Signifiers

With Purpose — Jackie O's Brewery in Athens, Ohio

In the wee hours of Nov. 16, 2014, a massive fire lit up the sky in uptown Athens, Ohio. The blaze tore through Union Street, completely devouring several buildings as it moved down the block toward Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery. The beer maker’s got a couple buildings on Union, both of which were spared, but to varying degrees. The brewpub made it out untouched. The adjoining public house, however? Roofless, with immense smoke and water damage.

“I’m glad it stopped where it stopped,” says Brad Clark, Jackie O’s director of brewing operations. “If it had taken out the brewpub, we would’ve never reopened either spot.”

Shuttering those locations would’ve been a terrible loss for Athens. Jackie O’s has been a staple of the city for more than a decade now, and has made the community a priority since the early days. And when they needed it most, Athens was there to support them throughout the rebuilding process.

Now, since the pub came back online in early May, the brewery is also in the final stages of an expansion. The new growth will accomplish two things: meeting demand throughout The Buckeye State, and allowing Clark to provide Athens with beers as fun and funky as the city itself.

 

Athens sits in southeastern Ohio along the Hocking River, barely an hour from Columbus. The town is rather rural, nestled amongst the densely forested hills typical of the Appalachian outskirts. It’s a quirky place, to be sure—enchanting in an almost surreal way, and extremely close-knit. A hippie oasis surrounded by backwoods towns, the city’s equal parts Bohemian and academic. Aside from being home to Jackie O’s, it’s also the site of Ohio University, a school that quadruples the town’s population when in session.

Just a few blocks from OU sits the Jackie O’s brewpub, their original location. The space was first opened in 1996 as O’Hooley’s, amidst the wave of ‘90s brewpubs. “While I was at OU I fell in love with this town, fell in love with the brewpub,” Clark recalls. “At that point, it was under different ownership. I started working in 2004 as a door guy and a bartender, and then started homebrewing.”

In 2005, O’Hooley’s was purchased by Art Oestrike, whose late mother, Jackie, serves the namesake for the new brewery. Art owned and operated a local bagel shop, Bagel Street Deli, but was very much looking to get into the bar and brewing scene.

“Growing up, my mom used to buy Newcastle Brown Ales because she was from England,” Oestrike explains. “They were in the fridge pretty much my whole life, and in high school, I’d grab a Newcastle and sneak out the house to go hang with my friends. I think that started my thirst for craft beer. I got into hosting people at my college house, and I always thought the idea of running a bar would be a lot of fun. Thank goodness the bar we ended up buying had a functioning—well, almost-functioning—brewery in it.”

When it all started, I didn’t know how to brew. And Art didn’t know how to run a bar, let alone a brewpub. We didn’t know what we were doing.
— Brad Clark

His first hire was Clark, fresh out of school, with a creative writing degree and zero professional experience. “When it all started, I didn’t know how to brew,” Clark says. “I knew how to extract brew on my stove in my college house. And Art didn’t know how to run a bar, let alone a brewpub. We didn’t know what we were doing.”

But over the years, Jackie O’s has grown, in every way possible. After starting out with just five employees (Oestrike, Clark, and three bartenders), there are now more than 100, with nearly 30 full-timers. What’s more, four of those five initial employees now occupy leadership roles in the company, including the general manager who used to moonlight as the door guy.

All that growth, however, started on the original O’Hooley’s copper-clad 7-BBL brewhouse that made the pub a showpiece in the ‘90s. Not to mention the absurd and absurdly small grundy room (“grundy” is a term to describe small, UK-style pub cellar tanks that are used to ferment, condition, store, and serve beer) that holds 10 retrofitted 1920s dairy tanks to serve the draft lines. Its claustrophobic quarters evoke the shoulder-stooped feeling of being in a submarine.

“It’s fucking goofy,” Clark admits. “But it works. It takes a certain type of weirdo to work in this environment.”

He would know—he manned the brewhouse and grundy room from 2006, through the public house expansion in 2009, all the way until the production facility came online in 2012. As a personal point of pride, Clark boasts that in the year before the new system was up and running, he cranked out an astonishing 830 barrels and more than 40 styles on that original setup. The rather intense variety was intentional.

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“Luckily, Art gave me artistic freedom,” Clark explains. “He never really said, ‘No.’ He’d say, ‘Wait,’ but he never said, ‘No.’ In those early years there was really no other brewery in Athens, so it was this weird vacuum effect, which was cool. It allowed me to figure out what I wanted to do, and how we wanted to take the company.”

 

All of that exploration resulted in dozens of recipes the pubs now rotates through—at any given time, you can taste 20–30 different Jackie O’s beers around Athens. But even more notable than the sheer vastness of the catalog is the five beers that form the backbone of Jackie O’s packaged releases: an IPA, a Fruited Wheat, an Amber, a Brown Ale, and a Rye IPA.

“The core of Jackie O’s is really based on styles you’d find in a mid–‘90s brewpub,” Clark jokes. “But everything is built off of what had proven itself uptown over those six or seven years.”

Those five core beers that rose to the top now get packaged into canned six packs—along with newly added quarterly seasonals—and comprise about 70% of production. Kegs are just below 30%, with specialty bottle releases coming in around 1–2%.

It’s been the growth of those core offerings that’s fueled expansion in the last four years—2012 saw the purchase of a new building, a few miles from the pub. After that, there was the installation of a fully customized, 20-BBL Newlines Systems brewhouse in 2013.

“My whole goal with the brewhouse is to make the cleanest, purest, most succinct wort possible,” Clark says.

That wort is now starting to find its way into larger vessels than ever before. In April, the team completed its most recent expansion process, building an addition onto the existing production facility and adding three 120-BBL fermenters and a 120-BBL brite tank. The move will allow them to produce an expected 13,000 BBLs this year, up from 8,400 in 2015. It also gives them the square footage to add three more rows of tanks, at which time they’d max out the facility at around 35,000 BBLs annually.

Beyond that, the future of Jackie O's is unknown. But last year, after Hill Farmstead's Festival of Farmhouse Ales, Clark and Oestrike popped over to Allagash Brewing Company to scope out their expansion. More specifically, the guys wanted to see how a brewery scales up from a 20-BBL system—the space, the moving parts, and perhaps most of all: the most effective and efficient ways to approach such growth. The most eye-opening aspects, though, were the attention to detail, the ingenuity of how Allagash grew into their new space, and the concept of adding a second brewhouse to an existing operation. The seed of an idea was planted.

For now, it will take a full six turns on the brewhouse to fill one of the new tanks. The plan is to turn that around in 24 hours, so they’ll start to add a third brewing shift. “I’ll be doing that for a month straight,” Clark explains. “One: I want do it. But the other side of it is, I want to do it first so that when I have other people do it, they can’t complain. Or, if they do, I understand what their complaints are.”

That sort of empathy is a core tenet in the culture of Jackie O’s, and more largely, the city of Athens itself. Clark describes it in simple terms of “supporting people as humans,” giving them a job they can be both be good at and happy with. To that end, the brewery has added some non-beer ventures over the years based on employees’ passions and skills. In 2009, they added a bakery, which uses spent grain to make the pizza dough and buns served at the pubs, as well as baked goods that are sold at the farmers market and all over town.

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In the same vein, the team started growing their own produce on a 20+ acre farm in the foothills outside of town. What they reap makes its way onto the pub menus, as well as into a number of smaller batch beers. “Pretty much any time we can do something ourselves, or somebody has a talent that’s not being utilized, if they want to stay in Athens but legitimately can’t, we try to create something for them,” Clark explains. “If we can keep those dollars, those people, in Athens, everybody is better off.”

One of the people Jackie O’s managed to keep in the city was their director of quality control, Ryanne Oldham. She fell in love with beer working as a bartender and server in the pub while getting her Chemical Engineering degree at OU. But after graduating in 2014, she started looking outside Ohio to start her career in earnest.

“Most of the jobs chemical engineers can find are at big chemical companies,” Ryanne explains. “And I didn’t want to do that. But I was still applying to those places because I was desperate to find a job. Getting the job here at Jackie O’s was a dream come true. It’s what I had been hoping for for a long time.”

The fourth enterprise in the Jackie O’s family of businesses is a contracting company. They employ a full-time electrician, a full-time plumber, and two full-time carpenters. Between rebuilding the pub from scratch and expanding the production facility, those four folks have been busy for more than two years straight. And now, as those jobs are winding down, their services will be offered around town when they’re not taking care of general maintenance or brewery projects.

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It’s intentional on the part of Clark and Oestrike to provide more than just beer to the city they call home. “If you’re not supporting your community, and the people around you, then I don’t know what the point is,” Oestrike explains.

That cultural and economic impact isn’t lost on the leadership of Athens. Mayor Steve Patterson has known Oestrike for more than 15 years, and has been a fan of Jackie O’s from the beginning. But in recent years, he’s seen the true impact of their locally-focused mission. “In terms of economic impact, Jackie O’s is a heavy lifter in the city,” Patterson affirms. “They’re an integral part of Athens, not only in what they’re producing, but in creating jobs. They’ve created more than 100 jobs as they’ve grown.”

It’s worth noting that that number makes the brewery one of the top 10 employers in the city.

 

One of the last completed projects in the new facility was the buildout of a dedicated sour room. The space was constructed as a large “L” to house oak barrels, some stainless tanks for primary mixed fermentations and secondary Brett additions, a separate sour packaging line, and, eventually, three 100-BBL foeders. (There’s even blueprints for an elevated coolship when that elusive coolship money one day presents itself.)

In many ways, the sour room will serve as a showpiece similar to how the copper kettles did in the original brewpub. The offices and conference room upstairs will overlook the barrel room, and it will be highlighted as the last stop on brewery tours. But for as nice as the new room is, the real barrel action happens offsite, in a warehouse space shared with Jackie O’s distributor. There, Clark has amassed some 400 bourbon, rum, and wine barrels that drive the brewery’s most distinctive and boundary-pushing bottle offerings.

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“Bottle releases are a big part of what grew the company,” Clark explains. “Of course we make a ton of IPA and Fruited Wheat, but we still try to hold onto all that barrel aging and all that esoteric and fun stuff. ‘Cause that’s a huge part of our identity and who we are.”

The barrel program is no different than the other extensions of Jackie O’s, in that, it too is growing. They just signed a lease for an additional 9,000 square feet of space in the same facility, with the goal of housing a total of 1,200 barrels. But that additional capacity requires additional scrutiny.

Clark is diligent about tasting through the barrels 2-3 times per week. “I spend a lot of time with these guys,” he says, personifying the oak. “I treat them with the utmost respect. And I try to get to know them very well. That way, when the time comes that I’m putting together a beer, I can really hit it out of the park.”

He looks for maturation, depth of character, and off-flavors. And on the rare occasion that off-flavors do arise, those barrels meet their end via the swift blow (or sometimes many, drawn-out blows) of a sledgehammer.

Those that escape a violent fate are expertly blended into beers like Dynamo Hum, an American Wild Ale aged in cabernet barrels, Wood Ya Honey, a Bourbon Barrel-Aged Wheatwine, and ever-popular variations of Dark Apparition, the brewery’s Russian Imperial Stout.

Even Don’t Drink Beer—critic of and unwilling champion for beer nerds everywhere—has caught on to the ultra-rare, ultra-strange beers coming out of Athens. “So, while everyone else is pulling their scrotum skin assembling verts, offloading Props, investigating Abnormal brewing, and bitching about what Dark Lord session they are in: Jackie O’s is silently amassing arms to charge northward to unseat those Kuhnhenn ice lords north of the wall,” he proclaims. “Get some of these before Florida finds out about them and ruins it for everyone.”

It’s fucking goofy, but it works. It takes a certain type of weirdo to work in this environment.
— Brad Clark

It’s these types of beers that are the real treat for Athenians. Because not many are made in volumes large enough to be distributed widely, most bottles rarely get released outside of the taproom or pubs. And in most cases, the characteristics of these beers mirror the characteristics of the city itself: funky, quirky, and sometimes altogether unexpected.

 

When the fire claimed the public house in 2014, Jackie O’s took a huge hit financially, losing one of its main revenue streams. Luckily, the production facility was online and can sales helped support the other side of the business. But the real saving grace was the city of Athens itself.

Clark acknowledges that the interim pub experience hasn’t been perfect. The makeshift kitchen they set up resulted in a limited menu, and the smaller space has caused more crowding and longer waits. But the people kept coming.

Now that the pub’s opened again in earnest, the business is once again whole—and Jackie O’s has Athens to thank. A new prep room allows their chefs to use even more of the farm-grown produce and breads from the bakery. And an expanded seating area built by the brewery’s local team of craftsmen lets even more folks through door. It just goes to show that when you support your town, that town can, in turn, support you.

“The community being understanding of the rebuilding through their continued patronage has been huge,” Clark explains. “Athens is always going to be there for the businesses they believe in and care about. That’s proven itself for decades.”

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