Behind The Beer With Byway Brewing Co., the 2016 Indiana Brewers Cup Brewery Of The Year

By most measures, Byway Brewing Co. came out of nowhere in being named the 2016 Indiana Brewery of the Year, in just its inaugural year. But with their awarded beers (Oat Street Porter-Gold Medal and Best in Show, Chi.P.A.-Gold Medal, Scottish Right-Gold Medal), they prove that this was not luck; nor an accident. There is so much more.  

Co-founders Dave Toth and Branko Sajn met with me at their sparkling, expansive facility in the new Oxbow Landing development in Hammond, In. Sharing a similar vision and thought, they seamlessly finish each other’s sentences in discussing their winding journey.

Byway co-founder, Dave Toth – photo by Rick Burkhardt

Dave Toth: Even before I met Branko, I was brewing in a little brew-on-premise place in Chicago (with other co-founder, Tom Duszynski) and got hooked on it. Fortunately or unfortunately, one of the guys who I came to know through a mutual friend is John Hall at Goose Island [founder]. So we’re going there a lot and drinking some of their beers. We live in Munster and we put a homebrewing group together in Munster. Of course, Three Floyds, they probably had just moved to Munster and we visited there routinely.

Branko Sajn: That was even before they had a taproom.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

Dave: Just phenomenal stuff. They certainly were a major influence in not just us but the entire craft industry. So between Goose Island and Three Floyds we had some pretty good beer to drink, and it certainly contributed to our quest to be good homebrewers. And then it just evolved over many years and started putting up some pretty good stuff, and it perpetuated.

Finally we started in the fall an annual “Brew-A-Palooza” party in one of my buddy’s back yards, with 35 people. A little autumn picnic in the yard and we would brew a batch of beer that same day. We got more and more of our friends interested in it and every year it grew, and eight years later, 250 people are attending this thing. And man, we brewed our asses off from April until September and we had like nine beers on, which from a homebrewing perspective we think is pretty good.

We have basically a one barrel homebrew system that we kind of manufactured ourselves. So many prior, former light beer drinkers who really started enjoying our stuff said, “You know, we got to take this to the next level.” It took 3 ½ years before we could put enough pencil to paper but we finally got it done. And then this is it.

With this group of homebrewers after I got out of Chicago, I think we started in 2002-2003, and it just grew. In 2012 was when we had our last brew festival in the fall and that’s when we decided to take it to the next step.

Branko:  Well in between there you guys formed Sandy Bottom Brewing.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

Dave:  Yeah that was the name of our club in Munster. Our club still… we finally just a couple of months ago, we moved our homebrew system to the back (of the brewery). Our homebrewing club continues and we brew stuff back there. But that’s also our pilot system for the big brewer, our master brewer, who was not part of the club. We hired him out of Philly last year.

Craft Beer Influences

Dave: Other than some one off’s, like Eau Claire All Malt in Eau Claire, Wis., like 30 years ago and even Coors back in the day when you couldn’t get it over here, right. Remember what the mystique about that was? Certainly traveling to Europe and trying an…anything. You’re wowed over there because you’re kind of products of the 70’s and then the transition to the big commercial beers, Miller and that. Our parents grew up with good beer because it was the stuff the immigrants brought over from Europe. 

Starting with whoever it was out west, Sierra Nevada and whoever else, started the whole movement in the late 70’s and early 80’s but around here it certainly was Goose Island and Three Floyds. I mean huge influences.

Branko: Actually Dave and I, when our kids were in sixth or seventh grade, we did the first Oktoberfest at St. Thomas More. This was a one day event and the featured beer was Three Floyds, and we sold like sixteen or twenty kegs of beer that year. It was unbelievable.

Dave: It was kind of my personal mission to introduce Three Floyds beer – it was still a novelty then – to Munster in general, and certainly to the St. Thomas More Catholic community. It was a fundraiser for our kids’ program and I can’t tell you how many people came up to me like a week later, “That was great beer but I never drank beer like that, I got so shitfaced.” That was a good time.

Branko: I think that helped introduce craft beer to a lot of Munster people, actually they came from all over the place. It was a big undertaking but the success that thing had was unbelievable.  

Using a “Route 66”-type theme, a proposed brewery on U.S. Route 41 was nearly born, but one of several upcoming curves arose. A trademark issue followed from a Yakima, Wash. brewery that had a beer called “Field 41 Pale Ale”. While that brewery was not willing to co-exist, the road and journey theme stuck in a new name.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

Dave: We had a certain model in mind, a bigger production model that required certain scope, certain size, certain ceiling heights. I don’t think there’s a community in Northwest Indiana that we didn’t go and speak with and see what was there, and what our opportunities were. Different buildings and what we would have to do in that town. A lot of places were close but there was that “but” that just wasn’t perfectly right.

We really didn’t know where we were going to go and then all of a sudden a friend of mine said, “Have you reconsidered Oxbow [Landing] in Hammond, this new development, because now they’re starting to split parcels up?”

Most of the towns we dealt with, we met a lot of great people and they were interested in having us but I will say…

Byway co-founder Branko Sajn – photo by Rick Burkhardt

Branko:  Well the Hammond administration was very good to us. From the very first meeting we had, they said they would love to have us and they didn’t really know us from Adam at that point. We were well received and from that point on they essentially just walked us through the entire process, the building and everything else. Helped us with all the paperwork and the administrative things that you kind of need to overcome.

And they’ve not only helped us through the construction phase but they are supporters of us. The mayor’s wife, Marissa, she’s a regular here. Phil Taillon, the head of economic development, he’s a regular over here. They support the business. I can’t say enough good things about the City of Hammond and what they have done for us. They really helped make it happen.

Dave: They’re really working hard to build the city.

Equipment comes, a brand new facility takes shape – roof be damned.

Dave:  I can’t tell you how many eleventh hours we were at with various things.

Branko:  Actually when you think about it, it only took us less than seven months to get this thing built. It seemed like forever.

Dave: We were blessed with arguably the best weather we’ve had for fall into early winter, ever in history. And it just takes a couple of hiccups with this contractor and that one can’t do this until this one gets done.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

All of the equipment was made by W.M. Sprinkman out of Franksville, Wisconsin so it’s 100% American made stuff. This is a heavy union area, Chicago and Northwest Indiana, and most of our parents worked in…their dad either worked the steel mill or the oil refinery. We were very proud to say this was all 100% American made stuff.

We put a deposit down on the equipment the week between Christmas and New Year’s, 2014, and they said they would deliver the first week of August. August 5th I think was our target date. Sure enough, they were ready to deliver it, and we weren’t ready. We got caught up with some financing delay in the late spring and early summer and it got pushed back. And it got pushed back a second time, and I said, “Come hell or high water…”

It got moved in on November 19 because it was supposed to be on my birthday, Nov. 16th, and I’m thinking, “What a birthday present!” Then it got pushed to the following week but they had to commission it so it got moved in the third week of November. We had beautiful weather the entire fall until that week. Then it snowed, and we didn’t even have a roof on this place yet. They’re bringing in the equipment and there’s no roof on it. It snowed!

They installed it that week but then we had all this other stuff, electricity, gas, internet, all this stuff needed to be hooked up. And you can’t hook the water up until you have heat.

Branko:  The utility was working all night to get the electric in and they came out a few days later and got the gas hooked up. We brewed our first batch of beer with three-quarters of the roof up. (They laugh).

A father’s presence, personal touches in the taproom 

Dave: You just beg, borrow and steal to get it done and we went through two or three eleventh or twelfth-hour deadlines to get it done. Quite the experience.

Branko:  We spent a lot of days and nights here building out this taproom, we did most of it ourselves, and our project manager. For about a month or so we were out here doing the whole taproom buildout. All of the wood you see in the bar itself, all of the stuff we took care of ourselves.

Dave: All the tables. Branko and I made all the tables by hand with reclaimed wood from his dad’s farm.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

Branko: My father died in 2013 and in 2014 we sold the house, the year before we started construction over here. He had a lot of lumber and we took all the lumber and stored it at Dave’s house for the wintertime, and in the spring we started building tables. So there’s a lot personal touches inside that taproom. I keep saying, “My dad is in that taproom.” But that’s really cool.

Alas, Byway Brewing opens its doors  

Dave:  So many of our friends were interested, we had to have a soft opening that spanned two days. I think there were at least 150 or more people each day. That was particularly special because all of our friends were kind of living and dying with us and they knew all the pains we were going through. That was a pretty emotional couple of nights.

Branko: That was good and Dave and I have never washed so many glasses.

Dave: (Laughs) I forgot about that!

Branko: We were behind that bar, I mean literally for hours washing glasses.

Dave: That’s because, neither one of us knew how to use a POS!

Branko: We did the menial labor. I did it for 2-3 hours, Dave did it for 2-3 hours.

Dave: We opened on Saturday the 13th [February] and the soft openings were the 11th and 12th. Both nights when I had my chance to talk, I told everyone, I toasted, “The beer you guys are drinking, this will be the worst you will ever drink from us.” And it was still pretty good. There weren’t any flaws but it wasn’t anything to brag about. I think most people understand that you’ve got to tweak the system, and tweak the recipes for that system.

Our slogan I guess you call it, is “It’s about the journey.”

Branko: And we are definitely on a journey here.

Dave: You know, everybody is. In every walk of life and every individual they have their journey. We’re no different, individually or collaboratively as Byway, and it’s interesting the little twists and turns that life throws at you.

We kind of like this journey through life. It’s rarely a straight interstate, there’s little twists and turns all along the way and that just kind of fits us.

The 2016 Indiana Brewers Cup Brewery of the Year and the Best of Show porter

photo by Rick Burkhardt

Branko: A lot of people love our beers, they love our atmosphere, they love what we’ve created here. We have a lot of repeat customers and a lot of people driving by stop in and say, “This is great.” After we won those awards we had a guy come up from Indianapolis who was going to Minnesota fishing, and he said, “I had to stop over here, I had to try your beers out.” And he said, “Wow, this is fantastic, I will be back!”

We’re big into really pleasing our customers. You really live and die by your customers and if you can’t please your customer, you’re going to have a problem. We try really hard to give the customer an experience that they’re going to remember.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

Dave: The red (1871 Conflagration) was one of our homebrew recipes and Patrick [Jones, head brewer] was the master at translating it from a one barrel system to the 20 bbl. system. We still have a couple others we’ll get to over the course of time but the balance (of all the beers) is all Patrick and from his wealth of experience. He cut his teeth in a very significant way at Gordon Biersch before going to Triumph in the Philly area.

I told the people at our soft opening that Patrick is new here and you probably haven’t heard of him, but you’re gonna. I don’t how long it’s going to take but you’re gonna. I didn’t think it would be so quickly. I’m not surprised though, he’s a really extraordinary brewer. It didn’t take him long to get used to this system.

Actually, the Oat Street porter is almost the entire recipe (as the Sandy Bottom porter) but not exactly to the letter. Honestly, I think our homebrew recipe is still a little better than our Oat Street, so we’re still kind of wrestling with that. We’re very happy with the way that turned out, obviously.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

I give a lot of credit to my homebrewing buddies and myself on developing that over a number of years, it’s phenomenal. I have yet to have a porter that’s better than that one. Then we handed it off to Patrick and said, “Here, have at it.” He tinkered with it but it stayed pretty true to form. The first batch came out just a little bit thin, it was okay. But the second batch he tweaked accordingly and it ended up winning the Brewers Cup gold and the best in show.

(Bigger beers) is something we’re anxious to see. Just getting started you have to have…you can’t just kick off, at least in our opinion, with a bunch of crazy stuff. You have to have a porter or a stout, a nice IPA/pale ale, some lighter offerings and that’s what we did. We took some hits from some of the beers geeks out there and I understand this but it’s just not just financially wise to try to do that.

Branko: You need to generate some revenue and you have to go for some of the volume. That’s where we went.

The Indiana brewing community

Dave: Oh my God, I’m glad you brought that up. We don’t have experience with any of other Guild obviously, other than Indiana’s (Brewers Guild of Indiana) and the national brewers association. Our association with the brewers association is a little longer because we didn’t get into the Indiana Guild until we got our brewer’s notice. But if there’s another guild in this country that’s better than them, I’d like to know. They’ve got a skeleton crew so they are working their asses off, but the people we’ve dealt with over the past 18 months, they have bent over backwards for us. Which means they’re doing it for everyone else as well. They think of everything and just how they can help us. We feel like we are their only customer, I can’t say enough about those people.

That connection, beer and people  

Branko: I think it’s an appreciation for quality, I really do. You’re paying a premium price for a drink and people appreciate a good, quality drink. I think that’s a big part of it. There’s a lot of people that want more than just your low-end beers. They want something with more body and more flavor that they can remember, and speak about.

Dave: My wife is not the biggest beer fan, she loves her wine. About a year and a half ago when Gus [Dan Lehnerer, owner/head brewer] at New Oberpfalz opened up [Griffith, In.], one of the rare nights we had a date night. I said Ellen would you indulge me, I’d like you to stop at New Oberpfalz on the way home. She doesn’t like bars and I said but it’s not a bar, it’s a brewpub and she said okay. I knew it all along but she was amazed, first of all she loved the space, just the tenor of the place, she really liked. But what contributed to that tenor, she was looking around and it wasn’t a bar like our kids go to, it was people there of all ages. I swear to God, I am not making this up, there were a grandmother and grandfather-type at the bar, standing no less, enjoying craft beer, all the way down to twenty-somethings. And she got that attitude adjustment.

Branko:  It’s like a camaraderie.

Dave: And everyone’s just there to enjoy great flavor. And you can’t find a picture on Brewers Association or any social media if it’s a picture involving craft beer, where the people in that picture don’t have really big smiles on their faces. They just enjoy the flavor and everything about the whole movement. I don’t know how to describe it other than that.

Branko: It’s almost what you see at Oktoberfest in Germany, these big halls with all these people having a great time. It’s a meeting place and you’re enjoying a beer, you might be enjoying a meal, and you’re enjoying the company. It’s not just go out there and drink beer, it’s more than that. It’s like an event.

photo by Rick Burkhardt

Dave: It’s the common denominator of all these places and the attitude, every place is different and that’s another great thing. I don’t care the size, the shape, the personality, they’re all different and they’re all great. I get jazzed when I go to all of them. But the common denominator is the craft beer movement, the artisanal movement.

Branko: You can’t believe the number of friends we have made that we have never met before. Just because it’s the craft beer, it’s the atmosphere, it’s the friendliness that we try to portray to our customers. And a lot of them, they’re not just customers anymore. They’re really friends. You just meet so many great people.

Cheers!

Rick

Twenty Tap in Indianapolis is hosting a Byway Brewing tap takeover on Wed., Jan. 18th. 

Byway Brewing Co. is located at 2825 Carlson Dr., Hammond, In.

 

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