Fraternity connection leads to brewery’s Bowler hat name
They say old fraternity habits die hard, but for Madison residents David Shelley and Matt Murphy fraternity traditions led to the creation of a brewery business.
Shelley, retired from a career in the Army and Murphy, an American Eagle pilot, met while attending a James Clemens marching band meeting for parents. They began to discuss business options and with Murphy’s 20 years of homebrewing experience, the two decided to go into the brewery business.
“Matt wanted to take his hobby to market. He wanted to share his love for brewing with the community,” Shelley said.
As their conversations grew, the two discovered that they were both Sigma Chi alumni—Murphy at Kent State University in Ohio and Shelley at the University of North Alabama.
“We wanted to bring something we had in common to the business,” Shelley said. “I had chaired an annual fundraising event called Derby Days for a couple of years. One of the first activities to gain points was to catch a Sigma Chi wearing his black derby hat. Each derby captured represented points for the team competition, and we wore hats on campus throughout the weeks, so girls were literally chasing Sigma Chi’s all over campus for a week.”
Shelley looked forward to this event yearly, so he suggested they use “Derby Days” as a key business logo. After further discussion, they decided to change the logo to the original British Bowler Hat and tie the theme to beer as well as tap into the 1920’s- ‘30’s Prohibition period.
“Our vibe is ‘Happy Days are Here Again.’ We use a black and tan color scheme, Edison bulbs and a décor that is comfortable and inviting,” Shelley said. “Visitors also get an operational brewhouse just feet away from the taproom seating area. It’s unique.”
Photos from the Prohibition area hang on the walls and oftentimes Shelley plays a black and white movie on the big screen to complete the vibe.
Along with the Prohibition vibe, patrons get the opportunity to experience quality, craft beer. Murphy’s 20 years of home brewing experience and passion for European grains, the result is a unique list of beers with a taste of Europe.
“We focused our attention on classic, international style of beer,” Shelley said. “During my time in the military, I was stationed in Europe and had the opportunity to enjoy some of the very finest beers made. Many were from local town breweries in Southern Germany.”
A list of the strong sellers on the menu include a blood orange IPA, a Citra IPA, an Extra Special Bitters and a vanilla cream ale. Murphy is an IPA fan and takes especially care of the grains he places in those the IPA process.
“I love hops as long as they are smooth and citrus flavored,” Murphy said. “We only use European grains.”
The menu also includes a couple of wheat beers, sours and pilsners. Patrons who cannot decide which brew to try first, can order a flight, a selection of 4-ounce servings.
“We ask the usual pre-qualifying questions to new customers. Questions like what type or style of beer do they usually enjoy, or we ask are they looking to try something different,” Shelley said. “We often recommend flights to give first time visitors an opportunity to sample of variety of our beers.”
In the state of Alabama, a micro-brewery must be connected to a source of food. Shelley and Murphy did not want to go the usual business of renovating a warehouse to accommodate the brewery equipment, outfit a taproom and then set about scheduling food trucks. They decided to go another route to meet the requirements.
“A great, consistent source of food and great craft beer to together, so I contacted my friend Kim Neely at the Madison Chamber of Commerce and asked for a list of food trucks that operate in this area,” Shelley said. “We started looking through their menus and discovered Neon Lilly with a very, unique offering of Eastern European dishes that were savory and paired well with our international styles of craft brews.”
The partnership between Neon Lilly and the Bowler Hat Brewery was born. Owner, Liliya Taylor, is from Kazakhstan and is an award-winning grand champion in several categories of Eurasian cuisine.
“Customers can order their food next door at Neon Lilly and Liliya will bring it to their table in our brewery,” Shelley said. “It’s been a great partnership.”
Besides the idea for the name of the brewery, another fraternity tradition comes in play at the Bowler Hat—philanthropy. Since opening in January, the brewery has hosted a variety of fundraisers for local non-profits including a recent Kitten Cuddle Adoption event.
“We believe it is essential to support the community that supports us,” Shelley said. “We like to offer opportunities to connect with members of the community, and it gives our business some additional exposure.”
Shelley uses his connections in the community to build on the charitable element of the brewery. As an officer in the American Legion Post #229, he offers the organization a comfortable place for the veterans to enjoy and bolster camaraderie. And as president of the local North Alabama British Motoring Society, Shelley has now made Bowler Hat Brewery a key fundraising host for the Autism Resource Foundation through the Cars and Coffee event held every third Saturday.
“We hosted the annual Eurobrit Car and Motorcycle Expo the first Saturday in June at Dublin Park for over 10 years with the proceeds going to the Autism Resource Foundation. For several years, the organization was the only resource available to families in the area with Autistic children. We began doing a monthly Cars and Coffee event to help more,” Shelley said. “When we located the brewery on HWY 72, I discussed with the former organizer, Ernie Tipton, about hosting the event to a more visible area to attract more community attention.”
Although the brewery opened just two months before the COVID pandemic, Shelley and Murphy managed to keep the brewery going by offering curbside/takeaway service with plastic jug growlers from mid-March to mid-May. They are operating under the Governor’s orders and CDC compliance to keep their business open and to continue to welcome their patrons to try their unique beers.
“We want people to come in,” Shelley said. “Matt Murphy has a magnificent talent for dialing in the unique characteristics of each of these classic beers with high quality ingredients. It is an art form to enjoy by sight, smell and taste.”
The Bowler Hat Brewing Co. is located at 7429 Highway 72 West in Madison. You can find them online at bowlerhatbrewing.com.