Breakout Brewer: Upland Brewing Company

Pushing the envelope and doing things the hard way are standard operating procedure at Indiana’s Upland Brewing Company.

Emily Hutto 3 years ago

Breakout Brewer: Upland Brewing Company Primary Image

“The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” This quote from the medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer is a lot like the mantra at Bloomington, Indiana’s Upland Brewing Company, says the brewery President Douglas Dayhoff. “Craft needs to be continually explored,” he explains. “That’s the ethos here—a continuous push to get better even when things are good.”

This entrepreneurial ethos is what attracted Dayhoff to the brewery in the first place. In 2006, he purchased the brewpub from his friends and original founders, Marc Sattinger, Russ Levitt, and Dean LaPlante. The three had opened Upland in 1998. “I had a lot of appreciation for the beers that they brewed, the people and the team, and the company culture,” Dayhoff says. “It was highly democratic and high-performance. The staff set high expectations for [itself].”

Dayhoff, an entrepreneur himself with an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a graduate degree in business, had run multiple companies that created software, built custom cabinets, and even designed greeting cards, but never before had he crafted beer. “I’m not a brewer myself, and I’ve never been a homebrewer either, but I was interested in brewing because it brings together a high degree of creativity as well as a demand for good engineering and process methods,” he says. “I’m not a great artist or a great engineer, but I can help broker those conversations. If I have the secret sauce [in this business], that’s it.”

So Dayhoff shared his secret sauce with Upland and used it to grow the company from twenty-five employees to 160; from less than 4,000 barrels a year to almost 18,000; and from one small brewpub in downtown Bloomington to a second production facility and three more tasting rooms: the West Side Beer Bar located in the production facility, the Carmel Tap Room in Carmel, Indiana, and the Broad Ripple Tasting Room in Indianapolis.

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“I have to give a lot of credit to the team,” Dayhoff says, explaining that because Upland’s team is so excellence-oriented, the brewery’s evolution has been organic. “We often identify our weaknesses and find people who can help us in those areas,” he says. “We’re honest about what we’re good at and where we need help. That culture was already established, and it’s allowed us to grow 20 percent on average each year. … Some years we’ve focused on growing our restaurant, others our core brewery, and now we’ve got a sour brewery coming up this year.”

That “new” sour brewery is actually Upland’s original brewhouse at its Bloomington brewpub location. In 2012, Upland built a new 37,000-square-foot brewery three miles away to house the production of its specialty, seasonal, and mostly year-round beers such as Dragonfly IPA, Helios Pale Ale, Champagne Velvet, a pre-Prohibition pilsner, and the GABF award-winning Wheat Ale. “Splitting [off] microbial programs was part of the plan,” Dayhoff says about the addition of the new location. “Now we’ve converted our original brewery to a sours-only facility and we’re adding a 6,000-square-foot cellar for additional foeders and wood barrels at the original brewpub.”

The inception of a sour program at Upland is a testament to the brewery’s constant push for improvement. “The beginning of our sours program was an exploration of whether we could make great beers with labor- and time-intensive traditional methods,” Dayhoff says. “We challenged ourselves to see if we could pull it off.”

To date, Upland’s robust sour-beer offering is the result of a lot of experimentation with different microbes, fruit and dried fruit, herbs, flowers, and spices. It’s also the product of countless test batches. It includes fruit lambic-style beers—peach, blueberry, kiwi, raspberry, strawberry, cherry, blackberry, and persimmon—and edible-flower sours such as Orchid and Viola. Also in the mix are beers from the Fresh Oak Brett Project, a series of barrel-aged beers fermented with various strains of Brettanomyces. (At top: Caleb Staton, Upland’s director of sour operations, samples a sour beer in progress.)

Many of Upland’s sours are the result of blending beers. Take Cauldron, part Flanders-style red ale and part Dark Wild Ale. These beers were blended and aged on northern Michigan Montmorency cherries to create a spicy fruit-forward sour with a touch of charred oak. “It’s hard to get a consistent and pleasant mouthfeel out of long-aged sour beers, and that’s where moving in the direction of blending versus straight shot batches [is important],” Dayhoff explains. “We shoot for multiple dimensions of flavor and aromas. We play off malts, microbes, fruits, [and] botanicals. The goal is to get all those things to express themselves in balance.”

Upland uses a combination of souring mechanisms. “First, we inoculate wild yeast (a blend of Brett, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus) as part of our fermentation,” Dayhoff says. “That helps gain a certain amount of control before using wood foeders and barrels that are not sanitized. We’ve seen the imbedded microbes in that wood actually help accelerate and create better fermentations over time, so our process looks like intentional inoculation coupled with unintended organic fermentation that comes along with reused barrels.”

Upland’s sour program began in 2006 with just four red-wine barrels that came from Bloomington’s Oliver Winery. The program comes full circle with two newer sour offerings, VinoSynth Red and VinoSynth White, which were created in collaboration with that same winery. Upland blended Sour Reserve, the brewery’s first sour offering that aged in those red-wine barrels, with Malefactor, a Flanders-style red ale aged on Catawba grapes, to create VinoSynth Red, a beer with mild bourbon character and layered acidity that complements the intense fruitiness of the Catawba. The VinoSynth White is 100 percent Sour Reserve aged on locally grown Vidal Blanc grapes, a French varietal with hints of tropical fruit flavor.

The goal of any sour beer at Upland, Dayhoff says, is to create “pleasant tartness and cheesy, funky notes that express but then finish clean.” Much like the brewery itself, the sour-beer program has been an evolution rooted in both experimentation and consistent improvement. “We push the needle, and we get better every year,” Dayhoff says proudly. “We’re not afraid to do things the hard way.”

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