You may recognize the name Brian Holton as the man behind the curtain at Monnik, the little brewery that could in Schnitzelberg, or as the captain of the Beer Engine in Danville, KY. For those lucky enough to know, you may even recognize him for his work with instrumental indie rockers Of Asaph, who made some of the finest, and perhaps most durable music to come out of the early aughts. As a one time roommate, Holton was a bit of a cypher, generally quiet, but prone to unpredictable acts of silliness; he was fun to be around. That stands today, as Holton has parlayed his talents into beer making, which he does well. You can check out his old band below and we strongly encourage a visit to Monnik (and the Beer Engine if you can swing it). We caught up to him to ask about Monnik, music, and juggling responsibilities.
Brian Holton: I homebrewed for years. I was really interested in the science behind brewing and that, combined with an obsessive personality, kept me searching for better methods and equipment to make the best beer possible. Almost from the onset I was daydreaming about selling the beer I made at home (as most homebrewers do). So in late 2009 I registered Beer Engine, LLC and began searching for space to brew commercially. Going into business has never been about trying to get rich; I just had what I thought were good ideas and loved to share my creations with people.
NN: For that matter, how much brewing do you do yourself, versus your brewmasters?
BH: I currently don’t brew much at all. I brew at Beer Engine in Danville once or twice a month and Scott oversees all the brewing operations at Monnik. He’s better at it, so it’s a good thing.
NN: What took you to Danville? What brought you back to Louisville?
BH: I have really close friends who live outside Danville (in Stanford) and we moved down there to get out of the city. At the time we only had 2 kids. After a brief attempt at small sustainable farming (and not particularly enjoying the work), I decided my time would be better spent pursuing my passion for brewing. After opening Beer Engine, we were up to 4 kids and were looking for a place to expand the business. My family and my wife’s family are here in the Louisville area so we chose to move back to Louisville to expand the business.
NN: What are the challenges in running a gastro-pub? How do you balance your interests with what the public might want?
BH: There are a hundred ways to answer this question. The first thing that comes to mind is how great the team needs to be. Because without a great team of people providing excellent service, it simply would not work. Our brewers make amazing beer; our restaurant managers are reliable, hard-working, and self-starters; our team of servers and bartenders are friendly and dependable; even the rarely-seen kitchen and dish staff work their asses off and kill it every night.
“Our brewers make amazing beer; our restaurant managers are reliable, hard-working, and self-starters; our team of servers and bartenders are friendly and dependable; even the rarely-seen kitchen and dish staff work their asses off and kill it every night.”
The other thing that comes to mind is the cost of everything. Labor and cost of goods can eat up every dime if you’re not careful and our people have been doing a great job helping keep that under control as well.
NN: What is the difference between managing the Beer Engine and Monnik? Not sure that “managing” is an accurate description for being a boss, but you know.
BH: The short answer is scale. Beer Engine is very small, with a very small staff, and therefore, not much to manage. Monnik is much more complex, with almost two separate businesses working out of the same space: a restaurant and brewery. We couldn’t do any of it without reliable managers to help it all flow well. Also, having a kickass business partner (who is also a general contractor) helps immensely with solving the myriad of problems that arise at Monnik.
NN: How do you select new beers to brew or experiment with?
BH: Scott and I frequently bounce beer ideas off one another. Some of those ideas work their way into the brew schedule. Sometimes we revamp beers I brewed in the past and sometimes we just feel like it’s time to brew a certain style. For instance, I’d made a coffee IPA at Beer Engine in the past and that lead to us making one here (Path of Totality). Scott and Paul (Young) wanted another roasty option besides our viscous and rich His Dark Materials, so they came up with Humming Bird Porter. At the end of the day, we just make what we want to drink.
NN: What experiments have worked the best? What experiments didn’t hit for whatever reason, and how do you work around that? A bad batch is risky business.
BH: We haven’t had to throw a batch away directly due to experimentation (knock on wood). Some ideas definitely work better than others. Sometimes we try to add elements to elevate a beer from just ok to great. For example, we have some sour stout aging in barrels that is tasting fine, but we felt it could use another dimension….So we added some locally grown blueberries. The fun thing about being a brewpub is the flexibility for experimentation.
NN: What was the first beer you brewed?
BH: As a homebrewer, the first beer I brewed was a pale ale with all cascade. Hmmm…and interestingly, the first beer I brewed at Beer Engine was a pale ale called Freedom Ranger pale ale. I actually brewed it again at Beer Engine on Monday.
NN: What’s the hop market like? How far in advance do you have to find the right hops? If it’s far in advance, how do you plan for that?
BH: The hop market is complicated, and with more breweries opening in America all the time, I don’t expect it to get any simpler. If you want a certain variety of hop that’s super popular, you have to contract them in advance. For certain varieties, we have hop contracts through the end of 2018 and I’m about to start contracting for 2019. It’s really hard to know how much we’ll need in 2019 but if we want to be guaranteed access to certain varieties, it’s necessary. There are certain times of year that are good for spot purchasing (like August and December), because breweries are trying to unload hops they over-contracted for. If they can’t get rid of them, they have to start paying storage fees to the hop vendor.
NN: How do you plan a menu? Is the menu at Monnik themed German for the neighborhood or particular to your tastes?
BH: The menu wasn’t ever supposed to be German-themed. We have always had just two mandates about the food: The meats are always locally and sustainably raised (and everything else as much as possible), and the prices need to be reasonable. That’s a tricky formula to work out as local, pastured meats are more expensive. But it’s really important to us here at Monnik, and Chef Meghan has done an amazing job.
“We have always had just two mandates about the food: The meats are always locally and sustainably raised (and everything else as much as possible), and the prices need to be reasonable.”
NN: Switching gears a bit, what happened to Of Asaph? When did that end and why? Do you still keep up with any of those folks?
BH: Of Asaph never had an official breakup or final show or anything. It just stopped when I moved to Stanford. So it’s definitely my fault. The last show we played was probably about 10yrs ago, maybe more. We actually got together earlier this week to see if we could figure out and play any of the songs. We might play a show this spring.
NN: Are you making music now? If so, what can you tell us about it?
BH: I’ve been writing stuff on my own for a while and have had several failed attempts at creating a new band. I’ve gotten together the most with my good friend Jonathan Mobley and we’ve written quite a few songs together. But it’s just so hard to keep things going with adulthood/life things getting in the way.
NN: I understand you’ve had some shows in your upstairs loft at Monnik. How has that been? Are you looking to do more of that?
BH: We have had less than a dozen shows upstairs so far. The space is great for it and we definitely want to do more. Elliott Turton books the shows and anyone who wants to play up there can reach him at email@example.com.
NN: What do you drink that isn’t of your own creation?
BH: I tend to primarily gravitate toward one of three types of beer: a fresh and not-very-malty IPA, just about anything sour, and something light, like High Life. For non-beer, I love good gin.
NN: How do you juggle all of your responsibilities and parenthood? Asking for a friend (spoiler: me).
BH: I have the most amazing wife ever. Her name is Jolie and she handles the house and running kids around everywhere. Because I work a lot, she does awesome things like bring the kids to have lunch with me if I’m working on the weekends, and she usually has warm meals for me when I get home. She’s a harder worker than me and I couldn’t do it without her.
“I have the most amazing wife ever. Her name is Jolie and she handles the house and running kids around everywhere. Because I work a lot, she does awesome things like bring the kids to have lunch with me if I’m working on the weekends, and she usually has warm meals for me when I get home. She’s a harder worker than me and I couldn’t do it without her.”
NN: What have you been listening to lately and why?
BH: I haven’t been doing a good job of keeping up with new music. I tend to turn on good old metal/hardcore while I’m driving, such as Converge and The Fucking Champs. When I’m in the office something less intense, like Wilco and Built to Spill, is on. A friend recently turned me on to NoMeansNo and, although it’s old music, I’m really digging it. I can’t believe I never listened to them before.