Brewer: Brook Belli
Brewery: Oaken Barrel Brewing Co.
Years of experience: Pro for four years and homebrewer for four years
Education: Civil Engineering Degree at Virginia Tech, Siebel Institute Degree
House Beers: Meridian Street Lager, Big Red, Leroy Brown, Razz Wheat, Snake, Snakepit Porter
What happens when your brewery grows faster than planned, when you take a giant step from running a seven-barrel pub system to running a 50-barrel microbrewery?
Although the owners of the Oaken Barrel Brewing Co., in the Indianapolis suburb of Greenwood, eventually hoped to expand, it wasn’t something they had in their short-range plans. But when the Indianapolis Brewing Co. went on the block last year, Oaken Barrel owners Bill Fulton, Brook Belli, and Kwang Casey decided buying it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.
Besides, the pub’s brewing system was practically maxed out, and storage space was at a premium, so they knew Oaken Barrel would have to expand eventually. They raised money privately and became the owners of IBC’s brewing equipment and bottling line late last year, taking possession on Jan. 1 of the warehouse space where those are
With the demise of the Evansville Brewing Co., Oaken Barrel is now Indiana’s largest brewery. The new purchase added 9,000 square feet of space to the 650-square-foot pub brewery and expanded capacity from 2,000 to 10,000 barrels.
Rather than dive right into the new equipment, Belli, the director of brewing operations, decided to test the brewing waters. “We’re not afraid to take our time,” he says of the one-day-a-week summer brewing schedule. “Until we’re able to be there two to three days a week, it’s hard to get used to everything. You go in and it’s like, ‘Where’d I leave off?’
“We need to make a lot of money before we can make a lot of changes there. We don’t want to overextend ourselves.” Still, he adds, “I’m looking forward to the time when we can make that the focus more than the pub.”
Buying Indianapolis Brewing isn’t the first step Oaken Barrel has taken sooner than planned, and the owners have approached each new step with the same kind of caution. Not long after opening in July 1994, the brewpub became a distributing microbrewery thanks to the popularity of a beer called Razz Wheat.
Although Belli never made a raspberry beer as a homebrewer, he did so at the request of Fulton’s wife, Patty, who had tried several in the Northwest. “I think it was the only fruit beer in the state,” Belli says. “We didn’t plan to sell it off-premise, but more people came in and tried it. It was the one beer they focused on, like nothing they ever had before.”
Within two months of the pub’s opening, bar owners were coming in wanting to buy it. “We didn’t try to solicit accounts,” Belli says. “They came to us and said that’s what they wanted.”
Adds Fulton, “We tried to take it off tap, and we couldn’t.” Off-premise, they found, “it wasn’t the sales that were important, it was the fact that it was a drawing card. Bud Ice isn’t going to draw somebody into their place, but Razz Wheat will.”
Boosted by that initial success and by winning a silver medal for Razz Wheat at the 1995 Great American Beer Festival, Oaken Barrel targeted likely accounts. “The places we picked were horrible,” Belli says with a laugh. “So we pulled back and let them come to us.” Today, the beer and several other Oaken Barrel brews are sold off-premise through Hoosier Micro Distributors.
Three brewers run Oaken Barrel’s brewery: Belli, Brewing Coordinator Jerry Sutherland, and Brewer Tony Diggs. They do two seven-barrel brews on brew day and transfer them into a 14-barrel tank. Belli says he and brewer Gus Chalfant, who died last year, “rebuilt the whole thing” over the past few years. By adding five 14-barrel conditioning tanks, the brewery doubled its capacity relatively cheaply.
In addition to Razz Wheat, the most popular beers at Oaken Barrel are Meridian Street Premium Lager and Snake Pit Porter. Meridian Street Lager is a medium-bodied, straw-colored lager in the helles style. It’s hopped with American hops, including Cascades, which Belli describes as his “workhorse bittering hops,” with Liberty and Crystal added late in the boil. Meridian Lager took a silver in the Munchener Helles and Export category at last year’s Great American Beer Festival.
Snake Pit Porter is a coffeeish porter made with chocolate, crystal, and black malt. Other popular beers include Leroy Brown, an English-style brown ale made with honey, and Big Red, a red ale. Despite the fact that Razz Wheat, Snake Pit Porter, and Meridian Lager account for two-thirds of the pub brewery’s output, Oaken Barrel has been able to make about 15 beers each year. “Brook likes to keep eight beers on tap,” Fulton says. Popular seasonals include Plum Stout, which is available in the winter, and a German-style unfiltered wheat beer called King Rudi, sold during the summer.
Eventually, the eastside brewery will take over production of the porter, lager, and Razz, hopefully freeing up the pub system somewhat. The IBC equipment includes a 25-barrel brew kettle, two 50-barrel fermenters, and five 50-barrel conditioning tanks and a bright tank.
But it will take months to get it on track. For one thing, Belli is concerned about how the lager will translate to the bigger system. “The lager’s always been tricky with yeast management,” he says. “I’m hoping to get a new mill installed before we lager over there. The water’s a little different, the mill’s a little different.” The fact that Diggs formerly worked at Indianapolis Brewing will help. “It’s nice to have him familiar with all the equipment,” Belli says.
• When making a fruit beer, use a neutral yeast.
• Try using a fruit puree.
• Add fruit to taste throughout the process.
Even when the eastside brewery is fully operational, Oaken Barrel doesn’t plan to sell much beer outside central Indiana. The brewpub produced more than 1,000 barrels in 1997 and has at times been on a 1,300-to-1,500-barrel pace this year. “May was tough for us” with the Indianapolis 500 and the NBA Pacers in the conference finals, Belli says. “We were out of lager, brown, red; we were down to four beers at one point.”
Fulton, who’s from Indiana, and Belli were working as engineers in Atlanta when they began talking about opening a brewery-restaurant. At that time, the early 1990s, brewpubs weren’t legal in Georgia. “Microbreweries were legal, but starting a micro was a struggle,” Belli says. “A restaurant is a built-in market for your beer.”
Neither man had restaurant experience, but through a friend they found Casey, a restaurant veteran who was looking for a new opportunity. They contributed their own money and raised additional money privately. Casey serves as director of restaurant operations for the brewery, while Fulton is director of business operations.
Oaken Barrel had expanded twice before buying Indianapolis Brewing, first opening a beer garden in 1995, then adding the Brewhouse Bar to its original bar area in 1997. Late in 1996 the brewery bought a small bottling line from Kalamazoo Brewing Co.
Razz Wheat, Meridian Street Lager and Snake Pit Porter are now available in 12-ounce bottles, and the pub’s pale ale may be in bottles by the time you read this. The brewers bottle about 50 cases at a time, so they can control product freshness.
Oaken Barrel Brewing Co. is open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. The Brewhouse Bar is open on Sundays as well.
Oaken Barrel Brewing Co.,
50 N. Airport Parkway, Suite L, Greenwood, Ind. 46143.
(317) 887-2287. Web site:
With the success of the Razz Wheat, Belli has had a lot of practice making fruit beers.
“You don’t want to overpower the fruit flavor with something else, like hops or yeast,” Belli says. A Belgian or German yeast can add flavors you may not want. Instead he recommends using a neutral yeast.
So what’s the best form for your fruit? For homebrewers, using fresh or frozen fruit isn’t too much of a problem, according to Belli. “I suggest steeping the fruit in hot water, about 180° F, for 15 minutes to pasteurize it. Whole fruit with skin should be crushed before adding to your fermenter. I choose not to boil fruit to keep more of the fruit aroma intact. If you do boil the fruit you will set the pectin, which will result in a hazy finished beer. To break down the pectin try adding the enzyme pectinase at the end of fermentation.
For simplicity’s sake, Belli suggests using a puree instead of fresh fruit. “I have used fresh fruit, and it was a lot of work,” he says, recalling a time when he was colored red up to his elbows from crushing blueberries.
He warns that purees will vary from lot to lot, just as fresh fruit varies from crop to crop, and their flavors fade over time. A recent batch of Razz Wheat tasted quite different from the usual brew, because the puree wasn’t as fresh as it normally is.
That beer was made at the eastside brewery. “It seemed lighter; it didn’t seem as raspberry as we expected,” he says, but he attributed that to the new brewing system. “Then we made a batch at the pub and it went like wildfire.”
But the next batch was made at the pub with the same puree as the first one, and they discovered the puree was responsible for the difference.
“I didn’t realize it until it was out of the fermenter,” he says. “Then, you’re kind of stuck.”
Add fruit to taste as you go along. “I add it to the fermenter and let it ferment out, pull a sample, and taste it,” he says. “If you keep (the fruit) clean, and it’s pasteurized, you can just dump it in and the beer takes off again right away. As long as it’s still warm, the fruit sugar will allow fermentation to continue.
“If you do get a stuck fermentation, don’t be afraid to keep adding yeast after you’ve added the fruit,” he says.
Once you find a fruit that works, don’t stop there, Belli advises. “Don’t be afraid to experiment with different fruit beers. Based on the success of Razz Wheat, I tried a cherry beer. Customers who didn’t normally drink Razz Wheat like the cherry beer because the flavor was more subdued.” When the cherry was gone customers were clamoring for the next fruit beer.
“Over the past four years I have tried raspberry, peach, apple, blueberry, and even plums in beer,” he says. “Some brewers scoff at the fruit beer style, but when customers are making requests it’s hard to say no.”
That’s the joy of brewing at a brewpub and later going to a micro, Belli says. “You can experiment at the pub and get customer feedback. If a beer is well received it can be brewed on a larger scale at the micro.”
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of the Beer Travelers Guide, which lists more than 1,700 US brewpubs, bars, and restaurants that serve flavorful beer.