White Oak Brewing is nestled in an industrial park located in Normal, IL. Had I not been looking for the brewery, I may never have known it was there. Fortunately for me, I did and those who don’t are missing out! After parking in a small parking lot, I noticed a group of happy folks hanging out on the lawn taking advantage of the shade provided by a beautiful and mature tree. Everyone was enjoying the day, deep in lively conversation and enjoying a beer. I walked into the small tap room and sat at the bar to soak in the atmosphere. I noticed a common thread among the customers who walked up to the bar, ordered a beer and went back outside; everybody had a positive attitude and a happy demeaner. The longer I sat there, the more I realized that the happiness in the air became contagious. It’s a fun place to be; the staff and their customer base makes White Oak Brewing a pleasure to visit.
Many tap rooms, as of late, have beer lists full of experimental offerings and newer styles of beer. While I’ve never met a style of beer that I didn’t appreciate, White Oak’s tap list feels like a homecoming in that the beer has a bit of an “old school” flair to it. Bryan Ballard, the Brewer and co-owner of White Oak Brewing, agreed with my assessment of them being more of an “old school” brewery. “We focus on traditional styles, stuff with lower alcohol content, things that are easy to drink more than one serving of. That’s been kind of our thing,” he elaborates. “At first, I really didn’t think we needed even an IPA, but the first thing everybody asks seems to be, ‘Do you have an IPA?’ I also thought other brewers might wonder if we knew what we were doing without an IPA. The creation and naming of “Bro, Do You Even IPA”, our west coast style IPA, was kind of a response to that. We do brew some newer styles of stuff to show people that we know what we are doing; we make the hazy IPAs for instance- we have to show we can do it,” he says with a laugh.
Bryan started brewing with his father. “My Dad was a homebrewer and I just kind of palled around with him, that was my first exposure to brewing. I was old enough at the time not to hurt myself, but not so old that I was too cool to spend time with my dad. I’ve been brewing (in some capacity) since a young age. I learned a lot more about brewing through experience in college. I started brewing with my friends-the main issue there was that there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen and it wasn’t the cleanest environment for brewing beer. Later, in graduate school I lived by myself. I had a lot more time and a lot more ability to pay attention to the process and details of brewing. Additionally, I started working in a home brew supply shop in the suburbs of Chicago. I ended up liking the brewing portion of what I was doing more than what I was going to school for (law). So, I ended up following the brewing direction.”
What does someone with so much experience brewing look for in a beer? “Attention to detail,” says Bryan. “The devil is in the details; all of the details, when it comes to how a beer is made are interrelated; it’s kind of like string theory. If you move one pinpoint, one ingredient or process step- it affects everything else.” Bryan says, “It’s important to be able to manage all of the points and connect them all. Details are always changing from style to style. Even here at our brewery, it’s not temperature controlled; the ambient air changes with the seasons. As ingredients come and go, things change too. The hardest part of making good beer is dialing in on the details- that’s really where the difference is when it comes to good beer or great beer.”
Fundamental soundness is important when Bryan is (informally) judging someone else’s beer. “Is the beer technically sound? Is it well made? When I’m drinking a beer, I’m considering fermentation controls and yeast fermentation profiles. I had a homebrew supply store for 5 years, I completed the judge’s certification program, and I’ve gone through classes and competitions where that is really what you are trained to do. You sit down and analyze a beer for how technically sound it is and how stylistically accurate it is. For the homebrew program, there were style guidelines that were technical; that is just kind of how the homebrewing thing rocks. Craft brewing is not quite so stingy on the rules; stylistic accuracy isn’t quite as big of a concern to me when I try other beers, but the fundamentals for technical soundness is.”
“Originally, we operated a homebrew supply store in this building. During that time, in the beginning, we kept winning medals with our English Mild. We won a Master Championship of Amateur Brewing gold medal with it. The national competition was judged by several people whose names are on the guidelines. Our thought process was, if we could get a license to sell the English Mild, we could do well enough to pay the rent for the homebrew store. It worked out so well that we were able to pay for a brewing building instead. The English Mild is great, it’s the perfect craft beer, it has just enough flavor to be beer, but not so much that you can’t drink more than one. It’s only 4% so you can have a few and not miss work the next day.”
“We rely on intuition quite a bit when brewing, especially considering we have a semi non-temperature-controlled environment. Making beer, if all goes as planned, isn’t hard; you can teach a monkey to brew, it’s just following steps. The challenge is knowing what to do when that step is not there. When you go to take the next step and that foothold is missing, where do you put your foot?” In addition to relying on intuition, improvising is something that Bryan and the White Oak team seem to embrace. “We have a beer called “Seems Legit,” we called it that because we literally made the recipe up in the morning out of what we had laying around. When we tried it, we decided it was good (I enjoyed one and it was good). It’s kind of like a guitarist riffing, sometimes we are a jam band that way.”
Bryan has two co-owners at White Oak. “Originally, when we first started the business, I did most everything and operated the homebrew store, but then Scott came in and he started helping out part-time with brewing operations. He decided to buy in, quit his day job and took it over. Mark is in charge of facilities; he keeps the factory running. I’m responsible for sales and distribution, bookkeeping, taxes, and all of the compliance stuff. We decided to specialize our roles so everybody’s job would best fit their skill set and this will smooth things as we continue to grow and scale up our operation. Since the beginning, we have grown so much that our vision for White Oak continues to evolve; we started with a dozen accounts in town. Now we have 150 accounts throughout the middle part of the state. We are distributing kegs and cans. One thing will always stay consistent, our number one concern is on beer quality.” Bryan, Scott, and Mark, together with their staff, make a good team. “We haven’t had any major disasters yet outside of the usual type of thing such as turning the wrong valve and exploding yeast all over the room or taking the wrong clamp off and spraying the room with beer. I think that happens to everybody at least once. We did have our delivery van wrecked once while it was parked – nobody was in it fortunately. Somebody came around the corner and hit it.”
White Oak is a great addition to the Bloomington-Normal brewery scene. “The scene here is up and coming, but so are brew scenes in other communities in the state. The trend seems to be that towns are getting several small breweries rather than one or two larger ones. When we first started,” Bryan continues, “Destihl had the one brewpub and IBC (Illinois Brewing Company) had just closed.” Perhaps Bloomington Normal just needed a little time to catch up. “Downstate Illinois was just kind of behind the curve in the beer culture at that time. The relevant thought process is that you can go somewhere cool or stay where you’re at and make it cool. The Bloomington breweries have made it cool; it’s an up and coming spot for beer. It’s great that Destihl acts as an anchor for our brew scene. It helps us that people can come and visit multiple breweries and it helps that there are a lot of good food places here too.”
White Oak Brewing’s tap room is located at 1801 Industrial Park Drive in Normal Il.