Art, Science & Heavy Metal: Why O’Fallon Brewery rocks

Great oaks from tiny acorns grow. In Brian Owens’ case, it might be more accurate to say great beers from tiny kits grow.

Owens received a home-brewing kit for his 21st birthday – a present that ignited a passion that has pushed him into the limelight as one of the finest craft brewers in the region.

Owens began brewing small batches at home, and it “didn’t take long for me to realize I really wanted to do something with brewing,” he said. Capitalizing on a passing acquaintance with Tony Caradonna, owner of the then-fledgling O’Fallon Brewery, Owens talked his way into a job and began learning the ropes of the commercial craft brewing industry. It wasn’t long before he rose to become the head brewer.

“Brewing is a balance of art and science,” Owens said. “I came from the art side. … Most important was that I had the passion to start with. The passion is for the beer, not necessarily for the science.”

That Owens has a clearly defined and ardent passion for beer and brewing has never been in doubt.

O’Fallon Brewery is located in a nondescript industrial park off Interstate 70. It’s easy to miss, sandwiched between other small manufacturing concerns. It doesn’t have a visitors’ center, the tasting room is nothing fancy and there are only eight full-time employees. The focus is all on the beer, a philosophy that drives the entire brewing process.

In the food world, the best chefs often remark that their job is to find the best ingredients and then get out of the way. It’s not too much different in the brewing world. Owens said: “I like to keep things as natural as possible. I don’t like additives or preservatives or having to pasteurize beer. We’re not able to do that at the moment. I don’t even care to do that. … There’s nothing hidden in your beer.”

Because O’Fallon offers several seasonal products, the workload of the brewery changes on a daily basis, depending on the calendar. Brewing itself is a noisy and oftentimes physically challenging process. The brewery is filled with the sound of clanging bottles and the smell of hops, sometimes it’s unbearably hot and the tasks can appear, at least to the casual observer, unbelievably mundane. Owens, however, relishes every minute of the brewing process, especially savoring the early morning. “The best time in my day in any given week is mashing in the first batch of beer during the day. The beginning of the brew. Nobody’s here usually. It’s 5:30 in the morning. It’s quiet. You’ve got the place to yourself. The smell is absolutely wonderful.”

Owens strives to maintain a hands-on approach. And that’s not just a metaphor. The brewery’s bottling process is only semiautomated, meaning that on bottling days, while machines handle filling and capping the bottles, employees label and package each and every bottle of beer by hand. “Someday in the future, I guess, I could sit in front of the computer and press a button to start my brew day,” he said. “It would be nice to have that convenience, but I just like the hands-on process. … I don’t ever want to lose that.”

Don’t think it’s all work, though; remember, we are talking about beer. Heavy metal music pounds above the noise of the brewery itself, and the easy camaraderie of the employees is evident. “Part of our philosophy here is that [the process] has to be fun,” Owens said. “Without the fun factor, the beer is not so good.”

That approach has helped O’Fallon win legions of fans across the metro area. “They do great beer, they’re great people and I’m glad they’re from Missouri,” said Paul Hayden, wine and beer manager at The Wine & Cheese Place and Provisions Gourmet Market. “It’s good to let people know we have great craft beer here too, not just Anheuser-Busch.”

Demand for O’Fallon’s products has been skyrocketing. In fact, the brewery is at somewhat of a crossroads, working hard to answer the question of how best to maintain high production standards and still manufacture enough beer to satisfy its retail and restaurant clients.

Owens put it this way: “We’re going to have to start thinking of building a new facility. … Ideally we’ll move into a new facility in the next few years. We definitely want to grow … in this industry especially, growth is key to staying alive.”

And that growth also comes in the form of new beers. Owens sometimes feels the pressure of having to come up with commercially viable products that adhere to O’Fallon’s brewing philosophy. “If I just brewed everything I really loved, some of it wouldn’t sell,” he said. “It’s a combination of what sounds good to us as brewers and do we think it would sell. Does it fit in with what we can do in terms of production right now?”

Owens would particularly like to develop a line of higher-alcohol beers, such as imperial IPAs and imperial stouts. He also daydreams about expanding his repertoire into distilling. “I would love to do something with microdistilling down the road. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for the brewery. … Not in the near future, but someday.”

Even though Owens has already won numerous accolades, he always wants to keep learning. “There’s so much to know and I’ll never know it all. That’s why I love it.”