Talking Ales with Angelo Part 1 – A look back

Remember if you can the year 1991.  The Soviet Union collapsed, the South African parliament repealed apartheid, Nirvana released their debut album Nevermind, and the Cincinnati Reds were reigning World Champions.  These events have been documented on Wikipedia, chronicled in TV documentaries, etched into the long term memories of my generation.  What you may not know is that in that same year a less heralded yet nonetheless significant event took place in Columbus—Angelo Signorino brewed his first batch of homebrew.  Inspired by Seirra Nevada’s Celebration Ale, and flush with birthday money he received from his grandmothers, Angelo paid a visit to the place where you went to get homebrewing supplies in those days, the Winemaker’s Shop in Clintonville.  As they say the rest is history, but in this post we’re going to take some time to delve into that history, before coming back to the present and future of Barley’s Brewing Company in part 2 of my spotlight on Central Ohio’s second oldest brewery.

On a Thursday evening in early August, Mark Richards and I made a pilgrimage to Barley’s Ale House #1, for an appointment with Ohio’s longest serving brewer.  Angelo met us at the bar and graciously welcomed us to what some might call the cathedral of Columbus craft beer.  Dressed in shorts and khaki shirt you would be forgiven if you mistook Angelo for a Boy Scout leader from a distance.  While the Boy Scout Law did tangentially come up in our conversation, we spent most of the next two hours sampling small pours of Angelo’s creations and talking past, present and future of Barley’s Brewing.

Angelo in front of one of the fermenters in the basement brewhouse of Barley's Brewing Co.
Angelo in front of one of the fermenters in the basement brewhouse of Barley’s Alehouse #1.

The Early Days of Barley’s Brewing

Let’s return to that fateful day in 1991 when Angelo set out to make his first IPA. The Winemaker’s Shop was at that time (and still is) owned by Scott Francis, another personality who looms large in the history of Columbus brewing.  At the time of their first meeting Angelo was working at Kroger and Scott was looking for a new challenge after setting up Columbus’ first microbrewery, Columbus Brewing Company (in 1988).  The two hit it off and the homebrewing bug bit Angelo hard, so later that year when Kroger was looking to downsize Angelo took their buyout and started working at the Winemaker’s Shop.  The following year when Francis was asked to start up brewing operations at Barley’s Brewing Company, Angelo’s job description expanded to include brewing duties in the windowless basement of the newly opened brewpub.

Of all the stories Angelo told us none were more interesting than those he shared about the early days of Barley’s.  Neither Scott nor Angelo had any experience with brewing all grain beers, because at that time Columbus Brewing Company was still brewing from malt extract!  The internet was not rife with recipes as it is today, you couldn’t just google a clone recipe for Pilsner Urquell or Fuller’s ESB, so they asked Dave Logsdon to come out to Columbus and help with recipe development. For the homebrewers and beer geeks out there Logsdon’s name should be a familiar one. In 1985 he founded Wyeast Laboratories, which has grown to become one of the largest suppliers of brewing yeasts in the country.  He was a founding partner and for a time a brewer at Full Sail Brewery.  Many years later he went onto found a fantastic small brewery on the slopes of Mount Hood that bears his name, Logsdon Farmhouse Ales (his Seizoen Bretta is still the only beer to receive a perfect 10 score on a Pat’s Pints review).  With Logsdon’s help they developed Barley’s first two beers, the Pale Ale and the Pilsner, both of which are still served at the Alehouse. (Given Logsdon’s expertise in yeast I find it somewhat ironic that Barley’s Pilsner is made with an ale yeast and therefore technically not a pilsner.)

The initial two beers were followed by a porter, an Irish red, and a wheat ale.  As the fall of 1993 was approaching co-owner Lenny Kolada was anxious to introduce a new beer to keep the lineup fresh. Angelo struck upon the idea of making a smooth drinking, malty, Scottish ale by a most unconventional approach.  Instead of using malts that have already been roasted for this purpose he starts with wort made from a mixture of British Pale, Wheat, and Carapils malts.  Next he fires up the burners and brings the bottom of the empty brewing vessel up to scorching hot temperatures.  Finally 20 gallons of wort are added to the brew kettle and over the next 30 minutes the sugary wort carmelizes to give the beer its dark amber color and sweet caramel notes.  In a successful ploy to win the favor of Kolada, Angelo dubbed the beer MacLenny’s Scottish Ale (after Barley’s Ale House and Smokehouse formally split in 2014 the beer was renamed Barley’s Scottish Ale, but it keeps the original name at Smokehouse). Famed beer writer Michael Jackson describes the beer this way in his Beer Companion:

“In 1994 I tasted the orangey, toffeeish Scottish Ale, made by an interesting process of carmelization, at Barley’s brewpub in Columbus, Ohio.  The kettle was turned on while still empty, then the wort was added. This is a potentially dangerous procedure: don’t try this at home.”

The taplist at Barley's when we visited.
The taplist at Barley’s when we visited.

Angelo goes regional

If you like locally brewed beer and lived in Central Ohio around the turn of the millennium chances are good that you’ve tasted an Angelo brewed beer.  Barley’s Smokehouse was opened in 1998 and for the next 16 years Angelo, who rides his bike to work throughout the year, would cycle between the two locations handling much of the day to day brewing duties.  He also brewed at Bunky’s in Newark, and All American Brewing in Dublin, where he used the brewkit that now resides at Actual Brewing.  At the same time Scott Francis was busy setting up small breweries at private establishments including country clubs in New Albany and Westerville, and the Hide-Away-Hills community southeast of Columbus.  These breweries were created for the purpose of circumventing laws banning sale of alcohol in communities that were dry at the time.  Not surprisingly Angelo also spent time brewing at all of those locales as well.

Since several of the breweries where Angelo brewed are no longer in existence I asked him to compare and contrast the climate of those times with the current day.  He told me the biggest difference was the exposure craft beer enjoys today in places that used to be dominated by the big beer companies.  Over the past 10-15 years the selection of craft beer, including many Ohio brewed options, available at the average supermarket has grown drmatically.  You could say the same thing about many area bars.  The fact is fifteen years ago you had to seek out craft beer, whereas now it’s part of the mainstream.  He also mentioned that in the old days you had to advertise, whereas nowadays with all of the beer content on the internet that’s not really necessary. I asked him how the dramatic growth in the number of local breweries has affected business at Barley’s, and he told me that the last couple of years have been the best ever at in terms of beer sales.

A Soft Spot for IPAs

As our conversation stretches into the evening Angelo jumps up to pour each of us a half pint of the Barley’s Centennial IPA from one of the beer engines at the alehouse.  While Scott Francis is notoriously fond of British-style ales, Angelo has a special place in his heart for big hoppy American IPAs. Barley’s Centennial IPA was his first commercial foray into the world of IPAs and is still one of his favorite creations.  Like that first batch of homebrew, Barley’s Centennial IPA was also inspired by Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale.  In this instance it was born out of necessity because in the winter of 1994 there was a shortage of his beloved Celebration Ale.  At that time of its inception Barley’s Centennial IPA’s 7.5% abv was right at the legal limit in Ohio (6% abw = 7.5% abv) and while 70 IBUs may seem ordinary now, that was pushing the envelope 21 years ago.  When I asked Angelo what led him to showcase Centennial hops he told me that he had read about them in a pamphlet he picked up at Pace High Carryout in Clintonville.  Since they were at time newly available in Ohio he developed a recipe based on them with the goal of recreating the grapefruit flavor of Celebration Ale.  I have to say Centennial IPA has aged very gracefully and in my opinion still holds a place in the upper tier of Columbus IPAs.  The floral, citrusy aromas of the Centennial hops get your attention, and the malts add a nice touch of caramel sweetness that makes for a highly drinkable beer.  I’m even more fond of its cousin, Barley’s Rye IPA, which is a little bit drier and full of spicy flavors from the rye.

Angelo pours a pint of Centennial IPA from one of the beer engines at Barley's.
Angelo pours a pint of Centennial IPA from one of the beer engines at Barley’s.

The Yeast Whisperer

Behind every successful brewer there’s a great yeast, and no yeast in Ohio has the pedigree to match the house yeast at Barley’s.  Angelo has lovingly nurtured that strain of yeast for the past 22 years.  That’s right, the yeast that made the Centennial IPA or Scottish Ale that you enjoyed on your last visit to Barley’s are direct descendants of the yeast that were used for the very first batches of those iconic beers back in the early 1990s.  Those who don’t work in the brewing industry might be wondering if that’s unusual.  The answer is an unequivocal yes, brewers will typical “retire” the yeast after brewing five, ten, twenty batches.  Some brewers even use fresh yeast for every batch, either because their fermenters don’t have the right shape (say because they were repurposed from dairy equipment) or because they are just anal about that kind of thing.

The house yeast at Barley’s is descended from a shipment of Wyeast London ESB 1968, a versatile yeast strain used to make English ales, including the iconic Fuller’s ESB.  I asked Angelo if the yeast had mutated into something a little different after so long in isolation, but it seems that is not the case.  A sample was analyzed in 2003 after a decade of making beer in the basement of Barley’s Ale House and it was judged nearly identical to a fresh batch of London ESB 1968.  When it comes to getting the most out of his yeast Angelo has few if any peers.


The Barley’s Homebrew Competition

For the past 20 years Barley’s has been hosting a homebrewing competition.  Homebrewers from all over Ohio submit beers and a panel of local brewers picks a winner.  The following year the winning beer is brewed using the equipment at Barley’s and served at the Alehouse.  The popularity of the contest as well as the pool of available judges has grown steadily over the past two decades.  In the first year the winners were picked by Signorino, Francis, and Kolada from Barley’s, Ben Pridgeon from CBC, and Victor Ecimovich from Hoster.  Contrast that with this past year when 20 brewers were on hand to judge the contest.

Over the years some distinctive beers have won the competition.  Jay Wince, owner and brewmaster at Weasel Boy Brewing in Zanesville, twice won the competition.  In 2004 he took home top honors with a smoked porter, and in 2003 with his Anastasia Russian Imperial Stout, a beer that later resurfaced at Weasel Boy and went onto win both bronze (2010) and gold (2012) medals at the Great American Beer Festival.  The 2009 winner, Lloyd Cicietti’s Bloodthirst Wheat, was so popular once it was tapped that it has since earned a permanent place in the Barley’s lineup.  Angelo told me that the notes for that recipe were a little vague on some key points, so it took some trial and error to dial in the recipe once they started making it on a regular basis.

A howler of Weasel Boy Anastasia Russian Imperial Stout, the most celebrated of the Barley's Homebrew competition winners.
A howler of Weasel Boy Anastasia Russian Imperial Stout, the most celebrated of the Barley’s Homebrew competition winners.

Well we could go on all day with tales of Christmas Ales and the change in the ABV limit, but we’ll end part 1 here. Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for part 2 when we take a look at some of the newer beers in the Barley’s lineup and get an update on their long anticipated expansion.

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