Behind The Beer With Jonathon Mullens, Head Brewer, Broad Ripple Brewpub

(Story originally published March, 2016).

Rick: Recently I joined Jonathon Mullens at Broad Ripple Brewpub as he brewed up an experimental, 100% rye grain, 5 gallon batch in his cramped, iconic brewhouse. Beer, passion and being a one-man brewing show were the key ingredients of our discussion.

Jonathon Mullens: “Well, we (he and his wife) had just moved here from Illinois (after graduating from Eastern Illinois Univ.) and I’d been working at Logan’s Steakhouse for a while, and for whatever reason I just decided to try something different, beer-wise. Just kind of looking for something other than Miller Lite or Bud Light, or whatever, the norm that I would typically drink.

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Jonathon Mullens. Photo by Rick Burkhardt

So I went to a liquor store behind Logan’s and picked up a six-pack of Flying Dog’s IPA, and uh, fell in love with craft beer right then and there. It was like, wow, this is delicious! What else is out there? Then I kept trying more and more of them. I realized there was sort of a local scene starting to form and then I realized I could brew my own. Then I was like, that is even more amazing! It turned out pretty well, as a cheaper alternative to better beer.”

 Jonathon brewed his first batch, an extract, then a brew-in-a-bag until he went all grain. He joined the MONK homebrew club and built up his homebrew set, the same one he is using on this particular day.

JM: “I just kept trying to figure out ways to make my brews better as a homebrewer. So, I spent quite a few years honing my craft before I got into this industry. Gave me an excuse to research even more. I realized there were competitions and entered them, and kind of never looked back.

I got to the point where I didn’t want to be that average brewer, brewing beer just to have beer. I wanted to make good beer and have good beer, and it just caught on. I started falling in love with the science part of it. I’ve always had that mindset, part scientist, part artist. And it was a hobby that my friends certainly supported (laughs)…as I grew, my friends grew.

Joining a homebrew club was a great way to get my skills a little better. And if you just join any of them with like-minded guys, talk beer, brew beer, you have somebody that you can take a sample to, show up to pint night and bring it with you, and show it that way. It was definitely a part of a launching pad as I kind of stepped into this industry.”

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Jonathon Mullens. Photo by Rick Burkhardt

Mullens began helping out at Union Brewing in Dec. of 2012 and brewed with then-brewer Cameron Fila (now at Redemption Alewerks). He worked a web/graphic design contract job with McGraw-Hill until that came to an end.

JM: “I took a month to just kind of reflect on what I wanted to do with my life, talked to my wife, and she said if you think we can make a living off of it (beer) to continue to pay the bills, go for it.”

Unable to get the hours he needed at Union, he moved on to Flat 12 in April, 2014, going from the packaging department to cellaring in a few months, and then landing on the brew deck. Rob Caputo, co-founder and former brewer at Flat 12, approached him about the open brewing job at Broad Ripple and suggested he talk to them.

JM: “Uh, is this a joke?! Are you trying to get rid of me on purpose? I actually asked, are you sure about that, you want to send me over there because I do really like it here and I’m not going over there with the intent to land a job. I could just check it out and see what it would be like, and Rob was like, “Well, I’m just trying to promote growth in the industry and kind of groom guys to help do that. And I think you would be a really good fit.”

Brewing on a 25 year-old brew system that has as many quirks as longtime owner and Indiana brewing pioneer, John Hill, presented its own challenges. He met first with outgoing brewer, John Treeter, on a brew day in November of 2014.

JM: “I asked how much creative freedom do I have here, and he said as much as I wanted.  And I chose it because I saw where the industry was going and there wasn’t going to be much room by the time I was ready to open a place of my own or another production facility, unless somehow the shelf space grows as fast as the industry. And I didn’t foresee that happening.

Being in the restaurant industry for so many years trying to get through school, it just kind of makes sense to come to a brewpub. Having to brew on a smaller scale, figure it out, easy to see what I could do by myself, this place just gives me all of that.”

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Jonathon Mullens. Photo by Rick Burkhardt

Breeding grounds for greatness

JM: “I told John Hill that we need more breeding grounds for greatness. He said, (in his famous John Hill impression) “What do you mean?” We need to have facilities where people can come in and get trained, like this would be a great spot for me to train an intern for a summer. I could have turned around right then from the McGraw-Hill point and say screw this, I’m just going to open up my own place, but I knew I wasn’t ready. I knew I needed to go learn more than the knowledge I had as a homebrewer, because I knew there was more to it than to throw water into the mash tun and extract sugars. I didn’t know I had to work with acid chemicals and stuff like that to clean out these giant stainless vessels. I didn’t know how to fix it.” 

Funny, not funny, dangers of brewing alone

JM: “Part of what I’ve done here is research safety procedures because I am by myself. Yesterday when I fell, I didn’t have these (chemical, slip resistant) boots yet, but I had just ordered them and I was waiting for them to get here. And Billy (pub manager) comes walking back with a box and I’m just laying here, and he thinks I’m working on something and has no idea why I’m laying there. I was like, no actually I fell, and this actually is ironic because I believe these are the boots that I just ordered…yep they are!

I was kind of nervous coming here because I didn’t want to fuck up, because I was the only one to blame. I don’t have ten other guys. Now that I’m here and comfortable, within even about two months I got even more comfortable with the system but working with 25 year old gaskets scares the shit out of me.”

Telling John that he’s going to put a malt liquor on the hand pull.  

JM: “It’s what makes my job fun, having those conversations with John, freaking him out just a little bit and then pulling it off so that he trusts me just a little bit more. He comes in here, ‘How’s everything going?’ ‘Everything’s running.’ ‘Ok, good.'”

Concerned about homebrewers maybe making the leap to go professional before they are ready, he has solid advice for them. Seek experience, education, put in the time and understand the physical demands of the job.

JM: “The guys I think about, a shining example of doing it right are Bill Ballinger and Michael Pearson. They were phenomenal homebrewers and they’re still phenomenal brewers on this large system. They didn’t just jump out of the gate with a Sun King-size system. They worked on one recipe until it was ready and then they worked on another recipe until it was ready…they did it right.

It’s so great being a brewer but at the same time it’s kind of annoying because everybody’s like, “You have the best job in the world”, and I’m like, come work with me for two weeks ‘cause I don’t just brew. I spent the last two weeks re-organizing the garage so I can make room for growlers.”

Passion

JM: “I’ve been doing this long enough to realize this is where my heart and soul is. Besides my wife and kid, this is my third passion. I love being in this industry. When I was at Flat 12, Manahan (now Head Brewmaster, Sean) and I always talked about things. The guys would all watch us and listen to us and say, “You guys are both one in the same.” It was probably one of the hardest decisions for me to go from there to here just because of the camaraderie and the atmosphere that has been built there, from a behind-the-scenes standpoint. Driven…passionate…sit there and talk for hours about beer.

And I like feeling that in places that are not just them, it’s us. Even if they’re doing their thing and I’m doing my thing, it’s a collaborative effort around the state and if it’s not, it should be to have everybody brewing great beer. Not just ok beer, not just good beer, or just getting it out there because we need to make money off of it.

It comes as everybody’s taking its time, developing their passion, enjoying what they do. I think the other part too, it’s about educating the customer base. We as brewers need to be on the forefront of responding to issues in our beer because not every IPA is made the same, not every ESB is made the same, not every porter is made the same. They are going to have a lot of similarities so you have to explain how you got to that flavor profile.”

Indiana Proud

JM: “Well, I mean, I don’t think you can look at it as just Indiana. I think the pride is definitely taking a shift towards being prouder. I think as long as egos are kept out of it, out of the equation of beer, things will run smoothly. I think when egos get involved it’s a recipe for disaster. I think as far as the pride aspect  …shit, I’m modest about it but I’m proud to be here, in the traditional rebirth of craft beer in Indiana. John wasn’t the first one on the block, but he certainly was here.

I think you can tell who has it and who doesn’t, who is truly passionate about what they do. Even if they’re kind of introverted about what they are doing, people can still tell with their beer. I think that’s what it all comes down to, is that.”

After a few hours our conversation came to end, though Jonathon admitted he could talk about beer all day long. Talk beer with him at Broad Ripple Brewpub, 842 E. 65th St.

Cheers!

Rick