Named after those who ignored the rules against alcohol consumption during Prohibition, Scofflaw Brewing Company was created by Matt Shirah and Brewmaster Travis Herman. The duo quickly established a reputation for outlandishly big, but approachable IPAs and stouts. As followers of the brewery discovered, Shirah and Herman turned out to be big and approachable personalities as well. Known for their high gravity – they were very serious about beer – they also quickly became known for greeting followers at the brewery, irreverent humor and big brewing adventures.
Shirah and Herman initially developed beers in the basement of the home of Shirah’s mother-in-law in Atlanta. In addition to five one-barrel fermentation tanks, the basement brewery featured a glycol cooler, a home-built temperature monitoring system, a fully equipped lab and a yeast cultivation project. Just out the back door was a gas-fired, one-barrel mash tun and brew kettle mounted on a 12-foot tall, free-standing gravity system originally built by Herman for homebrewing while living in California.
Just in case, Matt’s mother-in-law kept a sharp lookout, concerned that the boys in the basement might be up to something not entirely legal. “My mother-in-law thought it was a meth lab or something down there,” said Shirah. “She would close all the windows up whenever guys came over to work on her pool out back. She thought we were crazy, but she was supportive.”
The neighbors became ready collaborators with the future Scofflaws when it came to testing the legal limit for volumes allowed in homebrewing and testing the home brews.
“We did make a barrel of this stout, about 30 gallons,” recalled Shirah. “In the middle, Travis walked off, maybe went to smoke one. I just kept boiling down this stout. Well, the more you boil it down, the higher the ABV gets. I finally called him after an hour. I told him, ‘This beer is gone. It looks like caramel.’ Travis said, ‘Hey man, just turn the fire off.’
“This beer was 19 percent alcohol by time we got done with it. So, I take it to my neighbor’s crawfish boil. When it was time to go, I was putting down one foot and dragging the other. Our host Mike was passed out in the ivy. There were people laying in the beds of pick-up trucks and in lawn chairs. I think I incapacitated the entire neighborhood. Since it resulted from Travis being absent, we first named it Absentia, then ran into trademark issues. So, it became our barely legal 13.9 percent barrel-aged brew called Absentium.”
A graduate of Emory University’s MBA program at the Goizueta Business School, Shirah left behind a corporate career at prestigious Mesirow Financial to pursue a passion for craft brewing. He started his beer career in 2011 by working as the director of operations for three family-owned beer bar franchises in Arizona before deciding to open a craft brewery near his house in Atlanta. Microbiologist Herman left behind a career in the pharmaceutical industry, where he worked on yeast cultures. He attended brewing school at the University of California-Davis. Afterward, he brewed at two of California’s best-known craft breweries: The Lost Abbey and Russian River Brewing.
Starting in 2015, Shirah and Herman worked in the basement for nearly two years before building an 18,000-square foot brewery in the nearby Bolton neighborhood on Atlanta’s Westside, self-installing their new equipment. Before the doors first opened, the original duo was joined by, J.P. Watts, the manager of the Arizona beer bars, and Joe McIntyre, a professional brewer who began moonlighting with Shirah and Herman during the Basement Days.
Using 15-barrel and 30-barrel fermentation tanks, Scofflaw Brewing Company focused on scaling up an array of unfiltered IPAs including West Coast and Northeastern styles, plus an imperial wheat beer and the barrel-aged stouts.
“We brew a lot of IPAs and stouts because that’s what we like to drink,” said Herman. “I’d hate to walk into a bar where there was one of our beers on tap and not want to drink it.”
Scofflaw beers were first sold in August of 2016. Led by Basement IPA, the voracious demand for the high gravity, unfiltered Scofflaw brews was an unexpected and pleasant surprise. The original annual capacity of 6,500 barrels was quickly outgrown. By installing 60-barrel and 90-barrel tanks, the brewery’s fermentation capacity was tripled by July of 2017, which meant a capacity of more than 15,000 barrels a year. It was a remarkable beginning that ranks as one of the fastest first-year expansions in craft brewing history.
During the inaugural year, Scofflaw was recognized by Beer Advocate, Paste Magazine, Craft Beer & Brewing and USA Today as one of the best new craft breweries in America. Nationally regarded Atlanta Journal-Constitution beer writer Bob Townsend cited “the buzz” created by Scofflaw and named Basement his new favorite IPA.
Part of the growth resulted from Shirah’s photos and repartee on Instagram and Facebook, which generated more than 15,000 followers in the first year. But before the year was out, Shirah’s dedication to the Scofflaw way resulted in a Facebook post that went viral in the craft beer community when he invited a troll to buy his beer elsewhere. He posted a previously taken photo of the entire staff giving a single finger salute to the camera. Having successfully undertaken the risk of introducing Northeastern-style IPAs to Georgia, Shirah gave a prodigious push to the education process on unfiltered IPAs, which are hazy with retained yeast and flavor as opposed to the classic clear appearance. One of the first in craft brewing to publicly stand up to the inevitable anonymous online trolls who bash anybody’s success, Scofflaw and its employees soon began getting friendly single digit salutes during their travels.
Not long after the dust-up on Facebook, when Scofflaw celebrated its first anniversary in September of 2017, an estimated 4,000 people attended the day-long party at the iconic tap room that emphasizes a working brewery along with an outdoor beer garden.
“Travis and I are a couple of guys who are risking it all to brew beer,” said Shirah. “But we couldn’t do this without the guys who came before us. I don’t think the brewing pioneers from the 1980s and 1990s get enough credit for what they did for craft beer.”