Piney River Brewing Company: Making Hay in the Heartland

From the Source by | Jun 2016 | Issue #113
Photos by Brooke Hamilton

Piney River Brewing Company is located 5 miles outside of Bucyrus, Mo., an unincorporated community small enough that the brewery’s first distributor had never heard of it. The closest city, Houston, has a population of just over 2,000. This is Ozark country; the Heartland. Here, folks root for the Cardinals and drink beer from cans they can chill for a float trip—often on a raft or just a tube—on the Big Piney River. But these days it’s not always Budweiser (or Bud Light) in the cooler—sometimes it’s Piney River’s Float Trip Blonde Ale.

“There’s not a weekend that goes by that somebody doesn’t come in, they’ve never had craft beer, and they are excited,” says Joleen Durham, who started the brewery with her husband, Brian, in 2011. Back then, they brewed 10 gallons at a time. Five years and countless better beer conversions later, they’ve grown into a new facility: a 12,000-square-foot red barn with a 15-barrel brewhouse and enough space to produce 10,000 barrels a year.

A Home on the Range
Customers don’t show up here by accident. To get to the brewery, take Highway ZZ for 3 miles, cross a small bridge, then turn onto Walnut Grove Drive, a 2-mile-long gravel road.

Piney River Brewing makes its home here because the Durhams have lived on the 80-acre farm since 1997. In 2008, the couple began homebrewing on their kitchen stove, and it wasn’t long before the idea of opening a brewery took hold. “We’re entrepreneurs,” says Joleen Durham. “We have this barn, we have to do something with it.”

After the couple cleared the 75-year-old barn of well-aged hay stacked 25 bales high, upstairs became the taproom and downstairs the brewery. They started selling beer in March of 2011, and by fall had taken delivery on a 7-barrel brewhouse and a two-head Wild Goose canning machine. (Piney River was the first microbrewery in Missouri to can its own beer.) They squeezed all they could out of their brewhouse and fermentation space in 2015, producing 2,200 barrels.

The Durhams built the second barn with growth in mind. It has enough fermentation capacity to produce more than 5,000 barrels now, and can accommodate future expansion and taller, 120-barrel fermentation tanks later. Brian Durham has constantly planned ahead, contracting for raw materials based on potential growth. They always had the hops to produce more Missouri Mule India Pale Ale, but not the tank time for a beer that takes longer to produce.

Now, Piney River can brew more IPA, but the freed up space also means room to experiment with barrel aging and small-batch beers fermented with mixed cultures without risk of cross-contamination. And room for a new 30-barrel foeder from Foeder Crafters of America. “We enjoy those beers as styles, but we didn’t feel comfortable with them in the same space,” Brian Durham says. “And we always knew we had to be making more Black Walnut Wheat,” Joleen adds. It is their best selling beer.

Still, Piney River isn’t growing for the sake of growing. “Getting to 10,000 barrels per year is not a goal. Our goal is to be able to supply our distributors with a high-quality product,” Brian Durham explains. “We spent the last two years undersupplying the markets we’re in. We want to brew beer in and about the Ozarks for the Ozarks.”

Piney River entered the St. Louis market in November, and plans to distribute throughout most of Missouri by the end of 2016. But nationwide distribution isn’t in the plans. “We want to dig deeper rather than go wider,” he says.

The company has already developed a strong local following. In fact, its draft sales at local bars compare with other market leaders like Blue Moon and Boulevard, notes Rodney Edwards, general manager at Grellner Sales and Service, the brewery’s first distributor. “Being well received and getting that ‘bar call’ in the on premise is a great indicator of brand health,” he says. When asked how he came to represent the Durhams, Edwards laughs, explaining that he had to look up Bucyrus on a map when Brian Durham called the first time. Since then, he’s become a de-facto member of the team. At the grand opening party for the new facility, Edwards wore a Piney River shirt with “The Rodfather” stitched above the left pocket.

Piney River owners Joleen and Brian Durham enjoy beers in their taproom, the BARn. | Photo by Brooke Hamilton

Piney River owners Joleen and Brian Durham enjoy beers in their taproom, the BARn. | Photo by Brooke Hamilton

Honoring the Ozarks
The Durhams always knew their beers would celebrate the region they call home. “Each beer has its own story that has something to do with the Ozarks,” Joleen Durham says. To help tell that story, the Durhams brought in Brooke Hamilton to design their labels. The Piney River appears in the background of each label, with a unique object in the foreground. The design for Black Walnut Wheat was particularly easy: “Bags of walnuts. That’s so Ozarks,” Hamilton recalls. Seventy percent of the world’s harvest of black walnuts comes from trees growing wild in Missouri.

Sales at the BARn, Piney River’s tasting room, only account for about 10 percent of production, but the connections made there run deep. “When I moved here I could tell how much people loved the beer, loved being here,” says head brewer Amber Powell, a Siebel grad the Durhams hired three years ago. “People really want to learn about the history of the beer, about the names.”

On a typical Saturday afternoon last fall, Scott Dill, superintendent at nearby Houston schools, plays guitar at the taproom while volunteers sell hot dogs and brats as part of a fundraiser for the Houston Education Foundation. The Durhams sit on a deck outside the tasting room along with their son, Andy, reflecting on the path that led them to brewing. Joleen grew up on a farm four miles outside of nearby Plato. Brian is from New Jersey. They met at college in Pennsylvania. “I was leaving here and I was never coming back,” Joleen Durham recalls. But she did.

Joleen looks around the deck. There are brewery first-timers, semi-regulars who drive a couple of hours to be there every few months, and neighbors who show up every few weeks. It’s clear that with Piney River, the Durhams are filling a need.

“I wouldn’t trade this,” she says.

15-barrel brewhouse
4 60-barrel fermentors
4 15-barrel fermentors
2 60-barrel bright tanks
2 15-barrel bright tanks
1 30-barrel foeder

On Tap
Black Walnut Wheat: This American-style wheat beer pours dark brown but is light on the palate, with nutty and spicy flavors. 4.5% ABV

Old Tom Porter: Smooth and roasty with notes of chocolate and coffee, this Brown Porter won a gold medal at GABF in 2013. 5.5% ABV

Float Trip Ale: A malt-forward Blonde Ale with a subdued fruitiness and light hop bitterness inspired by a favorite local warm weather pastime. 4.5% ABV

Sweet Potato Ale: Sweet potato pie in a glass, the addition of roasted squash to this field beer is balanced by cinnamon and vanilla in this fall seasonal. 6.0% ABV

Missouri Mule IPA: Named for the working farm animal of yore, this IPA offers a wallop of citrus and pine bitterness supported by rounded caramel flavor. 7.0% ABV

Hot Date Ale: This Amber Ale gets its decadent sweetness from the addition of dates, balanced by firm bitterness and subtle chipotle pepper heat. 6.0% ABV