When Craig Stichter answered the phone for an interview in the middle of the afternoon, he was in the midst of tasting new beers.
“Not bad for a work day, huh,” he says.
This scenario is not uncommon for the president and founder of Bur Oak Brewing Co.
Located on the east side of Columbia, Bur Oak has been brewing since May 2014. Crafting beer for all of Missouri, Illinois and Iowa, the regional-sized brewery is growing — fast. With 48 percent growth in production and the plan to take on additional states in the Midwest next year, Bur Oak has 120 barrels that produce 1,000 gallons of beer per batch. That comes to about 6,000 barrels brewed per year.
Stichter crafted the 15,000-square-foot business from the ground up. A mechanical engineer for most of his professional life, Stichter says he grew tired of the bickering and negativity he experienced in the automotive industry. He took a break for eight years to work as a facilities project manager at MU, which taught him skills that would be beneficial for his next job.
“It taught me how to communicate with people anywhere, from deans to ditch-diggers,” Stichter says. “I was working with the client, who was paying for the project, and I was working on a daily basis with the construction workers that were actually constructing the project.”
But he missed manufacturing. As a home brewer for 14 years, Stichter had always “kind of known” he would eventually do something with craft beer. He toyed with the idea of selling brewing equipment, but he quickly ruled that out after learning of the high investment needed. He eventually landed on the idea of being a craft brewer.
“I knew that if I got back into manufacturing, it would have to be under my own terms,” Stichter says. “I wouldn’t want to go to work for somebody; I would want to build it from scratch.”
And so, in 2013, the process began. He scouted his head brewer, Kraig Bridgeford, out of a brewery in California. A veteran commercial brewer for 13 years, Bridgeford handles management on the production side, which involves everything from designing recipes to taking inventory to packaging the final product. He’s also behind the creativity of the operation, coming up with the beer names and styles.
“My approach to beer is being authentic and simple,” Bridgeford says. “I like to stay true to beer and not be gimmicky. I like to make this nice, clean beer that’s not pretentious or complicated — just thoughtful.”
After hiring Bridgeford, Stichter added a fellow local and homebrewer Phil Fuemmeler. He spent about two years traveling the country to visit breweries and learn more about the trade. Stichter says breweries that had been open from three to 20 years share their secrets and acquired knowledge.
“That’s why I fell in love with the craft brewing industry,” Stichter says. “Kind of reflecting back on that automotive employer that I had and the negativity that I had, the craft beer industry is so brotherly, so helpful to one another that it was really just the right fit for me.”
The first year, Stichter focused on selling beer in Columbia and Jefferson City before expanding to surrounding areas including Hannibal and Cooksville. Bur Oak continued to grow quickly. By the fall of 2014, it had entered the beer market in Kansas City.
Bur Oak crafts year-round, seasonal and special release beers. Each beer has an identity and a reason for being created, usually accompanied by a personal story or community-based theme.
In fact, the logo is a pretty recognizable Columbia landmark — The Big Tree.
“With Clyde’s Caramel Cream Ale, there’s a cat on the front. Clyde is our brewery cat, a rescue cat,” Stichter says. “He’s our mouser for the brewery. Where you have grain, you have mice, but we don’t because of Clyde.”
For special releases, just enough are brewed to sit on the shelves before more are brought out. Stichter says he has around four special releases, and they’re continuously thinking of new concepts to try. Recently added to the shelves is Tractor Fire, which features chipotle peppers. Bridgeford says they’re pouring it up with tacos on Ninth Street at 44 Canteen.
According to Bridgeford, all of the beer at Bur Oak Brewery is in a pure, clean state. Stichter says his beer-making philosophy is not to confuse his customers. He says he has an obligation to them to craft beer with a consistency in quality. They measure out the ingredients in ways that highlight a particular flavor that people would expect, he says.
Four years after opening, Stichter says he can now help other breweries starting out. What began with brewing for two cities in Missouri has now extended to three states in the Midwest. And Stichter’s not slowing down.
“It’s just been a fun process to see it grow.”