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Wednesday, April 24,2013

Cans full of local flavor

Craft beer heads to local shelves

By David DeWitt

The craft beers at Jackie O's Pub and Brewery have been offering a unique taste of Athens uptown for years, and in the coming weeks they will become available in stores, first at local carryouts, then later across the state.

In the past several years Jackie O's has expanded enormously, adding the public house next door to its original location, setting up the Jackie O's farm, growing local produce for its restaurant and brewery, and starting a large-scale brewing operation at the old cheese barn off of Stimson Avenue.

"Sometimes it feels like I'm just hanging on to the back of a speeding motorcycle," said owner Art Oestrike Tuesday morning of the whirlwind growth, while standing in the tap house side of the new Jackie O's "beer barn."

With a patio out back and a bike rack that resembles a hitching post out front, the tap room features a varnished, natural wood bar, barrel tables and a window view of the brewing operation and its multiple large steel brew tanks.

Oestrike has scrawled notes and reminders on the glass barriers like a mathematician working out algorithms. Brewmaster Brad Clark was busy taking notes himself, monitoring temperatures and concocting his latest batch of suds.

The room has about seven of Jackie O's favorites on tap and for now will be open only on Fridays and Saturdays between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m.

"We don't want another bar," Oestrike said. "We don't need another bar."

Sample cans were strewn about, designed by Bryn Perrott out of Kevin Morgan Studios. They stand out visually: black cans with different-colored accents depending on which brew they contain.

"Sustainably crafted with purpose," each can asserts. The Firefly Amber Ale's green accents create a silhouette of a tribal-esque nature goddess. The orange Chomolungma Honey Nut Brown Ale has a sasquatch-looking creature over cross-bones. Mystic Mama cans weren't out yet but are designed in purple.

The beers will come in color-coordinated, sustainable six-pack holders with pop-tops that can be recycled easily, Oestrike explained, as they're made out of No. 2 plastic.

"It was a very validating thing for all of us," Oestrike said of seeing the cans for the first time a couple weeks ago. "They look sweet… A pretty sharp looking product."

Oestrike said the Jackie O's team got the keys to the beer barn in early December 2011 but have taken their time setting up the operation. They started brewing beer there in February, he said, and more or less the entire brewing operation has now moved to that location.

So far, he said, the business has been distributing kegs to various craft beer bars, focusing mostly on southeast Ohio.

Where Oestrike sees the biggest opportunity, however, is with beer in cans.

 "I have a feeling that our biggest outlet is going to be the cans," Oestrike said. "Cans are hot in the beer industry for a number of reasons right now."

He said their recyclability and portability, as well as a lack of restrictions on aluminum compared to glass (such as at pools or the beach), give them an edge. He added that the number one factor that can "skunk" a beer is ultraviolet rays from the sun, which makes cans better than glass at preventing this.

"We'll be putting our first packages together next week," he said. "We've had a lot of people expressing interest in our cans, especially around southeast Ohio. And the great thing about cans (as opposed to kegs) is you don't need anything back. You sell it and you're done with it."

Jackie O's will start with canning Firefly and Chomolungma, he said, and in the next couple of months will start canning Mystic Mama.

"The can thing is looking like it's going to take off for us," Oestrike said.

The cans must be ordered 250,000 at a time, he said, so the brewery has half a million cans currently sitting in Findlay, Ohio, as it makes storage space for them at the barn.

In Athens, Oestrike said, he's spoken with a number of bars that will carry the Jackie O's brand cans, as well as most of the carryouts around town.

"Everybody seems real receptive to getting the cans," he said. "It's an easier push, and we're self-distributing right now so we're not going through a distributor."

Oestrike said customers can expect to see cans on the shelves around Athens in mid-May.

He said he recently met with the Athens Kroger, which he said seemed very open to carrying the line.

Oestrike explained that he wants to start with the one local Kroger store and see how that goes, before possibly making a deal to distribute to other locations throughout Ohio.

"We're just going to try to do one and understand the corporate model and what we have to do to make them happy," he said. "We don't want to overextend ourselves, so we're going to tread softly on that stuff."

Oestrike said that he sees carryouts and grocery stores as being potentially the biggest outlets for the can line.

The brew house features a two-vessel system with a mash and a kettle, a hot liquor tank and a cold liquor tank, plus the six fermenters and the bright tanks.

"We package directly from the bright tanks," he said. "We carbonate there and we package from there."

Oestrike said the whole venture has been wild and exciting and he's pumped up to get Jackie O's brand on local shelves soon.


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What, no cans of Razz wheat!? =(