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Have a Beer with Bryan Brushmiller, Founder of Burley Oak Brewing Company

You expect new breweries to start off slowly – optimizing the production process, developing a roster of annual beers, and generally easing into the market.  Not so for Berlin, Maryland’s Burley Oak Brewing Company.  Since opening the doors of its historic cooperage-cum-brewhouse about 7 months ago, Burley Oak has been churning out inventive brews at a breakneck pace, with over a dozen already under its belt and plenty more in the works. The driving force behind the effort is brewer and owner Bryan Brushmiller, who I met while picking up a growler en route to nearby Ocean City last month; it was immediately evident that Bryan was a guy with big ideas and passion to spare.  I recently had a chance to chat with Bryan about his approach to brewing, plans for expansion, and the influence of surfing on selecting a brewery site.  The following is an edited version of that conversation.

DCBeer: So tell me a little about Burley Oak’s founding, how you got started out.
Bryan Brushmiller: A company that I was working for went out of business.  You know, sign of the times, the bad economy.  I have a degree in biology and chemistry and I was just brewing in my garage, sitting there, thinking, “What am I going to do next?” So I said, “All right, I’m just going to make this happen.”  I wanted to make a job for myself.  I wanted to do something that I really had passion for. I was brewing every day in the garage – I was always tinkering, building bigger systems.  I started out making 5 gallon [batches], then 10, then 20.  Then I started putting stuff together.  I found a kettle and a bunch of other stuff and soon, I put together the 8.5 bbl system we have now. We’ve got a 10 bbl mash tun, 15 bbl hot liquor tank, 15 bbl cold liquor tank, three 8.5 bbl fermenters and three 15 bbl fermenters.  We found pieces from all over the place and put them together in this old barn.  [We have] this anomaly of having 2 bbl extra, so we started a barrel program.  It’s our Anomaly Series of beers – our sour program and some of our wine barrel-aged beers.

DCBeer: Are those on market yet?
BB: No, not yet.  We just started it as we’ve grown in the last few months.  We’ve used our cash flow to buy new fermenters.  Our hope is to grow into a 15 bbl system and brew right into a 15 bbl kettle.  But until then, we wondered what we could do with this extra beer.  It’s cool that we’ve been able to do experimental stuff like sours already.

DCBeer: That was one of the first things I noticed when I stopped in: the broad range of beers that you’re doing so soon.  Lots of other breweries start out with a small stable of common styles, which has its advantages, but you seem to have gone the other direction.
BB: Yeah, we get bored easily, doing the pale ale, the porter.  I mean, we like them, we brew them, but lots of people do them. That’s why we started our 3-beer Single Hop series.  We used just Galaxy hops for our Red Star ale and our Assawoman Amber is Cascade hops all the way through.  And now we’re doing a pale ale single-hopped with Motueka, which starts with lemon-lime and finishes with tropical fruit.  Even though it’s a pale ale, it’s just a little different.

DCBeer: You sometimes do multiple substyles in the same category – so you have an English and an American pale, and you have 2 reds and an amber.  Do you have any flagships or do you repeat a beer when you feel like it?
BB: The cool thing about having a taproom out front is that we can use that as a testing area and figure out which beers people like.  When we punch numbers [into the till], we can see at the end of the day or week how many pints we sold of each.  It’s really just governed by the customers.  Our Kölsch – it’s called Just the Tip – surpasses our American pale, so that’s one of the flagships.  The other ones are Pale Ryeder – it’s a pale ale brewed with some rye – and Rude Boy, which is our big, eight percent imperial red with nine malts.  Those were the three that we noticed people kept coming back for, so those are the ones we kept for distribution [as well as Bunker C robust porter].

DCBeer: They’re all recognizable, but they all have a subtle tweak, with the rye in the pale, a bigger red than you normally see, and then a Kölsch.
BB: Yeah, you’ve got to have the Kölsch.

DCBeer: I wish more people did Kölsch, but I wonder if people are scared off by it because it’s uncommon, tough to perfect, or hard to classify [being warm-fermented and cold-lagered].
BB: That’s kind of where we want to be.  I don’t want to be classified.  I don’t want to put out ‘styles’.  I like showing different beers – that’s what pushes this whole industry.

DCBeer: So would that be your brewery’s philosophy – innovation? I know you’re into sustainability & local products, too.
BB: We’re really a part of the local scene.  We try to get a lot of ingredients from local farmers; we actually have thirteen acres of barley planted.  Things like that.  I think the beer part is based a lot on what we were talking about: trying different styles, taking a beer and tweaking it a little bit.  And we just brew what we want to drink.

DCBeer: Definitely.  There are so many places brewing to style and putting out awesome stuff, but there’s also this uncharted territory.
BB: That’s what I love about American craft brewers – coming up with things like the Belgian IPA.   I think we’re becoming more interesting than many other countries, pushing those limits, being inventive.  When we started out and were trying to decide what to make, we said, “[Forget] styles, let’s brew what we want.”  We had our malts, but we couldn’t get all the hops we wanted.  We couldn’t get Citra and we couldn’t get Simcoe, so we took Hallertauer and Saaz and did the Kölsch.

DCBeer: So what brought you to Berlin, MD?  How do you find the scene there?
BB: I lived in Salisbury, about 30 minutes away.  I would always drive through Berlin to surf.  When I was looking for a place to open the brewery, a lot was based on the local government.  Everyone else said, “Here’s what you need to do”, but Berlin was more like, “What can we do for you?”  Their leadership was great.  That’s what brought me here.  Plus the location near the ocean, that was a benefit.  Being able to go surf.  Berlin’s just a cool little town, real artsy. There’s lots of craftspeople out here.  It’s really agricultural, with lots of farmers in the area, and craft beer is really an agricultural thing.  It’s been great to be able to grow some ingredients right here.

DCBeer: And where do you distribute to now?
BB: For now, we just do the three little counties out here: Somerset, Wicomico, and Worcester.  Ocean City has 200 bars, so they get a lot of our distribution here.  I’m meeting with [people] now about distribution up in Baltimore.  And then hopefully, we can do a night or two at some of the cool places in DC and let people know we’re out here.  The hope is that when people go to the beach, they can stop by.

DCBeer: Is there anything new on the horizon?
BB: It’s all about the yeast.  We just got some new Belgian yeast today that we’re going to use in our wit, which we’re brewing right now, so that’s really exciting for us.  We’re also looking at how we propagate yeast.  Having different yeasts will allow us to do some different beers.  We’re gonna continue with the Single Hop series.  It’s great having the taproom up front; it seems like every week, we have something new up on the board.

DCBeer: And is there anyone that’s helped or inspired you?
BB: I think EVO – Evolution Craft Brewing – has helped me out tremendously, whether it’s letting me use their keg washer when we were new or getting some ingredients from them; even just sitting down with Tommy [Knorr], the owner, him showing me stuff about brewing.  They have a Nouveau Rouge program that’s coming out that sounds pretty good.  And of course, Dogfish has always led the parade down here.  It’s nice to have these guys nearby. Everyone is just so helpful.

DCBeer: Well good luck – I look forward to having another Burley Oak.
BB: Awesome talking to you. So if you’re heading out to Ocean City this summer, be sure to check out Burley Oak.  And stay tuned to DCBeer.com for news about a District debut in the very near future…

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