”

It covers a lot of ground. It’s a craft sour, but the fruity drinkers will like it, too.

O&A: We’re going into August. It’s hot out there. People aren’t going to want to drink a bunch of 7 percent beers after playing volleyball.

Williams: Our 5 percent War Badger would be perfect for that.

O&A: Explain the electrolyte thing.

Williams: We’re taking a sports drink that has electrolytes in it and we infuse it as the beer is going from the fermenter to the bright tank, where we condition it.

O&A: Do you find that it’s a challenge that you have the demand for certain well-known products—like Reach Around and Not Today Satan—but, at the same time, you want to create these new products and may be limited by resources?

Williams: Yeah, there’s a lot of reasons why we could get delayed. It could be a shipping company not delivering something. Or we couldn’t move the beer through our fermenters fast enough. We can do a little more than 225 barrels every two weeks, but if we can’t get it through there [fast enough] and it’s selling, we can’t do the new beers. 

Our biggest challenge this year has been that the demand has been high. We’re trying to keep up. But that’s a good problem to have.

Customer Adam Knechel, of Milford, enjoys a cold beer on a hot and humid afternoon next to Tammy Perlot, bartender and co-owner of Mispillion River Brewing. Photo by Butch Comegys

O&A: Where is your market? Is it mostly in Delaware, or are you also in other states?

Williams: The bulk of what we sell, we sell right here in Delaware. But we are also in Eastern Shore Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and Ohio.

There are all these interesting little pockets of craft beer enthusiasts. And they are so different from one another. Ohio is different from Delaware. The sour thing really hasn’t hit there. It’s hit here.

Ohio is different from Philly. Wilmington is different from down here (Milford).

O&A: In the next five years, where do you see Mispillion?

Williams: I’ve been asked that question from the beginning. We definitely want to grow and get bigger. And we definitely would like to have a new facility that would allow us to have that growth. We’re kind of packed in here pretty tight.

For me personally, I want it to go as far as [it can] as long as it’s still fun and it’s still profitable for our investors and profitable for our employees. We have a lot of great people here, and I want them to reap the benefits, too.

It’s a tough business now. But it’s still extremely rewarding.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.