05 July 2011

Building Irvington's Own Nanobrewery: Black Acre

As more and more participants enter the market for your craft beer dollars, finding a niche may be the difference between survival and disaster. The five folks behind Black Acre Brewing - homebrewers Justin Miller, Holly Miller, Jordan Gleason, Matt Johnson, and Stephen Ruby - hope that providing a welcoming tasting room and constantly rotating lineup of seasonal and specialty beers to Indianapolis' Irvington neighborhood will be their ticket to long-term success. We stopped in a little over a week ago (6/25/11) to see what's in store for Irvington's first nanobrewery.

Located in the heart of Irvington, Black Acre will open in a space formerly occupied by a children's clothing store. Converting the space from store to brewery has been a lot of hard work, as evident by the piles of demolished building materials found on the floor, waiting for a dumpster. There are special challenges in building a brewery in Irvington - the building, built in 1926, has historic designation, so different rules must be followed.

"For the interior they don't care," said Black Acre partner Justin Miller. "IHPC (Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission) took control of zoning a few years ago, so they do all the zoning issues, and their interpretation is that we're an industrial use, not a commercial use, and this is zoned a C4 so we have to get a variance of use to brew. We tried to argue that there's a bakery and a coffee shop and they're pretty much the same as what I'm doing, but it didn't go by. In downtown (Indianapolis) proper (a brewery) is not an industrial use, because they want to promote growth downtown - that was their explanation. So we have the hearing on the 6th."

He continued, "We have three variances - one is the variance of use from the C4 to industrial, which seems ridiculous - we're pretty much selling everything in-house, but it's better to just ask for the variance, I suppose. Another one is the parking variance, because this other space didn't generate that much business, so they averaged two parking spots at any one time. They average us as doing forty, which I think is probably a little high, but they do a square foot formula. And then the third one is (we step out the back door) - there's a playground there owned by the Methodist church, so it's a D5 protected zone. It wouldn't be a problem if we didn't have to apply for a zoning variance, but once you do it triggers that you shouldn't have alcohol within 100 feet of a D5 protected zone. We're 96 feet from that fence at this back door. So we're got to get our four foot variance for that. It sounds like everything should go through."

(In fact, we found the document that shows that IHPC recommend that the variances be allowed).

Click to enlarge

Although the space has historic designation, the things found once demolition started were far from anything worth putting in a time capsule. "We found a rainbow under the wood paneling so that was exciting," said Miller. "(The rainbow) has to be historic."

The brewery's back room (where the actual brewing will take place) was added on at some point in the building's history. A mill room will be added into that space, and the building's furnace will be moved to its cellar. "We're looking to put the three vessel (brew house) here in the window and have it lit up as a display thing to the parking lot," said Miller.

As for the tasting room, the layout was still a work in progress when I visited.

"We've gone through a couple designs with (One 10 Studio), who are the architecture firm working with us - this is the current one we're working with (he shows me a marker drawn rendition of the space). We're getting nice ones on Monday."

The layout is taped on the floor - at the time, dropped ceilings and raised platforms were planned for the the front window spaces. Lounge seating was planned on one side of the room, with floating 2 and 4 top tables on the other. "The idea is that if you have floating tables you could take them off and then have like a small jazz band or music," said Miller.

Miller said they hope that the space will be one in which people will be happy to congregate, with comfortable seating, and food that isn't just an afterthought.

"High quality but small menu," he said. "So we're doing like three to five panini at a time. We're trying to do all locally sourced ingredients. We talked to Goose the Market with their new Smoking Goose and meats from there, you've got Trader's Point Creamery - we looking at doing cheeses from them. A couple of premium sandwiches, we're looking at doing sweet potato fries - we're looking at an auto-fryer thing that does the suppression so you don't need the hood and everything, and then kinda small plates - meat and cheese plates, some roasted nuts, pretzels with beer mustard, but that's gonna be it."

So bare minimum to meet requirements but not bad food?

"Right. Because if you're serving a premium beer, there's a dichotomy where you don't want to serve someone hot dogs. $5 for a beer and then having it paired with hot dogs didn't seem adequate."

"We're getting a two-way license as well, and I think your food requirements go down if you have a two-way license as well but I'm not sure exactly how that works. Some bars don't serve food at all."

Of course no brewery tour would be complete without discussion of the equipment. Black Acre will be using an all-electric 3 barrel brew house. "The engineers looked and said the roof is great for solar (heated water) but it's an extra 35 thousand dollars so... But with the electric system the possibility is there. One of the big expenses because of the electric system is that there's only 100 amp service in here so we had to upgrade to the three-phase 400 amp which is $10,000 just by itself."

Miller continued, "We're starting off with plastic fermenters because it's so much cheaper with the idea to upgrade to stainless over time - probably within six months we'll just get four seven-barrels. This will be set at a low 60-degrees and then to crash them - we'll roll it through the kitchen into the cold room, set it there for a day and then transfer it into the bright tank. We could just transfer right to the bright but then we're going to have yeast issues in the bright that you really don't want. So we're making sure the kitchen is big enough and that we have enough turning radius to make sure these three barrel fermenters around."

Plastic is an unusual choice for a professional brewery, but they've talked to quite a few places that are using them currently, and think that they'll be able to put out a good quality product despite the difference.

"The nice thing about the plastic is that we can buy ten fermenters for the price of one stainless steel, so it give us so much more flexibility to do lots of things. We've talked to a lot of people that are using them and they've got a timed obsolescence of about four years with scratches and stuff but people make good beer with them, and other than the durability there's no big issue with them."

Once that beer is finished it will be available in growlers, pints, half pints, and flight.

"You go somewhere and you want to try four things and you want to drive home - our idea is that we'll probably have ten of our beers on tap at a time - probably tee them off so we have a dedicated growler and standard tap. Since we have 30 taps - it's flexibility. The idea is ten fill lines, ten growler lines, and then we'll probably try to do two to four local guests - kind of (RIP) Barley Island style, just your guest taps," he said.

"We haven't nailed down if we're going to do house beer. We've got a lot of beers that we've made that we really like but we're going to start like Bier (Brewery) style, where you just have ten and if something really sells. We like doing lots of different - it's obviously a lot more fun if you're doing different things."

Although the plans are in place and work is happening at a steady rate, it will be a while before the space opens. Black Acre has set a target opening date to coincide with the Irvington Halloween Festival.

"Federal Permits were 100 days, but I've been hearing 6 months, which is kind of scary," said Miller. "That's the pain with this is that you've got to start paying rent and that kind of stuff just to get them filed, and then you're sitting around paying money and not being able to make anything."

We'll be following up on the Black Acre efforts in a few weeks, and hope to follow the story through the brewery's opening. Stay tuned.


  1. Wow, best of luck...local market flooded yet?

  2. Any breweries closed yet? So far, so good, apparently.

  3. I went through and updated all your IHCPs to IHPCs. I assume you had juggalos on the brain.

    Also it would appear to me that Alcatraz closed as a result of corporate decisions. Operating a restaurant/brewery in San Francisco and Indianapolis can't be very optimal.

  4. Seemed to have been pretty optimal for 16 years

  5. How about this answer - we just don't know if the local market is flooded yet. Time will tell, won't it?

  6. I'd suggest that the fact that both Alcatraz's old brewer and its old equipment have moved on to (possibly) better things while its management closed the door without telling the employees first might be all the hint you need to know why it's no longer open.

    But I'm ever the optimist. I think Black Acre can work because their aspirations aren't to be a production brewery - they basically just want to be a neighborhood pub that makes its own beer.

    When I asked them what their best case scenario was, they didn't say "bottles across Indiana" or anything like that - they said something along the lines of "hopefully we can replace all the plastic fermentors in the first two years."

    Their investors are on board with that plan, they realize that this is going to be a lot of work, and they're all keeping their day jobs - stuff I plan to talk about next time around. In any case, their goals have been the easiest to achieve of any new brewery effort I've come across. And if they're able to copy the success that Bier is having - a similar concept - then I think they'll be more than happy.

  7. I don't think the market will ever saturate because we don't have anyone in the Indy market that is truly knocking it out of the park. We have some good breweries, but there is still an amazing amount of room for a place that wants to brew good beer. If you don't make good beer you won't survive. Let all who want to brew beer come and open up a place. If you brew great beer people will purchase and if you don't you won't survive because of the competition. Black Acre isn't going for that though, and they will produce beer on a small scale for a neighborhood. I respect that.

  8. Good to here of another brewery content with serving their community, focusing on quality, and crafting a great product. I look forward to visiting them when they open. Thanks for posting this!