By Jordana Starr
Photos by Matt Burkhartt
Tym McDowell has been homebrewing since he was 20, about a year before he could legally sit down at a bar and order a beer. Though he knew he wanted to brew for a living, his parents encouraged him to pursue a more academic career path. He chose to study medicine, but brewing remained a passion. Today, he splits his time as a physician assistant in neurosurgery at Mercy Medical Center and co-owner of Bear & Bramble Brewery in Florence.
McDowell met his business partner, John Wanner, at work in 2010. Wanner, a nurse anesthetist, had been homebrewing for a year, and the two soon developed a friendship that grew out of their love for beer. By 2011, they were brewing together regularly at McDowell’s home in Easthampton. A year later, they moved the brewing system to Wanner’s garage in Florence, and soon expanded the system to accommodate up to 22 gallons of beer per batch. “It was a natural transition from hanging out, talking about beer, to hanging out and starting a business,” McDowell says. Their new venture, Bear & Bramble Brewery, received its federal and state licensing late last year, which meant they could finally sell their beer to the public.
A 22-gallon batch is tiny for a commercial brewery. But there are advantages to brewing on such a small system. McDowell and Wanner can take more risks and produce experimental beers. They are also able to remain self-funded and avoid taking on debt. “At some point, we’ll be happy to take money,” Wanner says, “but not yet!” Their brew system is still in a constant state of development and redesign as Bear & Bramble grows and evolves.
Family support has been crucial to their brewery. Cousins have fabricated sheet metal and installed ductwork, while wives meticulously hand-label each bottle. The brewery’s electric control system is housed in an old ammo box that once belonged to McDowell’s uncle, the first homebrewer in his family. As their young children grow, they hope to see them become a part of the business as well.
McDowell and Wanner source most of their base grains from Valley Malt in Hadley and look forward to building relationships with local farmers. After brewing, they feed the spent grains to Wanner’s chickens. They are also aging some beer in whiskey barrels, increasing the beer’s complexity and, for many fans, its appeal. When the beer is ready, they bottle it and self-distribute to a handful of retailers, including Provisions, Cooper’s Corner, State Street, and River Valley Co-Op.
As for the future, the duo hopes to move into an industrial space or buy some land. McDowell envisions having a little farm, offering a welcoming tasting experience with fresh bread and fine cheese and a place for kids to play. But for right now, their focus is on the beer.
“Brewing is a great blend of art and science,” McDowell says. And, compared to neurosurgery, “you’re less likely to maim people.”