As part of a recurring series, WCPO contributor Anne David talks with artisans who have left behind traditional careers to follow their passions into the food and beverage industry.
“It started with us drinking beer together,” MadTree co-founder Jeff Hunt said with a laugh, looking around the table at fellow co-founders Kenny McNutt and Brady Duncan. “Us trying craft beers turned into our business.”
This beer-loving trio formed MadTree Brewing Company in 2011, and it has since grown to become one of the most popular breweries in the region. MadTree canned beer is available in 48 counties in Ohio and three in Kentucky, with a taproom in Cincinnati.
Engineering a brewery
Before there was beer, though, there was corporate life.
McNutt, a Texas native who holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering as well as an MBA, had been working in the Baltimore office of Northrop Grumman on defense contracts. In 2005, he was transferred to the Cincinnati office, where he met Cincinnati native Hunt, who was already employed there. The two engineers quickly bonded over a shared love of craft beers during after-work happy hours.
“At Ohio State University, I was part of a ‘Beer of the Week’ club,” Hunt said. “After college, Kenny and I kept it going with friends here.”
“We often had about 30-40 guys at my house at any given tasting,” McNutt added. “We’ve probably tried close to 1,000 beers over the years.”
The love of tasting grew into home brewing. “For me, it started with a Mr. Beer kit – the beer was terrible, but I realized that making my own beer was possible,” Hunt said.
“It’s a fellowship,” McNutt said. “There was tons of information and community in the home brewing world and we got into it.”
In 2010, Brady Duncan joined their fellowship. Duncan, a Northeast Ohioan, had come to Cincinnati for a job at Procter & Gamble from Alabama, where he and his wife were pursuing advanced degrees. Duncan, a craft beer lover, also had been home brewing.
“Our wives (Hunt’s and Duncan’s) introduced us,” Duncan said with a smile. “Our wives knew we were both into home brewing and thought we might get along.”
The three friends began home brewing in earnest, creating brews that met their flavor profile interests versus certain styles of beer.
“We loved experimenting with flavors and ingredients,” McNutt said. “The creativity of home brewing was the fun part for us.”
The origins of MadTree
In early 2011, Hunt planted the seed for MadTree. “Jeff started talking about (forming) our own brewery,” Duncan said.
“While we liked our jobs, I think each of us felt that something creative was missing in our daily life,” McNutt added.
Slowly, the idea for MadTree took shape.
“From the beginning, we knew we wanted ‘Tree’ in the name,” McNutt said. “That spoke to our mission of wanting to grow responsibly in the community and in sustainability as a brewery.”
And the “mad” part?
“You could say ‘we’re mad about brewing,’ ” Duncan said, laughing, as the other two guys groan, clearly a joke that has been made before. “Or that we’re just crazy for doing this,” Duncan said more seriously. “ ‘Mad’ and ‘Tree’ both have separate meanings, but together they create this new thing.”
In mid-2011, they got serious about making MadTree happen and by January 2012, they were fully funded.
“We have many investors, mostly friends and family – all who saw our vision for what MadTree could be,” McNutt said. “We were transparent about plans and the risks involved, but in the end there was this belief in us, for which we were grateful.”
As a show of solidarity and gratitude, the guys then vowed not to shave their beards until they had beer on the shelf.
Building a business
With funding secured, the team began the new business process.
“We were inspired by breweries in Portland and San Diego, and while we wanted to build on the beer history here in Cincinnati, we were excited to become part of its brewing future,” Hunt said.
In addition to their data research they reached out to Cincinnati’s local beer fellowship for counsel. “The team at Rivertown was super helpful, as were other beer distributors and brewers,” said Duncan. “We had a lot of support from the beginning.”
“We looked all over for a space, particularly in the OTR brewing district,” McNutt said. “We even looked at (the now) Rhinegeist, but in the end we were happy to find our space in Norwood as it allows for parking and is easily accessible.”
“We focused the design on raw materials: wood, like the reclaimed wooden tables in the taproom, concrete and metal,” McNutt said. “We wanted MadTree to feel casual.”
In January 2013, they brewed their first batch of beer, Happy Amber. By February, it was on tap at Arthur’s in Hyde Park, and by April, they had started canning.
“We knew we wanted to be canning beer from the start.” McNutt said. “Cans are easily recyclable, which fit with our sustainability message. They’re easily transportable for hikes, and the actual cans preserve the beer better by keeping out light and oxygen.”
By mid-2013, each guy had left his corporate job to work at MadTree full time.
“Over the past few years, we’ve discovered that we each have our own business strength," Duncan said. “Kenny always thinks financially. Jeff has an eye on equipment and process, and I think about how to distribute and promote.”
“Together, we just work,” Hunt said.
The MadTree Brewery Taproom is open Tuesday-Sunday. Hours vary. Please check website: www.madtreebrewing.com.