For a man who just walked away from a high-profile full-time gig at one of the largest, most profitable breweries in Dallas-Fort Worth, Barrett Tillman seems particularly zen — especially considering that he didn't leave his gig at Deep Ellum Brewing Co. for another job. At least not in the traditional sense.
But Tillman is kind of a chill guy. He's reserved, his voice is quiet and he thinks before he speaks — a still-waters-run-deep personality in an industry dominated by boisterous male ego. But Tillman isn't devoid of ego — he knows he's good, and he'll tell you as much. And now, he's attempting to bank on it.
In 2014, after a little soul-searching and several years of intensive homebrewing, Tillman left a decent-paying career in IT and web design for a far less financially lucrative gig as master ciderist for Bishop Cider Co. After a year, he left to consult and contract brew before taking a full-time gig launching Deep Ellum Brewing Co.'s sour and barrel program, eventually becoming head brewer. Before taking the job at DEBC, Tillman started laying the foundation for the company he eventually went rogue to focus on full time, BlackMan Brewing.
"I left Bishop and I started the concept for BlackMan Brewing," Tillman says. "I ran around with a business plan, and that business plan was kinda going nowhere. People were like, do you really wanna make this art beer? Art beer is not gonna make any money."
"Art beer" is a pretty apt description for what Tillman brews. His beer is wild, unpredictable, tenuous. It's likely to have a mouthfeel and flavor profile unlike anything you've tasted in a pint glass recently. It's quiet but boisterous and always a little risky.
"I specifically like the wild and sour beers, mixed fermentation, mixed cultures, stuff that takes a long time," Tillman says. "Just kind of understanding the science behind it and then applying it."
Tillman describes his beers in rustic, poetic terms.
"I explain it to people that the beers that they’re gonna try ... are kind of like a walk in the woods ... because what we’re examining is fermentation notes and wild fermentation notes, things that you would experience if you were in the woods," he says. "Fresh and vibrant as a whiff of rotting wood."
He has a reputation as a bit of a mad scientist, and it's an apt descriptor. It's why Deep Ellum Brewing Co., a big Dallas brand that makes most of its money on straightforward brews like Dallas Blonde, pulled in Tillman to launch a bolder initiative focused on sours and barrel-aged brews, beers that don't sell like IPAs and blondes. Beer that's a risk.
"Deep Ellum needed a lot of help," Tillman says. "They were dealing with production limitations. By me understanding fermentation, I was able to speed up the fermentation process by 42 percent — that allows us to get 42 percent more beer out using the same team and processes."
Tillman stayed on board for two years before leaving DEBC behind April 4.
"Within those two years, Deep Ellum has nearly doubled — and that’s really their drive," Tillman says. "Their drive is to leave this art world behind and be this big thing. And part of that bigger community. Deep Ellum simply stopped investing in me. When I looked at the 2018 schedule, there wasn’t anything in there that seemed innovative."
Deep Ellum has a lot on its plate right now with the launch of its new vodka arm, Deep Ellum Distilling. But Tillman was more interested in staying wild. So he walked.
Now, he's focused on selling his brewer's yeast to breweries interested in more adventurous beers. He says he's picked up both domestic and international clients, one of which will take him to Costa Rica to do a collaboration using his proprietary yeast. But he's also going full gypsy.
"Gypsy brewing is where I’m a guy who doesn’t have a brewhouse, so I’ll come into the studio here and make a beer," he says during a lunchtime interview over smoked trout sandwiches at Small Brewpub in Oak Cliff. "When you see that label of the beer, it’ll be heavy BlackMan brand, and then when you roll over the bottle and read the small print, it’ll say brewed at Small Brewpub."
In the tanks lining the side of Small's wide open taproom, Tillman has a beer in the works: Gypsy Forest, a saison brewed with hickory and cinnamon bark and "leaves from the buckthorn tree in Ethiopia, historically used as a bittering agent," Tillman says. He describes the beer as a meditative walk through the woods, the kind of walk that he was taking in the Tennessee mountains when he decided to leave DEBC and strike out on his own.
"Above you is a bunch of leaves and beside you is this tree bark, and you’re walking through the woods and touching these tangible things," he says.
It's an esoteric description for what is, at the end of the day, just beer, but that's Tillman.
He's shooting for a mid-June release, and Tillman fans can get their hands on a bottle of Gypsy Forest by buying into a subscription of sorts. Each bottle released will cost $15-$20, but Tillman promises they'll be worth it.
"Consumers are paying more attention to how they’re spending their money and why they’re spending their money," he says. "If you're gonna charge somebody $20 a bottle, you’d better be intentional with your product;
otherwise, you’re gonna lose your consumer."
And he is nothing if not intentional about his product. Aside from this upcoming gypsy brew at Small, the only other way people can try Tillman's beer right now is by buying into the weekly Saturday prix fixe dinners at chef Misti Norris' new pop-up restaurant Petra & the Beast. On Saturdays only, each Norris course comes paired with a BlackMan brew.
"I’m replacing that wine bottle that you bring to dinner with this finely crafted beer that has the same kind of terroir and notes of wine and the same kind of history, really," he says. "And the reception has been amazing. People do not expect beer to have that kind of presence."
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When tasting Tillman's beers, you can expect to hear some mythology — and Tillman's mythology, particularly in an industry overwhelmingly run by white men.
"I was always busting into an environment that didn’t look like me, and I had to exist on my own merit," he says.
"I wasn't gonna be like my peers. I didn’t have their background, their history, but I had my own background and history. BlackMan Brewing was something that started off for me personally that has organically also evolved with me personally, so it’s very easy for me to tell my own story."
Now, he's telling it on his own terms, without the safety net of full-time employment at a reputable brewery.
"Right now, it’s a great time to embrace the in between — to walk in the woods, fart in the wind, make some things with my friends and to examine life for myself," Tillman says. "I'm at that point where the next thing that I do as a profession, it has to stay. The next thing I do professionally, it has to be something that’s big."