Note: Originally appeared in Issue 37 of BeerAdvocate Magazine. This is my unedited version (so the mag version is probably better)
Try this: go to your favorite brewery, tell the brewmaster what you want the beer to taste like; tell him what kind of hops to use and when to add them, then tell him what you want the beer to be called. Feel free to get real specific, real geeky – tell him exactly how many IBUs this beer should have, then let him know you want it in a couple of weeks. See what happens.
Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione is famous for, among other things, saying that the beer industry is 99% asshole free, so you can probably expect a semi-polite reprobation. Unless you go to Barleycorn’s Craft Beer in Natick, Mass. They do things a little differently there, or rather, their customers do.
For starters, part-time brewmaster Daryle Grof isn’t your typical beermaker, as he spends most of his day making lasers, not beer. In fact, at Barleycorn’s, he doesn’t make the beer at all – the customer does.
“The biggest difference [between Barleycorn’s and a typical brewery], is that I’m not actually doing the brewing,” Grof said. “I’m just helping people brew.”
That’s because Barleycorn’s isn’t exactly a brewery, but rather a brew-on-premise shop where customers can come to the store, buy their supplies and ingredients and turn out a 15-gallon batch within a few hours.
The concept isn’t unique to Barleycorn’s, as homebrew shops in the area had dabbled in the brew-on-premise field and other BOP shops can be found on both coasts, but the idea seemed novel enough to owner Dan Eng when he first encountered such a place during a business trip on the other side of the country. Eng was visiting the San Francisco Bay area when he came across a similar shop, and the businessman saw an opportunity waiting for him to grab hold of it.
Eng, who previously owned a bar named Barleycorn’s in New Hampshire, decided that the Boston area was a prime location for his new venture because of a relatively large population of craft beer fans in the region.
“To me, it seemed like it was a natural fit,” Eng said. “In Boston there’s a lot of beer knowledge, and that’s critical to the success of this type of business…. Here in Boston you go to any reputable liquor store, and there’s any beer you can imagine and then some, so I thought it was something that would do fairly well in this area.”
Over 11 years later and this rare brewery is still pumping out barrels of beer on a weekly basis. It wasn’t easy, but the concept caught on and now Barleycorn’s thrives off a customer base mixed of regulars and newcomers alike.
“It’s been a learning process for the community as well as for us,” Eng said. “This concept is not something that is commonplace, so it has taken people a while to realize we aren’t selling beer. We’re not providing beer; we’re providing the facilities for people to come in and learn about the beer-making process and to make great beer to their specifications.”
That means if a customer wants to make a licorice porter with star anise and black licorice, then more power to them. Or if they choose to attempt a clone of their favorite beer that isn’t distributed to New England, that’s possible too. Or customers can choose to brew any of the hundreds of recipes that Grof and Eng have compiled from their own brews, as well as those from other brewers that came before, including guest brewers such as Cambridge Brewing Company’s Will Meyers, or Dann Paquette of the Pretty Things Ale and Beer Project – as both share recipes with Barleycorn’s for others to enjoy. Styles range from the summertime hit, lemon lager, to heavier beers and double IPAs.
The process is not much different from homebrewing, with the majority of the fermentable sugar coming from malt extract purchased at the shop. From there the extract and water go into one of six steam-jacketed kettles capable of half-barrel, or 15-gallon, batches, with hops added to the boil as with any beer at any other brewery.
“It’s actually fairly similar [to homebrewing] because it’s extract based,” Grof said. “The main difference is the steam jacket. You can get things boiling really fast, and with the chilling system here we can drop it from boiling to 65 [degrees] in five minutes or so.”
Grof’s role during the process is mostly to provide assistance to any visiting brewer that needs it, and of course to clean up – a process that he jokingly refers to as “the fun part.” He also helps maintain the cold room, where the plastic fermentors attached to blow-off tubes bubble away for a few weeks before Grof filters the beer and carbonates it. When the brewer returns, he or she uses a three-headed counter-pressure filler made by the now defunct Custom Brew, the same company that manufactured the brewhouse at Barleycorn’s, to fill bottles with ready-to-drink beer. Customers can also add custom labels to their bottles if they so choose. It seems like a lot of work for somebody else’s beer, but Grof doesn’t mind.
“My Full-time job is building lasers and scanning equipment. It’s completely different. That’s the bill-paying job, this is the fun job. If I could reverse it, I would.”
Although his role is limited in the brewing process, he has been a key figure in the store/brewery’s development. Grof was here before the doors ever opened, and he’s been watching over customers ever since.
“Daryle was instrumental in my success here because he had so much beer knowledge,” Eng said. “When I first put an ad for help in the Globe in the middle of 1998 he responded to it. He actually brought in beers that he made at home, which were very impressive, and he’s been here ever since.”
Grof continues to brew at home as well as at Barleycorn’s, but tends to leave the more experimental stuff for his home projects because of a couple of factors. For starters, brewers at Barleycorn’s are unable to do all-grain batches because of a lack of a lauter tun. Also, after nearly two decades of brewing, Grof has developed a taste for the experimental, and introducing lambic cultures or other such critters to the plastic fermentors and bottling lines at the brewery is a surefire way to contaminate 40-50 batches a week.
“I’m all over the map,” Grof said. “I like basic British beers like the standard bitter. I like drinking IPAs, but there’s so many good ones out on the market that I like to brew something different. Lately I’ve been brewing a lot of Belgian beers and I just brewed a porter that should come out around 11% that we used cocoa nibs and cinnamon in it. I’ll do some saisons here, I’ll brew a 15-gallon batch here, split it into five-gallon batches at home and infect it with lambic cultures and let it age for a few years.”
Like most breweries around the nation, the trend at Barleycorn’s seems to be toward “hoppy, hoppy, and hoppier,” according to Eng. The only difference is that here you say how hoppy you want it to be, then you make it yourself.
Sean Lewis is a freelance journalist by day, and a homebrewer by night. Both are fun jobs, neither pays the bills.