Strange Brew

In 2015, it seems that opening a craft brewery is the newest American dream.

Mar 11, 2015 at 11:59 am
click to enlarge Tony Harrell (left) and Jon Wells
Tony Harrell (left) and Jon Wells

In 2015, it seems that opening a craft brewery is the newest American dream. Learn to homebrew, start your own brewery and become successful. But it takes talent, time, knowledge and money to do it right. Which is where Jon Wells and Tony Harrell, the brewmasters behind new experimental nanobrewery Mash Cult, come in.

Wells and Harrell met through mutual friends more than six years ago — Wells was in the local Metal group Sea of Treachery — and the two started hanging out and eventually became roommates, along with Wells’ now-fiancée. Wells, a California transplant (he moved to Kentucky as a teen) started homebrewing, and Harrell soon joined in on the fun.

“There were fermenters in the kitchen; there were fermenters upstairs,” Harrell says. “[Wells’ fiancée] wanted to kill us. We started brewing just to make our own beer and do our own thing.”

Harrell has worked at Party Town, a liquor store in Florence, Ky., for the past four years in customer service and warehouse receiving. The guys’ brews eventually piqued the interest of Party Town’s general manager Drew Murphy.

“I’d bring things to the Friday night tastings, and I’d get good reviews,” Wells says. “People kept saying, ‘Did you brew any more?’ That turned into (Murphy) having an interest after a few years. ‘OK, maybe we could start something up.’ I thought he was blowing smoke.”

“They had shared some of their homebrewed beers with me before and I was really impressed with their creativity,” Murphy says. “Tony and Jon would take a traditional brewing style and put their spin on it, adding non-traditional ingredients to the mash, which resulted in a unique but still high-quality beer. Feedback from test batches was overwhelmingly positive.”

After months of red tape to get approved for a brewery license, Mash Cult set up in Party Town’s warehouse and was ready to go in January, which is when Wells and Harrell sold their first Mash Cult beer: an American Brown Ale called Brownin’ Out. During a subsequent Friday Night tasting event at Party Town, a complete stranger purchased a growler of the stuff even though they weren’t promoting it at all. The guys knew they were in business.

“We have 18 growler handles, and for someone to pick our beer out of such a wide variety, it’s a great feeling,” Harrell says.

The next day Wells walked in to buy his own beer, which is only available on draft at Party Town (in sizes from pint to a 64-ounce growler), but it was already tapped out. “Neither of us expected to sell what we were making,” Harrell says.

Harrell and Wells make pilot batches, or test runs, of what they call “weird beers.” One of those strange beers was I Got Gose in Different Area Codes, an aromatic spicy brew made with jalapenos named after the Ludacris Rap song “Area Codes.”

“That gose is by far the weirdest,” Harrell says. A gose (pronounced goes-uh) is a popular German sour and salty wheat beer.

On deck, they’re planning to brew a smoked maple syrup coffee stout called Ramathorn, named after a character in the movie Super Troopers who chugs maple syrup; a massive stout called Deebo, named after an intimidating character in the film Friday; and a tropical-flavored beer, Dat Juice, just because they think it would be funny to hear people utter those words. So far, their best-selling beer has been Vulgar Display of Flour, an imperial Hefeweizen with an 11.8-percent ABV (alcohol by volume), which sold out in two hours.

“I think consistency is a huge thing,” Harrell says. “If you want to do a batch of beer and you have that batch and it turns out great and everybody loves it, you’re going to want to have great notes and a good enough system where you’re able to brew that consistently.”

Currently, Mash Cult beers have been so popular that the supply cannot keep up with the demand, which is why within the next year the guys are upgrading to a larger barrel system, going from a half barrel (15.75 gallons) to 2.5-3.5 barrels (102 gallons). Expecting more success, they see themselves doing Mash Cult for a living.

“We want to build from the ground up — that’s how Country Boy did,” says Wells, looking to parallel the growth of the Lexington, Ky.-based brewery. “A few of our favorite breweries, Toppling Goliath from Iowa, they started out almost exactly how we did, outside of a garage, and they’re making world-class beers. If at some point we’re where Eight Ball (Party Source’s brewery) or MadTree are right now, I’d feel totally accomplished.”

To try MASH CULT beers, visit Party Town at 6823 Burlington Pike, Florence, Ky. More info: