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New brewer uses old-school methods for distinctive flavors

Technology has taken the guesswork out of commercial brewing. Computer-controlled kettles employ sensors to maintain accurate boils. Glycol-jacketed fermentation tanks keep the beer cool regardless of ambient temps. Recipe software calculates ingredient lists down to the last ounce. The result is remarkably consistent beer, batch after batch after batch.

That's not exactly the scenario at Indigo Imp, Cleveland's newest artisanal brewery.

"My techniques are a lot closer to what they were doing 50 years ago than what people are doing today," says owner-brewer Matt Chappel. The former CAD operator designed and built his small craft brewery by hand. Not because he wanted to, but because he had to.

"All that high-tech stuff would be great to have," he admits, "but it wasn't possible on our budget."

Anything specifically sold as brewery equipment costs twice as much. So Chappel jury-rigged his brew house out of generic stainless tanks. His kettles are heated not by gas, but by decidedly low-tech electric immersion coils because the former required the installation of a chimney. And while practically every other brewer in the nation ferments beer in hermetically sealed conical silos, Chappel lets his bubble away in open vats.

It is precisely this open-fermentation system that gives Indigo Imp beer its distinctive flavor. Because the beer ferments in open vessels, it is exposed to any number of renegade yeasts. This process results in flavors that are not only unique, but unique to a specific location — a terroir, if you will.

Indigo Imp isn't brewed solely with wild yeast, a process referred to as spontaneous fermentation. Rather, the beer is kick-started with a specific strain, typically Belgian, before it is opened up to Cleveland's finest fungi. "This gives the beer a nice balance, with only a slight touch of that wild-yeast character,"explains Chappel.

Walking into the fermentation room, one is overcome by a sweet, yeasty aroma. Brewed one day earlier, the beer already has a thick, lacey cap of foam, called krausen, covering its entire surface. It isn't long before the high concentration of carbon dioxide forces us out of the cooler.

Chappel had been a home brewer for 16 years without ever once considering starting a commercial brewery. Like most do-it-yourselfers, he began using kits and concentrates before graduating to all-grain brewing. He built a mini-brewhouse in his garage and cooked up suds for his family and friends. Some won awards at local competitions.

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

Of course, no startup is without its kinks. Chappel and his wife Kathy estimated that the first batch of beer would roll off the assembly line six months after signing a lease. In truth, that time was more like two years. After the brewery was built, it took another five months to acquire the state and federal permits. And then there was the learning curve. Too much wild yeast made the first batch unbearably "funky." Another batch boiled over the sides of the brew kettle, while a third fermented so vigorously that it escaped its 300-gallon vat.

In terms of size, Indigo Imp is tiny, cranking out just 7,000 cases a year. But growth might not be too far down the road. Since opening four months ago, Imp already has landed coveted cooler space at Heinen's, Bier Markt, Bar Cento, the Old Angle Tavern and Prosperity Social Club. More than simply eager to support the local guy, these operators are raving about the quality.

"Most beers are rigorously filtered, artificially carbonated and some even pasteurized," explains Bier Markt owner Sam McNulty. "These processes strip out and alter the natural flavor of the brew. Not so with Indigo."

Indigo presently offers three styles: Blonde Bombshell, Jester and Winter Solstice, a seasonal.

On brew days, Chappel gets to the 3,500-square-foot warehouse space by 3 a.m. It takes two hours just to scrub down and sanitize the equipment. His wife typically helps out from 5 to 8:30 a.m. before she heads off to her day job. On bottling days, their kids, 7 and 8, build forts out of six-pack boxes and race remote-controlled cars around the warehouse.

"We seem to making a product that people are excited about," says Chappel. "But with any retail product, success is ultimately up to the consumer."

Bier Markt (1948 W. 25th St., 216.274.1010, will host a "Pimp the Imp" party at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 16.

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