Jim Caruso is not your ordinary CEO. He is friends with British gonzo artist Ralph Steadman, wears a blue-collar shirt with pride because he loves working in manufacturing and does not think his Flying Dog Brewery is succeeding unless it has to throw out the occasional unsuccessful batch of beer. Two failed batches cost the company $100,000 this year alone.
“So many people settle, but to be the best requires original thinking,” Caruso said.
Pushing the envelope to develop original craft beers means that sometimes they do not work out. But out of 43 different beers tried this year, 41 have succeeded. Those beers ranged from the new oyster-flavored stout Pearl Necklace, which received rave reviews from beer critics, to the company’s top-selling Raging Bitch.
Caruso was 5 years old when he had his first glass of beer. His grandparents — Russian on one side, Italian on the other — saw nothing wrong with giving the children a glass of beer or wine.
“I remember so distinctly drinking that glass of beer and just loving it,” Caruso said.
To him, making a craft beer is a form of expression, and producing great art requires stepping outside of the norms, which requires conquering the fear of doing something different.
“It’s a challenge,” Caruso said. “Every day I get up, there’s a nanosecond of fear: What if no one buys our beer? Then I get up and get to work to produce the best beer.”
Beer drinkers apparently agree. Despite the sluggish economy, the Frederick brewery saw sales increase 25 percent in 2011. The privately owned company doesn’t disclose sales or profit figures. The company is studying whether to triple the factory’s production capabilities.
Flying Dog can produce 200 bottles of beer per minute. The company has 2 million bottles of beer — stored in cases and not on the wall — at the plant ready for shipping to stores, taverns and restaurants.
This year, the Entrepreneur Council of Frederick County named Caruso its Entrepreneur of the Year.
“Jim Caruso is an incredibly energetic visionary that does not let fear get in his way,” said Karlys Kline, a council board member. “He believes, actually encourages, mistakes because if you do not make a mistake, you are not testing the limits.”
Kline arranged for Caruso to speak at Rotary Club chapters throughout the county. Caruso was such a motivating speaker that people came up to Kline after the talk to thank her for organizing it, something that never happens, she said.
Caruso said his message to other business executives is the same as he practices: Be original to be the best. Beer drinkers go into a bar and ask the bartender to pull them their best beer, not their second best, Caruso said.
The company, with 82 employees, began in Colorado in the 1990s as part of a real estate operation to buy properties, turn them into brew pubs and sell them to local investors. Eventually, Caruso said he found he liked making the beer more than developing the properties and went to work brewing the beers. Flying Dog acquired Frederick Brewing Co. in 2006, closed the Colorado plant in 2008 and consolidated operations in Frederick.
Flying Dog was the favorite beer company of the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, a Colorado native, who did his own pushing of the edge as a writer, Caruso said. Steadman, who illustrated Thompson’s books, also designs labels for Flying Dog.
Caruso, personally and as a business owner, is a defender of the First Amendment, supporting the Gonzo Foundation created in Thompson’s memory and challenging the Michigan state liquor board, which sought to ban the company’s Raging Bitch beer because it deemed the name offensive. Even though the state dropped the ban, Caruso said the company has continued to pursue legal action, as a matter of principle, to prevent the state from trying to censor other beer labels in the future.
The company has shrunk its market from 46 states to 33, to focus more on its home base of the mid-Atlantic region.
“We want to be the best in the world, and our world is the mid-Atlantic,” Caruso said.