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Behind The Beer: Wandering Soul Beer Company’s Matt Smith Talks About Melody Maker And Brewing To Cope With A Loss

A little less than three years after losing his daughter, the Massachusetts brewer explains how, at one of life's lowest points, he turned to brewing to honor his child's legacy.

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Photo Courtesy of Matt Smith

(Editors note: This feature was edited to better explain the brewing process, Smith’s donations and the partnership with Bent Water Brewing Company.)

What started out as a passion has grown into so much more for Matt Smith but the Massachusetts native isn’t just brewing beer, he’s building a legacy – one to honor his late daughter, Melody.

Close to a decade ago, Smith was like many beer enthusiasts, creating complex homebrew efforts to share with the other beer geeks in his group, only his hobby soon led to a career. Smith spent close to six years with Boston-based Clown Shoes Beer, before it was acquired by Harpoon Brewery, and there he wore many hats. The experience proved valuable and taught him many things, among them was how to run a business.

“I was kind of the guy that did a lot of the things that no one else wanted to do,” he recalled.  “I did a lot of the accounting, a lot of sales and marketing, a lot of managing our production, which beers are ready and when are they going to be ready, dealing with our distributors, opening up new markets.  It was an incredible experience – I learned so much and I’m really grateful for it.”

Smith left in 2017, at which point beer – and his career – would be put on hold.

While awaiting the arrival of their first child, Smith and his wife received devastating news. The couple lost the heartbeat of their daughter, Melody, at eight and a half months and she was delivered stillborn.  It was the kind of blow no soon-to-be parent should ever have to endure, one that left Smith bewildered and emotional, while struggling to not only process the loss but to carry on with day-to-day life.

“For the first time in my life, after that experience, I had suicidal thoughts, so I knew that unless I figured out some way to open up and talk about this with people, I was going to literally self-destruct,” Smith admitted.  “There was therapy and doctors, there was all that, but I needed something bigger than that, I needed something larger, in terms of having an impact and making sure her name wasn’t forgotten.”

Smith wanted to make sure Melody wasn’t forgotten – and that’s when he turned to beer.

Armed with a five gallon brew kit, the experienced homebrewer worked on a new batch of beer, one that he planned to distribute at some point.  It was a clear step above his homebrewing days, which meant it had to be perfect, so Smith worked tirelessly on the recipe, creating the effort in his backyard shed – but, even for someone well-versed in the beer industry, it proved challenging.  Smith brewed somewhere between 25 to 30 slightly different batches. Some he shared with his wife, some he shared with his friends and fellow beer geeks but most just got dumped, at which point he would start again.

There was something about the brewing process that Smith found fascinating.  He always enjoyed creating something, a living organism, from raw materials and it helped him cope with his loss.  So, when he finished his new creation and canned it for the masses, he knew it needed a special name, something to pay tribute to his late daughter.

“Obviously, my wife and I would always remember her but the world wouldn’t, ” Smith said.  “I didn’t want her to get left behind. So, for me, dedicating that beer, Melody Maker, to her was definitely a way for me to process some of the grief but also have a legacy for her.”

Just like that, Wandering Soul Beer Company was born.  

Photo Courtesy of Joseph Ferraro

Melody Maker, the company’s flagship beer, is a 4.9 percent ABV New England IPA that features Citra, Mosaic and Motueka hops, along with flaked oats – which account for approximately 25 percent of the grain bill – to add a little more flavor and a little more body.  It’s dry-hopped heavily and there are also a considerable amount of hops in the whirlpool, which happens after the kettle is turned off. Adding hops after the boil contributes added aroma but not as much bitterness to the beer. And it was that hop combination, the three main hops together, that was the focus of Smith’s experiment.

“All-in-all, the recipe for Melody Maker is actually pretty simple,” he remembered.  “I had that recipe before Melody was even conceived and it was something I was working on before all of that happened.  It just took on a different meaning after. But it was years of refining that one recipe to start this thing. I knew it had to be really, really, really good.  I wanted to try to create a version of a beer like [Tree House Brewing Company] might have, which some of them are a bit higher in alcohol content. I wanted to create a version of one of those beers that’s under 5.0 percent alcohol – and try to retain as much flavor and aroma as I possibly could.”  

The beer might’ve finally been completed but Smith had to find a way to get it into the hands of locals.  It was at that point he turned to a local brewery for a little help. With the pilot batch successful, Smith reached out to his friend Adam Romanow, one of the owners of Castle Island Brewing Company, who allowed him to use the company’s equipment to brew 30-barrel batches of his new beer.  On average, Smith would produce one of those 30-barrel batches each month, at which point he would load up his 1993 Mazda minivan to deliver Melody Maker to local bars and stores.

Smith marketed it the old-fashioned way, taking business owners a sample of what he canned in his shed to taste – and he relied mostly on people he had met during his career.

“I continued to build that network, you know, so when that first batch of beer was ready, I reached out to all of the people I had met over the years and said, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing now, here’s what’s behind it’ and I was able to presell the first 30-barrel batch within a week.”

Each and every can of Melody Maker features Smith’s story right on the label.  It’s somewhat of a rarity in the beer community to tell a story on the label and while he wasn’t quite sure about opening up and sharing at first, it was clear to Smith that he had to, in the hopes of potentially helping at least one other person.

“I’m pretty transparent, I wear my heart on my sleeve, I always have, ” said Smith.  “On the can of Melody Maker, you can read about exactly what I‘m trying to do and about Melody. It’s not a normal beer thing, it’s not a normal thing you see in the beer community – and I realize that.  The beer is one thing but the other layer to this project is the impact that I hope to have, and hope to continue to have, helping people.”

It’s been one year since Smith officially started Wandering Soul and the response has been significant, with a number of people reaching out to share their own stories of loss.

“I wanted Wandering Soul to be sort of a platform for people and a way to bring people together who have gone through these shared life experiences where they might feel isolated, or lost, or like they can’t talk to anyone.  I wanted to put a voice out there to the world, it just so happened to be in to the beer community – it could’ve been anything. I respond to everyone, I read about these stories and about the names of other people’s children and, you know, it’s a collective unit.  It’s a subset of the population and you would never even know that it exists.”

Smith wants Melody’s legacy to be more than just a story on a label, which is why the brewer quietly donates a check, for each batch of Melody Maker that’s made, to a local charity focusing on stillbirth awareness.  Prior to forming Wandering Soul, Smith and his wife raised enough money to purchase a cuddle cot for Beverly Hospital, where Melody was born, in the hopes that other parents going through the same situation can spend a little more time with their babies.  It’s important that he gives back, in the hope of helping others.

“I’m not encouraging anyone to use beer as a crutch or become an alcoholic or anything like that,” Smith said.  “But I think the message of Wandering Soul can help other people, just simply knowing there is some hope after you go through something like that because, going through it, it feels like your world is going to end and then it feels like there’s no hope for the future and how can you ever get out of bed and do anything ever again?  I’d like to use my story and how this whole thing transpired as a way to give people some hope that things will get better.” 

Things have gotten better for Smith, who welcomed his rainbow baby, Willow, into the world last January while getting Wandering Soul off of the ground.  Now, he brews five different beers under the Wandering Soul name, with a 60-barrel batch of Melody maker currently in the tank. It’s the most beer Smith has ever brewed – and it’s already basically sold to his almost 100 accounts.  

Photo Courtesy of Matt Smith

With this substantial spike in supply, it’s gotten to the point where Smith needs a little help.  He recently formed a partnership with nearby Bent Water Brewing Company and its distributing company, the location where he now brews his efforts.  This partnership helps Wandering Soul’s distribution, as Bent Water delivers his beer with its own beer, many of which both go to the same spots.

“We formed a partnership, basically, and the plan down the line might actually involve having a small taproom situated right next to their brewery.  So, you could go visit Bent Water and then walk right across the street and go to Wantering Soul’s taproom. That’s the plan, much like what’s happening in Portland at the [Allagash Brewing Company] complex where they have four or five breweries you can visit.”

Smith hasn’t been one to pat himself on the back but he knows that what he’s doing is important – important to him, important to Melody’s legacy and important to those he might impact.  He feels a sense of accomplishment and knows that if it all ended tomorrow, he’d be happy with the result. But as long as Wandering Soul continues to evolve, he’s going to proudly use it as a platform.

“I’ve told people still, if this project ended today, I would always look back on it and just be so proud and so overwhelmed that this became a thing,” he said.  “I feel like I already accomplished what I set out to do, in a way, but I also feel like there’s a lot more work to do because there’s a lot more people out there that need help. I’m not saying that beer is going to cure everything and help people but the platform I’m going to give others who can hopefully reach out to me and form relationships and form a community around, that’s really what I’m interested in.”

If you’d like to make a donation to a charity Smith supports, please click here.