Little Fish Brewing Company in Athens is brewing local flavors and making Athens a national beer-lovers destination
By Jake Fernberg, Photography by Sarah Warda
Certain anthropologists believe that the time required for beer to properly ferment helped spur humanity’s shift from life as mobile hunter-gatherers to a more stationary lifestyle. Following this logic, beer’s more than just the best drink for a ballgame or a key ingredient for a rich frying batter, but a crucial aspect of organized civilization. It’s that same commitment to locality and community that award-winning Athens-based Little Fish Brewing Company taps into with their locally made Ohio beers.
Jimmy Stockwell and Sean White opened Little Fish, an auto garage turned taproom, last summer after wholesale renovations. The two are native Athenians and their brewery is right outside downtown Athens. It feels like a farmhouse: an open design, an acre and a half of land and an outdoor enclosure ideal for picnics.
“Families are always here,” Jimmy notes, and that’s by design: Jimmy and Sean both have young children and they’ve created a laid-back and welcoming space that’s more idyllic than hectic.
From the very beginning, Jimmy and Sean strived to foster community and brewing simple, rustic, locally inflected beers seemed a natural fit. Jimmy says they “specifically engineered these beers to use local ingredients” from the beginning. Whenever possible, Little Fish beers features Ohio ingredients, beginning with corn and spelt, and now Ohio malts are being used in production of their IPAs. They feature a diverse and ever-changing draught list, from stouts to sours and everywhere in between; my favorite was the Master of Reality, a black IPA that was full but still crisp. It’s a great beer for drinkers with a gluten intolerance as it’s gluten-reduced.
Their commitment to Ohio ingredients offers more than just a feel-good story. It has definite impacts on the flavors of the beer. To understand this it’s helpful to consider terroirs; the idea that where a crop is grown affects its taste and gives it unique qualities. This concept is prevalent in wine culture—it’s common knowledge that a California cabernet sauvignon is markedly different than one made in Bordeaux—but with beer the same nuance isn’t always accounted for. So many brewing corporations buy their ingredients from the same handful of conglomerates, and while recipes and styles are different, drawing from the same ingredient base homogenizes the beer. Little Fish Brewing exists to counter this trend.
“Our idea isn’t necessarily to brew the best beer in the world—I don’t even think that exists—but [the ingredients] are all a little bit different, and that makes it even more unique and also makes great beer,” says Jimmy. For them, it’s all about brewing beer that represents Athens.
Little Fish has to use some decidedly “old-school” brewing techniques to make beer for their still-new brewery. Sean talks out the complicated process they use for brewing their original Shagbark Pilsner, which involves three people forming a bucket-passing chain to maximize efficiency. Sean and Jimmy embody a casual and matter-of-fact tone when talking about this daunting task. “It’s a tough grain to work with,” says Sean.
Community and local values are present in every aspect of Little Fish. The aforementioned picnic area often fills with families on afternoons and weekends, the tap room has a growing collection of board games for patrons who seek some friendly competition with their stouts and the parking lot hosts a rotating lineup of Athens-area food trucks. When the weather turns, Little Fish holds kids’ days once a month. While the taps are reserved for the parents, the space itself is great for kids to run around.
Danne Corrigan, a regular, loves Little Fish for the great flavor of her favorite brews and the constantly changing selection. She says the atmosphere is "great" and filled with "friendly and welcoming" folks.
Little Fish has a lot of room to grow, literally and figuratively. Jimmy and Sean hope to expand the grounds to include a bike path connecting the picnic area to a city-installed bike trail so that more Athenians can get to their taproom. They also intend to grow hop plants on the property, reinforcing their commitment to local ingredients. They’ll eventually be able to walk out the front door to grab what’s necessary for one of their fantastic IPAs. When they were renovating the space, Jimmy and Sean planted fruit tress—plums, raspberries and sour cherries. They will soon bear fruit that will be used in their barrel-aging program. This, along with expanding their tap selection and continuing to experiment with traditional sour beers, is all part of an effort to, according to Jimmy, “really bring the local element into the beer.”
“Bringing people to Athens and being an economic engine for the area is very important,” say Jimmy and Sean. Between Little Fish and other Athens breweries like Jackie O’s and Devil’s Kettle, they’re attracting tourism. Ratebeer.com dubbed Little Fish the best new Ohio brewery this past spring, and also tabbed Jackie O’s as the best brewery in Ohio. And Little Fish’s Barrel Aged Woodthrush, their distinct farmhouse ale, just won a gold medal at the prestigious World Beer Cup. It’s clear that Athens has the foundations for a phenomenal beer scene, and it’s easy to support local businesses when what they make wins awards.
Their drive to continue to be local is also a goal for the future: Jimmy referenced Athens’ 30 Mile Meal program’s mission for locally sourced dining in which all ingredients come from within 30 miles. He hopes to parallel that and start brewing 30 mile beers.
It seems a lofty goal but I wouldn’t write them off: Between their dedication to their craft, the booming craft beer scene, and their local expertise, a completely Athens ale seems attainable. I’ll certainly be keeping my eye out.
Little Fish Brewery; 8675 Armitage Rd.; Athens, Ohio 45701; littlefishbrewing.com.