The Journey From Home Brewing to Commercial Brewing: A Closer Look into Indy’s New Black Circle Brewing Co.

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

In my moderately considered opinion, every beer festival should include a home brewer competition. Home brewers are a source of great beer, and since so many of them are going pro these days, they are now one of the primary sources of new breweries. Steve Llewellyn at Function Brewing, Jeff Smith at the Evansville Brewhouse, Joe Pokropinski at Pokro Brewing, and Damon, Matt, and Nic at Wabash Brewing are just a few examples of home brewers that have decided to sell their beer to the public in the past three years.

By having more home brewing competitions with public tastings and perhaps public voting, the public would get more chances to provide feedback and convince home brewers that the world is ready for their beer. Feedback is always a positive thing, even when it’s negative. Winning a public tasting vote or hearing what could be improved in their beer are both good things for a brewer who is considering a move to open a taproom. Take the example of Moontown Brewing. Pete Mattingly won the home brewers competition at the Whitestown Brew Fest in 2015, and is now finalizing the build out to his brewery and taproom in the old high school of that town.

The 2015 Whitestown Brew Fest home brewing competition winners are now opening Moontown Brewing in Whitestown. We need more of these public opportunities to talk to home brewers about their beer. Photo credit: Indiana On Tap

Another such home-to-pro brewing operation just opened a few weeks ago on the northeast side of Indianapolis – Black Circle Brewing (cool name, eh?) just west of Keystone on 46th. Dan Gayle and Jesse Rice met while both were working for Chase Bank, then they began talking beer at work and brewing together at home. Jesse moved away, but they kept in touch and always talked about opening a brewery together. Jesse was sitting at the bar at Against The Grain in 2014 where another potential partner kept pushing the idea, “When are we going to do this for real?” Jesse texted Dan then and there, and they started talking seriously. From there it was a crooked road, with the loss of three partners, a move back to Indy for Jesse and family, and many steps backward after every few steps forward, but now they’re open and pouring beer.

As of now, Dan and Jesse are ramping up their beer production. The soft open will turn into a grand opening on February 11, with the Blackfoot Gypsies on the stage, 4-5 taps of their own beer including a fantastic New England IPA and an appealingly tart gose with lemon, and some guest beers (eventually they will have 7-8 taps of their own beer). Until then, they have samples of some of their beers on tap and a very good rotating guest list. In our two visits so far, Walter and I have had the Plead the Fifth from Dark Horse, the bourbon barrel aged Scotch Ale from Central Waters, Gumballhead from FFF, and the Victory at Sea from Ballast Point – pretty nice for a first set of purchases. They serve the many different styles that they like to drink, and this is something that will come up again and again at Black Circle – Dan and Jesse show us who they are in their beer, their guest beers, their music and their attitude.

The two partners split the brewing duties, but when it comes to the running of a brewery, they each have their own skills. Together, they make a great team. Jesse is a go-getter, a decision-maker; Dan calls him the butt-kicker in charge. On the other hand, Dan is very laid back; many of the day-to-day decisions just aren’t important to him – he’s a philosophy guy. Each fellow has a style of his own, but the team isn’t like either one of them – it is something with a style all its own.

The logo for Black Circle – the best I’ve seen since the Daredevil helmet. Photo credit: Black Circle Brewing

They make beer that they like to drink. Importantly, their style is to NOT have a style – they aren’t a sour brewery, they aren’t a high gravity, experimental brewery. If it tweaks their fancy, they’ll try it. Dan and Jesse self-financed the project; they don’t owe anybody anything and this lets them pursue brewing beer as they, a partnership, see fit.

And in this regard, the second major player in their brewery comes into focus as well – music. Jesse and his father have spent some time booking bands in Northern Indiana, and his pop manages a band or two, so both Jesse and Dan have an idea of the music they like and want to book in their venue. The styles of music they play reflect their beer; varied and what they like themselves. They’ve set up a stage and a killer sound system for live music and they play vinyl in the afternoons and weekday evenings.

In fact, the logo for the brewery (see left) suggests an LP record; a black circle. Dan and Jesse put a lot of work into selecting a name and logo. The original five partners had chosen Blunderbuss Brewing, but it had been federally trademarked. They started looking at names early, so they had time to get it right. Along the way, they lost 60% of the partners, sometimes over philosophy and sometimes over seemingly smaller things. By the time Black Circle came around, it was just Dan and Jesse, and decisions between the two were much easier to make.

The logo was worked over several times, and the final product is vague enough to suggest many things. It can reflect your own private style, as it does theirs. Maybe it’s about the Pearl Jam song and vinyl records, maybe it looks like the watermark from a pint glass, or perhaps its the circle of the Circle City. One interpretation could be confining, just as might be one type of brewing or one style of music on stage.

The Black Circle taproom. The stage is to the left of the image with two sets of garage doors behind and right of the camera. They play vinyl from the bar and pour beer and have pinball machines. Why would you ever go home? Photo credit: Indianapolis Star

The food arrangement with Black Circle is also another reflection of the style of the brewery; laid back and partnership driven. Elena Ruz is a Cuban catering kitchen that makes some fine food. Jesse’s brother knew Robert Graham (Bob) from Elena Ruz and the brewery guys teamed up with Bob even before they had a space located. They just felt good with the cooperative effort and knew that together they could make it work. They each looked for a space that could work for both of them, just as the old Double 8 Foods warehouse was being sold. They contacted the new owners and took a look. The location was just right, in a neighborhood that they both knew and loved, and with the history and style that contributes to their message. This was the last piece of the puzzle and fit into their philosophy as well as the food, the music, and the beer all do. It’s a package deal.

So what does it mean to move from home brewing to a commercial brewery? Does it mean finding a niche and getting the backing of investors? It can. Might it mean finding a top chef and some high-end equipment to open a brewpub? It might. In the case of Black Circle, it means finding the right partner, the right neighborhood feel, and with right music and beer that the owners hope you like as much as they do – a non-style operation. As Dan puts it, “It’s the Dan and Jesse show. If I couldn’t open the brewery with him, then I wouldn’t do it at all.” That’s just their style.

 
 

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