The “Quietly Quality” and Bold Story of Backstep Brewing Company of Crawfordsville

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

There are many models for opening a brewery or brewpub. Self-financing with sweat equity is popular, but so are silent partners and investors. Some breweries choose to distribute exclusively while accruing assets with which to open a taproom (Daredevil and 10-56). Others open a pub with food hoping to build the capital it takes to buy a brewing system and make their own beer.

Very rarely does an owner or ownership group have the funds to open a brewery, taproom, and perhaps restaurant all at the same time without giving away the keys to the store in the process. Investors are great if they are true believers (like in crowdsourcing campaigns) and look for long-term payoff, more like philosophical partners. But investors looking for profit from day one without much of their heart in making beer and food can be soul sucking.

Backstep Brewing Company in Crawfordsville chose the “open and make some money so that we can afford to obtain an great brewer and brewing system” method. If there is one thing I have learned about the craft brewing community it’s that interesting people seem to gravitate toward it. There aren’t many boring people in beer – present company excepted. Backstep is a good example, the stories of the brewery, the owners, and the brewer are fascinating. I figured you should know their story before your first of many visits. Their beer will be ready to pour by their grand opening on the 18th of November.

The Monon Hotel Building in Crawfordsville dates to Prohibition days, now it houses Backstep Brewing. Photo credit: Paper of Montgomery County

The site of Backstep Brewing is the old Monon Hotel Building (1927) just of Highway 32 in Crawfordsville (125 N. Green Street). It was a hotel until 1977, and then sold and refurbished as a pub by a couple of sets of owners. The four-story brick building came with a three-way license to sell beer, wine, and liquor when purchased by the Backstep guys in 2016. Sweat equity was the word of the day for sure, while they were ripping down facades and exposing brick walls. The look now is dive bar meets New Orleans jazz bar meets college throwback bar (think Nick’s English Hut in Bloomington). That works of course because Wabash College is right down the street.

Brick arches and firehouse antiques and memorabilia are eye grabbers, as are the 32 taps behind the bar. The bar itself looks old, but was another of the owners’ projects, it’s just stained 2x8s with polyurethane, but it looks and feels fantastic. There is a raised area for bands in the back that gets good use; Backstep has a songwriter series called Music Matters that has pulled in acts from Indy and even further. At the other end, the front of the house gets just enough light from the windows – not bright enough to annoy, but not dark enough to evoke film noir.

They started pouring beer and making cocktails on Jan. 26th of 2017, about the same time they they put in their paperwork for a brewers permit. Of course, they had already started looking for a brewer, and boy is that story is amazing.

Pat Pennington, one of the Backstep owners, wore a Butler T-shirt to the 2016 Noblesville BrewFest. A lady approached him asking, “Did you play football for Butler? One of my sons played for Butler.” Yes, he played but at a different time than her son … does she live near Butler? No, she lives in Florida and is just in Indiana visiting friends and family. She used this opportunity to attend her first craft beer festival.

The two of them got to talking and Pat mentioned that he was at the festival scouting breweries and brewers because he and his partner (Jim Boros) were opening a brewery in Crawfordsville. “Oh,” she said, “My younger son is a professional brewer and he lives in Crawfordsville.” That was Josh Miller’s mom. So for the lack of a first beer fest 1000 miles from home and a Butler T-shirt, Josh may not have landed at Backstep.

Some brewers like to keep samples of yeast. Josh Miller has raised this to obsession levels. Photo credit: homebrewtalk.com

Who is this brewer whose mom got him his job? (it’s a joke, Josh, I joke with you) Josh grew up in Warsaw, went to school at Purdue where he graduated from the College of Health Sciences. As such, he is a science geek and has hobbies that include collecting and banking different brewing yeasts. His first job in a food and chemistry lab helped him land an assistant brewing job under Chris Knott at Flix Brewhouse-Carmel for the past two years. Together, he and Chris won many awards for their recipes and their barrel-aged beers, a trend he hopes to continue.

Despite the job in Carmel, Josh has lived with his long time girlfriend in Crawfordsville for the last three years. His move to Backstep cuts his commute by two hours each day – so that’s one big plus. But it also makes him one of the youngest head brewers in the state of Indiana at only 26 years of age.

Josh may be young, but he has a definite brewing philosophy, honed through his time with Chris. This includes the idea that quality speaks without having to talk about it “quietly quality.” Josh has adopted this as his mantra, although with all the publicity about his move to Backstep recently, it hasn’t really been that quiet.

As his yeast bank evidences, Josh is a yeast junkie. This is important as yeast is crucial for making the ethanol and carbon dioxide in beer, but also important for what it provides in the way of flavors as well. Josh sees his brewing as being innovative in how he manipulates the yeast, hops, and malt rather than in what other ingredients he can find to add new flavors. Certainly there will be additional flavors in his beer, but he will focus more on how he can manipulate the traditional ingredients.

The Backstep logo is all about firefighting. Ask Jim and pat about the origins of the name. image credit: Backstep Brewing

Hiring the youngest head brewer in the state is bold, so let’s talk about the owners that would make such a move. Bold should be tattooed on their foreheads, for that is how they live their lives. Jim Boros and Pat Pennington are working firefighters with the Pike Township Fire Department in Indianapolis – even as they own and manage a bar that is becoming a brewery. They risk their lives for us, the least we can do is drink their beer. Backstep is decorated with lots of firehouse collectibles (I wonder how they came by these), and even the name reflects their fire fighting background. Ask Jim and Pat about where the name comes from when you visit.

Jim grew up near Chicago, where his dad got him his first restaurant job at age 14, and he was doing so well in the industry (pouring beer by 19) that he forsook his college studies in elementary education for a restaurant business opportunity in Key West, FL. He ended up as lead bartender at the Green Parrot Bar, one of the top bars in America. After a long run there, he met and married a good Hoosier girl (Rachel) and they came back to the Midwest. He was on the hiring list for the IFD, so they settled in Indy.

Firefighting is in Jim’s blood; he lost an uncle in the line of duty with the Chicago FD and knew that he could keep his head in a crisis after surviving a workplace shooting while in Key West. So the fire department was a no-brainer decision that he has never regretted. Then Jim met Pat Pennington in the firehouse and the future was set – although they didn’t know it at the time.

Pat came to craft beer and owning a brewery along a different path. He worked his way through college by selling phones for Verizon and flipping houses – all while also playing football for Butler. After college, he continued to work for Verizon because it got him insurance and security, while also delving into real estate and flipping more houses. Unfortunately, the times changed and flipping houses became less lucrative, so he looked for a long term gig that might pay off. He joined the fire department.

Pat and Jim traveled to critique breweries for how they wanted theirs to look and behave. This is Evil Czech in Mishawaka. There is a lot to learn and emulate here. Photo credit: craftbeer.com

At first this was for the job security, but Pat soon realized that fighting fires was a great job. It was physical, it helped people, and it was exciting. Both he and Jim ended up at Pike Township FD, where they learned that they both loved craft beer (Jim was into it from his Key West days, and Pat had a brother-in-law in NC that turned him on to craft). They starting grabbing beers together and traveling around Indy to different breweries and brewpub. They would critique the places and pick them apart – what they were doing well and what they would do differently. Eventually, Jim said to Pat, “You know, we could do this.”

That was the beginning of the path that brought them to Backstep. They needed to look outside Indianapolis to find affordable building since they are financing this venture by themselves. Their agent found them the Monon Hotel Building and the bar there within. Now they are ready to take the next step and start producing beers. Jim, Pat, and Josh have decided on four house beers, and several riffs on those beers.

There will be a west coast IPA, a kolsch that Josh has innovative plans for, a berliner weisse sour beer that lends itself to fruit additions, and an oatmeal coffee stout. It’s nice to see a flagship stout, so many people think they can only be made and served in the cold months. In addition to playing to the hearts and palates of stout lovers, the coffee stout uses Indiana roasted coffee from a couple of childhood friends of Josh.

Josh took me through the brew house recently, just as the final touches were being put on the equipment. They have a Blichmann (from up the road in Lafayette) 5bbl Pro-Series electric system with four 5 bbl fermenters and four 5 bbl brite tanks. It’s called a hybrid system because it isn’t on skids and isn’t hard plumbed together. This affords the ability to redesign the system when new equipment is warranted, and came in at a much more affordable price – although there will be more hose attaching and detaching.

Blichmann Engineering is making outstanding homebrew and professional brewing systems in Lafayette, IN. image credit: Blichmann

In fact, Blichmann and Backstep have partnered to make the Backstep system a model for future sales. Potential Blichmann customers can come in to look at the system talk to Josh about how it is working. Backstep is serious about making their beer. They put their Blichmann system as the banner image on their FB page – Jim said that, “As a home brewer I always wanted a Blichmann pot. Now we have one and I’m proud of it and bragging.” The brite tanks will be for clearing beer, but Josh hopes to serve off of maybe two or three of them eventually. The rest of the beer will be kegged, as Backstep sees themselves as self-distributing their beer to local accounts in the very near future.

The temporary doors on the brew house will be replaced with glass so patrons can see Josh hard at work during the day, and he is planning on shifting his brews to later in the day so that his work day will overlap with the times that Backstep is open. Josh, Jim, and Pat all understand how important it is to have the owners and the brewer available to talk to patrons – the personal relationships are what build strong patron loyalities. There will also be glass on the other end of the brew house where there is a door to the main drag in town. The shine from the gleaming system will be seen by people driving down the street and will pull them in, not unlike the nice visual that people get of the Wasser Brewing system in Greencastle.

Backstep has 32 taps. That’s enough room for house beers, variants of house beer, guest beers, and nitro beers. ‘Nough said. Photo credit: Yelp

The bar has a whopping 32 taps (including two nitrogen taps) with which to pour craft beer, cider, and mead, but Josh anticipates the Backstep beers will take up about 15 of those taps on any given day. Seasonals (including a schwarzbier that he really likes), one-offs, and eventually barrel-aged beers will be among those, but Josh will also take advantage of the versatility of some of the house beers.

The berliner weisse will be infused with different fruits to cut some of the sourness (for those who need that) and he plans on doing dry hop versions of his pale ales. These variants of the house beers keep things fresh, while at the same time helping the patrons learn more about the flavors of individual hop varieties and how fruits influence beers.

The remaining taps will be mostly Indiana craft beers. Jim said that in general, the guest beers will be of different styles than the Backstep beers on tap at the time, but he was open doing comparisons of Backstep versions of beer versus others. For instance, there will almost always be a hoppy Daredevil beer on tap, because they are known and well liked. In this way, there can be a bit of education into the variants of different styles, while also providing a large palate of different beer types to the patrons.

What more can you ask from a brewery – a great old building, owners with unique stories, a very young brewer with a neck-full of medals already, and 32 taps to stock with great craft beer. Here’s to Backstep and another quality addition to the Indiana brewing family.

 
 

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