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Homebrewer's unique suds make way from garage to groceries

Matt Chappel of Indigo Imp Brewery in Cleveland. Photos Jamie Janos
Matt Chappel of Indigo Imp Brewery in Cleveland. Photos Jamie Janos

For every garage brewer content to produce a few gallons of suds per month there are dozens more who dream of crafting the next Samuel Adams.

And why not? Most decent home brewers, it seems, are buoyed by an entourage of encouraging friends who think they've actually got a shot. The brutal truth? Almost none ever manage to turn a passion for home brewing into a viable enterprise.

Matt Chappel appears to have bucked those odds. His Cleveland-based start-up, Indigo Imp Brewery, is less than a year old. Despite that shockingly brief period of time, Chappel has managed to land his products onto shelves at area grocers and in the coolers of hip bars and restaurants. His Belgian-style brews have appeared on regional "Best Of" lists while becoming the darling of far-flung beer bloggers.

But it wasn't dreaming that landed Chappel and Indigo Imp where it is today it was a unique product coupled with smart business decisions and a well-considered plan of attack.

Chappel had been a home brewer for years without ever once considering starting a commercial brewery. The stay-at-home dad built a mini-brewhouse in his garage to support his hobby and help quench his and his wife's thirst for quality ale.

"When our children went off to school," explains Chappel, "my wife and I decided that the time was right to start a business. We did the research and determined that it might be possible to start a small-scale brewery and have it support itself financially right from the start."

Working on a shoestring budget, Chappel knew that a shiny new brewing system would be cost-prohibitive. So he scoured the secondary market looking for affordable used equipment. But even there he came up dry. "It seemed that anything built specifically for a brewery had inflated prices," he says. "So I was forced to look for equipment intended for other uses."

A former CAD operator, Chappel designed and built his brewhouse by hand out of generic dairy farm equipment. He relied on an out-of-print brewing textbook from the 1950s to fill any gaps in knowledge. To sidestep the installation of costly chimneys, Chappel went with low-tech electric immersion heaters to boil the brew kettles instead of natural gas.

"I had to calculate how many kilowatts of power were needed to bring a certain volume of water to boil in a specific period of time," says the University of Akron grad. "This was stuff I hadn't considered since mechanical engineering school."

Chappel estimates that he saved roughly 25 percent by assembling his own brew system over buying it used. Compared to a brand new system, however, the savings are even more dramatic. The only piece of equipment that the brewer purchased new was the bottle filling machine, a device notorious for its unreliability.

To stand out in a crowded marketplace, one dominated by bland mega-producers and well-established crafters, Chappel chose to employ an uncommon technique known as open-fermentation. Because the beer ferments in open vats rather than sealed silos, it gets exposed to a small amount of wild yeast. This practice imparts Imp's ales with a pleasantly sour finish typical of Belgian brews.

Presently, the small brewery produces four varieties: Blonde Bombshell, Jester, Gatekeeper and Winter Solstice, a seasonal spiced ale. One bottle in each six pack is hand-dipped in wax, producing a colorful wax crown that calls attention to itself in a packed beer cooler.

As good as things have gone for Indigo Imp during its inaugural year, Year Two is shaping up to be even bigger. "Right now, the system is working really well," says Chappel. "Now is the time to start thinking about taking it to the next level."

Taking it to the next level likely means handing off the beer to a statewide distributor. As it stands now, sales and deliveries are done by the same folks who handle the brewing, bottling and cleaning, namely Matt and wife Kathy. A large distributor won't pay Chappel as much for his beer as do his retail customers, but it will reach a much wider audience. Chappel estimates that if he makes the move, he can sell five times the product he currently does. That would allow him to hire additional employees.

It would also increase his time at the brew kettles, says Chappel, a welcome change. To meet current demand requires just one day per week of actual brewing. Once you subtract the hours of pre- and post-brew cleanup, those hours are whittled down to a mere handful. "Right now, I'm only brewing about six hours a week," says Chappel. "I'm looking forward to spending more time brewing and less time making deliveries. The reason I got into this business is because I love to brew beer."

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