An Interview with Rick Orta of the Resurgent Studebaker Brewing in South Bend

An Interview with Rick Orta of the Resurgent Studebaker Brewing in South Bend

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Studebaker Brewing in South Bend just passed their 1-year anniversary in October, and it would be accurate to call that first twelve months a learning experience and a slow climb to greatness. Breweries often go through changes early in their tenures, but Studebaker had two large changes in their beer and that isn’t normal that early.

The brewer when Studebaker opened on Oct. 23, 2018 was Brandon Townsley. He and GM Kevin Jakel had brought in the brewhouse and were started to learn it when the approval came through for Townsley’s own place in Niles, MI. This left Kevin to learn the system on his own, without much brewing experience behind him.

Then, as sales slowly started to increase, Kevin went looking for a brewer that could take them further. He found a brewer, and the beers changed again for the second time in a year. But what a change – the word is starting to get out now about Rick Orta and the new brews at Studebaker Brewing, and now things are moving forward much faster.

Bringing in Rick Orta. Kevin stopped in at Burn ‘Em Brewing in Michigan City one afternoon, asking if anyone knew of a brewer looking for a part time gig in South Bend. Studebaker wasn’t yet selling enough beer to need a full time brewer, so having someone that already had a gig would be OK. He and Rick talked about other people, Rick never really considering himself. But they more they talked, the more they realized that it might be a good fit.

Studebaker Brewing head brewer Rick Orta. image credit: South Bend Tribune

Rick had been learning process and the hardware side of brewing and packaging, so Studebaker would give him experience on the brewing side of brewing. After a short stint as a part time brewer, Rick and Kevin realized that they were selling so much more beer now that it was necessary to have someone in South Bend full time. Rick made the break and came on as full time head brewer in January, 2019.

By that time, Rick had a good idea of what processes he wanted to refine or change, and some idea of where he wanted to take the beer, recipes, ingredients, and all. Some things have remained, like some beer names – but all the recipes and manufacturing processes have been tweaked by now, it’s been all Rick’s beer since early summer. It took a while to catch on, but now they are making beer as fast as they can.

But that doesn’t mean that everything is exactly as they want it at Studebaker. They still need to “overcome” the issues of being a casual brewery located in a fancy building with a fancy restaurant. Jakel and Orta want to present a relaxing atmosphere that takes into account the surrounding and stories of the place and times, but they also want Studebaker to be approachable. They call it part history and part hops. It’s a challenge, but what an opportunity they have; Tippecanoe Place is a quite location for a brewery.

History of Tippecanoe Place. The genesis of the building goes back to the 1850s when the Studebaker brothers started their manufacturing company, primarily working in wagons and wagon wheels. The five brothers, Henry, Clement, John, Peter, and Jacob, had picked up the metal and wood working skills of their father and grandfather, and spread out to build on the family’s already considerable assets. Henry and Clement were the first arrive in South Bend, where they started a foundry for metal wagon parts, and then moved into making complete wagons.

The five Studebaker brothers. image credit: South Bend Tribune

Over time, each of the other brothers joined them, and through government contracts and making wheelbarrows for the Gold Rush, they became hugely successful. They made wagons for everything and everyone and they were shipped nationwide. By the 1880s, Clem had decided that he needed a home commensurate with the status he had achieved. The idea took hold in 1884, the plans were done by 1886, and the home was complete in 1889 (February).

Forty rooms, 24,000 sq. ft and done in the Richardson Romanesque style, the house was a treasure ….until it burnt down just 8 months later. The stone walls were about all that remained, but it was rebuilt over the next year and regained it’s grandeur. As to how it got the name Tippecanoe Place – there are two possibilities. One, it might have been named for the Treat of Tippecanoe, which was signed in 1832 on a bluff near South Bend – it could have been the very bluff that the home was built on, but no one really knows.

Two, the house was probably named after the grandfather of a very close Clem Studebaker friend. As a wheeler dealer, Clem had many important friends, one of whom was Benjamin Harrison. He was elected 23rd President of the United States in late 1888, just as the home was being finished, and he ordered a fleet of Studebaker carriages when he entered the White House. Benjamin’s grandfather was William Henry Harrison, the 9th President of the US and the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. His slogan when running for President was “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” It would seem that Studebaker merged both stories and came up with the name for his home – Tippecanoe Place.

Restaurant and the Brewery. The home was a defining edifice for the city for years, but time and loss of purpose took its toll. In 1980, the Tippecanoe Place Restaurant took up residence their, as a meeting place for families and groups. Over the years it has hosted thousands of special events, and that’s sort of a problem. They built is a serious, fancy reputation over the years, making it hard to get people in on a daily basis.

The third floor had been George and Ada Studebaker’s bedroom and sitting rooms, and this had been converted to a bar and lounge for the restaurant in the 1980s. GM Kevin thought that converting this to a microbrewery could help to bring people in more often, so it was refreshed to make it more casual and the brewing began. An under-utilized kitchen on that floor was also redone, so now they have a brewpub of their own, housed with the great mansion and above the main restaurant – Studebaker Brewing.

Tippecanoe Place mansion in the background. image credit: Studebaker Brewing

But still, overcoming the staid and fancy image of the mansion and restaurant is something that Studebaker Brewing is just now getting people to buy into. Rick says, it’s a “come as you are sort of place.” They want people to know that t is approachable, even though it is in an intimidating space. The changes are taking hold and people are coming more and more – especially with the great beers being made, but Kevin and Rick are continuing to make it an even more casual place.

Beers and food. Rick is making many styles of beer now, some straight to style and some interesting riffs. Lately he’s made a birthday cake stout for the anniversary and served on nitro, a traditional marzen, and an in your face West Coast IPA with bunches of C hops. The X-Hawk NE IPA has been a big hit, as has the white stout from this past summer. I had the X-Hawk and the birthday cake stout when at La Pour Brew & Wine Fest recently, and was impressed by both. I made a stop into the taproom this past Saturday and tried several of the beers again. Each batch seems better than the one before it.

As for food in the brewpub, it runs the gamut from snacks to entrees. There are appetizers like pretzels or potato skins, but also spicy Nawlin’s Shrimp. There are always two soups and two salads, and the sandwiches include a prime rib one that I’ll be getting next time I am up there. The kitchen offers four different flatbreads, from chicken pesto to BBQ pork, but you can also get bigger meals, like shrimp pasta. No desserts yet, unless they come up from the restaurant; we’ll have to work on that.

Interview with Rick Orta. I asked head brewer Rick several questions so that we can get know he and his beers better. Here’s what he had to say:

What is your brewing pedigree and how did you end up at Studebaker? “I got my foot in the door at Greenbush Brewing Co. way back in 2013. Early on a took an interest in learning everything I could about brewing and bought and read every brewing textbook I could get my hands on. I tend to be sort of autodidactic. In the course of a few years I worked my way up to Head Cellarman there managing cellaring and packaging. I left there in July 2016 to join my friends over at Burn’em Brewing. I brought my cold side experience to them and helped refine some processes and got to learn/do more hot side operations as well while there. A chance encounter one morning with Kevin Jakel, Tippecanoe/Studebaker’s GM, led to me leaving there to come to Studebaker to do my own thing.”

The bar at Studebaker Brewing. image credit: South Bend Tribune

How long have you been there now and how many beers that are your recipes have you done?  “I’ve been with Studebaker now since late November 2018. I worked at Studebaker part time in the evenings after working at Burn ‘Em during the day. I came on full time with SBCo in late January. I currently have about 40 of my own recipes that I’ve developed since being here.”

What is your philosophy of beer and how will you implement that philosophy? “To me, brewing beer is both science and art, but science always trumps art. You have to know and understand your ingredients and processes before you can really unlock their potential in your brewing. I carefully plan every recipe with a goal in mind. I’m relatively new to recipe development so I don’t always get as close as I’d like on the first try. Once the beer is finished, analyze it and see how close you got and adjust paying careful attention to how the beer changes with each tweak to get an overall understanding of how everything works together. Beer is still an evolving science (mostly in the fields of hops and yeast) and to stay on top of it all I try to keep up with the scientific community via the ASBC (American Society of Brewing Chemists), MBAA (Master Brewers Association of America), BA (Brewer’s Association) and various other outlets for modern beer science. But also, contrary to almost everything I’ve said previously, don’t be afraid to have some fun and take a shot in the dark from time to time to see how something will work out. Sometimes you have to establish a point of reference right?”

“Once you have a good foundation of process and ingredient knowledge challenge yourself to keep brewing interesting and fun! I plan to do that by both brewing styles that I like and want to continue to develop but as I get more comfortable in recipe development I’d like to try and brew styles that I’m not as familiar with or don’t necessarily care for. I think a good brewer should be able to competently brew styles that they may not even like. Hopefully I’ll get there eventually. I might have some flops but you’ve got to crawl before you walk right?”

Where and what is the brew house? “We’re using a 1 bbl Blichmann system. It is in a repurposed kitchen adjacent to the brewery/lounge area.”

Can people in the bar see/smell the brewing? “You can’t really smell the brewing, I don’t think. Or at least I can’t, but I think I’m desensitized to it. You can view part of our little cellar through a set of double glass doors when you visit.”

image credit: Studebaker Brewing

How many brew days a week are you doing? “Brewing really varies, just depends. Some weeks I’m doing a bunch of cellaring and packaging and others I brew 3-5 days. Last week I brewed 4 days straight to get all the tanks full.”

How many beers do you have on now, how many usually? “We currently and always have eight beers on tap.”

Are you looking to expand your brewing? “We are currently putting together a plan to expand to 8 taps and increase production capacity as much as possible in our small space. I am already starting to have trouble keeping up! A good problem, but a problem none the less that we plan to rectify quickly.”

Do you guest taps? “We can do guest taps but we don’t currently due to only having the eight taps and I’m able to keep them full.”

How does Studebaker connect with the community? “I try whenever I can to source materials for beers from local farms and vendors and give them shout outs to support our local small farms and businesses. We also will do charity events when we can. We are a young brewery and are still finding out where we fit in and what charities & events we want to do and can handle. We recently auctioned off a “Brew with a Brewer” package to raise money for a young man struggling with cancer. The winner was a Studebaker automobile fan that flew in all the way from Seattle!”

What are the short- and long-term plans for Studebaker? “We’re not sure yet. We’re just going to try and brew the best beer we can and offer a unique experience in a Historical mansion and see if it resonates with people! If it does we’ll pursue growth!”

Conclusion. “‘Hops & History’ this is what Studebaker are all about: come enjoy a great craft beer in a one of a kind, national historic landmark, and take in the history of the Studebaker legacy from the mansion, wagon and automobile manufacturing and now beer.”

note: a portion of the information for this piece came from an article by Mary Shown, in the South Bend Tribune of August 15, 2019 (link here)

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