NORWOOD, Ohio - The mad geniuses at MadTree Brewing have something they want you to do -- try more interesting beer.
That they happen to brew more interesting beer is just a happy coincidence.
MadTree is the beer lab (brewery) run by Kenny McNutt (The ‘Beer’ded Baron), Jeff Hunt (Beer ‘Can’noisseur), and Brady Duncan (Secretary of Beer Defense), just off Duck Creek Road, at 5164 Kennedy Ave. in Cincinnati.
The trio got their start as homebrewers and their dedication to making unique, independent beer dates back to those beginnings.
When McNutt and Hunt first got interested in brewing in 2005, they were holding a beer of the week club amongst friends. Everyone would get together each week and bring a six-pack to try different brews they were interested in.
“Initially we were homebrewing, so it was ‘What brews do you love, what brews do you enjoy?’” McNutt said.
Like many homebrewers, their first beer was an extract recipe. However, while many brewers continue to make extract beers for a while, Hunt and McNutt ramped up production after their first and immediately went to all-grain brewing, piecing together equipment as they could.
After about a year of brewing independently for a year, the pair met Duncan and they joined forces. The group then started to “brew beer like crazy,” according to McNutt. The team would try out 20- to 25-gallon batches each weekend as they perfected their recipes.
All throughout this period, the trio was sneaking their homebrew in among the beers at their club meetings to see how their beers stacked up against the pros. Pretty soon they were getting good feedback from family and friends, and were even taking requests. Their first “order” was to brew a beer for a friend’s wedding.
During that time they also started writing their business plan and after 16 months of perfecting it, thought they had one that was solid. Business happens to be a specialty of the group as one of the most well-educated brewing teams in the Tri-State: McNutt and Hunt have engineering backgrounds with an MBA each and Duncan started in public relations and has an MBA in project management/IT.
From there it was on to fundraising, and while their friends and family might have enjoyed their beer, actually investing in a brewery was harder sell than just getting people to try a new brew.
“The biggest glaring question was, ‘How much have you raised so far?’ That moment took a while to get going, but once we really got that ball rolling -- it’s the laws of cumulative advantage, right? -- all of sudden we had all this momentum behind us and we exceeded by far what we planned to raise,” McNutt said.
The extra money helped because they initially didn’t plan to buy as big a building or have a tap room at first. Having a tap room wasn’t legal when they opened but thanks to some recent changes to Ohio’s legal code, the tap room is packed on weekends.
“The second biggest question was, ‘Why cans?’ And we had a slew of statistics to throw out there,” McNutt said. “We truly believe in cans and what it does for product and the package. It’s for the active lifestyle. We all believe that cans are going to be on the forefront of the craft beer industry at some point.”
MadTree happens to be one of the only breweries in Tri-State that is canning its beer. Besides protecting the beer in what many brewers say is a better format, cans come with fringe benefits such as allowing the beer to be served in more places and being easier for people to buy and store.
“We were fortunate to ride the waves of some of the big guys -- Sierra Nevada and New Belgium -- and even people like Avery -- and kind of ride their skirt tails into the market and convince Cincinnati and the Midwest that cans are the right answer. We ended up as the first can craft brew in the state of Ohio. Wait six months and you’ll see, I’d guess, four to six more in the state of Ohio if not more,” McNutt said.
Once MadTree had a facility, the brewhouse and the production line was up and running, it was time to hit the streets and get people drinking their beer. McNutt said they decided not to self-distribute even though that’s allowed in Ohio.
Instead, Cavalier Distributing handles MadTree’s account. Beer fans can find MadTree in just four counties right now -- Clermont, Hamilton, Butler and Warren -- but there are plans to expand into Dayton and Northern Kentucky.
At first, their plan was to go for high-end craft beer stores and bars but MadTree found that the demand far exceeded their expectations. So much so, that the brewers have been able to narrow their focus and keep their accounts where they’re at. The team said they want to be able to reward the people who took a gamble on them starting out.
“The feedback that we’ve gotten has been tremendous. It’s honestly hard for me to believe that we’ve got such positive feedback and such passion from the community. People actually come in and thank us for making beer. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around,”
One of the first beers the trio made was actually a style they’re not usually fans of. McNutt said they started with amber and brown beers.
“We said, ‘let’s add a little more to this, let’s make it a little more fuller-flavored. Let’s throw some hops in during the secondary and see if we can get some more aromatics out of it,’” McNutt said.
Once the process was done, they had a brown that won a medal. It was also the beer they made for their friend’s wedding.
“Our friend was getting married, so we made bottles of it for her wedding. It was well-received, but we still thought it was a little boring. So we bumped up the roast a bit, bumped up the body, it’s now a 7.5 percent brown, add some brown sugar but no adjuncts and I’m actually shocked at how popular it’s becoming around town. I didn’t know we were going to have such a following for that beer,” McNutt said.
MadTree is known for making beers that don’t quite fit in any category. One of their most popular brews -- the Identity Crisis -- is like a black IPA, but thinner with a lot of roasted malt.
“We definitely started it off as a black IPA, the dry hop is very similar to Sublimely Self-righteous but we kept kind of bumping the roasted malts up so we had a lot of chocolate malts, roasted barley, black malt, which is not typical in a black IPA,” Duncan said. “Usually people make an IPA and then they use a carafay, which is a bittered malt, which doesn’t add a lot of roast character to the beer; it’s more of a food coloring and I wanted to avoid that.”
MadTree’s owners say their Psychopathy is the beer they’re most proud of. Most of their beers came from brewing over and over again in their basements in large batches. Psychopathy was one of those recipes and the group said they felt it didn’t stack up right at first.
It was when they moved to their production facility everything changed.
“We brought it over here, and while the recipe (had) barely changed since we made it in my basement, but I think the water source and the way our yeast is working now, the beer just tastes better,” Duncan said.
MadTree gets its water from their own well that is tied to a creek that feeds the Duck Creek. From there, they put it through a zeolite filter to take out some of the minerals and then use reverse osmosis and a UV filter. After that, they take the time to rebuild the water’s chemical profile and design each beer exactly the way they want it.
“So we start out pretty much nothing in the water and then we build the water profile back. So the cool thing is we can put a lot of magnesium sulfate in the water, which enhances bitterness perception in the beer. With our brown we use more sodium which enhances the body of the beer. We can really play with flavor a lot here, and we know exactly what is going on with our beer,” Brady said. “A lot of people say, ‘I don’t like IPAs but I like yours.’ I think that’s because that bitterness isn’t there, it finishes clean.”
As MadTree’s brewers look to the future, they see great things for their own brewery and for Cincinnati as a whole.
“As we get more and more larger (sic) breweries here in Cincinnati, I still think there’s plenty of room to expand. We’ve barely scratched the surface,” McNutt said. “I think that we have a really good thing going here and maybe better than a lot of the other big cities in the U.S.”
The team said they hope Cincinnati can continue to focus on making great beer first and expansion later.
As for their own futures, McNutt, Hunt and Duncan mainly hope to be profitable soon and to be able to continue living their dream.
“I just hope to be getting a paycheck by then, putting money into retirement, and having a good time. I do drink a lot of beer, which is a natural preservative, so I should live longer. I’m trying to protect myself by drinking hop-forward beers,” McNutt said.
The three had some tips for any brewer out there who think they have the right brews to bring to market.
“Don’t underestimate the market. We’re seeing huge demand for breweries in Cincinnati. I think there’s a lot of room for growth. A lot of breweries can be a little afraid to go big. Even we started a bit conservatively. You have to get past that fear that you won’t be able to support what you want to do,” Hunt said.
They were also emphatic that brewers should blueprint conservatively and have a solid business plan.
“Making beer is just part of the process. Don’t underestimate the overwhelming nature of everything else. There are a lot of pieces in growing a business. … Not to mention doing accounts, keeping up with meetings and meeting new people. Just paying the taxes you have to pay on a monthly and quarterly basis, there’s just so much you have to learn,” McNutt said. “Everybody says double what you think you need.”
Business aside, MadTree is all about the beer and they want to make sure that no one wastes time and money on bland beer anymore.
“This beer is made right here,” McNutt said, “If it tastes like
s***, don’t drink it. But if there’s something good in there -- it’s not for mass consumption or volume -- it’s about the ingredients that are in there. If you like the different flavors in there, that’s awesome.”
MadTree is located at 5164 Kennedy Ave. and has taproom hours at:
- Wed: 4:00 pm - 10:00 pm
- Thu: 4:00 pm - 12:00 am
- Fri: 4:00 pm - 1:00 am
- Sat: 12:00 pm - 1:00 am
- Sun: 12:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Photography by Emily Maxwell, WCPO Digital photojournalist
View MadTree brewers challenge you to try better beer in a larger map