How do you go from homebrewer to pro? Realllly slow. Indiana nano outfit Cutters Brewing is capping, labeling and delivering bottles by hand—and grabbing hold of Bloomington beer palates in the process.
By Charles Scudder
The birds pecking at spent grains in the parking lot are a clue you’re in the right spot, and the sweet smell of a mash tun means you’re getting closer. The sound of AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock” echoing across the lot and the empty carboys outside unit No. 1 is a dead giveaway.
The lot is in an industrial park on the west side of Bloomington, Ind., a college town home to Indiana University. It’s also home to one of the state’s newest and smallest craft breweries: Cutters Brewing Co., owned by best friends, longtime homebrewers and local boys Chris Inman and Monte Speicher.
During the week, Speicher works for a local marketing firm, and Inman is an aerospace engineer. Every weekend, however, they go to the industrial park, listen to ’80s rock, drink and make beer. They are the quintessential nanobrewery: two guys passionate about their product making small batches for a mostly local clientele.
“This is our weekends, man. Good thing we love it,” Speicher says. “This is basically homebrewing on steroids.”
Going big isn’t without its strains, and the Cutters—a nickname for Bloomington locals the brewers have lovingly adopted for themselves—know this. In an instant, their weekend hobby became a full-time gig. Instead of getting to make beer on the weekends, they have to make beer on the weekends. And the only experimenting happening is for their occasional seasonal batches; otherwise, their tanks are dedicated to their four regulars: Floyd’s Folly Scottish Ale, Half-Court IPA, Monon Wheat and Empire Imperial Stout. Every beer they make is for the company, and they need to sell every drop. What Speicher drinks he buys from a local liquor store.
“Which is why we’ve got to keep it fun,” Inman says. “That’s what happens when you go from homebrew to this: It becomes real work.”
They admit they didn’t foresee such a transition when they first started building toward brewing commercially. The idea occurred on the Fourth of July weekend of 2009. Their original pipe dream would require a $1 million dollar loan to hit the ground running with a brewpub and regional distribution.
“We were sitting around a barbecue, probably had one too many, and thought, ‘Hey, you know what we could do?…’” Speicher says. “The strange thing is, once we sobered up, we still did it. We slowly revised the business plan to an ‘if you build it, they will come’ sort of thing.’”
Now a little more than a year old, Cutters is growing with few signs of slowing. At some point, Speicher and Inman say, they will have to leave the stability of their full-time jobs and commit to making Cutters beer year-round.
“I’m sure it won’t feel like the right point when we do it; it’ll be a little nerve-wracking,” Speicher says. “Every homebrewer wants to go for it. For better or worse, we did it.”
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The Cutters act as their own PR frontmen, delivering kegs to the local college bars, sending beer to surrounding counties—anything to get the word out. Today, an April Saturday, they’ve hauled their wares to the Indiana University Art Museum for a museum fundraiser featuring craft beer, local food and beer-themed art aptly named Art on Tap. While established outfits Bloomington’s Upland Brewing and Bloomington Brewing have a steady, slow trickle of customers come up to exchange a ticket for their well-known brews, the Cutters’ table is constantly bombarded with a long line of patrons wanting to talk to the new guys in town.
“This is a solid rotation, more than I’ve seen at any beer fest,” Speicher says to Inman, who was looking for room to put empty bottles of their Half-Court IPA. They’d already gone through a whole case of the imperial stout and were working through boxes of the IPA, Scottish Ale and Wheat Ale.
“You’ve got an empties box?” Inman asks.
“I’ve got a few empties over here,” Speicher says. He picked up an empty bottle of the Scottish ale, saw that there was at least a sip or two left in the bottom, emptied it in his mouth, and put it back in the box.
While Monte and Inman clear out empties, Monte’s wife, Amanda, and a volunteer, Mike Hawkins, serve the growing line.
“The one I had last time, the Scottish ale, I loved,” says one woman, handing a blue ticket to Hawkins.
“OK then, are you ready for the stout?” he asks.
“I guess so,” she replies as Hawkins poured a sample. “Whoa! That’s really dark!”
Speicher says his 10%-ABV Empire Imperial Stout is what could put them on the Midwestern—and possibly even national—beer map. Right now, like all of the Cutters beers, it is only available in bombers locally, but the brewers hope to have it available in four-packs by the end of the year.
“It’s a special, special beer,” Speicher says. “That’s the thing we can do coast to coast.”
They ran out of the stout twice during the festival, and sent a runner out to grab an extra case so they could keep serving it.
All four of the Cutters take turns serving and talking to customers about the beer and the new brewery.
“Now where are y’all from?” one man asks.
“Bloomington, Indiana,” Hawkins answers. “Everything about us is from Bloomington.”
He’s not exaggerating. Inman and the Speichers are locals. They met in high school and have been good friends since. In the brewery, everything from the label design to the names of the beers is local. In Bloomington, being a cutter means a lot more than just a good slogan.
The once-thriving limestone industry in the region gave rise to the Empire State Building, National Cathedral and Pentagon. Today, the landscape is dotted with massive quarries, empty holes in the ground filled with rainwater. The stonecutter image is not just a symbol for local laborers, but is generally seen as a source of pride for the hard-working men and women of southern Indiana.
Speicher and Inman use that local pride to drive their brewing. They use local names, like Empire Imperial Stout, after the Empire State Building, built from limestone quarried just a half-hour drive from the brewery. Monon Wheat is named after the Monon Railroad that once cut through Bloomington on its way from Chicago to Louisville, Ky. Half-Court IPA is in homage to the rich history of basketball in Indiana. Floyd’s Folly Scottish Ale is named for Speicher’s grandfather, who died working the quarries. Even the tap handles used at local bars are made from locally quarried and carved limestone.
“Everything we do here, everything about it embodies who we are. We are paying homage to Hoosiers and hard work,” Speicher says. “We can all relate to being a cutter.”
As the festival progresses, the Cutters continued to run out of various beers; first the stout, then the wheat, finally ending with only about ten bottles to bring home. They continue to serve what they had and continue to talk with the customers. When one man introduces himself as a quarry-worker, Speicher lights up. The cutter liked the beer.
“What’s your boil, 1,000 gallons?” asks the stone-worker, sipping on the Scottish ale.
“100,” Monte says. “Yeah, we’re real small.”
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When they started, the Cutters were brewing weekly 70-gallon batches on a customized system Inman created with a $200 kit and a Blichmann Boilermaker system, controlling wort temperature and boiling times from their iPhones. But with new investments (most notably by Inman’s boss), the brewers just expanded to a 30-barrel system. In 2013, the partners hope to open a taproom in Bloomington and distribute Cutters beer across the state.
“2012 and definitely 2013 will be different. 2011 was a financial strain for both of us,” Speicher says. “That’ll change. That’s big enough to cover the state. That puts us on the Upland, BBC [Bloomington Brewing Company], Sun King level.”
Part of that expansion has already arrived at the small warehouse, via a bottling system upgrade. It used to take one person a minute to prep each bottle by hand. Now it takes 30 seconds. During the week, Amanda and Inman’s wife, Emma, come to the brewery and bottle—and hand-cap, and hand-clean and hand-label each bottle—while Inman and Speicher are at their full-time jobs.
The Cutters distribute their bombers locally, driving an hour and a half at most to deliver their kegs to a nearby vacation resort. Amanda said she drives boxes of bottles around town, but recruits Speicher to deliver the heavy kegs to bars and restaurants.
On one Sunday, Inman and Speicher are busy making their Half Court IPA, an aromatic, citrusy IPA with 6.3 percent ABV. The process starts early in the morning, when Inman starts boiling water in the hot liquor tank. They crush 140 pounds of grains with a homemade setup into five-gallon plastic buckets, a two-man job.
“Ready to switch?” Speicher says, getting ready to swap his full bucket with Inman’s empty one. “3, 2, 1, go.”
After the switch, Chris moves back to the kettle, where he checks temperature and prepares for the grain drop.
The brewers are precise, but when it’s just two guys in a warehouse for hours at a time, some things fall through the cracks. While Inman is counting yeast and Speicher is returning company emails, the alarm for a hop drop sounds. With only basic equipment, Inman burns his hand from boiling hot water. When the speakers for the ’80s rock music and the computer and the brewing system are all on, it is not uncommon to hear the pop! of a blown electrical fuse.
“It’s harder than anybody would ever know. Every bottle is touched by hand 30 times before it is done,” Speicher says. “That’s why we have the slogan: ‘Hard Working Beer.’”
Across the small warehouse, Speicher keeps crushing grains. When he’s ready for another switch, he calls back to Inman.
“Chris? Chris!” he shouts.
“What?” Inman says, turning around.
“Forget it,” Speicher says, swapping the buckets himself, spilling a few handfuls of grains onto the ground. “It’s just a two-man operation here.”