Matt Bitsche was clearly in his element while transforming 800 pounds of malted barley into craft beer this March in downtown Wichita Falls.
The native Wichitan was flanked by the gleaming metal tools of beer making in the Wichita Falls Brewing Co. at 701 Indiana Avenue. He and partner Russ Reynolds are set to open the family-friendly establishment in late March.
Last year, i.d.e.a. Wichita Falls awarded them a $12,000 cash prize and $15,000 of in-kind business services to help start the new venture.
He peered down into the vat and probed the mash with a big red paddle. An oatmeal-like aroma rose up. Bitsche was in the midst of what looked like an art and what he called an “extreme science.”
“We have a small lab upstairs with a microscope. We do cell counts,” he said. “I just harvested yeast and pitched it. We’re also doing water chemistry.”
Wort is a liquid afloat with simple sugars that tiny, single-celled yeast organisms feed on, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol – the beer.
“By the way, humans cannot make alcohol. Only yeast can,” Bitsche said. “We can give the yeast a playground.”
That brew day, a hose was the off-ramp for carbon dioxide, siphoning it off from a big metal barrel.
Bitsche was surrounded by new brewing equipment patrons will be able see in the open floorplan of the brewery.
Wooden handmade tables, high tech-ordering, careful lighting and a steampunk yet rustic sensibility add interest and style to the brewery and taproom.
The historic building is The Hub, for decades home to Muehlberger’s Menswear. The first floor is more than 7,000 feet and is overlooked by a loft-style seating area.
The partners decorated with reclaimed wood bought from a local farmer, as well as old metal lockers with touches of rust.
Steel signs created by the Burn Shop impart an industrial flair, and Sorrow, a local street artist, painted an impressive “Day of the Dead” style mural on the side of the building.
With Jorden Turner as taproom manager, the brew pub will pour a range of beers, other Texas craft beverages, some domestics and Bitsches’ own craft brews.
“I’m well known for dry, crisp beers, easy drinking and sessionable,” Bitsche said.
“Sessionable” means low-alcohol beers – perhaps 3 percent to 5 percent, allowing hearty consumption without getting tanked. In other words, great beer for the brewery’s spring opening.
Also on tap will be root beer, carbonated water and soda.
A low order counter will make it easy for children to pick up their orders. Jigsaw puzzles, games and decks of cards will add to the relaxed atmosphere.
People can bring in food from elsewhere and have an inside picnic at the tables Bitsche and Reynolds built.
Bitsche has made a few batches of beer after a two-year hiatus from brewing. He had 120 kegs on hand that brew day with a capacity for 200.
“Hopefully today will be a good day,” Bitsche said. “But every time I brew on it, it gets better and better.”
To him, the beer-making contraption isn’t just equipment. It’s a beer-making personage of steel he’s building a relationship with, brew by brew.
“It’s just me and this thing kind of like learning each other, like I said, making friends,” he said. “I think the bugs are worked out.”
With bubbling as a constant soundtrack, Bitsche jogged down the brew stand steps to shine a flashlight on a sight glass.
The glass window in the pipe was awash in golden liquid.
“There’s still a little bit of grain coming through, but for the most part, it’s starting to clear up, and that’s what we want,” he said. “The longer this goes, the more clear.”
Bitsche, 38, learned how to brew in 2001 in his Wichita Falls garage. He moved to Austin where his passion for home brewing turned professional.
He still owns a small percentage of the award-winning Infamous Brewery Co. in Austin.
Austin turned out to be a detour – though certainly a worthwhile one. Bitsche moved back here in 2016. Bitsche has been dreaming for more than 10 years of opening a place in Wichita Falls.
“We … are passionate about doing something for Wichita Falls, which is why we named it Wichita Falls Brewing Co,” he said.
Married to Brooke with two children, Bitsche realized there wasn’t much for a couple with children to do except eat out. The city didn’t seem to have a place to relax and have a drink, but he’s aiming to remedy that situation.
“Our vision is to be a well-known taproom for Wichita Falls, and a meeting place for the community, as well as sponsoring events,” Bitsche said.
He would like the business to become known as a destination brewery.
Bitsche has been in the building more than a year. Bitsche is working about seven days a week to get the business off the ground.
The endless hours have probably been toughest on his wife and children, but his wife loves craft beer and is supportive, Bitsche said.
“They respect what I do, my work ethic,” he said.
Bitsche took time to be grateful for i.d.e.a. Wichita Falls as he went about his hectic schedule.
The initials stand for imagine, design, engage and act. It’s a joint project with Midwestern State University, the MSU Lalani Center and the MSU Small Business Development Center.
The goal is to boost entrepreneurs starting or expanding a local business. The 2018 competition for cash prizes and in-kind assistance is in progress.
The final deadline to enter is April 4. See the website at http://www.ideawf.com/ for more information about the small-business plan competition. Finalists will be announced on the i.d.e.a. WF website by April 20.
At the Wichita Falls Brewery, Bitsche poured a golden finalist called “Full Circle” into a tiny glass. About an inch of foam floated on top.
A sip of the craft brew, an India Pale Ale, was refreshing and light.
It requested the company of more sips. Refusing would have been terribly rude.