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When Berlin squared off against Cazenovia, NY in the finals of Budget Travel’s “Coolest Small Town” contest this winter, the mayors of the municipalities upped the ante on the competition, each wagering a growler of locally brewed beer on the outcome. Mayor Gee Williams putting beer from Burley Oak on the line may have been intended as a fun side bet (which he won), but it is also highly symbolic of the brewery’s importance to its hometown.
In an area with an ever-expanding brewery scene, the Burley Oak Brewing Co. is not only redefining what craft beer can be, but also striving to embody the very essence of the culture itself, and spearheading the emergence of its community along the way.
Visit Burley Oak’s website and you will be greeted by a bearded man stepping off of a tractor- the same bearded man who is likely to greet you upon a visit to the brewery’s tasting room. He is Bryan Brushmiller, Burley Oak’s visionary owner, and this isn’t a gimmick. He literally grows his own grain for use in his award-winning beer.
For Brushmiller, growing rye and 6-row barley is just the natural progression of the local oriented mentality and sustainable practices on which his brewery was founded. This vertical integration allows him to control what goes into his beers “from grain to glass,” and, although the process is time-consuming and the cost is high, he believes it essential for a “premium brewery to use premium ingredients in order to deliver a product of the utmost quality.”
A testament to its excellence, BeerAdvocate, which visited in early 2014, awarded Burley Oak a “world-class” ranking; but patrons don’t need the country’s leading craft brew aficionados to tell them how amazing their local brewery is. The Berlin community has “built the brewery one pint at a time” since it opened in 2011 and has been integral to its growth ever since. Brushmiller appreciates his customer’s willingness to spend their hard earned money to enjoy his beers and sells products he is proud to stand behind, while giving back to those who are helping make his dream a reality in the process.
Burley Oak’s extraordinary beers (such as ‘Just the Tip,’ ‘Rude Boy,’ ‘Aboriginal Gangster,’ and ‘Waffle Stomper,’ just to name a few) offer more taste and are better for the body than their mass-produced counterparts, but growing the local economy and supporting the town of Berlin are equally as important to the brewery’s success as its flavorful IPAs, Barleywines, Stouts, and other brews. It starts inside the brewery itself, which now employees 13 people full-time (a number that is sure to increase as distribution continues to expand into new markets), who Bryan considers an extension of his family. Brushmiller knows the value of keeping his employees healthy and happy and, from paying everyone’s health insurance to organizing fun group activities, goes out of his way to make sure they are exactly that.
He also goes above and beyond to make sure his customers have an unforgettable experience along with their tasty pints. Whether it’s vinyl night on Tuesdays, game night on Wednesdays, Thursday night book club meetings, free tours on Saturdays, or live music on the weekends, Burley Oak gives its patrons a reason to stop by every day of the week. Taking care of his employees and customers is paramount, but it doesn’t end there for Brushmiller. Burley sponsors a youth lacrosse team, hosts an artist showcase during every 2nd Friday Art Stroll, has guest bartender charity nights on Mondays (which have raised over $50,000 for local charities in the first 2 years) and has a presence at each of Berlin’s annual festivals.
Bryan and Brooks Clayville enjoying local beer made with local grain. Photo by facebook.com/burleyoak
The creation of its own jobs and community-centric philosophy notwithstanding, Burley Oak is stimulating the local economy every chance it gets and, as a result, has been a major catalyst in the growth and emergence of both Berlin and the local craft beer movement over the past few years.
Burley Oak sources as many ingredients and supplies as possible from local vendors, such as farmer Brooks Clayville, who helps Brushmiller with his grain growing project. Brushmiller has also been working with contractors to source other needs locally, like labels for Burley’s bottle collection, which are now made right around the corner instead of in New York. Bryan believes partnering with nearby vendors and educating them about the needs of the craft beer industry will allow all Ocean City area breweries to source more supplies locally in the future, thus creating jobs and expanding the area’s microbrew culture as a whole.
Because of its impressive reputation in craft beer circles, tourists often seek out Burley Oak on trips to the beach, and, although they have heard of the brewery, many are unaware that it’s located in “America’s Coolest Small Town.” When the opportunity arises to introduce new people to his home, Brushmiller never misses it. One way he accomplishes this is through food. The brewery doesn’t offer dining options, so when customers are hungry they are directed into town where they can select from a variety of unique local restaurants and cafes, most of which carry Burley Oak beers on tap. Burley has also been experimenting with an “Explore Berlin Project,” which lets brewery-goers rent bikes to ride through Berlin to check out the unique shops and eateries.
Berlin’s restaurant scene has grown 400% since Burley Oak opened its doors, and, given that many of the new establishments are finding success by following the brewery’s lead in local and sustainable business practices, it probably isn’t a coincidence.
As the clock ticked down on Budget Travels’ Coolest Small Town contest this February, and it became imminent that Berlin was going to take the title, hundreds gathered at Burley Oak in anticipation of the announcement. When the results became official at the stroke of midnight, Worcester County Director of Tourism, Lisa Challenger, wrote on Twitter that “there was enough energy in Burley Oak to power all of Berlin.” Although speaking figuratively, Challenger’s statement is quite true in a literal sense as well. Burley Oak has been essential to Berlin’s recent rise in prominence and popularity and, while there are a multitude of cool places, people and events in town, the brewery’s presence undoubtedly helped power its hometown past Cazenovia in the final polls.