I have been drinking beer for a long time… well, I am only 28 years old. So I guess I haven’t been drinking beer that long. But I still know a good beer when I smell and when I sip one. I started my beer drinking with Bud Light and Coors… but slowly learned that these beers, even though cheap, isn’t what a good beer is supposed to taste like. Don’t get me wrong, an ice cold Bud is great after a long day at work. But still, it’s not a craft brew. I eventually discovered Barley Island Brewing Company. It’s located in Noblesville, Indiana and I stumbled in there one afternoon for lunch. Before I knew it, it was my favorite bar in Indy. I recently went in, met with the man behind the beer, and toasted to his years behind the bar. We talked about the beer, the brewing process, and he even let me try all of the beers they offer. If you have not been to Barley Island, do yourself a favor… go. It was a wonderful experience, and now it’s my pleasure to go bottoms up with the man behind Barley Island, Mr. Jeff Eaton.
So tell me a little bit more about the history of Barley Island. When did the brewery start? How long have you been with the brewery?
The brewery opened in December of 1999. I have been the owner since the beginning, along with my spouse Linda. I was home brewing and working a corporate job and visiting breweries when I would travel. One day I decided to get the brewery open. My wife worked in the brewery full time. She left the corporate world.
She was able to work out of our home; we had two kids at the time. But I kept the corporate job and got the brewpub going. After about five years, I really wanted to grow the business more. That’s when we got into bottling. I got one of those three-head bottle fillers. We did Dirty Helen first. We started distributing direct in central Indiana. Then we hooked up with a small distributor called Pure Beverage and eventually World Class Beverages bought the business from them. Now we are with World Class Beverages, who is owned by Monarch Beverages for the whole state of Indiana. We have two distributors for the state of Illinois. 90% of what we produce is in bottles, and are just now starting a draft program. We have kegs now, and new handles. We are looking to grow that in the second half of this year.
I have made my own beer before… and it’s not easy. Is it easier to make it in small batches, say 5 gallons at a time, or like you guys do it?
As far as easy, I mean the home brewing was a labor of love. It would be an eight-hour brew day at home, and create quite a mess. You quickly get kicked out of the kitchen doing that. I was actually brewing on my enclosed patio with an outdoor burner doing ten-gallon batches. I would transfer the beer down through the basement, into the carboy, and ferment in the basement.
For professional brewing, it’s still an eight-hour brew day. It’s just more mechanical with the valves and levers. I really just started doing it in January of 2010. I would help the guys with the recipes, and talk about the new beers, do the marketing, and work with the distributor. In early 2010 I became our second brewer.
I documented the whole process, took more pictures. We started changing the processes. Mike Hess had become our brewmaster. We started doing more research, and we feel like we made some great changes and improved the beers. It’s just more mechanical… with the buttons on the control panel. I am not into the engineering, more the marketing. That aspect was a learning curve for me. Now it’s like playing with tinker toys, hooking hoses up.
What’s your favorite Barley Island beer?
My favorite is the Barfly IPA, which is also our top selling beer. That’s our customers’ favorite beer. In bottles the Dirty Helen is the top seller and Barfly is second.
What beers are you drinking when not drinking beers from Barley Island?
What I do is research a style, so lets say we are going to make a barleywine. I will go buy, say, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot. I will look at the top commercial examples, and buy those beers. I mostly buy commercial beers when I am looking at styles. That way my wife won’t care too much. It’s all market research. So the barleywine… or the imperial IPA. I recently bought a Founder’s Double Trouble of Bell’s Hop Slam. We don’t want to make something exactly like those, but how can we compliment those… how can we be a little different.
Do you remember the first beer you ever brewed? What was it? When did you produce that initial brew?
It was Cooper’s Real Ale. It was a kit, an Australian kit, a malt extract beer, and dark ale. I brewed mostly, after that, porters and stouts. I wasn’t into the bitter beers; they were harder… like all my friends weren’t really drinking IPAs in the late 80s. I started out with malt extract, then 5-gallon batches.
I quickly grew to an outdoor burner. With the all grain, you can control the mash and control the style… you can make the style better so it has more mouthfeel. Its more like brewing doing the all grain than doing the malt extract.
Have you ever brewed beer for anyone else besides Barley Island?
There are a ton of breweries here in Indiana. I must say your beers are some of my favorites. Do other breweries view you as competition, or is it just one big happy beer drinking community?
It is one big happy beer drinking community. We have a Brewers of Indiana Guild. I have been the vice president, treasurer… now I am the secretary. I have had different positions the last 7 years. We have a lobbyist; getting the Sunday carryout was something we did. At the board meetings we all know each other. We all get along great; there is a lot of camaraderie in the Indiana brewing scene. I constantly meet with people that call, or email and want to get into the industry. They want to talk to me. Everyone is very accommodating, since we were all in that boat ourselves.
You guys used to have two locations, the one here in Noblesville and then one in Broad Ripple. But that one recently closed. What happened with that location?
Yeah, it recently closed. We didn’t get off to a good start. We only had beer and wine. We had a lot of people leaving because we didn’t sell liquor. Being on the strip without liquor was a mistake. And over time, we had a lot of turn over and problems with employees. This year our sales had fallen off to the point where we made the decision to focus on the group up here, and focus on the off-premise business.
It really was taking up too much time for my wife and myself. We hope to find a new tenant as soon as possible. We have already had someone look at the space. The vultures moved in.
You guys also serve food here. Do you ever try to brew beers that will go well with the food, or does the chef make food that will pair well with the beers?
What we do is use the beer in the cooking, and we found that you get with the different levels of hops. We bring the wort; we bring it to a boil. It’s in our ribs, our beer batter. On our menu, you see BeerBQ or Beer Batter… some people don’t want the alcohol, but it says on the menu that we use the wort in the cooking, the boiled sugar in the brewing process. It enhances the food. The beer cheese crock can get pretty bitter. There are some items; we will take our pale ale, dip chicken or fish into before we batter. The beer acts like a glue to hold it all together. It’s worked for us; it does enhance the flavor of the food. We have tried it without the wort. It gives us our little niche with the kitchen.
Do you drink anything else… or is beer pretty much it?
I like cocktails. When I traveled corporately I was really into wine. We would do these corporate dinners; even though I was the beer guy I was the one with the wine list ordering wine for the group. At home I am more gin and vodka. There is a lot of micro distilleries, which is a really neat trend. I like buying Indiana vodka and supporting heartland distilleries and supporting what they are doing.
Surely not every beer you have made has been good… in what stage of the process do you realize the batch is no good? I bet it’s hard pouring all that beer down the drain!
Every brewer you talk to will admit to dumping beer at some point. It happens. We know the most crucial state, when you are done with the boil, and transfer the beer to the fermenter. If we see a transfer that ends up too warm, maybe something happened with the heat exchanger or the yeast wasn’t right… that’s where we have quality control. Some of it tastes, but some of it is analytical. We will know within 4 or 5 days after fermentation if there is an issue or not.
I would say in the last 5 years, you’re talking about dumping 6 batches of beer… that sort of thing. Its not like it happens all the time. (Laughs) Our brewery doesn’t have any air conditioning, and that has been part of the problem for some of the beers.
Surely a stout is harder to produce than a blond… I am sure the process is different for each beer you make, but what’s the hardest beer you make?
Oh boy… for us, so far, the sours have been very difficult. We tried to a Flander’s Brown, and it’s been aging in the barrels and we will add different yeasts, bacteria combos to it… it’s really tough to get the right flavor. And you have to keep all the equipment separate. It’s not your normal operation. It’s too bad, because sours are a big trend in the industry. We thought about getting a bunch of them going, and have sort of stumbled with that.
Have you ever tried to experiment when making a beer? I’m thinking coffee stouts, or blueberry beers… ever tried to make anything awkward?
Yeah, it’s always fun for the brewer to have a little project going. We will mostly do stuff in barrels we will add fruit to a barrel, or we will take a beer that wouldn’t normally go to a barrel that has had beer to it twice. It doesn’t get a lot of bourbon flavor, but a wooden, oaky, earthy IPA. Little projects like that have come out really well. People like something new like that on tap.
We will take stuff out of the barrels, and it’s not carbonated, so we ill do a real low carbonation and put them on the beer engine. (A beer engine is the hand pull on the wall over there. It mechanically pulls the beer out of the keg. Co2 or nitrogen, like a normal beer does not push it.)
It appears that the same artist who designs those designed all of the labels? (I LOVE the brand you guys have built. And the Dirty Helen logo!)
Randy Mosher. He’s a designer out of Chicago. Randy has written books on brewing, and he is a real guru for the homebrew genre out there. It’s nice because not only do I work with him on the label and what it looks like, but I run the recipe by him, on a new beer especially, and consult with him on the brewing aspect too.
Randy does Three Floyds, Two Brothers, Lakefront… he’s pretty well known.
When making a beer, what is your key point of focus? Are you thinking the IBUs or the ABV? Perhaps the nose or the mouthfeel? What makes the perfect beer?
I am real big on the BJCP guidelines. I am a national ranked beer judge. I look at the style guidelines, buy some of those commercial examples, and will look at how we can be within the style guidelines yet differentiate ourselves and make ourselves stand out. For instance, dry hop it where it wouldn’t be dry hopped. We go above the guidelines on the ABV or the IUB. We try to stretch the guidelines a little bit. We try to stand out for the style, but we do brew beers to style.
I know they make a big stink about it with wine… Do you drink different beers in different glasses, or does it matter? Apparently it matters with wine!
I am a glass aficionado. I collect glassware, and I keep a sample glass from every event we do. I have quite the collection. Not so much in the restaurants. It’s hard to carry a bunch of different glassware. I know, when I used to travel in Europe, how the different German and Belgian beers are served in different glasses. I respect that the different beers are served in different glasses. It’s hard with a brewpub. We have 3 different glasses that we are doing stuff in. 4 if you include the sample glass.
Your beers have won a TON of awards. Like a ton… does any one awards mean more than the next?
Yes, the gold medal at GABF in 2009 for Dirty Helen was really special. We typically only enter two beers in that, because it’s expensive to do. To win 3 medals in the last 4 or 5 years has been really special for us. This year, with the Brewer’s Cup, we haven’t won many medals. But with the changes we have done with the beers, like the barleywines and the imperial red, we will get back on track with Brewer’s Cup. That’s actually coming up.
You guys currently distribute to Indiana, Illinois. Do you have plans to expanding that distribution in the near or distant future?
We didn’t get much going in Kentucky. We are in just Indiana and Illinois. We get requests from other states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Without a sales rep to go send after that, we really just focus on Indiana and Illinois. We don’t have sales coverage in any of those areas. Our next goal is to get sales coverage and get a production brewery going. We would like to be a beer for the Midwest region. That’s our ultimate goal.
So in total, how many employees do you have here?
I would say about 15 employees here at the brewpub.
So where do you see this brewery going in the future… what’s next for Barley Island.
Next for Barley Island is going to be production breweries, where we can have a nice tasting room. That has become a more viable concept in the last two years. In Indiana there have been several production breweries open and close, especially in downtown Indy, production breweries are doing very well. We are out of space here in Noblesville with what we are doing. We want a larger brewhouse. We could move some of the packaging and the fermentation tanks. We could expand the bar. Those are kind of our next steps.
So in all of the interviews I do, I always give the artist the last word. Go.
The last word would be that I want thank all of the Barley Island supporters, especially outside of Noblesville… thank you to those who buy our bottles or visit us at beer festivals and give us great feedback on the brand. We hope to make this a regional brand; especially a beer like Dirty Helen… could be in the Great Lakes region in the future.