Braxton Brewing Co
Wednesday 06 December 2017
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Braxton’s Covington brewery and taproom are impressively slick, from the sumptuous leather furniture to the vibrant murals depicting its history. The building was originally a garage, before becoming an art gallery, the many lights from which still hang in the ceiling (making Braxton perhaps the world’s best-lit brewery) and is located in the heart of Covington’s downtown area.
Braxton’s history is a tale of misspent youth (or wisely spent, as it turned out); co-founder Evan Rouse was an inveterate tinkerer in his teenage years, often found in his parents’ garage, taking things apart just for the joy of putting them back together again. This wandering curiosity found its focus during an unplanned visit to Upland Brewing, on the way back from visiting his elder brother Jake Rouse at the University of Indianapolis.
Something about the combination of art, maths and science clicked for 16-year-old Evan and – unbeknownst to his parents sitting up front – he spent the car journey home ordering a home brew kit from his smartphone.
Reasoning correctly that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, Evan didn’t mention his new hobby until large boxes began showing up on the family doorstep and conversations became unavoidable.
To their credit, Mr and Mrs Rouse decided there were much worse vices for a teenage boy to have, and that he could carry on with a few strict ground rules: sampling but no getting drunk, buy all the ingredients yourself and clean up properly when you’re done.
Essentially, an excellent grounding for a career in professional brewing.
In the words of Jonathan Gandolf – who has been with the brewery from the beginning – “things spiralled” and within two years Evan had won a major regional homebrew competition, Beer and Sweat, attracting a lot of attention and raising more than a few eyebrows. Despite this success, Evan found it difficult to secure a brewery job because of his age and the strict prohibition on drinking under the age of 21. He eventually found a home though, at the local Hoffbrauhaus brewery and bar, thanks to its more European attitude to underage men working with alcohol.
Starting out as a cellarman, Evan gained experience and progressed to assistant brewer, honing his craft and gaining appreciation for traditional German brewing along the way. He even played a key role in creating the recipe for the brewer’s first hoppy pale ale, which is now sold in its bars across the world. Evan still had his dream though, and the yearning to start a brewery of his own soon became too strong to resist.
Jonathan picks up the story: “Evan’s brother Jake studied entrepreneurship at University of Indianapolis and was working at a tech company in Indianapolis; that’s where I met him. We decided to put together a business plan for a bit of fun and to show Evan some love. So we showed it to some people, just for feedback rather than as any kind of pitch, and were shocked when they all came back and said ‘how much do you want?’.”
In 2014, the team launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, with a target of $30,000. It achieved this in a little over 24 hours and went on to raise a total of $74,000. Work was already underway on the brewery site in the garage-turned-art gallery, and – with the sudden injection of cash – the brewery was able to open in March the following year. As Jonathan explains though, Kickstarter wasn’t really about making Braxton financially viable.
“We were quite upfront with people,” he recalls. “We explained to them that we weren’t looking for investors in the classic sense, as we didn’t actually need money to start the brewery. What we needed were people who would stand with us and support what we’re trying to do here. We have the names of everyone who’s supported us – we call them our Builders – up on the wall here.”
With many locals sitting in the taproom, and Jake and Evan’s mum working behind the bar, it does feel like Braxton has come to represent a community that is beginning to regain some of its dented pride.
“That panel over there,” continues Jonathan, pointing at the mural behind the bar, “is the Covington skyline with an orange background, to show a brighter future.
What we needed were people who would stand with us and support what we’re trying to do here
That’s been the coolest part for all of us at Braxton – being an important part of the renaissance that’s happening here. People are calling Covington ‘Cincinnati’s Brooklyn’, and Braxton’s kind of an anchor tenant.
I could really see Covington arising again as that Northern Kentucky epicentre, if it isn’t already there.”
On the production side, the brewery has followed a familiar pattern; investing in capacity that seemed laughably over-the-top at first, but then being forced to buy extra fermenters within months and now bursting at the seams. Braxton is currently on three brews a day, six days a week, and is looking at ways to expand beyond its walls.
It has four core beers, brewed year-round. There’s Storm, a golden cream ale, Revamp IPA, Twisted Bit, a Dortmunder lager, and Dead Blow, a tropical stout brewed with macerated dates and an English yeast for a crisp, dry finish. There’s also a dizzying array of rotating and seasonal beers to keep the taproom’s many lines busy.
But, even while Braxton HQ is working almost flat out to keep its regular beers flowing, there is another side to the businesses, tucked away in the nearby neighbourhood of Newport. In a former storage room at the back of Party Source – one of the country’s largest alcohol retailers – Braxton Labs is the brewery’s ‘skunkworks’ programme, where its brewers are encouraged to take wild flights of fancy on a relatively small brewkit. These can be pilot runs that might one day make it into full-scale production, or even just interesting experiments that could never realistically be scaled up.
The space and kit were purchased from the former Magic Eight Brewing, which over time metamorphosed into New Riff Distilling across the road. Braxton Labs consists of a tiny brewhouse, taller than it is wide, and a taproom which leads directly through to the craft beer section of Party Source. While also modest in size, the taproom is seriously cool, with labthemed decorations and glassware, and an impressive line-up of 40 taps, roughly half of which are pouring Braxton’s own beers.
We order a flight of Labs beers and are presented with eight measuring beakers covering every hue and consistency of beer you could imagine.
As you’d expect some of these brews work better than others, but the good ones really are exceptional. A cucumber witbier, so fresh that you half expect to see a bucket of peeled cucumber skins in the corner, is a standout in the shimmering heat of Kentucky noon. The cinnamon brown ale is also great, with only a hint of the spice perfectly complementing the nutty ale, though the hazy and tart blueberry pale is a bit of a cacophony. Braxton is that rare beast, a true hub of the community that is also a slick, savvy, commercial operation, and a brewer of crowd-pleasing beers that isn’t afraid to put its name to wild experimentation.
Above all though, perhaps, it’s a lesson to parents everywhere; don’t be too harsh on teenage transgressions – with the right support, you never know where they might lead.
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