The first time I met John Reardon, founder of Deep Ellum Brewing Co., was in the summer of 2011. It was a hot, bright day, and he was balanced atop a giant wooden spool outside his brewery, drenched in sweat, shirt off, headphones on.
While in the midst of building the space, Reardon was also awash in dealing with bureaucratic issues with the city of Dallas. Since DEBC was the city's first craft brewery, there were a lot of unknowns. For instance, one inspector said they had to install an ice machine, even though breweries don’t need ice machines.
At the time, they shared their building with a printing company. On a quick tour, we passed a Michael Scott-type in a hallway, but the printing employees didn’t seem to mind the beer folk much.
That was the small stuff. There were many bigger issues Reardon and his team had to hack through in clearing a path for craft beer in Dallas, such as extensive legislative battles.
In 2013, if you were crazy enough to open a brewery, not only could you not sell beer for off-site consumption (that passed in 2019), you couldn’t even sell a pint to customers at the brewery. Instead, you could only give samples on a tour. Canning? Pfft! Hardly. Retailers weren't inclined to carry "craft" beer.
The brewing industry, including Reardon, took on legislators who were eyeballs-deep in cash-flush donors who didn’t want new competition in the market.
Back in those days, Reardon told me starting a brewery was like trying to build a boat while you’re at sea. Piece by piece, one issue at a time, but in order for it to keep moving, you had to keep building. Or vice versa.
Now, in 2020, that’s all fuzzy history. There are roughly more than 20 craft breweries in Dallas. One only needs to glance at a bar or the beer coolers at a grocery store and see that flash of pink and yellow to know it’s the Dallas Blonde, a cornerstone of DEBC's craft beer conquest.
Last week, Reardon was fired from that company.
From his Facebook post:
“Today, I was terminated from my employment with Deep Ellum Brewing Company. As it’s no secret that I’m in a lawsuit with CANarchy, the company who I entrusted to be the steward of the brewery and brand going forward, I’m sure it would come as no shock that they’ve come to this decision.”
In 2018, CANarchy Craft Brewing Collective bought DEBC in an effort to get a much-needed cash infusion to expand capacity, although Reardon remained part of the operation as president and CEO.
But things turned sour. In late July, Reardon talked to Brewhound about a lawsuit he filed against CANarchy Holding Corp. “alleging that the craft brewery rollup has failed to make several payments related to the 2018 acquisition of the Dallas craft brewery.”
In the interview, Reardon said he’d been cut off from all communication with the company.
In his Facebook message last week, Reardon said in some ways it’s a huge relief:
“Ever since I sold the majority of my Company back in June of 2018, Deep Ellum Brewing Co has been dying a slow death. All of the promises made just seemed to unravel from the start. And now, just over 2 years later, the brand is a shadow of itself, the beers have changed, quality has gone down the drain (literally), and the culture that I cultivated (my most coveted accomplishment) has been completely dismantled.”
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In reply to a request for comment, Tony Short, CEO of CANarchy Craft Brewery Collective sent the following statement:
"It is our policy not to comment on personnel matters or ongoing litigation. However, we can confirm that John is no longer employed by CANarchy Craft Brewery Collective. Regarding Deep Ellum Brewing Company, over the past two years, we’ve invested heavily in our people, the Deep Ellum facility and quality programs to ensure we deliver the best beers in the world to our loyal consumers. Simply put, the quality of our beers is the best it's ever been.”
For now, Reardon is shifting his focus to his small-batch whiskey project, Deep Ellum Distillery. They’re bottling vodka and working on an Irish-style, grain-to-glass whiskey called Lead Belly after the African-American folk singer Huddie Ledbetter. The whiskey has been maturing in barrels for about two years already.
And in true form, Reardon is fighting another good fight in an effort to allow distilleries to sell more than two bottles every 30 days directly to customers. Don’t expect him to take any punches lying down. If there’s a path that needs to be cleared, a boat that needs to be built while at sea, he’s not one to shy away from taking the lead.
At least at this distillery and tasting room, an ice machine makes sense.