This amazing hazy blonde ale is our 2019 Beer of the Year

When Brian Rooney’s father made a pilgrimage to his ancestral homeland of Sligo, Ireland, he was hoping to spot a few colorful sites bearing the family name. Rooney’s Olde Tyme Pub, maybe, or Rooney’s Butcher Shoppe. That’s not what the patriarch found.

“He got back and he said, ‘The only damned thing that we could find in Ireland that was named Rooney was tax accounting firms,’” Brian says with a laugh.

Such is the history of the Rooney clan — a family whose coat of arms should bear an abacus. Before opening BKS Artisan Ales below a Brookside office building, Brian worked in the claims department for an insurance company, where he managed a team of 60. His father was a fiscal officer for the University of Missouri. His sister is an accountant. His brother works in finance.

“Someone had to break the chain,” says Brian, 41. “It wasn’t an escape. It was just, like, ‘I have to do this.’ As I started getting further and further down the rabbit hole with this, there were all these beer ideas I just had to explore.”

“I always thought he had a gift for creativity,” says his wife and close collaborator, Mary Rooney, 40. “He just didn’t have an outlet for it. I hate to say ‘He was made to do this,’ but I kinda feel like that in some ways.”

One sip of Tiny Clouds, and you’ll agree Brian was born to brew. The hazy hoppy blonde ale — our 2019 Beer of the Year — is one of the finest New England-style ales made anywhere.

Tiny Clouds

In a time when craft beer is pushing toward sometimes absurd extremes in an effort to draw in Untappd beer-tickers, Tiny Clouds is a beer that rewards return visitors by revealing its subtleties (see sidebar for a primer on hazy beers). The sessionable 4.5 percent ABV patio-sipper offers a treasure trove of citrus and tropical fruit. The moment you lift the glass, the bouquet floats out to envelop you in a soft gauze of flavor. Tiny Clouds is a beer that’s both very much of its time and a tasteful counterpoint to the excesses of the haze craze.

And, yes, it’s a blonde ale. In this era, breweries stamp “IPA” on any beer that could be reasonably defined as such, but Brian didn’t get out of the corporate world to start marketing his blonde as a session IPA.

“The name IPA sells,” he says. “But I refuse to call it an IPA of any kind at the expense of us probably getting it more well-known. It’s a blonde ale base. It’s just dry-hopped.”

It’s also a beer that encapsulates the vibe at the weekends-only BKS taproom, a gathering spot for Brooksiders. The Rooneys live in the neighborhood, where they settled because they love the friendly vibes after living in Denver, “where people are from everywhere,” and Portland, Oregon, which is “a different culture than us — a thousand percent.” Brian even gave up his Cardinals fandom for the Royals.

Brian began his beer journey as an “obsessed” backyard barbecuer who started getting interested in craft beer. Mary gave him a homebrew kit for his birthday. The rest is history.

“We sold the smoker because we were never using it,” Mary says. “Brewing was just a fun hobby, and then he got pretty obsessed with it.”

Even though he’s now in the beer biz, Brian still mainly makes the beers he wants to drink.

“Our menu is all about low-ABV drinkability because going to your local brewery is about sitting down and connecting with the people who are there and being able to have more than one beer before you’re toasted,” Brian says.

The 2,000-square foot BKS space is on the ground floor of an office building. Its narrow patio is furnished with German biergarten tables and filled with neighborhood couples, kids and dogs.

Because BKS is so small, and because it has such a loyal clientele, Brian has been able to work out the kinks in his recipes. He’s constantly changing his hopping habits and playing around with processes to perfect things.

“We were experimenting with a lot of our techniques,” Mary says. “We were really trying to hone in some of our hazy stuff. Since we’re so small, we can try a lot of different things. We went full-circle on some things.”

That includes Tiny Clouds. It’s a different beer today than it was this time last year, when Brian was experimenting with different hops, making some batches with Hull Melon and Hallertau Blanc. Brian has since returned to a Citra-dominant recipe. He only finalized his recipe this spring, making it “the first beer that I’m officially done with.”

BKS is about to step up from a three-barrel system to a five-barrel one. Brian and Mary also plan to eventually hire some employees so they can travel. So far, the only people they’ve hired are friends and friends of friends.

“It’s been very organic — it just happens,” Mary says. “You know them, you can trust them. I don’t even consider them employees; they’re just friends who help and who we pay.”

It’s an idyllic life, one that so many in the beer world aspire to before quotidian business concerns and inevitable compromises. Anytime you make your hobby into your livelihood, you do make some sacrifices. Brian hasn’t been anywhere other than to see family in Columbia, Missouri since opening his doors at BKS. He’d love to get back to Colorado to hike this summer — or even to find a night “to sit on the other side of my bar.”

But he has no regrets.

“I always hear people say, ‘Are you sure you want to do your hobby for a living?” he says. “Now that I’m doing it, I’m like ‘Oh, definitely.’ This is what I’m supposed to do.”

Even the hard days — on a recent Saturday, Brian spent an hour battling one temperamental keg — are still fulfilling in a way that he never got from his desk job.

“It’s a lot easier than managing 60 people,” he says with a laugh. “It’s just one keg. It’s not that bad.”

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