Fred Karm had no interest in making beers that he thought regular folks would drink.
Instead, with the launch of his Hoppin’ Frog Brewery a decade ago, he decided to brew the beers that his friends raved about and coveted — high-alcohol, flavorful concoctions sold only in higher-priced 22-ounce bottles.
“I thought I could make a business out of this. Not everyday beers, but speciality beers,” Karm said while sitting in his Tasting Room gastropub and reflecting on the brewery’s 10-year anniversary.
He was right.
Hoppin’ Frog, located in a small industrial park in southeast Akron, has grown into one of the most respected breweries in the world, landing each year on RateBeer.com’s list of the top 100 breweries on the planet.
Thanks to a beer lineup that’s garnered multiple medals at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup, the expansion into draft, overseas distribution and the addition of the gastropub, Hoppin’ Frog has become a hallowed destination for knowledgeable beer travelers.
“He’s put himself on the map, and he’s put Akron on the map,” said John Najeway, co-owner of Thirsty Dog Brewing Co., where Karm began his professional brewing career.
Hoppin’ Frog will celebrate its anniversary this week — which just happens to coincide with the state lifting its 12 percent cap on alcohol in beer. The weeklong celebration will include a special beer release each day.
The specific anniversary brew, the 12 percent Barrel-Aged In-Ten-Sity American Barleywine, is set for Monday.
T.O.R.I.S. the Tyrant, a triple oatmeal imperial stout which clocks in at 13.8 percent, arrives Wednesday.
He also will release his all-time favorite beer that he’s ever made — the 2013 Barrel-Aged B.O.R.I.S. Bairille Aois, an iteration of his famous B.O.R.I.S. the Crusher that was aged in Irish whiskey barrels.
“It’s so fun to be us,” Karm said. “I’ve said that so many times to people, but it really is. It’s a blast to be us because we seem to get it right.”
Karm, whose educational background was in electrical engineering, was a reluctant beer-maker.
The first time he brewed with a friend, he didn’t enjoy the experience. His friend insisted that he keep at it and he did.
Karm, a lifelong Akron resident, ended up becoming one of the founding members of the Society of Akron Area Zymurgists homebrewing club, and in later years the Ohio Craft Brewers Association.
In late 1996, he joined Thirsty Dog as the pub brewer, winning several national awards for his recipes, most notably Siberian Night, an imperial stout.
When the brewpubs closed — Thirsty Dog continued on as a production brewery — Karm decided to open his own place.
He called it Hoppin’ Frog. His childhood nickname was “Frog,” although he’s never revealed publicly how he got the name.
Hoppin’ Frog has won a loyal following by producing brews such as B.O.R.I.S. the Crusher Oatmeal Imperial Stout, a beer that has won two gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival.
The bourbon barrel-aged version of B.O.R.I.S. also has won gold and bronze at the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival, respectively.
Those beers are known for their intense, bold flavors — a typical attribute of any Hoppin’ Frog brew, whether it’s Turbo Shandy, a beer that replicates Country Time Lemonade, or Silk Porter, a coffee beer.
He also has earned positive reviews on websites such as Ratebeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com, which can be harsh in their criticism.
At one point, Hoppin’ Frog was ranked the 17th best brewery in the world by RateBeer.
Hoppin’ Frog beers can fetch a pretty penny.
“They sell whether they are $7.99 or $19.99,” said Bob Mileti, owner of Primo’s Deli in Akron. “People know Fred Karm’s beers. He only uses the best ingredients available.”
There’s another obvious reason that beer connoisseurs are willing to pay those prices.
“I don’t know that he’s ever made a bad beer,” said Karen Bujak, who writes about the Ohio craft beer industry for the Great Lakes Brewing News.
Karm, who lives in Akron with his wife and their two dogs, said he’s never aspired to be a big production brewer.
Hoppin’ Frog made 800 barrels in its first year, and will do about 2,200 this year — still a tiny amount considering Anheuser-Busch InBev is making millions at its brewery in Columbus each year.
When Hoppin’ Frog first opened, it was a brewery with one full-time employee and relied on volunteers to help bottle.
Today, Karm has about 35 employees.
Despite its size, Hoppin’ Frog beers can be found in 24 states and 17 foreign countries.
Karm knows, based on demand from customers and distributors, that he could open a much larger facility. But he’s not interested.
“I don’t want to be a CEO behind a desk,” said Karm, who enjoys doing collaborative beers with European breweries and has a hands-on approach with the food served at the Tasting Room. “I want to be the brewmaster. And I still am.
“I’m looking for sanity in my life. Not necessarily a million bucks.”
Karm, who can be secretive about his recipes and information released about his brewery, is wary about the ongoing, explosive growth in the U.S. craft beer industry.
He believes there will be an inevitable fallout, whether breweries close because they are producing low-quality beer or they tried to grow too quickly too fast.
Back when Hoppin’ Frog opened, there were only about 30 breweries in all of Ohio. Today, the state Division of Liquor Control has issued more than 180 brewing licenses.
Karm’s advice for those seeking to open a brewery?
“Stick to homebrewing and let the professionals do what we do best,” he said. “Those are harsh words, but it’s a competitive industry out there. I don’t want to see any more competition any more than the next guy.
“That’s not exactly the advice that people expect or want to hear, but I’m being honest. It was different 10 years ago,” he continued.
If people insist on joining the industry, Karm believes they need to pay their dues and spend time working at a brewery before trying to open their own place.
“It’s amazing how hard it is,” he said.