Obed and Isaacs Brew Master Interview

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of visiting and highlighting multiple Peoria, Il area breweries.  Most recently I visited Obed and Isaacs.  This brewery should be a destination for anyone visiting the Peoria area.  It’s in a beautiful historic building, has 12 taps – all serving house made brews, and has an extensive and unique food menu.   I am grateful to brew master John Sherrerd who generously spent time talking to me and eloquently provided detail on his space in the beer world.

Sitting down, I couldn’t wait to tell John how much I was enjoying the special release “The Abbot’s Understudy” Obed and Isaacs’ interpretation of a Belgian Dark Strong Ale checking in at 9% ABV.  He, on the other hand was excited to tell me about the beautiful venue we were sitting in.  When It was built in 1889, it was the original 2nd Presbyterian Church of Peoria.  It had changed hands several times prior to the Conn family purchasing it and opening the brewery in 2016.  The Conn family has a passion for restoring historic buildings and tried to preserve as much of the place as they could.  Much of the building is still in original condition, including the original wood and stained glass from the church.  A new addition to the ambiance is a beautiful Brazilian granite bar top in the middle of the establishment.  “I have to pinch myself every day,” says John, “I arrive in the morning and the sun is shining through the stained glass; it’s beautiful and I get to brew beer for a living.”

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Inside the tap room

John started brewing like many, with a Mr. Beer kit.  “It didn’t turn out quite like I wanted it to, so I started watching YouTube videos and learning about the brewing process.  I went to all grain (as opposed to a concentrate), bought a Coleman cooler, pipe fittings, and some washing machine hose from Menards; I home brewed for 10 years.”

While brewing was his passion, he concurrently worked for the railroad industry (13 years).  “I felt like my job in the railroad industry was a dead end,” John explained.   “I wanted to do something else and decided to go to college for accounting.  Two semesters in, I was trying to balance school, home brewing, music (bass guitar), and my family life.   My wife said to me, “I don’t see you as an accountant; why don’t you do something you love?”  I didn’t have the capital to start my own brewery, but she found the posting for the head brewer here at Obed and Isaacs and I applied for it.”

“Once I got the interview, I was nervous.”  John recalls debating what to wear and whether he should bring one of his home brews to the job interview.  “I had an amazing Brett conditioned Saison; It had been aging in a gorgeous Champagne bottle with a cork and a cage for 6 months and the flavors were really starting to develop.  It was a beautiful beer.  When I met with Adam (Conn) to talk the job over, I poured each of us a glass.  The beer was amazing, it just jumped out of the glass; after trying it, he said, “well, you got the job.”  I still can’t believe it!  I’ve been here now for 1 year.  I’m responsible for 12 taps, and I love it.”

“The Conn family has been great about letting me take some of my original recipes and implement them on a larger scale, but the transition from home brewer to professional has not been without hiccups.  With many beers it’s linear, you can scale up a recipe without issue, but not all.  Dark roasted malts, chocolate malts, roasted barley, and the darker crystal malts are an example of ingredients that don’t scale linearly.  I had an oatmeal stout that I intended to scale up from my home recipe.   The first time I did, it was so harsh we had to dump it; it didn’t come across well.  The second time I scaled back the malts and it tasted great.”

I asked John his opinion on what makes a good beer.  “You have to have a solid recipe, but then you have to execute.”  He highlights the importance of attention to detail on the cold side of the brewing process.  “You have to make sure that the fermentation temp is constant, you need to put focus on taking the steps necessary to minimize oxygen exposure during transfer to the serving tank.  Additionally, I always want to pitch a healthy quantity of yeast.”

When drinking someone else’s beer, “I’m picking it apart,” John says, “It’s hard not to.  It’s that way as a musician too. You can’t help but pick apart the elements that make a band good or not.  How’s the timing? Rhythm?  Is someone playing the wrong note?  Is the singer flat?  Everything must work together and it’s the same way with beer.  If I’m drinking a pale ale, is the balance more towards the malt or the hops?  Was it a clean fermentation?  Does it finish sweet or dry?  Is it clean tasting? Are there any off flavors; any kind of medicinal flavor or harsh astringency?  After that, I consider if I would have more than one of a particular beer.  Do I appreciate the glass in front of me enough to order another?  That is my entire focus.” John continues, “Even when I was a home brewer, my focus was on drinkability.  Even when a beer is bigger, with more alcohol and stronger flavor, the goal to me is drinkability above everything else.”

“Our Ditzy Blonde Ale hits the mark on drinkability; it’s a top seller.  It’s approachable, easy going, and appeals to the masses.  It’s a beer on tap that fits the central Illinois market.  It’s a great start to a gradual introduction to craft beer.  You can brew an amazing Double IPA, but not everyone will appreciate it.  People using Untappd (a craft beer focused social media app) for instance, might rate certain beers higher than others, but we find that the beers of ours that are rated highest on Untappd aren’t necessarily the best sellers.  The cool thing about brewing in a tap room is that you get to kind of scratch everybody’s back.  We have a stout for the stout drinkers, we have hoppy beers, we have an amber ale, fruit beers, seasonal and special releases, there is something for everyone.  Making people happy makes me happy.”

“Our niche at Obed and Isaacs is brewing solid well-balanced beers for everyone.  We will continue our focus on easy drinking beers.  Additionally, we have an awesome outdoor venue; we have games (giant Jenga, Checkers, Connect Four, regulation Bocce Ball courts), an outdoor bar equipped with 24 taps, and live music in the summer.  One of my favorite things about that is, every beer is 5 dollars; if you come in and sit on our patio with 4 buddies, you can all enjoy a drink for $20.  There is one exception to the beer prices.  Our Magic Unicorn Elixir, a New England IPA, which is one of the recipes I brought from my garage days is $6.  The reason we raised that by $1 is the cost of Citra and Mosaic hops.  That beer is lavishly dry hopped, it’s an expensive beer to make.”

Whether producing a flagship brew, a seasonal, or a limited release, intuition plays a large role.  “I rely on it all the time, as a brewer, you have to go with your gut.  For the most part I kind of know whether a beer is going to turn out or not ahead of time.  After primary fermentation, I’ll taste it; it’s usually apparent.  Especially if it’s one of our core/flagship beers.  After a while, I know them intimately because I make them all the time.  There are always going to be subtle differences from batch to batch, even though they are the same recipe.”

Recently, John had an experience where his intuition failed him.  Fortunately, the results were positive.  “In all my 10 years of home brewing and 1 year of brewing professionally, I never had this happen until a few months ago.  I was mid process on a new beer, it was a Brut IPA.  I had dry hopped it with a hop called Ekuanot.  This hop throws a lot of green pepper type flavors, but online I read a lot of descriptions mentioning tropical fruit, melon, and those types of flavors.  It was in a blend with two other hops.  When I tasted it, it tasted like green onion and green pepper.  It was destined for the drain; I had no intent of serving it.  Off flavors most of the time are not going to fix themselves. I’ve never had a beer pull a complete 180 on me.  In this case, I had some other things going on and I didn’t get around to actually dumping it.  Two weeks later I came back and tasted it, to my surprise, it turned out really well.  That was one of the times my intuition failed me.”

When reflecting on the Peoria beer scene, John expresses that he believes it is something special.  “Beer in Peoria is awesome, I really encourage people to come try the beer here. Everybody has their own niche, and everybody complements each other well.  The guys at John S Rhodell were the original craft beer pioneers of Peoria. They make tasty beer, and their gift to the Peoria brewing scene is that they have introduced a lot of people to craft beer and craft brewing.  You can go there and brew your own batch of beer, they will even help you bottle it.  Bearded Owl brews off the wall beers; they swing for the fences. They use a lot of adjunct ingredients and try different things all the time.  Industry is really good at what they do too.  They’re doing great things on the north side of town. I’d like to collaborate on a beer with some of these guys soon.  We need to figure out the logistics of it, but I’ve looked forward to doing something like that for a long time, it would be fun.”

Obed and Isaacs’ next special release beer will be available in late April or early May.  It will be a Chocolate Vanilla Peanut Butter Nitro stout.  Real peanut butter and milk chocolate will go in the fermenter.  “The nitro tap is like the cherry on top of the sundae.  It really softens the body of the beer and changes the mouthfeel.”  John is excited about this one; “It’s going to be amazing.”

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When not working at Obed and Isaacs, John still wants to be around a brewery.  “My perfect beer day away from work would be a visit to Decatur Brew Works.  It used to be my local place in Decatur IL.  It has a “Cheers” kind of vibe.  The guys that brew there were in a home brew club with me [in Decatur] and they are producing great stuff.”  He also expresses interest in visiting some of the regional beer scenes across the country that he hasn’t yet.  “It will be a great opportunity to learn.”

Obed and Isaacs Microbrewery and Eatery is located at 321 NE Madison Ave, Peoria, IL 61603. The Brewery is owned by Conn’s Hospitality Group.  The original location is in Springfield Il, a block or so away from Abe Lincoln’s former residence.  Both locations have dedicated brew masters who share recipes for the core (flagship) beers.  Specialty brews are generally location specific.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that in addition to the craft beer, they have a food menu full of quality and unique items.

Only a short three-hour drive from Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis, Peoria is a great option for a weekend get-away for beer lovers.  Every brew pub in town is producing great beer and they complement each other well.  I encourage you to spend a weekend there and visit all of them.  You can read my impressions of the other Peoria area breweries here.  John S Rhodell, Bearded Owl Brewing, Industry Brewing Company.

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