If you’re wondering what’s been happening at Birdboy Brewing Co. of late, and you’re a tad confused by some recent comings and goings, then you’re not the only one. A lot has been going on both behind the scenes and out in public, and the current state of affairs takes a little unraveling. In an attempt to do just that, I recently sat down with the man whose hand is now firmly on the rudder at Birdboy, Mark Burton.
Before we talked about the present and the immediate future, I wanted to get to know Mark a little. I always start with the basics; “What was the first beer that you remember drinking?” Mark described his childhood on a northwest Allen county farm, where as a young man his dad and uncle introduced him to the delights of pausing for a cold beer amidst the rigors of manual labor on blistering hot days hay-baling. “If I recall correctly, I didn’t care for them much!”, was Mark’s abiding memory of those first beers.
Like many of their generation Mark’s dad and uncle were committed PBR drinkers, and back when Mark was seeking better beer in the late 80s and early 90s, things hadn’t moved on much from that American classic. Michelob Dark, Amber Bock, Heineken and Red Stripe were just a few of the beers that weren’t total PBR clones, but things were still in pretty bad shape across most of the Midwest at that time.
From those farming roots Mark went on to study horticulture at Purdue University, and subsequently worked in landscaping for 30 years. In 1993 his mother-in-law gifted him his first homebrew kit, and without knowing it, the future was set. This is a fairly familiar tale, and I get the feeling that basic homebrew kits should really come with some kind of warning of the ruin that they can inflict upon their unsuspecting recipients!
Circa 2012 Mark started thinking seriously about the possibility of getting a business plan together to start a brewery. In 2015 he bought the building* at S. Harrison and W. Wallace south of the city, where his, and Birdboy’s plans are now firmly centered.
Initially Mark spent around 4 years attempting to get his first project off the ground – the remnants of which can still be seen on the painted logo on the side of the building on W. Wallace – but a combination of some failed partnerships and other financial hiccups scuppered those original plans.
*As an aside the building has a fascinating history, dating from the second decade of the 1900s. It was originally a gas station, and has been a Firestone Tire dealership, a liquor store, a saw sharpening business, and most recently a copy/print shop.
During those early years of groundwork Mark had struck up a relationship with Ben Thompson. Thompson is the founder of Birdboy Brewing Co, and the original business had a production facility on Collins Road, due north of the city near Glenbrook Square Mall. Distribution was handled out of that location, and later via the taproom in Roanoke on the southwest side (now a Trubble Brewing location). Birdboy and Thompson also started an affiliation with the Sol Kitchen food truck, which in turn eventually blossomed into the still open, brick and mortar Solbird Kitchen & Tap on W. Dupont Rd., also to the north of the city.
The name Birdboy is a nod by Thompson, a keen pilot himself, to the local phenom and pioneering aviator Art Smith who went by the same nickname. Mark had done some brewing with Ben, and in August of 2020 the two went into partnership as Birdboy co-owners. Soon after that, the equipment from Collins came to the south side, and production was shifted to Birdboy’s current location. So what’s been going on in the last couple of years? Well to sum it up quickly the whole enterprise ran into several logistical and legal hurdles which, without going into specific detail, Mark hopes will be 100% resolved by October of this year.
All that being said Birdboy Brewing Co. does currently have all of the necessary authority to sell and distribute beer. Moreover, Mark currently has a couple of brite tanks filled with beer, and has a cooler with kegs and bottles ready for distribution. What you may not be aware of is that his Indiana Farmhouse IPA is currently on-tap at four locations in the state as we speak. Birdboy has the ability to sell beer for carryout right now as well, and pending one more local ordinance, will be in a position to open as bona-fide establishment within weeks of that approval. He’s understandably (and sensibly) reluctant to attach specifics to the date of the true re-birth of Birdboy, but there’s a glint in his eye, and an enthusiasm that’s palpable, that makes me optimistic that it will be sooner rather than later. Only time will tell, but it feels like things are on the brink of a significant reemergence of a local brand.
It’s worth noting that Mark’s Fort Wayne roots, both in terms of his upbringing and the local beer scene run deep. As a Carroll high school graduate, and with relationships that touch most of the Fort Wayne brewing glitterati and beyond, he’s well connected and well-known in town. Apparently with a reputation for telling it like it is, I felt an immediate kinship with Mark. He’s also a man with big plans. Those include a family restaurant space serviced by a full kitchen on site, a beer garden, a tasting room/bar space, and even a potential distillery; all are advanced in terms of their development. The huge S. Harrison St. building, plus the two adjacent lots that he owns can easily accommodate all of that and more, and the current 7 bbl system could be significantly expanded without the need for seeking more space. The potential here is without question the most substantial I have seen at a fledgling brewery for quite some time.
What about Mark’s brewing philosophy? Like me, Mark describes himself as a traditionalist. With a Belgian Dark, a ‘Strong’ Blonde (5.2%), and the Indiana Farmhouse IPA (so called not because it has any Saison/Farmhouse character but because it’s made solely from local ingredients) as beers previously brewed, some of the first beers you can expect from the phoenix Birdboy are likely to be firmly in lanes that the legacy drinker will recognize. The ashes may even yield a rauchbier. Canned haze, and exploding, fake fruit ‘sours’ are unlikely to be a feature (phew!), so my heart is lifted.
The space that Mark owns still has a way to go in terms of construction, but as he explained to me a soft opening could be contrived fairly quickly with some temporary fixtures and fittings satisfying the legal requirements. If enthusiasm is anything to go by I’d back Mark to get things done sooner rather than later, but as he knows, some things are out of his hands. Until then expect to see Birdboy’s gentle re-entry into a few establishments before the full-on re-set for a local brewery with enormous potential.