Interview: brewmaster Aaron Barkenhagen (Bootlegger’s Brewery)

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Brewmaster Orange County

Aaron Barkenhagen has come a long way since he started sneaking sips of Bud Light in his early teens. Now the Bootlegger’s Brewery founder is running Old World Hefe through the hopinator and brewing Blackstrap Porter with blackstrap molasses, fenugreek and star anise. In just over two years, the former insurance man has built his Fullerton brewery from a one-man show into an Orange County beer destination. We recently caught up at the expanding brewery, where Barkenhagen discussed his background and approach.

How did you become so interested in beer?

I started homebrewing with my brother when I was pretty young, about 19. I basically brewed with him and kept homebrewing for about ten years before opening the brewery. It wasn’t a new thing for me. It was really just an extension of my homebrewing, my love and passion for doing it.

What was the first beer you ever brewed?

It was an English brown, a Newcastle clone.

How did it turn out?

It actually turned out really well, which is why I probably kept homebrewing. I’ve heard a lot of people, their first batch goes south and doesn’t turn out and they just don’t try it again.

Is your brother still involved at all?

No, he moved to Italy, so he’s on the other side of the world right now. My dad actually helped do all the buildout in the brewery. He was a plumber working his way through college, so we did all the plumbing ourselves, just kind of made it work.

Why did you decide to open in Fullerton?

I went to Cal State Fullerton and that’s where I actually wrote the business plan for the brewery. Part of writing a business plan is actually have to do a lot of market research and figure out a good location to open. At the time there were no other breweries in north Orange County. I decided it needed a brewery. So we started looking around all of north Orange County and Fullerton was one of the few cities that had their zoning maps published online and made it fairly easy to find a suitable property. Plus, Fullerton has a college and a great downtown area and it all came together and worked really well. It helps that we’re only about two blocks from downtown, so we get a lot of people that start off their weekend at our tasting room and go to the bars downtown.

What was your major in college?

I did a business degree with a concentration in entrepreneurship, so part of that concentration is you have to write a business plan, do all the research and actually start executing on your plan. Before I even graduated, I located the spot this place and already leased the building.

What was here before?

It was a woodshop, but we had to modify everything to make it suitable for a brewery, add sinks and do plumbing and trench trains, a lot of stuff.

Why the name Bootlegger’s?

A couple reasons. I thought it was fairly representative of my history as far as my homebrewing. I was definitely making a lot more beer than I could consume at my house so all my friends pretty much got to drink it. Also, our whole brewing philosophy is to do small batches, do a lot of experimentation and continually push edges of the envelope, so I thought Bootlegger’s was fairly representative of that. Plus it’s a cool name. People remember it.

What about the eagle logo?

Most beer companies have some sort of animal in their logo. It is pretty much a traditional thing. Other beer companies out there, it’s pretty much birds or goats or bears. I wanted to keep it traditional. Even our labels have that old feel to them. They’re not real modern feeling, so it all kind of worked together.

Is this your first beer related job?

I’ve had quite a variety of jobs, but had pretty much a full-blown career in the insurance industry when I decided to go back to school. I was kind of going back to school for the degree, to further my career, and through that process I figured I might as well do something that’s fun. I did the entrepreneurship program. I guess you could say it spiraled out of control into this.

Would you say that you have any brewing mentors?

Not really. There’s definitely brewers out there that I look up, but not really mentors. To be honest, I never worked in a brewery and never had the opportunity to go out and do some things because I was just flat-out too busy. The first year we opened, I worked a full-time job, did the brewing on Sundays, did deliveries myself, all the sales myself, and the full-time job being a fairly time-consuming job. It just unfortunately didn’t lend itself to going out and meeting other brewers and getting involved in the industry before I started brewing.

Who are some other brewers you look up to and how come?

Sierra Nevada as a whole. Ken Grossman was a pioneer in the industry. That was definitely one of the first microbrews I tried and liked, so definitely them.

What do you think distinguishes Bootlegger’s beer from other breweries?

That’s a pretty frequently asked question, what makes our beer different. Our variety of styles…We don’t just make pale ale and IPAs, and we don’t just make Belgian styles, or don’t just make a certain category. We make a really wide variety of different beers. And I like to think we do a pretty good job of making variety, but also having our own unique spin on each style.

Sam Adams, their strategy is to make a variety of styles, but they keep very closely to the style. That works for their market. For us, we try to do something very unique within that specific style. For instance, our pale ale isn’t as caramelly as a lot of pale ales out on the market. What we did instead was, we used less caramel malt and actually bumped up our fermentation temperature a little bit, so it still has a little bit of sweetness, but it’s not as much caramel as a lot out there, and we also dry hop it a lot more. It’s basically try to do a variety and the other thing that makes us different, along the same lines, we don’t necessarily let the style boundaries limit us. We kind of come up with the flavor profile that we want to go with. For instance our Black Phoenix, oatmeal coffee stout, doesn’t really fit into one category really well, but I think it’s appealing to a lot of people.

What are some beers that you typically enjoy drinking?

I like Green Flash Le Freak. That’s definitely one of my favorite beers. I just think it’s really well made. Kind of a unique style about it. Racer 5 is my go-to IPA if I’m in a bar. I like a lot of different styles of beer so I don’t always stick to one certain style.

What’s the latest beer you’ve been developing in what’s your approach been?

The latest one we just recently came out with was our 77 Anniversary ale. That one, again, doesn’t fit into one style really well. It’s somewhere in between a Belgian IPA and a barleywine. I had an idea of the flavor profile that I wanted, and we did some pilot batches and pretty much any new stuff that we do always do pilot batches ahead of time, and that’s the size of a homebrew batch. We do know at least a couple of those before we scale it up just because, even the best brewer in the world, you’ve always got to tweak things to make sure that they fit well together. Our 77, on our pilot batch, we over dry-hopped it a little, so we scaled it back to make it more friendly to a wider audience.

How do you feel about collaborating with another brewery?

I’m not opposed to it. I’d love to do something like that, but to be honest, we’re so busy at this point trying to keep up with demand that we haven’t had the opportunity to do some of the fun stuff. I definitely would like to do that in the future, but right now all of our resources are going toward trying to keep up with the demand.

How would you say the brewery’s changed in the first two years?

It’s basically gone from a one-man operation that was an extension of homebrewing to basically a true production brewery.

Sometimes this place runs around the clock. We’ve definitely grown but I think at the same time we’ve kept true to our original direction and we’re still doing a lot of variety, a lot of different styles of beer, trying to keep it fun.

If you could only drink one more glass of beer, what would be in it?

I guess it would have to be our Knuckle Sandwich, because I still love that beer.

Would you eat anything with it?

No, probably not, it’s kind of a meal in itself.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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