Madison’s new One Barrel Brewery opts for quality over quantity: it crafts its unique brews one by one. And though proprietor and brewer Peter Gentry may not have expected such a business model to result in kegs that sell out in a single night, challenging him to match supply with each week’s rising demand, he certainly isn’t complaining.
In truth, the popularity of the four-month-old brewery, tucked away in the quiet Atwood neighborhood, is astounding. The success seems to point to two possible conclusions: either the people of Madison are eagerly seeking more local craft beer, or One Barrel’s brews are pretty damn good. In my opinion, it’s probably a little of both.
As a self-proclaimed beer nerd, stepping into the brewpub made me feel immediately at home. A clean, open and modern space, exposed brick walls accent the dark wooden bar and tables, while the brewing system stands proudly exposed in the corner. “Well, I guess they make it right there,” I thought, glancing from the four One Barrel taps to the steel tank setup.
I ordered the oatmeal stout, which stayed true to the original style, providing a fantastic oat grain sweetness to compliment the roasted malts. Whereas so many brewers today attack their stouts with an onslaught of chocolate, coffee, bourbon and vanilla, often with either breathtaking or disastrous results, it became clear to me that Gentry is more concerned with nailing the basics first. It’s a philosophy that makes a lot of sense: the key to any over-the-top beer is a good base recipe to build from.
Half way through my pint, I moved from the bar to a table to sit down with the brewmaster and talk about his company, his vision and his beer. A home brewer for eight years before opening his own brewery, Gentry explained how the One Barrel concept truly arose out of practicality.
By modeling his setup after the homebrew equipment he had been using for years, the massive leap of faith required for an ad salesman to save up his cash, quit his job and start a brewery became a few feet shorter.
The One Barrel theme also undeniably serves as a great marketing tool, embodying everything that the craft beer industry is all about. The name is made up of just two words, but the idea says so much more: small, independent, local and brewed with passion by a person who cares, rather then a faceless factory and a bloated ad campaign.
However, brewing one beer at a time has its limitations. Currently, Gentry can only churn out enough beer for four taps or so at a time. Careful not to alienate the more casual beer drinkers, he attempts to always keep some of the better-known styles, such as an amber ale, pale ale and kolsch on tap. Consequently, Gentry’s more ambitious recipes such as Imperial and Black IPAs, Imperial Stouts and Strong Belgian Ales are in more limited supply.
Perhaps the most frequently available of his experimental ales is the brew-contest winning #2 Strong Ale. But even so, I wish the daily tap menu was a bit more ambitious. Yes, good beer sells, especially with nearby locals, but if I’m going to make the three mile trip out to Atwood without a car, I want something great. Therefore, if there is one criticism I have to make of One Barrel’s philosophy, it is that the brewery still has yet to really step out of its shell. You’ve proven to me you have the basics down, now show me what you can really do.
Thankfully, with his company’s instant popularity and consistent growth, Gentry expects to expand to 6-9 taps and guest appearances at some of Madison’s better craft beer bars in the near future. This should provide enough breathing space for One Barrel to really flex its brewing power. Until then, I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out for some of Gentry’s more bold, ambitious and adventurous brews, even if they only appear on occasion.
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