Angelo Signorino Jr. doesn’t view himself as one of the craft beer trailblazers in Ohio – despite the fact that he is.
The humble and talented Signorino started working as an assistant brewer at Barley’s Brewing Co. when the brewpub opened in 1992 in downtown Columbus. He still works there today, now as the head brewer, making him the longest tenured brewer at any single location in the Buckeye State.
"I will gladly admit that I’m not a pioneer," he said on the eve of Barley’s celebrating its 25th anniversary. "I’ve just been at it for a really long time."
Barley’s flung its doors open on Nov. 17, 1992. The actual anniversary date is still coming up, but the brewpub celebrated the occasion last week with the tapping of its annual Christmas Ale. The brewery learned the hard way early on that anniversary parties shouldn’t be scheduled close to the annual Ohio State-Michigan football game.
"That’s Columbus," he said with a laugh.
Barley’s was the fourth craft brewery to open in Columbus.
Signorino has been there from the beginning -- toiling away in the dungeon-like basement where the brewing system (the same one since day one) is located. At first, he served under Scott Francis, who now oversees the brewing at Temperance Row Brewing Co. in Westerville. For awhile, he also served as brewer for both Barley’s and what is now Smokehouse Brewing Co.
Asked to boil down the last 25 years into a sentence, he said: "It’s amazing. When I thought about this job, I never thought it would turn into the career that it did."
While Signorino doesn’t view himself as a pioneer — Craig Johnson of Festivals Unlimited once called him the monseigneur of the Columbus beer scene — he has earned the respect of other craft brewers.
"Angelo is a great brewer and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met," said Eric Bean, owner and brewer at widely respected Columbus Brewing Co. "His optimism is the soul of the Columbus brewing scene."
Lenny Kolada, who co-founded Barley's, now operates Smokehouse and Commonhouse Ales and also has been one of the craft beer pioneers in the state, isn't short of words or praise about Signorino.
"Angelo is a rare individual," he said. "He's a family man who is passionate about brewing great beer. A Kroger employee at the time, he was looking for something else. He found that something else when Scott Francis hired him at the Winemaker's Shop. There, he learned how to brew. Francis, after trying some of Angelo's homebrew, saw the potential. He offered Angelo a job as apprentice brewer at Barley's, when it was only a few months old.
"Ultimately, Angelo couldn't contain himself. He was responsible for many of the beers at Barley's, then later also Smokehouse Brewing. Angelo and Scott in tandem grew into a mighty duo. I liken it to the partnership between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Scott being Lennon and Angelo being McCartney. It was hit after hit during those golden years. Eventually, Scott left, leaving Angelo to hit his stride as a solo artist.
"At his core, Angelo is also an Old World master artist. Begrudgingly, he knows that science is important too, but in his heart, Angelo is an analog man in a digital world. An old master, and one with a nose and taste buds like no other. He can detect things that most people won't notice. His canvases are a mash tun, a brew kettle and a fermenter, and his brushes are malt, hops, yeast and water. His work is displayed one pint at a time at beer galleries throughout central Ohio.
"Today, the craft beer community should be thankful for Angelo Signorino. The early days of the craft movement had its champions and its heroes, but it also needed someone like Angelo, who quietly made kick-ass beer in the days before people knew what kick-ass beer was. His beers were foreshadowing the potential of craft beer. Today, Angelo's beers continue to amaze and inspire.
"There are many talented brewers plying their trade today, but there's only one Angelo Signorino. We should all be thankful he's not ready to hang up his brewer's boots yet."
Barley’s, located along North High Street and across the street from the Greater Columbus Convention Center, has not only survived but thrived even though it has not bottled or canned its beer through the years. Signorino credited Barley’s longevity to the entire brewpub team, including general manager Jason Fabien.
Signorino still remembers those early days.
"Back then, we just wanted a fresh, good pale ale," he said. "That was the goal. I’m sure when Great Lakes started, it was the same thing. I know it was when Columbus Brewing Co. started. I remember the first time that I drank our pale ale and really thought about it. I wasn’t judging it but I was analyzing it. I thought it was too strong. We shouldn’t put so much malt in this beer. At the time, you didn’t get much in the way of beers that were close to 6 percent alcohol. It was rare back then. It was a remarkably flavorful, strong beer and I thought we should take some malt out of the recipe. Luckily we didn’t. It’s been on tap since."
He’s made a lot of beer over the years, but he does have a favorite beer experience. He cites Auld Curiosity Ale, an old ale that uses black treacle and the first recipe that he ever brewed without first making a test batch.
The beer was named best American-style ale at the 2001 Real Ale Festival in 2001 in Chicago.
"It may seem like a lifetime ago to some people but it seems like yesterday to me," Signorino said. "That ribbon with the gold medal on it and wearing it around Chicago. It was a really, really gratifying moment for sure."
The industry has changed dramatically since the early 1990s.
"One thing that I learned a couple years ago was that no longer is the flagship brand that really drives people into your business," Signorino said. "For years and years, Pale Ale and Scottish Ale were our flagships. Now people want something new. They want a new experience."
The Brewers Association has described craft beer drinkers as promiscuous.
"It was the first time that I had ever heard promiscuous used that way," he said. "But they want to try different things. We’ve grown to adapt that with new seasonal beers."
As an example, he cites Tour de Hops, an experimental double IPA that uses different hops each batch. He’s on his fifth batch.
Signorino doesn’t see a day when he hangs it up.
"I like it here and hopefully they continue to like me here and Barley’s continues to be successful," he said. "It’s really nice here. It’s worked out really well. So much has changed over the last 25 years, not just in the world of beer and breweries, but everybody’s life changes over 25 years. Parenthood. It’s nice that I’ve been able to maintain this role at Barley’s through all that and end up where I am."
Angelo Signorino reflects on 25 years at Barley's