What’s on Tap?
With a first-class taproom, local talent and craft beer, Monroe’s downtown area welcomes Flying Tiger Brewery.
Article by MEREDITH MCKINNIE
Photography by BRAD ARENDER
Craft beer is a community, and the team behind Flying Tiger Brewery is committed to giving back to theirs. What began as a developed interest from bartending to a home-brewing operation turned business, the passion, the practice and the pursuit of perfection at Flying Tiger is evident in the product, the performance and appreciation of the past. James E. Simpson, David Johnson, Robert Brewer and Brooks Hamaker, along with a team of not just investors, but partners, identified a void in the Monroe area and are filling it one can and pint at a time. With a first-class taproom built from local talent and identifiable symbols of the region and its history, Monroe’s downtown area now has another feather in its cap.
James E. Simpson’s love and appreciation for beer started behind the bar at Trio’s. The craft curve hadn’t hit Monroe then, still infantile in the late 90s. James remembers “only having Guinness and Harp, making black and tans left and right.” After his Trio’s days, James moved to Dallas in 2007 and frequented a place in Uptown called The Gingerman that had about fifty beers on tap, no domestics, all imports and beers from different areas of the United States. There, James discovered hundreds of craft breweries existed in the US making unique beers with more flavor often local to the region of their creation. Years later, on a trip to Jefferson, Texas, with his then-girlfriend, now wife, Julie, her brother let James sample his two kegs of home-brewed beer. James was impressed, saying it was “so good,” and began to pepper the brewer with questions about the process. Julie noted James’ interest and gifted him home brewing equipment later that year for Christmas. What began as a backyard hobby developed into Flying Tiger just a short four years later. James calls himself a “late-bloomer,” his love developing like his passion for cooking. Having always been comfortable in the kitchen, James admires the creative process, getting to create every aspect “from grain to glass.”
Twenty years ago, James was in Robert Brewer’s youth group at First Presbyterian Church in Monroe. They remained friends, and frequently Robert would hear about James’ passion for home brewing and often would come over to watch the process and sample the product. James would share his idea of bringing a craft brewery to Monroe. After countless brewery tours with his wife on vacations, James wanted to bring it home. David Johnson, former partner in Danken Trail had also been in talks with James, and the two brought Robert aboard for his business savvy. After discussing the concept, David and James knew they were missing a link if they were serious about making it a business. That link was Robert who digs into research, crunches numbers, and is slick with marketing and branding, which developed after Robert came aboard.
The name Flying Tiger was proposed by David, who remembered a customer of his, one of the last surviving members of the Flying Tigers from World War II. In addition, the brewery wanted to pay homage to General Chennault, who was the commander of the Flying Tigers and a Louisiana native who lived in Monroe for a time. The Chennault Aviation & Military Museum is named after him, and Flying Tiger Brewery wants to highlight the local gem. The name honors General Chennault, the Flying Tiger who lived here, the museum and the P40 Warhawk Flying Tiger plane, the origin of the ULM mascot. Robert insists the name “truly is our identity now,” rich in history, respect and tradition.
While James is the “beer passion guy, the chef, the cook,” Robert and James knew they needed a brewmaster. They couldn’t do the expansive operation alone, wanting to perfect all the elements. “We weren’t making beer in our kitchens anymore. We needed a team.” And though James says he “makes great beer, it’s different when you’re putting it in a can and out on a shelf.” It’s a brewer’s world out there, and with the craft industry booming, James and Robert were having a hard time finding a brewmaster with ten years plus experience. Brooks Hamaker, a Monroe native, had not lived in the area since 1979, leaving shortly after high school.
He was vice president of Abita, serving as brewmaster for eleven years. He made beer that every Monrovian knows from Turbo Dog and Purple Haze. When Brooks left Abita in the late 90s, he became a consultant for new breweries around the world. Brooks calls himself a “brewery in a box,” teaching people how to do it, helping them build it, and then moving onto the next project. He is responsible for setting up brewery operations in Mexico, Ireland, Hong Kong and all across the U.S. He had spent the last six years in Durham, North Carolina, which is exploding with breweries, moving from one setup job to another, when one of his sons called after seeing the ad run by James and Robert in search of a “Brewer for Hire.” After sending an article and a note response, thirty seconds later, Brooks heard back from James. It was a coming home for Brooks, whose parents still live here. He says, “I can walk into Brookshire’s and see people I literally haven’t seen in thirty years.” Nobody expected him to move back, and he is grateful for the opportunity with Flying Tiger.
Along with a team of financial investors, the dream is becoming reality. Robert insists, “I don’t want to call them investors, because that seems impersonal, and they’re not. They’re partners, and this has been quite a financial project; they’re all supportive and active in it.” They know when to come in and when to let the men do their thing, which is important. The map of the United States shows Flying Tiger Brewery in a kind of “nuclear void.” Unless one travels to Shreveport or Little Rock or Jackson or Oxford, this kind of brewery experience is unavailable. Conveniently stationed right on Interstate 20, along with its agreement with Choice Brands, James’ sister, distributor Delia Simpson, a Level One cicerone in her own right, the business is taking off. Having worked in the Jacksonville, Florida area where the craft industry is relevant, the team is fortunate to have her onboard. James says his sister “has probably forgotten more about the craft industry than I know.” With only three Level One cicerones in Ouachita Parish, and two of them, Delia and Brooks, working with Flying Tiger, the knowledge is concentrated.
In December, start looking for Flying Tiger beer in Brookshire’s and Super 1 in this region, extending east from the Mississippi River to Minden and down to Alexandria. Though large in square mileage, the area is not densely populated, but the beer will also be available in numerous convenience stores, local restaurants and bars. Beginning November 25, what the team has designated “Beer Friday” over Black Friday, the brewery itself will be open Thursday and Friday from 4:30-10:00 p.m., Saturday from 12:00-10:00 p.m., and Sunday from 12:00-6:00 with bar tours on Saturdays where craft beer enthusiasts can learn about the equipment and beer brewing process. The weekends will feature live music, food trucks and a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, the only one of its kind in the region. Sourcing local talent was essential to the vision. Countertops, drink rails and tabletops were made by Kyle Snellenberger. Agnew created the old retro arrow sign that will sit atop the building. The logo and can designs were created by Jason Byron Nelson, a graphic designer James tasked with his music posters years ago. James was the brainchild behind the custom tap tower, an impressive system crafted by a maker in San Antonio. The design of the taproom is credited primarily to Robert and Sara Brewer, who are attempting to make the brewery first-class. “It wasn’t just slung together.” It took a lot of thought to create a special, unique experience. They want people to walk in and say, “Man, I’m in Monroe?” Featuring sitting areas, couches, oversized stuffed chairs and typical bar stuff like barstools, tables darts, and lounging areas, the goal is to get people to stay awhile. Robert wants people to “come get fired up about the beer, taste beer, sample beer and hang out.” A large outdoor space will feature seating, the team calling it the “beer garden.” Merchandise, hats, stickers and T-shirts will also be available for purchase. Embracing and promoting the craft beer community is the vision, and the people make it thrive.
The four flagship beers will be: Man at Arms Amber Ale, Heroic Hops IPA, Burma Blonde Lager, and Nitrogen Milk Stout, though the Milk Stout will not be canned and only available at restaurants and bars. The brewery will open with the flagships, and eight to ten beers will rotate on taps with beer for all levels of interest. The Burma Blonde is more of a “transition beer” with more flavor than domestic, but not so hoppy, not too bold, and not so high in alcohol content, ideal for those interested in the craft world, but new to it. They will also feature “high gravity beer” and beer for “hop heads.” The brewing process can take anywhere from two weeks to several months, with the ales being shorter and the lagers taking longer. They will eventually have aged beer, the process taking up to eight months. The managing operators, James, Robert and Brooks, are committing seven days a week to this passion, along with David’s “entrepreneurial spirit.” Robert notes, like any business, “it takes everything you’ve got and then some to get it there.”
James notes every brewery takes a “philanthropic avenue,” trying to help the community by making something locally. Promoting local products, local flavors and familiar faces is key. “Our avenue is giving back to Chennault Museum, our connection, our history.” The younger generation is not as familiar with the Flying Tiger story, a great heroic group of guys, and they want to preserve it. And primarily, the team is “doing something for the Monroe area.” The downtown location was chosen deliberately to partner with the ongoing revitalization. With efforts, such as the art crawls, the pub-crawls, the block parties and Mardi Gras, they want to be a part of that growth. The Mardi Gras parade will run right in front of the brewery. They are embracing and promoting this area, bettering where they live, providing cultural significance, noting history and helping to put Monroe on the map. With vision, passion, knowledge and creativity, they are enriching the depth of our town. Cheers to them. Cheers to the Flying Tigers, and cheers to our community.