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New brew in town: Head of brewery helps build unique flavors

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Alan Simons has taken over as head brewer at Oaken Barrel Brewing Co. in Greenwood. Caitlin O'Hara / Daily Journal
Alan Simons has taken over as head brewer at Oaken Barrel Brewing Co. in Greenwood. Caitlin O'Hara / Daily Journal

Alan Simons has taken over as head brewer at Oaken Barrel Brewing Co. in Greenwood. Caitlin O'Hara / Daily Journal
Alan Simons has taken over as head brewer at Oaken Barrel Brewing Co. in Greenwood. Caitlin O'Hara / Daily Journal

Alan Simons has taken over as head brewer at Oaken Barrel Brewing Co. in Greenwood. Caitlin O'Hara / Daily Journal
Alan Simons has taken over as head brewer at Oaken Barrel Brewing Co. in Greenwood. Caitlin O'Hara / Daily Journal

From the vertical silver tank, a stream of beer came out cloudy and yellow-orange.

Alan Simons watched as the liquid filled his vial, swirling it slightly to check the color and sediment inside. Taking an instrument called a hydrometer, he checked the density, making sure the proper balance of sugars had been converted to alcohol.

In a few hours, he and his staff at Oaken Barrel Brewing Co. would add raspberry puree to the mix, filter it out and present one of the area’s most popular beers — Razz-Wheat.

Simons turned a love of the flavor and flexibility of beer into a professional career. As the new head brewer at Oaken Barrel Brewing Co., he’s been learning to make popular varieties such as Gnaw Bone Pale Ale and Razz-Wheat.

But he’s also focused on expanding the Oaken Barrel’s offerings, turning to new recipes to provide area beer enthusiasts with unique flavors.

Despite the craft beer craze that stresses extra-hoppy India pale ales and bold, bitter double IPAs, Simons is a student of all beers.

“There’s something about all beers that I can respect, and usually something about them that I like,” he said. “I don’t like to drink everything all the time. It depends on the season. A good lager in the summer day can be refreshing.”

Simons’ foray into the world of beer-making came first as a consumer. The exploding craft beer market offered new taste experiences that he never knew beer could create, and he wanted to learn more.

Though he tried his hand at small-batch homebrewing, Simons decided he’d rather learn the artistry of beer in a more professional setting. He volunteered with brewers throughout Indianapolis, and was hired at Thr3e Wise Men Brewing in 2010.

From there, working with brewmaster Omar Castrellon, he honed his skills. He asked questions all the time of more experienced brewers, experimented with flavors and styles not common to central Indiana and read countless books on the process.

Simons also brewed batch after batch of beer.

“Working in brewery, you get to brew a lot of different types of beer. You do a little research, see what works and move on from there,” he said.

Simons took over as head brewer in mid-December, assuming the title from long-time Oaken Barrel brewer Mark Havens. Havens was hired to run the production facility for Big Woods Brewing Co. in Nashville.

But before leaving, he helped Oaken Barrel owner Kwang Casey find a replacement.

“What drew our attention was his experience. He’s worked in other breweries, and we wanted to bring in someone who had done some different things,” Casey said.

Havens helped train Simons, teaching him the intricacies of the brewing equipment and the secrets of Oaken Barrel’s award-winning beer recipes. He tried to learn quickly, before Havens left for his new position.

Simons had a talent for the brewing process and brought some unique ideas about beers, such as a lager featuring Amarillo hops, Havens said.

The transition was intimidating, but so far, Simons has held his own running the brewery.

“He’s been doing a great job. It’s always nice to bring in someone from a different perspective to keep things fresh,” Casey said.

Simons has been focusing mostly on the traditional beers that Oaken Barrel brews, from the caramel body of Indiana Amber to the citrus pop of Alabaster White.

But he and his brewery staff have also branched out to try more adventurous offerings. They released Amarillo Lager, a light beer with a hefty dose of hops, in early May.

With the start of summer, the brewery tapped its saison, a pale ale that is heavily carbonated with a fruity taste. Simons came up with the recipe itself, marking a departure from the traditional saison that Oaken Barrel has put out in the past.

“It’s one of my favorite beer styles, so I like to experiment with it,” he said.

His goal for the time being is to simply become familiar and comfortable with the job of being a head brewer. He wants to master all of the traditional beer at a consistent quality before he gets too adventurous.

But that doesn’t mean there’s not room for some fun.

The Oaken Barrel has been involved in an increasing number of community activities to help spread word of its beers to new customers. The brewery participated in the Greenwood Freedom Festival this year and will be selling beer at WAMMFest in August.

Teaming with BlueMile, a running and fitness business, they hosted a Brew Mile event in June. More than 200 came out to raise money for Back on My Feet, a homeless advocacy group.

All of that comes back to the reputation of Oaken Barrel’s beer, which Simons intends to maintain throughout central Indiana.

“The goal is great beer. I don’t know if there’s any more of a goal than that,” he said.

Meet the new guy

Age: 35

Residence: Fountain Square

Occupation: Head brewer at Oaken Barrel Brewing Co. in Greenwood

Education: Bachelor’s degree in photojournalism from Ball State University

Past experience: Worked under head brewer Omar Castrellon at Thr3e Wise Men Brewing in Indianapolis starting in 2010; was hired to work at Oaken Barrel to take over as head brewer in 2012.

How did you start in beer-making?

“It was the joy of drinking it that first got me. I enjoyed craft beer and imported beer, and wanted to learn more about it.”

What are your favorite types of beer?

There aren’t many beer styles that I don’t like. I know hoppy beers are very popular right now, and I enjoy them. But they’re not the only kind of beer. I like lighter lagers in the summertime.

What does it mean to you to work at Oaken Barrel?

Oaken Barrel has a long tradition in this area of great brewing and great brewers. When I started, my goal was to learn as much as I could. I want to learn as much as possible. It’s taking all of the things I’ve learned in my previous jobs, from other people I’ve worked with, and doing the best I can to keep up the beer quality that people at Oaken Barrel expect.

What plans do you have for Oaken Barrel?

Right now my main goal is to focus on getting myself comfortable with being a head brewer and learning the Oaken Barrel system. The goals right now are to basically continually make great beer consistently. We’ll try out new beer styles, we’ve talked about that in the future. But it’s all pretty new to me right now.

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