GnomeTown Brewing in Fort Wayne: Indiana’s Successful Brew-It-Yourself System is Also a Craft Brewery

GnomeTown Brewing in Fort Wayne: Indiana’s Successful Brew-It-Yourself System is Also a Craft Brewery

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Craft breweries host many activities in order to bring people into the taproom and back to the taproom again and again. Trivia is probably the most common activity, with national companies running some games while some individual breweries harness the talents of their employees or regulars to make up questions. A good trivia question would be to name an Indiana craft brewery that doesn’t do regular trivia.

Bingo is another activity that can be found at many taprooms, from Cheryl calling out letter and numbers at Bier Brewery to Drag Queen Bingo at Black Circle, each week sponsored by a different local brewery. Trivia requires more planning than bingo, so I’m sort of surprised that bingo isn’t more popular. However, either one fits the bill in building a pleasant social experience for the patrons, with the happy memories encouraging people to return again and again. It’s no secret that how one remembers a brewery or a beer is affected by mood and the experience one had while drinking at a particular place.

There are other activities that take place at breweries that are more labor and equipment intensive. There are companies like Wine and Canvas, paint your dog nights, flower arranging with pints alongside, terrarium building nights (Plant Nite), as well as craft-it-forward nights where you can make a sign or something else. They all work well for breweries, and take less work on the employees’ part since outside companies almost always run them.

Plant Nite does events at breweries, bars, and distilleries. image credit: Plant Nite

The point is that patrons are using a company’s materials and expertise to help them create something of value (sometimes just sentimental, sometime of monetary value) while you have a beer or two and interact with the people around you. If all goes well, how could it not work to bring patrons back to your taproom, even if it isn’t for another activity.

The question that one might ask then is – why not follow that same strategy with the beer itself? Could a brewery bring people in and let them brew their own beer as a way to build relationships? It would connect the patrons with the brewery, connect them with craft beer, and give them a good memory that would be attached to drinking craft beer.

No brewery is going to let a bunch of untrained, uninsured yahoos come in and mess with their big brewhouse, but could you do it another way? What about a series of small kettles where people, under professional supervision, could brewer a small batch of beer in an afternoon or evening, and come back in a couple of weeks to get bottle it and take home? It sounds like it might work. What people need is a homebrew laboratory where people can try it out, either as fun activity, as a trial before investing in home brew equipment, or as a way to further connect with their craft beer drinking hobby.

In fact the concept does work, and there are many “brew-it-yourself” places around the country. Sometimes called “brew labs” or “brew on premise” businesses, they have been around since slightly after the craft beer boom, with their popularity waxing and waning over the years.

Saugatuck started out as a customer brewing experience. image credit: Saugatuck Brewing

The idea took off in Canada in the early 1990s as a way to avoid the high taxes on purchased beer, and spread to the US in the middle of the decade. There were just eight BOPs in the US in 1995, but almost 100 by 1997. There was even a book written about the trend and how you could get in on it (Brew-On-Premise: How to Join the Brewing Revolution, by Diana Shellenberger).

When the craft beer world had a contraction around 2000, many of these places closed just as did many breweries, but they started to have a renaissance about 2010. This is actually how Saugatuck Brewing in Michigan got its start, and they still do brew-it-yourself sessions at their original brewery (they just expanded through the acquisition of Gonzo’s BiggDogg Brewing in Kalamazoo).

These places are spread across the country with densities varying from place to place. California has had many BOP places over the years and remains a place where they are plentiful. Ohio is another place with more than the average number of brew labs, with Eudora in Dayton, The Brew Kettle in Strongsville, Little Mountain Brewing in Mentor (oops, closed now), and North High Brewing in Columbus.

On the other hand, neighboring states like Michigan and Indiana have had little experience with BOP. Saugatuck is the only place in Michigan that has every done it as far as I’m aware, and Indiana has gone most years of the craft craze without a BOP operating. There was one place in Greenwood called Brew-By-U, but its story isn’t a great one.

Brew-By-U opened in December of 2014. It was a homebrew shop that also allowed people to brew in the store. Run by first time small business owner Jeremy Hough, Brew-By -U had six kettles in all and advertised themselves as a place to home brew without investing in all that equipment. They had “brew coaches” that would walk people through the process, with automation and pre-measured ingredients doing much of the work.

The only other Indiana BOP was in Greenwood, fro 2014-2015. image credit: Indianapolis Star

The Brew-By-U system ended up with each brewer taking home six cases of 22 ounce bottles. That’s alot of beer… more than 14 gallons per person actually. This might have been part of the reason why Brew-By-U closed just eleven months after opening. I’m not sure that peoples’ first efforts often merited just a under a half barrel (112 pints) – like I said, it was a lotta beer. By November of 2015 there were just under a couple of dozen customers who were left without their money and without their beer when the money ran out and Hough filed for bankruptcy.

But don’t despair, Indiana’s story of BOPs has a happy ending, there is a single brew-it-yourself operation in the state now and they are going strong. GnomeTown Brewing in Fort Wayne is both a BOP and a functioning craft brewery, located next to The Hoppy Gnome restaurant in the Anthony Wayne building on E. Berry Street. GnomeTown splits its time brewing as a brewery and having people come into to brew a batch for fun.

GnomeTown Brewing is fortunately or unfortunately, often confused with The Hoppy Gnome restaurant next door. Co-owner Peter Shuey and partners opened The Hoppy Gnome in July of 2015, a 3400 sq. ft. restaurant whose sister restaurant, Proximo, just a few blocks away. GnomeTown has the same owners as The Hoppy Gnome, is located in the same first floor complex as The Hoppy Gnome, and has that similar name, so there is often a lot of confusion about these related, but separate entities. The confusion doesn’t help them in their effort to let people know that Gnometown makes really good beer, or that they can help you do the same.

After The Hoppy Gnome opened up, the remainder of the first floor of the building was used for storing building supplies for the condo contractor upstairs. The space was just about rented to a tenant, forcing Shuey and partners to search out another space to put their proposed craft brewery. Luckily, the prospective tenant deal fell through, and it was then offered to GnomeTown.

image credit: GnomeTown Brewing

Peter always thought the idea of a BOP was unique and would be a fun way to expand the Hoppy Gnome brand without building another restaurant.  He had spent 12 years in California and it was there that he was first introduced to the BOP concept, this one in Huntington Beach.  The idea was great, but the execution needed some fine tuning.  He decided that this idea could have some legs if properly operated with a traditional brewer at the helm. They partners took the space available and renovated the entire downstairs, adding some sq. footage to the restaurant and a lobby for people to congregate between the brewery and the restaurant.

They ordered the brew on premises system – and then the ATC lost their mind. They didn’t really know if it was legal to have people brewing in your brewery, despite having examples of establishments across the country. It took a long while to work out all the language, but they were finally allowed to proceed. And now it has become successful. I know your dying to hear how it works, so here we go.

Anyone over 21 can come in to brew a batch of beer. You can sign up online (here) or call their event coordinator, Jordan, to set up a session. After that, you’ll be put in touch with head brewer Mike Flaherty to talk about the style of beer you might like to make You could be trying to get a taste of what home brewing is all about before ivesting in a system, or you might be celebrating a birthday. Many businesses come in to brew batches of beer as a team building exercise or if they are celebrating a retirement or promotion. Peter told me that right now the split is about 60/40 in favor of groups over individuals, but even solos end meeting other individuals or groups and have a great time. What’s not to like, you get to brew beer without doing all the clean up – the fun without the drudgery.

Each person brewing picks a recipe to use; just about anything is possible. You can make your favorite GnomeTown beer or you can make a beer based on the recipe of your favorite brew from around the country. You can ask to do a style that they have never done. Some guests bring in special ingredients from home (work with Mike to see how much you will need); people have added vanilla beans, whiskey, oak chips, fruits, spices, etc. There isn’t much that’s off limits. This is beyond what most BOPs will do, they usually have a list of recipes and you have to choose one of those.

Each “brewer for a day” gets their own kettle and set of ingredients to measure out, mix, and turn into beer. image credit: GnomeTown Brewing

The brewing process takes about three hours and Mike will help everyone along. Many people can brew at once because GnomeTown has eight individual ¼ barrel vessels in which to brew all at the same time. Each brewer will mash in, mash out, lauter, boil, add hops, and whirlpool in the same kettle to get ready for fermentation. Yes, this is whole grain brewing, not extract brewing; you get to make beer just like the professionals.

The wort from each kettle is then pumped through a heat exchanger and into a plastic barrel for fermentation. You pitch the yeast and move it into the fermentation space so it can transform from wort to beer. During the down times of the brew day you can design your label of the 40 or so 22 oz. bombers that you’ll be putting your beer into when it is ready. The custom designed labels and bottles are part of the price for your brew day, or you could choose to take you beer home in a keg. Back labels are available for an extra cost, as is having GnomeTown bottle your beer for you.

So that’s how you can make your own beer at GnomeTown, but that’s not all there is to GnomeTown Brewing. Mike also makes Gnometown beers for draft in the taproom, for draft at The Hoppy Gnome, and for around town. They started brewing their won beers just four months after starting the BOP program, and they are now starting to put out more beer on their own.

Many breweries that do BOP have a different system for brewing their own beer. Not so at GnomeTown. The eight kettles that prospective brewers use for their small batches are the same kettle Mike uses for GnomeTown beer – he just uses all of them at once. The wort from four kettles is put into one barrel for fermentation, so each brew day yields GnomeTown about two barrels of beer.

If GnomeTown is occupied with a private event, remember that you can always get their beer at The Hoppy Gnome. image credit: Michael Kinder & Sons

This is what makes Mike so good at helping people make nice small batches for themselves, he is using that system every day and knows all the tricks. It’s even gotten to the point that people are contracting GnomeTown to brew beer for them, places like Pint & Slice, Black Dog Pub, and Proximo have their own beers on tap which are made by GnomeTown. Want your own beer for your Fort Wayne bar or restaurant? GnomeTown is your answer; they are happy to collaborate on style and are willing to leave the name and label ideas to you.

GnomeTown is starting to do more festivals and is pushing beer out the door to accounts like Scotty’s and PF Chang’s, so it is likely that you will be seeing GnomeTown around town more often in the future. This is all a good thing, because it isn’t that easy to drink GnomeTown beer in the GnomeTown taproom. It doubles as banquet space for The Hoppy Gnome, and then there are the brew sessions for people making beer and other private parties. So you might be able to get a beer in the taproom if it isn’t otherwise occupied on a Friday night of Saturday.

Luckily, The Hoppy Gnome is right across the lobby. They have the GnomeTown beers on draft all the time in their spacious bar, so you never have to go without. I guess there are advantages to having the restaurant and the brewery right next to one another, even if people do get them confused from time to time. Take the time to find GnomeTown to make a beer or to drink and beer. It will help you connect to the Indiana craft beer scene.

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