After over two years of planning, hard labor, renovation and eventually making beer, local brewer Matt Rodgers’ long awaited Hazelwood Brewing operation in Lexington’s Old Mill comes online Thursday, Oct. 3, for its initial soft opening run.
The gleaming, freshly sealed wooden bar, the swooping second level lofted lounge area and the metal adornments that accent the taproom’s brick walls comprise what is possibly the most picturesque indoor beer drinking setting the Midlands has to offer. Yet, it’s the owner and head brewer’s personal history that gives the new brewery character beyond the polish and sheen of his new space.
In early 2017, Rodgers found himself at a career crossroads. Having been the head brewer at Lexington’s Old Mill Brewpub since March 2013, he joined the nascent Cottontown Brew Lab group and began helping them get their brewery set up, with the intention of brewing both there and at Old Mill. After leaving Cottontown due to creative differences before they had even opened, he set out in search of a space that he could tailor to his unyieldingly adventurous style of brewing.
Rodgers comes across as a brewing Renaissance man. He’s grown hops at his family’s farm in Camden for 14 years, featuring them in beers at Old Mill since he started brewing there. He also helped propel the emergence of New England-style hazy IPAs across the Midlands, a style that had yet to catch on with local breweries until Hazelwood began collaborating with many of them on the opaque, hoppy suds.
“I really don’t like taking this stuff too seriously — it’s still just beer,” he says of his experimental style. “It’s supposed to be fun.”
The opportunity to create his own brewing home came from a familiar source, as the landlord of the Old Mill property offered him a chance to do something with the 128-year-old building’s long neglected boiler room. Non-operational since 1962, the lofted-ceiling room at the bottom corner of the Mill sustained water damage in the great flood of 2015; Rodgers call the condition he found it in a “disaster.” Even still, it felt like the right move for the project he was cooking up.
“I had been kind of eyeballing this place for a long time,” he admits.
Demolition began on the space in summer 2017, with Rodgers and his crew of volunteers putting in countless hours of work removing large concrete footers with metal pipes running throughout them just to turn the building into a usable blank canvas.
“It’s really a big, strong, sturdy building that has advantages a lot of times,” he says, despite the initial demolition headaches. “It holds temperature well, but also, it makes it difficult to put a door in the wall.”
Once the building was prepped, Rodgers began assembling the brewing setup that would best fit his desire for experimentation. Instead of ordering a brew house and fermentors from an equipment catalogue, he culled together repurposed food and dairy manufacturing tanks alongside upcycled vessels from defunct breweries to create his own “Frankenbrew,” an idea he became infatuated with after meeting Tom Hennessy, the pioneer of the use-what-you’ve-got brewing movement.
“I don’t like paint-by-numbers equipment, I don’t like things that are already pre-manufactured and ready to go,” Rodgers details of why his Frankenbrew system works best for him. “I want to be able to do it myself.”
Rodgers wouldn’t outsource creating the taproom’s aesthetic either, choosing to hand build the bar and the lofted lounge area from wood he and his father had been collecting and air drying for years. Calling in a favor from an old friend with a saw mill, he and his dad hewed all of the lumber used in the project, including the gargantuan live edge slab that’s been repurposed as the main bar.
“I remember admiring this tree for many years before it came down in a storm,” he recalls, running his hand across its amber lacquered top. “And now, it lives on in the form of a bar.”
Throughout the entire renovation period, Rodgers and his assistant brewer, Linus Oliver, continued to brew regularly at Old Mill Brewpub, and found time to collaborate frequently with other breweries across the state. The duo appreciated the opportunity to get their name out in the state beer scene, as well as keep their brewing skills honed in the lead up to Hazelwood’s opening.
“You can’t be planning on starting a band and never play your guitar,” Rodgers chuckles. “You’ve got to constantly stay after it and try to come up with new things and bounce ideas off of other brewers.”
Finally ready to open his doors, Rodgers knows plenty of challenges lie in wait now that he’s finally his own boss. Managing a brewery staff, running a tap room, navigating a new brand through social media and continuing to contract brew at Old Mill all while perfecting his Hazelwood recipes won’t be easy. But to that end, he knows that seeing his brewing vision through remains his top priority.
“I’m not claiming to be a professional businessman,” Rodgers states plainly.
“I just want to be a professional brewer and I want to not have anything come in between me and the types of beer I want to make.”
What: Hazelwood Brewing Launch
Where: 711 E Main St., Lexington
When: Thursday, Oct. 3, 2-10 p.m.
More: 803-476-5845, hazelwoodbeerco.com