Joseph O'Brien 7 a.m., Jan. 18
Approaching a new brewing Benchmark
AleSmith alum setting up shop in Grantville
The first time I interviewed long-time AleSmith brewer Matt Akin about the brewery he’s building was last March. Nearly a year later, his Benchmark Brewing Company (6190 Fairmont Avenue, Suite G, Grantville) is getting much closer to opening its doors. It’s been a long and arduous road and, though wrestling with permits, hop contracts, engineering and construction woes is admittedly challenging, when Akin looks back at this time in his life, he’s sure to smile. That’s because, through it all, he had his father, Jim Akin, literally by his side. This is nothing new. This father and son duo have always been close and shared a love for great beer, brewing and judging it together for many years, and being accused of thinking almost exactly alike for as long as they can remember.
When asked about the best part of opening his own brewery, rather than cite creative independence, the thrill of being in charge of his own destiny or the coolness of having a place all his own where people can taste his beer, Matt points to the family aspect of the operation. Spending the long hours with his dad on Benchmark, as well as working on other aspects of the business with his wife, have added extra passion to this passion project. Come spring (hoping for May), everybody will have the chance to feel the love via Lupulin-laced lines when Benchmark’s tasting room officially opens.
When that happens, expect a large, L-shaped space split into areas to suit different drinkers’ preferences. For those who like to belly-up, there will be the newly-constructed bar (which features the longest ADA-compliant section I’ve seen yet—very cool) and adjacent belly bars. Larger parties or those just looking to take a load off and relax will be able to do so at picnic tables located on the eastern stretch of the tasting room beyond a staircase leading to upstairs offices. The entire taste space is outfitted in dark woods harvested from the Black Angus on Kearny Villa Road.
On the brewery side, Matt will be working with a brand new 10-barrel system built to his exacting specifications by Specific Mechanical Systems in Canada. Originally, he wanted a 20-barrel system, but has configured his operation so that, when he is ready to expand, he will be able to easily drop in a doubled up brewhouse without disturbing a quartet of 20-barrel fermenters and a pair of 20-barrel bright tanks that, thanks to high ceilings, will be easy to replace with taller models when the need arises.
Benchmark’s core beer line-up will include a blonde ale, brown ale, oatmeal stout and a sessionable IPA that will be 4.5% ABV but high on flavor thanks to Cascade, Centennial, Columbus, Amaraillo, and Simcoe hops. Several of those hop varietals have been tough for new brewing companies to score, but Matt has been in touch with suppliers for the past 18 months and has secured the types he’ll need for the next three years, meaning he won’t have to substitute the fruity, bittering stock he can get for the hops he actually wants; something that will make all the difference in Benchmark’s 8,500 square foot world.
The plan is to roll out the quartet of core beers plus at least one specialty beer, while striving to always have a beer on cask. One experiment Matt’s really eager to try is doing casks of his oatmeal cask flavored with ingredients that match the flavor combos of Quaker Oats packets (think maple and brown sugar, apples and cinnamon, peaches and cream). Given the sugar content, those flavorings should give the yeast plenty of conversion matter while bringing on interesting flavors. There’s also a plan to do all iterations of Scottish ales (20 shilling, 60 shilling, etc.), as well as a series of beers that show off what different yeast strains can do.
Though they won’t package straight out of the gate, canning is just a short distance down the road. Designs are already in the works. It won’t be long before a decent portion of their roughly 800 barrel-per-year production finds its way into aluminum. The Akins say they should be able to get up to 1,500 barrels per year pretty easily. Being in charge of everything from brewery design to ingredient sourcing to recipe development and, of course, brewing, should create an atmosphere for Matt to get back to creating that lasting, resinous bitterness that hopheads crave just as he did at AleSmith. Cheers to that.