Flying Under the Radar: A visit to Granville Brewing Company

Most craft breweries are small businesses in the truest sense of the word, and the people who launch them are often forced to be creative when it comes to siting their breweries.  In Ohio alone, I’ve visited breweries housed in old car washes (Lineage) and auto parts stores (JAFB), in pole barns (Little Fish) and horse barns (Rockmill), in churches (Urban Artifact) and funeral homes (Phoenix), but the family rec room turned brewery that houses Granville Brewing has a vibe unlike any other brewery I’ve visited.  The walls are adorned with all manner of beer paraphernalia; an old school electronic sign board displaying the prices of beers like PBR, Old English 800, Stroh’s, and Schlitz hangs on the wall behind the bar; a lone deer antler sits on a shelf, and a metal tin tacker directs hippies to use the back door.  If brewery tap rooms existed in 1980, this one could be right out of Caddyshack.

Founder and co-owner, Ross Kirk is standing behind the bar, wearing a polo shirt and a golf visor, talking beer and relating stories from his recent Alaskan cruise.  Given the surroundings you’d expect we would be drinking a cream ale or maybe a pre-prohibition pilsner, but one sip of the spicy, dry saison in my glass, and the connection to 1980’s America is immediately dispelled.  This is a sophisticated beer that would not be out of place in a Flanders café.  More unlikely places to find elegant Belgian-style beer may exist, but if they do I haven’t visited them.

Granville Bar
Ross Kirk mans the bar at Granville Brewing.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

The origins story of most craft breweries begins with someone catching the homebrewing bug, and Granville Brewing is no different.  Kirk, who is a heavy construction estimator by day, began homebrewing in 2006 and before long he was regularly cranking out batches on a 10 gallon all-grain system. I’m sure the sight of his VW bus loaded with a keg or two of homebrew must have been a welcome sight at tailgates and barbeques across Licking County, back in the now seemingly halcyon days of the Bush and Obama administrations.  Fast forward a half dozen years, Kirk and long-time friend Jay Parsons decide to take the hobby to the next level, officially opening Granville Brewing to the public in February 2013.  From the beginning it was a small scale DIY operation, and what better way to keep the costs low than to site the brewery in the family party barn on Kirk’s 24 acre estate south of Granville, Ohio.

From a brewing perspective the conversion from avid homebrewer to part-time commercial brewer must not have been such a big leap.  The original brewkit was a 1 barrel (31 gallons) system from Blichmann Engineering, just a three-fold increase in scale from his homebrewing days.  There was no taproom to staff, and the beer was self-distributed.  The focus was on Belgian-style beers with a core lineup that included an Imperial Amber, a Saison, and a Tripel; a choice that originated partly out of a love for the flavorful beers of Belgium, and partly out of necessity.  The original 1 barrel fermenting tanks had no temperature control, a challenging proposition for a commercial brewery committed to making quality beer, but the expressive yeasts used for saisons and abbey ales do their best work when fermenting on the warm side.

Granville Pilot System
The boil kettles from the original one barrel system are now used to make pilot batches.

After a few years Granville Brewing was putting out approximately 50 barrels per year, which translates to one batch per week on average.  That kind of production schedule might not sound too taxing, but when you’re working a full-time job and raising a family, it’s a challenge to find enough hours in the week for brewing, bottling, and distributing.  Enter Steven Wagner, Granville Brewing’s only full-time employee.  Nicknamed Pinto, after the mild-mannered fraternity pledge from the 1978 comedy Animal House, Wagner is one of the youngest head brewers in Ohio. I asked Wagner to describe the path that led him to his current brewing role:

I was going to Ohio State and took a brewing course.  I had already been homebrewing for a few years and after the class I knew I wanted to brew professionally.  I asked a brewer in a large Columbus brewery what degree I should get to become a brewer.  His advice was get brewery experience first and the degree didn’t matter.  I sent an e-mail to area breweries letting them know that I wanted to get my foot in the door and would do any job.  Ross and Jay responded and had me in for an interview that turned into a trip to look at a walk-in cooler.  A week later I was helping them put it together.  After that I showed up a night or two a week and on weekends to clean, package, and learn their brewing process. After about a year of that they offered me a full-time job as a brewer.  I quit my job and dropped out of OSU and have been here ever since.

The taproom is only open to the public on special occasions, and “special occasion” usually translates to a rare Columbus Brew Adventures tour.  That’s how I first visited back in the fall of 2016.  At that time Granville Brewing had just purchased four seven-barrel fermenters from their neighbors at Buckeye Lake Brewing, who themselves had recently expanded.  Subsequently a mash tun and a boil kettle from Heritage Equipment in Plain City were added to facilitate brewing batches large enough to fill a seven-barrel fermenter.  In July 2017 Granville Brewing signed a distribution deal with Matesich Distributing in Newark.  Through this deal beers are distributed in 10 counties across in East-Central Ohio, including Licking, Knox, and Fairfield counties.  Sadly for many of my readers, their distribution footprint does not include Franklin county, where a considerable sleuthing is generally required to track down one of their beers (The Ohio Tap Room, Brewcadia, Crafted Drafts, The Mellow Mushroom, and Grain + Grape have all been known to periodically carry their beers).  Now that the new system is up and running Granville Brewing is producing about 21 barrels a month, a five-fold increase in output.

I asked Wagner where people could go to reliably find their beers and he told me that the bar in the Kroger marketplace off of 21st street in Newark is a sure fire bet. Other locations that frequently carry their beers on tap are Taco Dan’s in Granville, and the Beverage Source in Newark. The latter may be the best place to track down bottles.

Granville Fermenters
Adding four jacketed seven bbl fermenters was a major step up at Granville Brewing.

The Beers

Despite the increase in capacity, the lineup of packaged beers has not changed from 22 oz bombers of their three core beers: Oppressor Imperial Amber (6.8% abv), Reaper Saison (8.4% abv), and Betrayer Tripel (9.5% abv).  Of the three, my personal favorite is the Reaper. Saisons lend themselves to a wide range of interpretations, and this one is made with spices and hops that harmonize with the spicy phenolics and fruity esters of the distinctive saison yeast strain.  The abv is unusually high for the style (it would be categorized as a super saison in a competition), but the alcohol is dangerously well hidden.  Best of all it finishes dry, one of the few non-negotiable characteristics of a saison.

With the availability of temperature controlled fermenters Wagner and Kirk can brew a broader range of styles.  While they’ve not expanded the trio of packaged beers, their keg beers are a different story.  In 2017 they expanded their range to include a Russian imperial stout, a pale ale, a petite saison, a wit, a porter, an amber, a serrano stout, and a Flanders red.  Even the saison may be a little better dialed in, because they are able to reliably run the fermentation a little warmer to get that expressive yeast profile just right.  Given the time-consuming nature of filling bottles by hand on a two-head bottling system, I’m not surprised to learn that 90% of their current production goes into kegs.

From my conversations with Ross and Pinto I get the feeling that Ross is a bit conservative not only with his business plan, but also with his recipes, while the younger Pinto likes to push the envelope a little.  During my first visit Ross poured everyone on the CBA tour two versions of the saison—the standard Reaper and a dry hopped version featuring Galaxy hops.  It was clear that Pinto had been pushing the dry-hopped version, and for my part I thought it was a good tweak that improved upon an already good beer.  When I visited nine-months later I asked what had become of the debate.  Ever the pragmatist, Ross told me they decided to stick with the standard version because Galaxy hops were too difficult to source reliably.  A similar back and forth can be detected in the response I got from Pinto when I asked him which Granville beer is his current favorite:

If you pushed me, I’d say my favorite beer is the Serrano Stout.  It’s so thick and chocolaty with just the slightest chili spice to it.  I may be slightly biased because this beer was the one I had to do the most convincing to make, and after it was done I felt vindicated.  It was delicious and a beer that had a bit of serrano flavor in it, not a serrano heat bomb with beer flavor, which is was what I think Ross was worried it would be.

Granville Pint Glass
Tip of the day, Granville’s jumping fox logo approximates the shape of the letter G.

To get a better sense of Wagner’s approach to brewing I asked him what his favorite non-Granville Brewing beers were.  While he wouldn’t name a favorite, he did say that Actual’s Fat Julian and Anderson Valley’s The Kimmie, The Yink and The Holy Gose are two beers he buys whenever he sees them on the shelf.  An interesting contrast that hints at the expanding range of styles currently being brewed at Granville Brewing.

I’m not the only one who thinks Granville Brewing is on top of their game.  Last year Columbus craft beer pioneer Lenny Kolada (owner of Smokehouse and Commonhouse Ales) commented on my Facebook page that he was blown away by Granville’s offerings when he visited on a Columbus Brew Adventures tour.

Not completely happy with my tasting notes I reached out to Chris Fitzpatrick (perhaps better known by his Twitter handle @BubOhioBeer) to see if he would contribute a review for this story.  He was gracious enough to venture out to Newark and sent back this dispatch from the field:

 

Sitting at Kroger In Newark which has two committed Granville lines, I prefer the Reaper Saison so I’ll profile that. It’s a very well crafted saison that looks a lot like an APA in the glass. Orange, bright and very nice carbonation. On the nose you get a very nice clovey Belgian yeast scent backed up with a strong pepper/spice smell, I’m going with coriander based on taste.  The taste is as good as you’ll find for a saison in the US, refreshing up front, followed by the classic Belgian yeast flavor with a perfect spice bite in the aftertaste. It’s sneaky clean for an 8.2% beer. It would pair excellent with any Belgian food: fries, savory waffles, or beef carbonade.

Granville Brewery Cat
Not used to getting visitors in the tap room, the brewery cat Bluto (what else could it be) keeps a close eye on me.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Flanders Red.  They don’t publicize this one much, probably because they don’t have the capacity to make very much of it, or perhaps because they aren’t sure how people in rural parts of Ohio will react to a complex, barrel aged sour.  Regardless of their motives, this beer made a big impression on me both times I tried it.  It’s sour, but not over the top, featuring a complex flavor profile that is a mélange of dark fruits, bready malts, and a balsamic leaning acidity.  If you’re into sours and get a chance to try this beer, don’t pass it by.

Closing Thoughts

If Granville Brewing Company were flying any further under the radar you could locate them with sonar.  There are no release parties, no collaboration brews, no double dry hopped IPAs.  Their social media presence is roughly on par with that of George H. W. Bush (they have a Twitter account, but they haven’t sent out a tweet in seven months).  Yet once you strip away all of the peripherals and get down to what’s in the glass, this is a brewery to be taken seriously.

Given the focus on Belgian styles, the barn to brewery concept, and the verdant green fields that surround the brewery, it’s tempting to draw parallels with Rockmill Brewing in Lithopolis. However, the two breweries adopt a very different aesthetic.  Rockmill’s branding is all about elegance and sophistication, cork and cage bottles, premium pricing. Granville Brewing embraces a more of an egalitarian everyman image.  In the summer you can sip on a Rockmill saison while picnicking by the lake on their property.  Contrast that with sipping on an affordably priced pint of Reaper Saison at the Newark Kroger.  If they can get a tap room up and running, and they are hoping to do so by summer 2018, I think a comparison with Staas Brewing in Delaware would be more appropriate.  Both are small operations focused on quality not quantity, both can brew killer Belgian-inspired beer, and both are tantalizingly close to Columbus yet essentially unavailable without getting in your car and leaving the city.

Let’s all cross our fingers and hope that some form of a taproom at Granville Brewing becomes a reality in the coming year.

Granville Exterior
The exterior of the party barned turned brewery at Granville Brewing.

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