Matthew Smith of Wandering Soul Beer: “Be able to handle criticism”

Be able to handle criticism. The beers I’m making aren’t perfect. Some folks really like them, and give them high praise and feedback in online forums, and others just aren’t into them as much. It was hard for me early on (and still is, to a certain extent) to see reviews of some of my […]

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Be able to handle criticism. The beers I’m making aren’t perfect. Some folks really like them, and give them high praise and feedback in online forums, and others just aren’t into them as much. It was hard for me early on (and still is, to a certain extent) to see reviews of some of my beers that weren’t perfect. I think this has to do with the personal nature of it. Take every review of your product and every piece of feedback with a grain of salt, because everything is relative and opinions are opinions.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Smith of Wandering Soul Beer.

Matt is the owner and founder of Wandering Soul Beer out of Beverly, Massachusetts. He is originally from New Jersey, and moved up to Massachusetts to play in a band, which eventually led him to the world of craft beer. He has been in the craft beer industry for about 10 years, and his brand is personal in nature and tied to certain people and concepts that have had an impact on Matt’s life.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It’s great to be here. I ended up getting into home brewing over 10 years ago when my best friend brought me to a home brewing “class” as a gift. The first few batches were not very good, but when I started to branch out on my own and develop my own recipes, things really started to click on a creative level. I eventually met the folks at Clown Shoes Beer (by going into Berman’s Wine in Lexington to try new beers), and they hired me in 2012. I shifted around in a variety of roles with Clown Shoes over the years, and handled a lot of aspects of production, among other things. Eventually Clown Shoes was acquired by Harpoon, and I went my own way and started Wandering Soul a couple years later. I don’t have a physical brewery or taproom of my own, so I have been making my beers at other breweries who have the space for me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I think the most interesting thing is that this was never supposed to be a business. I started the brand (which is named after a spiritual concept, and was an idea for a band name), and the only real goal was to release a beer called “Melody Maker” dedicated to my first daughter Melody, who was stillborn in 2017. The beer was designed to be a legacy for her in a way, and I had worked on the recipe for years prior to officially starting the brand. I had only really planned on brewing one batch commercially (that would be available in the local stores and bars around the North Shore of MA). I was amazed and humbled by the amount of support and great feedback about the beer, and the stores all sold out pretty quickly. Then it was basically like, “OK, now what?” So we brewed another batch, and the same thing happened. And then I thought to myself, “wow, maybe this could really be something bigger.”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Yes, definitely. At the time, it wasn’t funny, but I severely underestimated the sheer physical toll of delivering nearly 180 cases of beer and 20–30 kegs from the first batch. I had connections from my time in the industry, and pre-sold all the beer into the stores and bars, but when it was packaged and ready, I started loading up my Honda Accord and doing the deliveries myself, with my paper invoices. The first batch went out to about 75 different stores and bars, and I stored hundreds of cases of beer and kegs in my family room, which served as my “warehouse.” I realized I could fit almost 30 cases in my Accord along with a few kegs, and did the first few deliveries that way. It’s a blur now, but I think I ended up renting a cargo van one day to be able to accomplish a lot more. It took a couple weeks to get all the beer out there, and I definitely wasn’t lifting the kegs properly (lifting with my back instead of my knees), but the sense of relief when it was all done was extraordinary, and seeing all the stores sell out of the product quickly really made me happy.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Part of this project’s purpose is to provide a platform for those who feel isolated, while bringing people together through the common bond of enjoying a beer. I hope to raise awareness to certain life experiences that aren’t talked about enough, such as stillbirth (especially from a male perspective). A portion of the profits from sales of “Melody Maker” are donated to the organization Resolve New England, a group that helps families struggling with pregnancy loss and infertility. Each Wandering Soul beer is dedicated to either a person or a concept. For example, the Double IPA “Things We Don’t Say…” shines light on the thoughts and experiences people endure that they may be too afraid to talk about, for fear of upsetting someone. Another Wandering Soul brew, “Young Mouse’’, is a Belgian wheat ale with mango dedicated to Matt’s nephew Oscar. Oscar has a rare genetic mutation that causes epilepsy, vision impairment and other challenges (and a portion of profits are donated to FamilieSCN2A, a group that supports the families of those suffering from this genetic mutation). And “From The Wreckage” is an Imperial Stout dedicated to the concept of rebuilding a life out of destruction and chaos, with artwork depicting a small plant growing out of the debris of a shattered building.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There are so many stories I could share, and so many people who contacted me when the first batch of beer hit the stores. I was really amazed at how open people were about their own life experiences, and I was contacted by a lot of people who had been through the experience of losing a child. I really felt compelled to connect to these people, and I’m still in touch with many of them.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Yes, I think just simply talking about these things more will help people. Our culture is not very good at dealing with grief, especially when it comes to experiences that are labeled as “sad” and almost taboo in a certain way. I think we have a lot of work to do as a culture to make it more comfortable for people to talk about these things. Traditionally, the older generation would mostly brush things under the carpet when it came to talking about your feelings and experiences…it wasn’t really OK to talk about these things because you wouldn’t want to make someone else feel sad or uncomfortable. I think that support groups are great, but it’s only the first step. What I’m interested in is forming support groups that are not “traditional” but they sort of happen organically through a shared cause or experience. That’s really what Wandering Soul has become for a lot of people, and I think others could form these types of “support groups” as well, and people might be more comfortable talking about things.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I’d define “leadership” as having the courage to put something out into the world that will inspire others, even if you don’t know that it will actually happen. As an example of this, you can look at how Wandering Soul came to be. I don’t think leadership has to be something that is planned. By just being comfortable enough to be personal with people, you will likely end up inspiring them in some way and they may then feel comfortable enough to talk about certain things with other people, so it’s sort of a “trickle effect”.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Don’t worry about upsetting people. Starting a beer brand whose first offering was a beer dedicated to a person who is no longer with us was something very personal and I always ran the risk of making people sad. The end goal of this project is more important to me than feeling like I might make people sad. It’s a story of hope and perseverance in the darkest days.
  2. Ask for help when you need it. I reached a point with doing all the beer deliveries myself where I needed to ask some friends for help. Thankfully, the beer industry is filled with a lot of really amazing and generous people, and I’ve leaned on some folks for support who’ve been really helpful to me.
  3. Stay organized. This one is really hard, especially as someone with OCD. Running a “one man show” can be a total mess sometimes, and it’s important to have lists, keep your priorities straight, and try to maintain your focus. It’s very easy to get distracted when you’re doing everything yourself, and when it’s so personal.
  4. Beware of “imposter syndrome” — this is something that creeps in every now and then, when I don’t feel that I’m adequate enough to be a “brewer” and feel that my peers are way better than me, know more than me, and are more qualified than me. The fact is, these are all just labels that are assigned to people, whether they’re true or not. Stick to your guns and believe in yourself…we are all human, and we all do things our own way and make mistakes. It doesn’t make you any better or worse than anyone else.
  5. Be able to handle criticism. The beers I’m making aren’t perfect. Some folks really like them, and give them high praise and feedback in online forums, and others just aren’t into them as much. It was hard for me early on (and still is, to a certain extent) to see reviews of some of my beers that weren’t perfect. I think this has to do with the personal nature of it. Take every review of your product and every piece of feedback with a grain of salt, because everything is relative and opinions are opinions.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think this goes back to what I was talking about before — just being more comfortable sharing your story with others and maybe getting them to open up more. I’d like to have an impact when it comes to getting our culture to be a little bit more welcoming to those who are afraid to talk about certain things, namely grief. I think that there are support groups that could be formed around people who truly want to help others and who can take the first step by putting something out into the world that’s personal (and maybe a little uncomfortable) and then having others rally around them and be inspired by them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I really like the quote “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and I often think about this as I’m running the business. It can be incredibly overwhelming to think of all the components that make a business run, and how they interact with each other, and all the things you need to get done. The approach I tried to take in building Wandering Soul was just doing one batch of beer at a time, once a month. I’ve been following that approach for over 2 years now, and have made my beer at multiple breweries. I think acknowledging that there’s only so much time in one day, and some of that time needs to be filled with things that recharge your spirit, is very important.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to meet and hang out with Jim Koch, the owner of Samuel Adams. His story is really inspirational to me in terms of how he started his company, and he actually started in a similar way to what I’m doing now (making the beer at other breweries until he had his own). It’s been very inspirational to see how his journey has taken shape, and to see how big it has become now. Sam Adams was one of the first independent craft beer brands (especially around here), and Jim has always been helpful within the industry through a number of different initiatives and helping other breweries (who are technically competitors).

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@wanderingsoulbeer on Instagram and Facebook. I try to be as active as I can on social media!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you so much for asking these questions and making me really think about the responses!

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