December 27, 2013

El Dorado-based Walnut River Brewing Co. taps into Wichita market

When a mutual friend introduced BJ Hunt to beer brewer Rick Goehring, Hunt didn’t know much about the business “other than I’m pretty good at drinking beer.”

When a mutual friend introduced BJ Hunt to beer brewer Rick Goehring, Hunt didn’t know much about the business “other than I’m pretty good at drinking beer.”

Goehring’s knowledge of brewing wasn’t much more refined. His brother gave him a beer-making kit in 1995 that consisted of a burlap bag with plastic lining.

“You added hot water, and that was it,” Goehring said.

The two are more advanced today and are making their first foray into Wichita with their El Dorado-based, 6-month-old Walnut River Brewing Co., which is now on tap at several Wichita bars.

“I really want to make sure that we have good beer in south-central Kansas,” Hunt said. His dreams extend beyond here, but he said, “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.”

Goehring said their distributor, House of Schwan, encourages them to be in more bars, but he said, “We’re trying to control our growth as much as possible.”

He, too, is thinking bigger, but not too big.

“I don’t have dreams of grandeur, trying to become the next Coors or anything,” Goehring said.

A more sophisticated beer-making kit than his first is what inspired his brewing passion. Then a decade ago, Goehring’s wife, Lora, suggested he turn it into a career.

Goehring, who has worked in IT since 1989, studied with the American Brewers Guild and took business classes at Wichita State University.

“I realized doing that that I didn’t really know a lot about the professional side of brewing,” he said.

Hunt has a master’s in business administration, which is why their mutual friend, Jeremy Johnson of Johnson’s Garden Centers, thought they’d be a good match.

First, they had to get a couple of things straight, though.

Goehring envisioned having a brew pub, but Hunt “was like, ‘All right, we’ll stop right there because I don’t want to do a restaurant.’ ”

Hunt envisioned a Delano address for the business, but Goehring had already purchased a building in El Dorado that he’d been refurbishing for years.

“They had really good quality water,” Goehring said of El Dorado.

The Walnut River flows into El Dorado Lake, which is the city’s water supply. The river inspired the company’s name.

Goehring also found El Dorado to be particularly receptive to his business.

“They were really hungry for new businesses,” he said.

Hunt said he sees the production facility always being in El Dorado at 111 W. Locust where it currently shares space with a flea market, with a plan of eventually overtaking that space.

The focus will be on Wichita, though, Hunt said.

“I really see Wichita being a main market for us.”

‘Can’-do attitude

Of the couple of dozen breweries around Kansas, five are in the greater Wichita area, and Goehring said he appreciates his competition.

In fact, Wichita Brewing Co. & Pizzeria has already let Walnut River have a guest tap at its west Wichita restaurant.

The Anchor, Jon’s Ale House and Lizards Lounge all have permanent Walnut River taps.

So far, there are five standard Walnut River beers.

They include Teter Rock Kolsch, a light German ale; Warbeard Irish Red; Hwy 54 California Common; 7th City Wheat; and HighBeam IPA.

There are also a couple of seasonal ones, such as a gingerbread stout for Christmas.

For now, Walnut River is a two-barrel brewing system, and each barrel has 31 gallons.

“Fermentation is our bottleneck,” Hunt said.

That process takes 21 days.

The business had three small tanks to start but now has the equivalent of three times that.

“We’re going to start brewing in 465-gallon batches by as early as next summer,” Hunt said.

In practical terms, he said, that means “that Rick gets to quit his day job, too.”

“It means we’re going to be very, very busy.”

For now, they sell their beer in growlers and kegs. Next, they’d like to can it.

“That’s another $90,000,” Hunt said. “Now, I could write a check, but they just need to hold it for a while.”

Hunt said there have been “lots of learning curves we’re hitting along the way.”

For instance, they had a $500 yeast delivery the other day that was waiting in the cold for one of them to show up and claim.

“I was praying it was not frozen by the time I got to it,” Hunt said.

He said there’s been lots of “nickel and dime stuff,” but a lot of economizing, too, with used purchases on Craigslist. For instance, they found an 11-foot, four-bay stainless steel sink that someone used to use to feed cattle.

“It was crazy enough we could just find all that stuff and make it happen,” Hunt said.

By this time next year, he said he expects they’ll be producing about 4,000 cases a month.

While it’s an exciting prospect for Hunt and Goehring, Lora Goehring may regret encouraging her husband to follow a passion that keeps him so busy.

“She doesn’t really see me all that much anymore.”

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