November 9, 2020

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Crafted Edition #007 đŸ» - Nick Babcock, Bearded Owl Brewing

Some beer styles are splashy, newfangled productions. You know what I'm talking about - they have 5+ words in their name. Very Berry Chocolate Hazelnut Ice Cream Stout Sour. Ok maybe that's a bit overboard, but not by much.

These sound and look impressive but they lack a charming simplicity that is characteristic of more traditional, time-tested beer styles.

Furthermore, it is often the case that subtile, more delicate beers are harder to get right. Fancy doesn't mean better. Neither does new, even if I do appreciate from time to time the gimicky beer styles that the kids are drinking nowadays.

Nick Babcock, Founder & Head Brewer of Bearded Owl Brewing in Peoria, IL, USA knows what all goes into a good, clean brew. He also knows how to stay up on the industry's beer-style trends. You need both, it's about finding the balance.

I'm especially happy to highlight Nick in Crafted because he's brewing in a place that is dear to me. My wife grew up just outside Peoria, IL - we lived there with my in-laws for a bit after my son was born. Nick's brewery is playing a big part in revitalizing the downtown area of this fine midwest city.

It's great to see a brewery bring new life to a district who's heyday was thought to have already come and gone.

Read on to learn more about Nick and what he's brewing at Bearded Owl. We'll cover:

  • Pros and cons of starting a brewery without production experience
  • Pilsner: an underrated beer style and a tip on brewing it
  • The one word that Bearded Owl is trying to live up to

Let's get to it 🚀

How'd you get into brewing? Can you tell us about your journey to get where you are today at Bearded Owl?

I became interested in brewing at about the same time I became interested in craft beer. I wanted to understand how different styles were made and how to impart unique flavors by adding or subtracting different ingredients. After 3 or 4 years brewing my my garage I really got into packaging and naming my beers for fun. It was around this time that I realized I could potentially do it professionally.

Bearded Owl came from really focusing on the craft and honing some of my favorite recipes in addition to finding like-minded individuals who were interested in trying to make the jump from garage to brewery.

For me personally, I think having no prior experience in a production brewery really hurt. Having to figure out things like glycol to water ratio for our chilling system, the draught system, and transitioning to much larger equipment was a lot of late nights reading and working with others. As the head brewer for this new company we had just started, there was no one else there to show me the ropes. The best part is having gone through all of that I had to be self sufficient. No one was going to fix anything for me so the knowledge I gained was invaluable.

San Junipero NE Pale Ale & their crisp Honey Lager, served at Bearded Owl
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What's the one beer that you are most proud of? What's the story behind it?

Tough question! There are several that I am partial to for different reasons. Some of my favorite beers to drink are our barrel aged offerings and our farmhouse/sour series because they are long plays and you have to be very patient to see how they turn out.

I am proud of those beers, but if I had to pick just one I would say our Pilsner. Most people think they are easy to make, but you can't hide flaws in a Pilsner. There is nothing better for me than a Pilsner executed perfectly.

Water is super important depending on the style of pilsner.  For someone who is just starting out brewing the style, I'd advise to build your water profile to match the specific German region of the style. It's pretty easy to find classic water profiles online these days. The ingredients are extremely basic so it's all about the process with pilsners.

Check out the thirst-quenching potential on that Pils
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What's a beer style that doesn't get enough attention today? What's a beer style that gets too much?

Did I mention Pilsner? Really I think a lot of the classic styles don't get the praise they deserve. Some breweries are cranking out really good traditional style beers but you wouldn't know it. On the other side of the coin, crazily adjuncted beers are really popular. I'm guilty of liking a lot of these too but I think it's gotten to the point where the trend has surpassed the quality in some cases.

As a brewer, have you ever had a moment where, when you taste a beer for the first time you say "Wow, whoever made this knows what they're doing"? How do you know when a beer is well-crafted?

Definitely. You get better at being able to find flaws in beers or if they are not balanced properly. Regardless of style, you can usually tell if a beer was well made whether you like the beer or not. There are a few breweries out there that are really cranking out some amazing beers and when I have one I really like I wish I had thought of it or wonder what they are doing process wise that makes the beer a cut above the rest.

Just about anything can go wrong with beer if you are not diligent. From off flavors to carbonation or filtering issues. There are a ton of off flavors that can crop up for a variety of reasons. Some common ones are diacetyl and DMS. Diacetyl will produce a buttery/slippery character in the beer and DMS will produce a corn like character - both are undesirable in most styles.

If you had one word to describe what you want Bearded Owl to be, what would be the word?

Respected. We put a lot of time, effort, and passion into making beer. We take great pride in putting out a high quality product. We know that not everyone will like every beer, and that not every beer will be successful, but we want to be respected for caring about what we serve to our customers and to have them understand that a lot of work went into the 16 ounces sitting in front of them.

Nick Babcock, on premise đŸș
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Wanting to be respected for caring about what you serve to your customers is a noble ambition. I can respect that.

The more you understand and appreciate the work that went into the 16 ounces in front of you, the better that 16 ounces tastes. Beer is better when you know its story.

When you appeciate the product, you are appreciating the people who made it. Craft beer is awesome because there's a crafsperson behind it. Let's seek out and support the craftspeople who work hard to bring us quality beer.

Thank you Nick for sharing your time and story with us. And thank you for what you're doing in your city.

Thanks for reading. You make Crafted worth it.

Take care, until next time 👋

Cheers! đŸ»

- Jake

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