Crafted with Passion

Hingham resident, owner and head brewer of Barrel House Z Russ Heissner brings another level of “craftiness” to the South Shore.

by Jacquelyn Mysliwiec | Photography by Derrick Zellmann
Pictured above: Russ Heissner, owner of Barrel House Z.

Wood barrels, stripped and repurposed, flank the walls at Barrel House Z brewery and taproom. The barrels also surround the bar, and materials from them were even used to build the Adirondack chairs outside on the patio.

However, these leftover barrels aren’t merely used for décor—they’re what inspire the innovative flavors that each BHZ craft beer embodies.

The RR#23, for example, is a red rye ale that’s aged in Boston’s Bully Boy Distillers’ whiskey barrels and Jamaican rum barrels. And BHZ’s fan favorite brew, Sunny & 79º—a ginned pilsner made with a variety of hops, juniper berry, citrus and gin botanicals—is aged for one month in tequila barrels (the second round of this brew was aged in Bully Boy whiskey and rum barrels).

In this case, it’s all about the flavors “at the bottom of the barrel,” as well as the man behind the magic—owner and head brewer of BHZ Russ Heissner.


A CAREER CRAFTED BY PASSION

Heissner got his start in the craft beer industry after graduating from the University of California, Davis, with a degree in fermentation science.

“My dream was to be the team doctor for the 49ers,” says Heissner, who switched his major his junior year to pursue winemaking. But it was another craft industry that came calling. In 1986, Heissner was recruited by Boston’s Harpoon Brewery, becoming the brewery’s first head brewer and developing its first commercially released beer, Harpoon Ale. This sparked the beginning of a “no regrets” attitude for the California native, who had packed up his life into a single bag to relocate to Massachusetts.

“Hingham is actually what kept me here on the East Coast,” says the longtime resident, who happily resides in the town with his wife, BHZ marketing guru Mary, and two of their four children.

In 1992, Heissner’s brewing career was put on hold when he left Harpoon to earn an MBA at Boston University. He carved out a successful career at JV Northwest, Inc., a leading manufacturer of craft brewing systems, before spending 15 years in industrial biotechnology where he focused on the development of cellulosic ethanol fuel technology with BP Biofuels. After BP closed its biofuels division in 2015, Heissner set his sights on opening his own microbrewery.

“I had always wanted to come back to the craft beer business, so this was the perfect opportunity,” he says. Heissner, who maintained contact with Harpoon and developed a relationship with Bully Boy Distillers, introduced a partnership idea to the local heavy hitters. Owning minority shares, Bully Boy now contributes the spirit barrels for aging, while Harpoon helps in large-scale production by supplying wort (the liquid drained from the mashing process, prior to fermentation) from their 10-barrel pilot system. “The timing lined up just right,” says Heissner.

On June 3, 2016, BHZ received its farmer-brewery license, and in August, the tasting room and brewery opened for wholesale business. By the fall, the brewery had received its pour license and was fully open to the public. This year marks one year since BHZ received their farmer-brewery license. Coincidentally, June 3, 2017, marked 30 years to the day that Harpoon Brewery was issued a brewing license, making it the first beer manufacturer in the state of Massachusetts.


AN INNOVATIVE CONCEPT

Creativity and collaboration are central to BHZ’s concept. Instead of maintaining a list of flagship beers, BHZ continually partners with other innovative brewers to offer an ever-changing selection of small-batch brews called the Pilot Pour program. The name and signature of each guest brewer is printed on every manufactured bottle, along with the date the beer was brewed, number of batches and the type of barrel it was aged in. Doug MacNair, an old friend of Heissner who works at Harpoon, co-brewed Sunny & 79º.

“Doug and I created Sunny & 79º around a handful of summer’s most memorable flavors,” says Heissner. “We wanted to show people that barrel-aged beer is just as good on hot summer days as dark winter nights.”

Also unique to BHZ is the way its beer is aged. Unlike most breweries that use large metal tanks, BHZ uses spirit barrels, which impart a unique flavor to each of its beers. “The barrel is literally the fifth ingredient,” says Heissner.

These handcrafted creations with thoughtful names are what attracts locals to BHZ. The Adeline stout, brewed earlier this year during the winter, became an instant hit with its deep chocolate notes, hints of caramel, oak and just a whisper of whiskey from the aging in American whiskey barrels. The beer was named after the daughter of the brew’s co-creator and BHZ’s resident brewer, Chris Webster.

The third beer in their series, Townie, is a tribute to the neighborhoods all over Massachusetts. Townie was co-created with brewer Dan McGuire, who is of Irish descent and therefore was the perfect fit for brewing an Irish ale. He is also known around the brewery as the mastermind behind their famous bar snack called the macanada, a macaroni and cheese-filled empanada that conveniently turns two highly craved pub foods into an all-in-one finger food. Not only does the crew introduce a new pilot pour weekly, but they’ve also got three new macanadas every week to pair with the latest brews on tap.

And then you have your ITB beers, short for In The Buff—BHZ’s term for non-barrel-aged beer. It’s more like an acoustic version of their barrel-aged releases, a stripped-down brew with the bare essential ingredients.

BHZ’s team (from left to right): Alex Cummings, Chris Dion, Chris Webster, Chris Curreri, Mary Heissner, Russ Heissner, Chaz Boggini, Zach Eicoff, Steve Ventresca, Bri Grealish, Pat Burke and Mackenzie O’Connell.

“For me, choosing a favorite beer is like trying to choose my favorite child,” says Heissner, who enjoys experimenting with different barrels to discover unexpected flavors. For Heissner, the brewing process is not about catering to popular tastes; rather, it’s about making something remarkable and memorable.

So, why the “Z” in the brewery’s name? Because “X” was already used by so many, Heissner explains. Perhaps there’s a more meaningful, unintended reason: the letter at the end of the alphabet has something in common with the flavors discovered in the brewing process—the “good stuff” is found at the bottom of the barrel.

Find Barrel House Z brews on tap at local restaurants and available for purchase at BHZ’s taproom and at local package stores.

95 Woodrock Road, Weymouth
339-201-7888 • barrelhousez.net

Brewer Zach Eicoff checks the fill level of a barrel.

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