Behind The Beer – Chris Weeks, Founder/Brewer, Wasser Brewing Company

Wasser Brewing Company in Greencastle, In. may never have been born if not for other professional circumstances for owner, Chris Weeks. With a master’s degree in special education (Hanover College/Indiana University/Cal State, San Bernardino), various teaching stops along the way helped prepare him for a road he had not yet envisioned.

Following his own process in changing careers and laying groundwork, now an old Packard dealership is helping transform downtown Greencastle.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

Chris Weeks: “As a college student I remember if I was able to scrounge enough money to buy a six-pack of Beck’s or some imported beer, that that felt felt like I was living large. That was as far as the diversity of beer being offered in Indiana in the 90’s, that was about as good as it got. You found an English beer, a German beer or even Honey Brown, that was outside of normal. I do remember in high school those times when I was able to get a special six-pack that I enjoyed it as something special.

I was actually given a Mr. Beer kit for Christmas [2009] so that’s where I started with homebrewing. My brother-in-law had gotten one, knew I enjoyed cooking, knew I enjoyed good beer and said, ‘This would be a good gift for Chris.’ I’ve still got the Mr. Beer kit sitting on a shelf over there. Made a couple of batches, it was like, ‘Oh, this is kinda cool’, but I immediately knew this was like the EZ Bake Oven of making beer. What’s next?

So I quickly moved on to bigger equipment, extract brewing. I extract brewed for several years, reading up on it, enjoyed it. The first recipe I made that I thought was really special was a French farmhouse ale, something you just don’t see anyplace else. And so I became a pretty active homebrewer and I cycled through things pretty quickly. A definitively positive experience where I was almost immediately going from smaller equipment to bigger equipment to bigger equipment. So it was something I knew I enjoyed right away.”

A love of education isn’t returned so a new path is carved.

Chris: “Five years ago I was teaching in IPS (Indianapolis Public Schools) and I was a part of a team of people that was brought in to Howe H.S. to turn it around, and to try to save the school. But the decision had already been made that they were going to take the school over, turn it over to Charter Schools USA. So all of the new teachers that moved in there in the hopes of turning it around were kind of left holding the baby. At that time I’d had some job insecurity as a teacher.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

My brother-in-law is also a homebrewer so typical thing homebrewers do is they share some beers and kind of think about, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great to just do this full time.’ So after that experience at Howe, I started to say, ‘Well, maybe I should look at this.’ So I secured an internship at the Schlafly Brewery in St. Louis [2012], spent some time over my spring break actually working as a brewer to see if the day-to-day life of a commercial brewer would appeal to me. I loved spending my day talking about esoteric Belgian yeasts and how it got snuck into America and things like that. I enjoy some physical labor as a day-to-day part of my normal life, so brewing at a commercial scale is hard work. It’s physical labor and I enjoy having that as a part of what I do.

I was intrigued. After that experience, started working with ISBDC (Indiana Small Business Development Center) and Hometown Visions, which is a local entrepreneurship incubator, looking at, is it feasible to start a brewery in Greencastle? What would I need to know to run a business?  Going from being a teacher to operating your own business is a definitive change of pace and so before I tried to justify that with my family, with myself, I wanted to start laying the groundwork for the knowledge I needed.

I worked with them for years, went through a Siebel (Institute of Technology, brewing science) course, volunteered periodically at local brewpubs, just brewed on their equipment to see how different people do it. And slowly looked at the demographics, looked at what would be needed to change careers, put together a business plan. Had different directions that we pursued that didn’t come to fruition but kind of continued to look at the idea of changing careers and finally built the critical mass of saying, ‘These things are falling in place to change careers.’ And slowly came to the point of, ‘Ok, this opportunity is right in front of me. I have all the pieces in place to buy a building, to start looking at equipment, to start changing what I’m doing in my day-to-day life, to opening a brewery.’”

Starting a beer club, passing out homebrew and getting regular feedback from friends

Chris: “It was like right as Howe was taken over and I went to Schlafly, I went to all-grain, got a 15 gallon brewhouse where my mash tun and brew kettle were both 15 gallons. So I would take a standard homebrewing recipe and alter one ingredient, and start to see how altering that one ingredient would change the flavor profile. I was able to talk my friends into joining my beer club where I would make two almost identical additions of the beer with one ingredient that was better or different, and send them guidelines based on the BJCP, and have then send me back reviews of the different beers.

So I went through a time period of over a year where I was brewing double batches and changing one thing in it and getting people’s feedback on how does that change affect the flavor and how they perceived the beer. So I was playing with recipes, playing with ingredients. I was aware that the change from being a teacher to owning a brewery, you have the business background, you have the technical knowledge, you had to look at recipes, there were a range of things that had to happen. And so I worked on those over seven years.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

Then I listened to podcasts from Brew Strong (The Brewing Network) as I was driving back-and-forth to work. I read through all of the book I could find about opening a brewery. It’s like the joke about the band that’s an overnight success that was five years in the making. There’s certain phrases that you hear and you acknowledge them cognizantly but then you experience them for yourself, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s what this feels like.’ It’s like, I remember someone talking about how you’re planning to open a brewery, you feel like you’re perpetually busy, like you have no free time, and the phrase is, ‘Well, wait until you’re open.’ Well, then when you’re open you really don’t have any free time.”

Coming back home to Indiana and committing to Greencastle.

Chris: “My wife and I got married prior to student teaching on the Navajo reservation, we lived in the southwest and bounced around for several years, and enjoyed that part of the nation. When we had our son in California we knew it was time to come home. We sat in our basement in the San Bernardino mountains in California, looked at the internet as it was at the time and saw that it was close to the state parks, with the home of the university (DePauw), and so there would be a more diverse location, it was close enough to family and friends. But it just seemed like it would be a good fit for us.

So fifteen years ago we bought a house in Greencastle, I worked in the DOC (Indiana Department of Corrections/Putnamville Correctional Facility) and Indianapolis for a long time, and just commuted. Our friends in the community have been incredibly supportive. I can’t imagine having the opportunities we have here, somewhere else. So it’s been a great fit for us.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

I looked at buildings in the downtown Greencastle area for several months, looking at the regulations as far as distance from churches, distance from schools, having the concrete floors and the things you need for a semi-industrial application. There were several buildings in the downtown area that we looked at where you think about how are you going to get this in the building. They had a tiny basement and wooden floors, and how are you going to support thousands of pounds of equipment on a wood floor? And they all had these variables.”

A building where others once drank beer was perhaps destined to become a brewpub. Old stories and new finds.

Chris: “This building had been been empty at the time and it needed…obviously we’ve done a lot things to this building. When we showed it to the excise officer to have her say yes, it’s fine, she walked in and said, ‘Wow, this needs a lot of work.’ But the bones were here, the garage door was here, concrete floors were here. It’s big enough that I have plenty of room back here (brewhouse), plenty of room back there (storage). My wife walked in the place and said, ‘This is it.’

This was a gas station around the turn of the (20th) century. Then in the 1930’s it was bought as a Packard dealership. Jinsie Bingham [legendary resident], her father Roscoe Scott, ran the Packard dealership so we have a hop forward beer called Super 8, that’s named after the Super 8 line of cars, and it has eight different hop additions. After the Packard dealership, it was a NAPA dealership; most locals know it as the old NAPA dealership.

There were these mechanics who worked for the Packard dealership and there was also maybe a Hudson dealership just across the road. And these two guys were great mechanics but they notoriously would take a sip while they were at work, and so when we were uncovering things, we found all of these old Schlitz beer cans stuffed away in little corners here! They were from the mechanics who would go back-and-forth. I guess the owner would take them back because they were good at their job but then they would get frustrated with them. So yeah, found some old Schlitz cans.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

When we bought the building, the trusses were all covered by a drop ceiling and the only part of the trusses that were visible was a small section in the drive thru. We didn’t know what we would uncover, we just knew they were trusses. So when we pulled down the ceiling and saw that there was this huge barrel back roof where you’ve got a sixty foot span of these gorgeous wooden support systems. We didn’t know what we were going to find. At all. So that was something that definitely is very unique to this building that you won’t find anyplace else. It was a happy confirmation of what we were guessing could be there. The very common response from the people walking into the building for the first time is, they look up and they say, ‘Wow!’ I feel lucky to have this building.”

Finding a way to get beer to the people becomes exactly that. You take it to them.

Chris: “We’ve had an extended soft opening. We cleared the final hurdle to be able to legally make and sell beer [July, 2016] and we started selling beer out the garage door on the weekends that we have the farmers market. So we literally open up the garage doors, set up a table and sell people growlers.

I had this equipment and I had eight corny kegs out, put them in a trough, had my homebrewing CO2 tanks pushing the beers and served 250 people out of corny kegs. As soon as the tank was empty, I’ll run back here, hook up a bev-a-line to the sample cock, and I reversed a corny keg input so that it would go in the dip tube to prevent foam. Filled the keg from the tank into the corny keg and run it back out there to be served to people. So yeah…that’s what we did to get started. And people were like, ‘Well, you know your carbonation level’s not perfect.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I know! I just hooked this up!’ (Laughs!)

We had a grill outside before we had our kitchen finished and we would make burgers outside and run them in here and serve them to people after plating them in the kitchen, because we hadn’t got our hood up. We can’t cook burgers in there, so ok, we’ll cook burgers out there and we’ll have my daughter run them in the kitchen and they’ll plate them, and they’ll send them out there. We’ve had incredibly loyal employees so the people who’ve been in it with us from the start, when they talk about the crazy things we did to get started, we found a way to make it happen. We found a way.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

We had so many hurdles. We did all of these crazy things to just get started. We have not had a grand opening because there are a few things I want to do before we do so, but we’re open six days a week. We’re serving food that people love. We’re serving beer that people appreciate. We have servers who understand that, one of our taglines is that we’re ‘Greencastle’s brewpub for the authentic.’ We serve authentic craft beer, we serve food from scratch. That is who we are and that is one of our core values we want our employees to represent, is that we are authentic people.

I think if you would say to somebody, ‘These are the things you’re going to have to do to open a brewery, you’re not gonna serve 200 people with corny kegs, you’re not going to do it. Yeah, we did! You’re not going to sell fifty people burgers from a grill out the back door. Yeah, we did!’

I’ll never forget going to the homebrewers conference up in Michigan when the founders of Founders (Brewing) spoke and they talked about they had opened a business, and they knew they were weeks away from going bankrupt. That’s when they decided to make beer they wanted to make and that changed the whole path of their business, is that decision. Knowing that this huge investment you’ve made is on the brink of collapse. I remember hearing them speak and just being so moved by what they were saying.

You can’t get into this business if you don’t love to talk to people about beer. If you don’t love something that makes a person’s day better. It’s incredibly moving to have someone tell you it’s the best beer they’ve ever had. I’m not one who takes compliments significantly but when someone says they like your stout better than something that has a 98 beer rating from RateBeer, when someone says that, it’s like, ‘Well thanks!’ When someone says, ‘This is the best beer I’ve ever had’, that’s pretty cool.

Knowing that we are able to be in a position in this community where when you read about the things that craft breweries can do for a community in spreading the love of craft, of beer made from scratch, of food made from scratch, of artists singing their music, and the vitality that can be injected in the community because of craft beer. Having that opportunity come to fruition is really encouraging. To be a part of that is a blessing…it’s a huge blessing.”

Appreciating the technical, business and hands-on education from others.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

Chris: “The whole craft beer community is fabulous. The Siebel Institute was definitely significant for the training they provided. Schlafly – opening the doors to a guy who was interested in turning pro and letting him run around and lend a hand. And your first day working at a brewery, you’re a keg monkey. You’re gonna clean 70 kegs today! It’s not glamorous but that’s the reality of what it’s like to work at a brewery. You’re gonna have a day where you sit there and you clean kegs. All day. Obviously, I’m indebted to Schlafly forever for that support.

The local craft beer community. I talked to Tom Hynes at Three Pints and said, ‘Hey, I’m looking at opening a brewery.’ Came over there and brewed with him a couple times. The guys at Black Acre gave me the opportunity to come over there and brew with them a couple times.

Anita Johnson (Owner, Great Fermentations) has been a great person to talk to for years. I really value her insight and when she sees a person is actually going through the steps of, not just thinking about it, not just pondering it, but actually going to make it happen. Very thankful for her advice that she’s given me along the years.

Ken Eitel established an entrepreneurship incubator (Ivy Tech Business and Entrepreneurship Services Center) and his advice over the years on the business side of things has been invaluable. As I was looking at things from the business perspective, Richard Pittelkow was the man I was working with from the ISBDC, sitting down with him and looking at demographics and learning the business side of things. This would not have occurred. There are people that this would not have occurred without. Obviously, my wife, Angie, is at the top of the list. So I’m thrilled to be a part of the craft beer community.”

How much of all, is all in?

Chris: “I watched a lot of Shark Tank and all of these other business associated TV shows for background knowledge and there always came that point where the investors would say, ‘Well, are you all in? Are you really all in?’ It was a situation for me where I gradually kind of saw these opportunities where you look at it more in hindsight than flash of decision making where you say, ‘Oh, are you suddenly all in.’ You have to have that moment where you say you are all in.  

The fact that Sam Calagione brewed three times a day for a year plus to get Dogfish Head going, I don’t know how he did that. Like anyone who has commercial, even as a homebrewer, brewing three times a day and then running a business, it’s just jaw dropping to think about what he did to show that he was all in. I don’t know where he found all the hours in a day.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

So we’re in a great position now where we have so many return customers. We just won an award from the city for our sustainability practices. 90% of the people are happy with their experience here. For a long time we weren’t in a position where we really couldn’t increase capacity or go to festivals and increase people’s awareness of our brand and business, to some degree because we were making burgers on a grill outside. You can’t hope for a hundred  people where you know you can’t feed them all. We’re definitely in a great location.

[Corporate breweries] It’s not the same as being a person in their 40’s with a family to support and getting to a position where you say to your wife and kids, ‘I’m going to try to open a brewery.’ That’s a vastly different experience. It’s a lot more fun to me. I’m sure it’s a lot easier to start with lots and lots of money, and lots of experience, and you can hire a decorator, and this person and that person. It’s all very well planned out and managed, and certainly who doesn’t like that idea but I would say the majority of the craft beer community are still individuals, mom and pop families kind of coming together to make something special. And I hope that’s always the case.

I hope what the craft beer community is, is a predominantly individualistic, authentic group of people trying to make something special.”

Cheers!

Rick

Wasser Brewing Co. is located at 102 E. Franklin St., Greecastle, In.

2 thoughts on “Behind The Beer – Chris Weeks, Founder/Brewer, Wasser Brewing Company”

  1. Great read! I like the bit on the Mr. Beer and how that was what had got Chris started up. That was the same way for me – it was what brought me into the hobby.

    Nowadays, I’m an all-grain brewer, but I recently bought a Mr. Beer kit to see if it was the same (or better) than when I tried it years ago. Ended up being a fun little experiment (and not as bad as I thought it would be). Gotta appreciate the tool that brought us to where we are today!

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