When Jeff Mease, founder and CEO of Bloomington Brewing Company (BBC), opened Lennie’s, a casual gourmet-pizza restaurant at the edge of the Indiana University campus in the early 90s, he knew he wanted to feature “interesting and off the beaten path” beers.
“Craft beers were just then starting to gain popularity on the West Coast, and from the first time I read about them, I became enamored with the possibility of bringing a local brewery to Bloomington,” Mease recalls.
Unfortunately, Indiana hadn’t yet hopped on the craft beer bandwagon; only a couple of brewpubs existed in the entire state. By 1994, Mease worked closely with the Institute for Brewing Studies and two state legislators to write a bill that eventually passed the state legislature, and paved the way for small breweries in Indiana. BBC was the first brewpub in Southern Indiana, opened in 1996 by Mease and his then-wife (and current business partner), Lennie, in a leased space next door to the restaurant.
“The customer response to Bloomington Brewing Company was strong right off the bat,” Mease says. And, thanks to good relationships with local bar and restaurant owners in the college town, “it wasn’t long before we were selling our excess production to other restaurants and bars all over Bloomington.”
Celebrating 15 years in 2011, the company still relies on draft sales only—though that may soon change. Currently, growlers and pints are filled at Lennie’s, and 15.5-gallon kegs are shipped out to the market.
“There’s an ecological beauty in craft-brewed draft beer; it’s one of the most sustainable beverages you can drink, with no packaging waste and four all-natural ingredients,” Mease muses. “We think that’s pretty cool.”
However, BBC seems to be moving in the direction of bottling, thanks to the recent expansion to a new facility across town (the original location was a mere 700 square feet). Mease is “exploring a variety of packaging possibilities,” but would prefer to use returnable refillable bottles.
“That’s the way most beer and soft drinks were packaged just 50 years ago, but now there’s no infrastructure to handle the return of refillable bottles,” he laments. “But I’m still not quite ready to let the idea go!”
Also, thanks to the expansion, BBC will soon be experimenting with new brews. Currently, the top sellers are the nine-malt Ruby Bloom Amber and the hoppy Quarrymen Pale Ale; other standbys include FreeStone Blonde and Big Stone Stout, with two seasonals, Vision Weiss and Java Porter, released each year. Recently, the brewpub has also satisfied palates through its popular Belgian Ale Series.
“Craft beer drinkers are becoming increasingly experimental, and our expansion will allow us to create a wider selection of beers,” Mease says. The expansion will also allow BBC to double its production from last year, then grow another 50% next year. “By that time, we should be breaking even,” he laughs.
In addition, Mease bought the 69-acre Loesch Farm just outside Bloomington a few years ago, and has used the land to support a “grow your own” mentality that quickly influenced his beer production. Luckily, BBC brewer Floyd Rosenbaum has a green thumb and loves farming. He currently has about 50 hop hills under cultivation and plans on planting another 25 this year. Each of the last two years, enough hops have been harvested to make a single batch of beer using only these homegrown hops, and the long-term plan is to expand hop production and experiment with growing and malting barley as well. Eventually, Mease predicts he’ll build a brewery and restaurant on the farm so that customers can literally eat and drink from farm to table.
Even amid these ambitious goals, however, Mease harbors no plans to go national with his brews—a self-professed lover of local beer and local business in general, he wants to limit distribution to just a few miles around Bloomington and Indianapolis.
“I’ve always had a love affair and fascination with local and regional brands,” he explains. “Perhaps the fact that they’re not everywhere allows them to be something that we can discover, or help our friends to discover, and somehow there is magic in that.”
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