While the brewhouse hummed and employees readied to open for the day, Burn ‘Em Brewing Co-Founder and Head Brewer, Steve Murray, sat down with me inside the cozy taproom, to discuss his personal beer journey.
Steve Murray: I guess it all started back when we used to homebrew when we were like 18, 19 years old, brewing with my sister’s boyfriend and some of his friends in college. They bought a couple of the first starter kits and wanted to get into it. They were all living in South Bend and we were closer to out here [Michigan City], and they didn’t have a kitchen big enough for brewing, so we were doing it at our house.
They were first time [brewers] too and we all got a kit and tried it together. I couldn’t go to the liquor store back then but I could go to the homebrew shop, pick out ingredients and stuff. We started getting into that and got my dad kind of hooked on it with us so then we started saving bottles. It was all extract and kits.
We did a few batches, nothing that ever really turned out great and then we probably took a few years off because we lost my dad in an accident. After that I moved back into the house because I was living out in South Bend going to school. I dug out all of equipment again and around that same time, I started going to Greenbush [Brewing, Sawyer, Mi.] and they’d just been open for about a year.
Following the homebrewer’s heart
We started going there for every Mug Club Monday and just got hooked on what they were doing. Going to Greenbush and seeing them kind of inspired us to bring out the equipment again so we pulled it all out, cleaned it up, seeing what we had to buy and bought a couple of new carboys. Started to brew a couple of kits right off the bat and then we jumped in, starting writing our own recipes.
Greenbush was growing so I got a job bartending there. I got hired and I kept bringing in homebrews and finally the owner came in one day and asked if I wanted to start brewing the next day at 6:00, shadowing one of the guys because they needed some people and were expanding production. And I like to homebrew, so it just kind of got it off!
Though he figured it might be ten years down the road, he (and fellow owners) discussed with Greenbush in mid-2012 about opening a brewery.
Greenbush upgraded to the 15 barrel system from the seven barrel they were on and he (owner) offered us the seven barrel equipment, and a lot of some of the old stuff. We had the old walk-in cooler, we had a whole list of just random junk but they offered it to us for a really good price. We clearly couldn’t pass it up so we bought it.
A lot of it just sat in my barn for a good couple of years while we started getting this building together. My brother and my sister and I own this building, it was my dad’s construction company so after he passed away we had it up for sale for a bit. Then we bought the equipment and I kind of thought we should start looking for a building.
We didn’t expect it to happen for a long time, kind of just…with the equipment coming up for sale and having a building that we owned, it was just sitting here, we could do something. I came in here one day and was just saying, “I know it’s not exactly built for a brewery”, but we cut it up, put the drains in the floor and got it going.
Burn ‘Em Brewing comes to life
We were writing recipes, we were coming up with names for them. We didn’t have Burn ‘Em Brewing as a name and had other names floating around. We started brewing almost production out of the house. We had 12 carboys constantly going and kegs sitting in the basement full. Once we got the name “Burn ‘Em”, we talked about going to a fest so I got in contact with the people who do Blue Chip Brewfest [Blue Chip Casino, Michigan City], figured out we could pass out beers as homebrewers.
I actually emailed them but they didn’t email me back so we thought nothing of it and we saw the list for Blue Chip Brewfest, and it had “Burn ‘Em Brewing” on there as homebrewers. So I called the guy and he said, “Oh, I never sent the email out to you.” He said if you guys can, I’d like for you to enter. I had five beers in the basement waiting to go on tap in our house because we only had a one-tap kegerator (laughs)!
Grass roots and organic momentum
We had a little stock building up there and we packed them up and went to the fest. I got a buddy of mine to print ten t-shirts, so there were five of us that went to pour and we had five other friends that were just walking around and we put them in t-shirts. We only had ten t-shirts and a stack of stickers. We had a vinyl banner too so we somehow pulled that all off and showed up there.
Yeah it was pretty wild. We had 5-6 barrels on tap and sold out in like an hour-and-a-half! There was this huge line of people there and it was like, “Where are you from?” And we’re like, “We’re from Michigan City!” “We’ve never heard of you.” …“Yeah we know!” That was really good. Some of the beers like “Joey Wheat” and “Red Zeppelin” I believe, were in that first lineup.
Like a lot of our friends we were craft beer nerds. We’d go to all of these tastings and these beer fests, we loved hitting up as many local breweries as possible. The first couple batches we were brewing we were all in, and it got me hired at Greenbush and we kept brewing at home while it was happening. Greenbush was super supportive in the beginning-and still are. They’ve always been supportive. It was awesome.
Seven friends from high school and my sister, we’re the owners and now we’ve hired five more people on top of us. Our older sister, she’s an owner and also a lawyer in D.C., she’s kind of our guidance.
We kind of got in to brew a lot of different weird things. I mean we followed the basic styles but we had a red ale and got a little weird with a coffee wheat. We had stouts-an imperial stout and an oatmeal stout. We did pale ales and so we followed the lines and started to get into weird stuff like “Kreamed Corn”.
Cream ales are traditionally brewed with corn so we had this freezer bag full of this homemade creamed corn, which was really just the corn cooked down with no additives, made by a buddy’s aunt I believe. So we had a freezer full of this stuff and decided to make a cream ale using the creamed corn. It turned out really good and everybody loved it, and became one of our best-selling beers. Just a weird evolvement.
All our families to cook, and I think everybody here loves to cook so we just started playing with ingredients and figuring out how to manipulate them and what it needs to make what flavors, seeing how they worked in beers.
With “Coconoats”, putting the coconut in that beer, there were trials in figuring out how coconut works in beer. Then we finally figured out the best way for that one, have some fun with it. We hand toast it all so with a five gallon batch it was easy, one sheet tray of coconut. Now with fifteen barrels worth it takes 6 ½ hours because we still toast it on sheet trays in an oven. We put it in the mash before, we put it in the boil and added to the finishing tanks.
We like to brew whatever comes to mind and sounds good. We like to brew to tradition sometimes but we like to twist it…a lot. We’ve done stuff with squid ink, like to turn beers black using squid ink, stuff like that. Doing some really weird stuff. We also do a traditional hefeweizen, we do a traditional lager but testing the bounds with everything. We can brew whatever we want, like pork in beer. Not everything will sell, figuring out how to make even the weird stuff taste good. That’s the cool part.
Going pro, explosive growth and expansion
Getting here was the easy part because I learned at Greenbush and then I bought the system I learned to brew on. I had brewed countless batches and we were brewing three shifts a day, five days a week. I was the night shift brewer, coming in at 9:00 at night and staying all night by myself until about 5:00 in the morning when the next guy came in. So the brew system was working 24 hours a day/five days a week. It was pretty wild.
Scott Sullivan, the owner, was the one who wrote most of the base recipes and still… he was the brains behind Greenbush and everything. He definitely helped me out on the brew side and then when I was hired. And with Scott’s guidance too because he was brewing so many other constant projects, and we were brewing for him. It was awesome.
This building I think will always be a part of it. You obviously can’t always house production here because we’ve already outgrown it a few times. We’re looking at a property next door to here and we have a little bit left on the back of our current property that maybe we could eventually build on to. Eventually if we ever get to a bigger brew system, it’s going to be somewhere else. This one will probably stay.
I can’t remember what part of the brewery looked like six months ago, we’ve moved stuff around so much.
Using the building and adopting the name, the real inspiration behind the brewery
We started doing a couple of more fests and getting every chance we got. Brewing calmed down at home, we kind of slowly stopped doing fests. We got the name out there and had a Facebook, and we built a website. We started getting more shirts out there and passing those out, and we had a little following going. We put brewing on halt and just concentrated on construction constantly.
I was spending all days and nights here and me and Zach (co-owner) staying upstairs while doing construction. We did a lot of the work in back ourselves and we had a couple of friends here and there. We hired a guy to do drywall for a case of beer, friends from high school and anybody that was willing to help.
I moved back home and took over the house, my brother and I moved back in. [The name] is actually our dad’s middle name. It’s spelled “B-U-R-N-H-A-M” but it’s our own twist on it. It was a construction office-this (taproom) used to be the actual office. My grandfather retired a long time ago but this was his drafting table; he was an architect. And my dad started the business back in the early 90’s and built custom homes all over the south shore and up into Michigan and Indiana.
We brewed our first big batch in June 2014. We dumped our first batch, just to get the system tied in. You don’t dump your first batch (laughs)! We actually kept a couple kegs and had a kick-off party at our house, just friends and family. The rest of it went down the drain, and we quickly filled the tanks back up.
We did kegs for a couple months before we started hand-bottling some stuff and putting that out there, and then we got into the mobile canning, I think October of 2014. We found a mobile bottler shortly after that and it does six bombers at once. A tank that used to take us seven hours to hand-bottle [now] is fifty minutes and it’s empty. Yeah it’s fast.
2015 Brewers of Indiana Guild Winterfest, coming out party throw-down
Oh, that was the Bare Hands state feud! We’re good friends with them and we were just talking crap to each other on Facebook months before the event. They were bringing ten beers; well we’re gonna bring fifteen! I think we stopped at 26 and they kept going, like to 30-something. It was like a week before the fest.
Craft beer in general is getting more popular and maybe we joined around the right time. We used all the free stuff we could get and put it up on Facebook and Instagram, and put up pictures all the time. We have a pretty good fan base in this area alone, doing fests, passing out beer, passing out stickers and t-shirts, and people would expect to hear about it. People would show up while we were working on this building, “When are you guys gonna open?” Just getting the word of mouth out there was the big part.
The Indiana beer community
It’s great…people comment on it. Like restaurant owners and stuff, they’ve seen nothing like it. People work together all the time doing collaborations or [getting] ingredients from one another. I need hops and I can’t find them up here, I got Sean Manahan (Brewmaster and Director of Brewing Operations at Flat 12) and he tells me he can hook me up with a 44 lb. box of galaxy. Danny’s doing deliveries on Thursday down in Indy and swings by and brings them back for me. No worries. We send him a check. It’s awesome how people help each other so much.
It’s not a competition with us or them. We [craft breweries] own less than 10% of the market and the other ninety is owned by two companies, and there’s 4,000 breweries that own that ten. So it’s exciting to give back to the people who drink craft beer. We lived here in town and we have no problem with anybody else. There’s a new one opening up really soon, we’re happy to help them in any way. It’s always been like that.
I think we’re doing some really big things in Indiana. I don’t feel like the rest of the craft beer in the country has caught on to us yet. Michigan still has a lot more than us but now there’s so many out there, which is awesome. Is it getting over saturated? Not in Indiana.
A lot of guys are doing some big things here in Indiana. It seems like a lot of cool, new stuff like the guys at Central State doing the Koelschip, and Upland’s new Wood Shop. Indiana is keeping up with the times.
We’re not a bar, we close by 10:00 on the weekends and 8:00 on the weekdays but people still gather here. We get the same crowd meeting here every day after work. Like every Thursday you got the same people coming over from the local shops around here…and that’s probably the best feeling as a brewer. Coming out here and seeing people interacting, drinking your beer, having a good time.
Burn ‘Em Brewing is located at 718 Freyer Rd., Michigan City. You’ll see them again at the Indiana Microbrewers Festival in Indianapolis on July 30th. Meanwhile, new to the market is a fan favorite, double IPA, “Boomerango.”
Find me on twitter @indybeersleuth.