Finding Terroir in the Buckeye State — Branch & Bone Artisan Ales of Dayton, Ohio
“I hope no one steals my truck.”
It’s mid-morning in early May, and Brett Smith of Branch & Bone Artisan Ales in Dayton, Ohio, has left his keys in his blue Ford pickup parked on a crumbling side street along one of the city’s less-frequented parks. We’re here for spruce tips.
The park backs up against a busy highway, and a row of spruce trees that were planted decades ago to provide a semblance of tranquility. Brett spotted them recently on his drive into work. Cars and trucks race by as he leads the way to the trees that will soon season his latest rustic saison.
We’re about halfway across the dew-soaked grass when I figure out why Brett wore boots today; my canvas Chuck Taylors are already soaked through. By the time we head back to the brewery half an hour later, the already hot sun has dried the grass, but my shoes remain drenched for the rest of the day.
Branch & Bone opened its doors on the 1st of June 2018, immediately offering up a bright purple Berliner Weisse made with butterfly pea blossoms—a pour as delicious as it was visually striking—that Dayton whispered about for weeks. They also offered a sprinkling of juicy IPAs, a pale coffee beer, and a spruce tip saison called Future Correlation. Turns out, that last one was never supposed to happen.
“It was just supposed to be a clean, monoculture saison,” Brett says as he picks bright green buds from the sagging spruce branches. “The morning of the brew day, I said, ‘You know, I just don’t want to do that.’ So I drove out and picked three pounds (1.4kg) of spruce tips.”
This year’s edition of Future Correlation will have nearly double that volume. Brett has a thing for esoteric ingredients, a proclivity with its roots in his homebrewing days.
“It was really just a way to find ingredients no one else was using,” he says. “And to hold my interest. When you do something for a while and feel good at it, you get bored.”
Brett never seems bored. He’s a large but gentle man who kindly defers in conversation and holds sincere eye contact, but an impish smile hits his face every time he talks about his beers. It’s like he knows he’s getting away with something and can’t quite believe it.
Once enough spruce tips are collected, we load into the truck and head back to the brewery. It’s a short ride along the potholed U.S. 35, a busy but ageing thoroughfare that wraps around the south side of downtown and unfurls east and west toward suburbs that haven’t aged any better.
Dayton is predominantly a blue collar city of around 140,000 people, though its metro area swells to nearly a million, bleeding outward into farmland and the seemingly innumerable small towns of the country’s seventh most populous state. A decade ago, downtown had little in the way of dining and entertainment. It has since rebounded, with a thriving nightlife district and multiple breweries.
Branch & Bone sits just on the other side of U.S. 35 from downtown in a neighbourhood called South Park, a quaint community that tacks the prefix “Historic” to its name but follows it up with the tagline “It’s More than Historic” to reassure folks under 40 they can afford the rent. South Park was originally built to house factory workers a century ago before the big manufacturers left the city centre.
Branch & Bone’s century-old building served various roles—pharmacy, mechanic shop—before Brett and his partners purchased it for their brewery. Theirs is the first brewery in the 24-block neighbourhood, and they attended community meetings long before opening to assure there was goodwill.
“They had the permits, so they didn’t have to do that,” taproom regular Holly Artkamp-Romie tells me. Holly moved to South Park shortly before Branch & Bone opened. “But it was important to them, like it is to so many of us who have chosen to make South Park home, to be part of the community.”
“They knew the community would have questions and concerns, and they made every effort to educate people about brewery culture,” says Holly’s husband Chris. In a short time, Brett and his team have established themselves in the mostly traditional Dayton brewing scene.
“They’re putting out beers that are unlike any others in Dayton,” says Sara Stathes, who co-owns The Barrel House bar, about a mile away from the edge of downtown with her husband, Gus. The pair have brewed a collaboration beer with Branch & Bone called Last Week’s Was Better.
Sara expresses a common Dayton sentiment toward these new kids on the block: “They’re absolutely killing it.”
While Brett mashes in his saison, I explore the back room that holds his dearest brewery possessions—two Vin Santo former wine foeders he picked up from fellow brewers American Solera in Oklahoma City, various bourbon and wine barrels, and—currently buried under boxes until temperatures fall in autumn—a shiny coolship. (The less said about the life-size cardboard cutout of Fred Durst I found, the better.)
The coolship is the first of its kind in the Dayton area. Between autumn and spring the vessel gets filled with wort, loaded into a horse trailer, and camped overnight in the driveway behind the building, collecting ambient microflora. The summer months are way too warm to brew a beer through spontaneous inoculation due to a higher risk of bacterial contamination. As such the coolship only gets used a few days each autumn and spring when the air is too cool for mould and potentially dangerous microorganisms to thrive. Brett has brewed four batches with it so far, and the first blend likely won’t be released until 2021.
While the spontaneous beers need to slumber a while longer before they’ll be ready, Brett’s foeder and barrel-aged mixed fermentation beers have been making waves with each new release. Beers like Black Razzath, a foeder-aged beer refermented on local black raspberries, or Visage, another foeder beer brewed with wild dandelions, are released alongside new wave IPAs during monthly can releases. The brewery recently invited the community to help them pick dandelions for the next batch of Visage.
“It was a cold, ugly day for it, but everyone had fun,” Brett says. The brewery has used honeysuckle, yarrow, and sumac as well for these “Ohio Wild Ales,” with plans to use more foraged ingredients. For the raspberries and other fruit additions, Brett works with local growers.
“We want to use at many local ingredients as we can to create a beer that can’t exist anywhere else,” Brett tells me. “It’s tying our beers to where we’re from.”
He’s also using more Ohio-grown malt and hops. Both crops have taken time to catch on in the state, but they’re becoming more available by the season.
Despite the focus on local ingredients, Brett is cagey when I prompt him with the t-word borrowed from the wine world. Do his beers have terroir? He smiles a moment, then answers.
“I think terroir is more spiritual than sensory with beer.”
It’s an admittance you don’t often hear from brewers, but with malt from various maltsters, hops from different farms, a house culture developed from wild collection, lab yeast, and bottle dregs, and further additions of fruit or herbs, the flavours of one of Branch & Bone’s all-Ohio beers is a tangled web of sensory influences.
“It’s more about the meaning behind it,” he says. “These beers are tied to this place, but it’s hard to say they taste like this place.”
After Brett finishes transferring the saison wort to the kettle, he opens a bottle of Magus, a wine barrel-aged, mixed fermentation Grisette that showcases Branch & Bone’s balance between refined complexity and rustic sensibility. Stone-fruit tartness lifts from a doughy malt base as pineapple esters rise over the gentle acidity and flit about with grassy Saaz hops. Brett leans against one of his foeders and buries his nose in the glass. He doesn’t say a word, but he grins. He got away with it again.
It’s the first of June—one month later—and the Branch & Bone taproom is standing room-only as the brewery celebrates its first birthday. Justin, a wiry mortgage banker with facial piercings and Futurama tattoos who brews part time, climbs on top of the bar to thank everyone and offer us all a piece of birthday cake. The showcase of the day is a batch of Feral Dawn Imperial Stout brewed before the brewery even opened in 2018 and aged in a single twelve-year-old bourbon barrel from New Riff Distilling in Kentucky. It’s elegant despite its muscular size, with silky milk chocolate, tobacco, and oak nestled in a fuzzy blanket of soft, yet never harsh bourbon.
My wife and I escape the crowded taproom and find Brett and his co-founders, John Joyce and Kevin Kriegel, in the back of the brewery, lightly buzzed and reveling in what the day represents. Brett excitedly shows us the barrel this batch of Feral Dawn came out of, and tells us about a few more barrel-aged beers in the works.
“These beers are just fun to make,” he’d told me back in May, and that’s evident in his eyes now.
He’s a bit blushed, sounding a little like a kid talking about his summer vacation plans.
Before we go, he pours us samples from some rare bottles they’ve opened to celebrate—3 Fonteinen, Side Project, plus a Branch & Bone foeder beer that hasn’t been released yet. Brett Smith is just happy there’s good beer in the world, and still a little surprised he gets to contribute some of his own.