Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of interviews with local brewers.
For many brewers — and beer enthusiasts alike — the first taste of beer often can be a magic moment of awakening. Even if it’s just your dad’s cheap light beer, it can make an impression to a young person with a palate that agrees with the flavors.
Rick Stidham, one of the co-owners and head brewer at Akasha Brewing Co., had a different experience.
He was 5, and his father was customizing a Ford van, complete with green shag carpeting, a wood console with cup holders and bean bags in the back. It was the 1970s. Stidham was drinking an orange soda and his dad was drinking a Budweiser, both cans in the console.
Not paying attention, the young Stidham accidentally grabbed the wrong can and took a drink.
“I spat it out all over the place,” Stidham recalls, in between sips of a Russian imperial stout at his brewery. “I was not happy. So, that turned me off to Budweiser and the like, I think, early on.”
Some years later, however, he was saved by a bottle of Sierra Nevada through the course of simply trying to find a beer he liked.
He went through phases of drinking Dundee Honey Brown, Killian’s Irish Red, Guinness and Bass, but Sierra Nevada made him a hophead, and he soon turned to IPAs.
Sometime around 1996, his friend Jerry Narwocki — now a co-owner of Akasha — decided he wanted to home brew, so Stidham bought him a kit as a gift. It didn’t take long before Stidham got in on the fun, and it wasn’t long after that he was hooked.
“As I usually do about anything, I deeply dove into it and wanted to learn everything about it I possibly could,” Stidham says. “I don’t know how many hundred batches I brewed, but I brewed every BJCP style until I could brew all of them, before I started experimenting.”
And so it was that Stidham, somewhere along the way, concluded that he wanted to open a brewery, so he started his company in 2012 and began to build it slowly, buying used equipment and ultimately leasing the space in NuLu and building it out to his specifications. Akasha opened in 2015.
But Stidham still works his day job, balancing both. While he does stay busy writing software, he isn’t planning to transition to a sole focus on the brewery anytime soon.
“It’s a lot of work, but I think the reason it works is the two things I do are so different,” he says. “This is a break from software and software is a break from this, and I love both of the them. I won’t say it isn’t work, because putting that many hours into anything will wear you out, but I do enjoy both.”
Akasha now sells crowlers to go in its taproom, along with growlers and howlers, and it just bottled its first beer, a barrel-aged Russian imperial stout (all the bottles were pre-sold). It’s become a NuLu staple, rotating seasonal and core beers like Fehr’s XL, a lager that throws back to a heritage brand.
Every fall, 12-Foot Fall Lager, an Oktoberfest beer, is released in tribute to a beer Stidham calls his favorite Oktoberfest he’s ever had.
The story behind that name is the fun part. He had brought three kegs of beer, two of them being the Oktoberfest, to a friend’s house for a get-together on the deck. People crowded onto the deck, which also held a garbage can full of ice.
“We started to hear this sound that nobody knew what it was,” Stidham recalls. “The deck separated from the house and kind of tumbled us out into the yard from 12 feet up — it kind of made a big ramp, and all of us and everything on the deck went tumbling into the yard, fortunately into the grass.”
It didn’t end there. Stidham noticed the CO2 cylinder had become detached from the regulator, so he grabbed it and reattached it as everyone picked themselves up and made sure all were OK.
“Then I noticed my hand didn’t feel right,” he says. “As it turns out, I got second-degree burns on a good portion of my right hand and ended up having to go to Urgent Care.”
It took a lot of time and a lot of pain for the burns to heal, but he made the decision to name the beer “12-Foot Fall Lager.” And yes, the deck was rebuilt, and the annual party continues.
“Now it’s the safest deck in the entire world,” he says with a smile.
Brewing and writing software aside, Stidham also long has played guitar, his crowning achievement coming when he successfully, over time, learned to play Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” note for note.
His most recent hobby, however, is named Barley, a yellow labrador he recently adopted. Barley has been making the rounds at local breweries and has been a hit.
He previous dog, Jake, died three years ago, and given his busy schedule, he waited for the right time.
Stidham’s friend Ed Needham sent him a photo of Barley — whose name then was Bongo — and talked him into going to the Floyd County Humane Society, where Stidham quickly fell in love. Needham adopted Barley’s sister, so the two get to continue having a relationship.
“Someone had adopted both of them and brought them back a week later and said, ‘They’re too active,’” he says. “I don’t know what someone expected from two labrador retriever puppies. … Barley has been a lot of fun. I look forward to doing a lot of hiking with him.”
He’ll make a nice addition to Akasha’s dog-friendly ambience as well, when Stidham’s busy schedule permits. The brewery isn’t going to run itself, and there’s also software to be written.
“At this point, I don’t remember, honestly, exactly what I thought it was going to be,” he says, asked if the experience has been what he expected nearly seven years ago. “But, you know, I really wanted to brew beer, because I think I’m pretty good at it and I enjoy it. I like it because it’s half science and half art.”
And even though he says now the prospect of owning a brewery is about 5 percent brewing versus 95 percent running a business, he has no regrets.
“I think I’d do it again,” he says. “It’s a complicated answer, really, because if I knew everything then that I know now, it would have scared me away. But I’m glad I did it. I still have fun.”