After college, Zach Barnes was chatting with his lifelong friend Matt Fuller, who had become a master at brewing beer. As they talked about where the beer market was, an idea began to brew. They discussed opening a brewery in the Highlands.
“We thought that this was something we could do really well,” Barnes says. “We weren’t professionals at that point, but we were making good beer and we were ready for the challenge.”
The two founders brought in a third partner, Nik Heberlein, and in April of 2014 they opened Great Flood Brewing on Bardstown Road. Before they opened their doors, however, they needed to come up with a unique name.
“We were thinking about ways we could define the business that were regionally recognizable but have specific ties to the Louisville area,” Barnes says. “We wanted to build the story of the business by exemplifying the story of the place.”
As the friends researched they thought of the Great Flood of 1937, an event that changed the socioeconomic and physical development of Louisville.
“There are stories about how neighbors came together and helped one another out,” Barnes says. “The community changed forever. It may seem weird to name a place after a natural disaster, but following that event people came together to build a stronger, better Louisville. We wanted to honor that. Little did we know that we would go through our own version of that this past year.”
They had clearly hit on something. When they first opened the Highlands location, the line was out the door and wrapped around the block.
“Craft beer was booming, and even with great Louisville options there was still pent-up demand,” Barnes says.
People loved the concept, the beer and the name.
“When you look at old photos of the Second Street bridge in Louisville that crosses the Ohio, you realize, ‘Oh my gosh, that boat is tied off at the roadway,’” Barnes says.
Patrons enjoyed swapping stories of the Great Flood of 1937.
“People would come in and share how their mother was 8 years old and still has vivid memories of the flood,” Barnes says. “They told how they lived at their cousin’s house for three weeks as water was receding back.”
They hosted community open-mic nights where folks could share their flood memories in a public forum. Enough time has passed that most of the stories are secondhand, passed down through the generations.
Throughout the past seven years, Barnes says it’s been a crazy ride that culminated most recently in the opening of Great Flood Restaurant and Brewery in Middletown, in January of last year. Barnes and his partners thought there was a market on the east end of Louisville that was underserved. Since the building has a large kitchen, they decided it was the perfect opportunity to open a full-service restaurant.
“It was a natural extension of what we’ve been doing,” Barnes says.
They sell starters, pizza, burgers, salads, sandwiches and sides.
Unlike the Highlands area, which has a lot of walking traffic and where folks can get to food trucks on foot, this location requires guests to drive.
“When you drive somewhere, you want to have that full experience,” Barnes says. “Plus, as local guys we were excited to bring our product back home so to speak, closer to where we grew up.”
When they opened on Shelbyville Road, patrons made it clear that they were thrilled to have a brewery in town. Great Flood Restaurant and Brewery enjoyed eight normal weeks of operation before restrictions due to COVID-19 were put in place.
“It’s been a learning process as we have effectively had four or five re-openings in the last year,” Barnes says. “You feel like you’ve opened seven restaurants. Still, as weird as it sounds, we are better having gone through this. Having to learn on the fly and adapt to every part of the business has benefited us, and the guest that dines and drinks with us.”
The owners have had to learn to reprioritize their goals to ensure that every decision feeds into the best guest experience possible. The best part is that they have gone through it together.
“We’ve all had a blast amidst the challenge,” Barnes says. “As hard as the last year has been, there is no other group of people with whom I’d rather work.”
Both Barnes and Fuller are married. Kayleah Barnes and Alex Fuller have both been supportive of their husbands’ endeavors, which often include long hours.
“The key to long hours is to say, ‘We’ve done this before. It’s going to be four or five weeks of 90-hour work weeks, but it won’t last forever. We’ll be back to normal soon,’” Barnes says. “Then ensure you make good on those promises.”
During the pandemic, Barnes has taken to spending a lot of time outdoors walking and reading. Fuller has camped, traveled and read. Heberlein, a counselor at a local school, loves to travel, making friends wherever he goes.
The three friends take pride in the work they do, as they each have their own niche. Barnes calls himself the “finance guy.” He handles sales, media and financial issues. Fuller is the master brewer, and head of lab and production operations.
“He’s a fantastic brewer,” Barnes says of Fuller. “I’d put him in the top of the state in his ability to make beer taste good.”
Heberlein is a builder, project manager and entertainer.
“Matt and Nik are a great team when it comes to physically building things,” says Barnes, noting that they built out both locations on their own.
When someone grows up in an area, it’s often natural to contemplate moving away and trying something new. Barnes was no different, having toyed with the idea. Ultimately, however, he decided to stay put.
“As you go through adulthood, you build relationships, you build roots and those roots get deeper,” Barnes says. “Plus, we saw a huge opportunity here in Louisville for a craft brewery.”
They look forward to operating in more normal circumstances so they can hit the ground running again.
“It’s nice to have a place where your parents and friends can come in,” Barnes says. “It’s a great community feel around here.”
Barnes’ favorite part of being in the restaurant and brewery industry is that it’s a vehicle for building life experiences. That may involve celebrating an engagement or, more recently, a family that is gathering for the first time in more than a year.
“You get to be a part of these special moments in people’s lives, which is pretty rewarding in itself,” Barnes says. “Though I’m not directly involved in their stories, they will remember Great Flood is where this wonderful thing happened, where they first met their spouse, met up with friends to celebrate a milestone, or had the best burger of their lives.”
Since opening in Middletown, they have received positive feedback.
“We’ve heard a lot of, ‘I’m really glad you’re here,’ and, after the pandemic closures, ‘I’m really glad you’re still here,’” Barnes says. “People say they want this to be their regular spot for craft beer.”
Great Flood Taproom and Brewery is located at 2120 Bardstown Road in Louisville. Great Flood Restaurant and Brewery is located at 12717 Shelbyville Road in Louisville. For more information, call the Taproom at 502-208-0882, ext. 1, or visit greatfloodbrewing.com.