By Sara Clifford

For The Republic

Curious about what’s been going on at Hard Truth Hills?

The wait is over this week.

Tours and tastings were to start Wednesday, Dec. 20 at the newest development in the Big Woods family of companies.

One building, the welcome center, will be open and ready for guests, while construction on a much larger one behind it continues through the winter.

The 318 acres of woods commonly known as Firecracker Hill, at the intersection of Snyder Road and Old State Road 46, were bought in two stages within the past year. The intent was to turn them into a new tourist attraction and showplace for the company’s line of spirits, Hard Truth.

Last week, standing between one finished building and a swarm of activity around the steel shell of another, President and CEO Ed Ryan was smiling.

When the first, tiny Big Woods restaurant opened in a Nashville alley in late 2009, did he envision anything like this would happen within the next eight years, or ever?

“No,” he said. “But I’ve been really interested in this property for several years now, so it’s pretty neat to see that coming true.”

“We’re still holding true to our plans,” he added. “We want the majority of this land to stay like it is, for as long as we’re around if not beyond.”

Into the woods

The first 10 employees at Hard Truth Hills were to report to work this Monday. Their job will be to lead tours in the one finished building at the top of the hill, the welcome center.

Inside the timber-framed structure, built in a style very similar to the Big Woods restaurant in Speedway, guests will be led through a series of rooms to learn the history of Brown County and of the company, and to see how its beers and spirits are made.

The company’s restaurants go by the Big Woods name; the beer brand is Quaff ON! and the distilled spirits line is called Hard Truth.

They’re owned by Brown County residents Ryan, Jeff McCabe and Tim O’Bryan, who were behind the first Big Woods restaurant on Molly’s Lane. In 2012, they were joined by another partner, Jim Dunbar of Greenwood.

Dunbar has been managing construction at the three new restaurants they’ve opened since, in Bloomington, Franklin and Speedway.

In that time, they also opened an expanded brewing facility in a former bowling alley north of downtown Nashville, and bought out the former Three Pints Brewing Co. in Martinsville and made use of its equipment.

At the Hard Truth Hills welcome center, guests will be able to buy food from a limited menu and have drinks at a stand-up bar, Ryan said.

Tour participants will learn about the similarities and differences between brewing and distilling and see the grain mixes that go into several different recipes.

A retired fermenter that’s made 535,680 pints of Quaff ON! beer was moved from the brewing facility on 135 North to Hard Truth Hills; and a still from the 1850s is on loan from the Brown County Historical Society.

While the larger brewing and distilling building is still under construction, tours, lasting about 30 minutes, will be topped off inside the welcome center. Guests will get samples of five Quaff ON!/Hard Truth products that are made in Nashville and one bourbon blended by company staff.

Sometime this spring, “hard-hat tours” will be offered inside the larger building, Ryan said.

That 18,000-square-foot, two-story frame rising behind the welcome center also will house a 250-seat, full-service Big Woods restaurant. It will serve the Big Woods brewpub menu, Ryan said. Seating will be available indoors or outside on a large covered porch or a patio, overlooking the woods bordering the Brown County Fairgrounds and Memorial Park Cemetery.

Downstairs, barrels of Quaff ON! and Hard Truth products will be aged; and guests can pick up picnic baskets of food and drink, Ryan said.

A playground is planned near the patio. The entire property, except for the immediate bar areas, will be family-friendly, he said.

Trails will eventually be opened throughout the woods, but not right away. “We have no idea where, how much, because we just want it to be safe,” Ryan said.

Growth rings

With Hard Truth under way — the company’s eighth project since 2009 — Ryan has quit his job as an investment adviser.

The company is investing $5 million in Hard Truth Hills, Ryan said. They plan to hire 50 new people to work there, which will be full-time-equivalent jobs, he said.

Ryan and one of his recent hires, John Skolak, also hinted at other company projects in the works, which they aren’t ready to share yet.

Some changes may occur at the downtown Big Woods Village and at the Quaff ON! brewing facility on 135 North because of alcoholic beverage licensing, which restricts the availability of carry-out drinks at certain locations, he said. Beer growler refills were already moved from downtown to the Quaff ON! facility, and might be moved to Hard Truth Hills, Ryan said.

A rumor about the original brewpub on Molly’s Lane changing over to a fine-dining restaurant isn’t true, Ryan said. “We’re not afraid to evolve it if that’s what it takes, but we have every intention of keeping it open (as it is).”

Overall, “we really want the operations downtown to continue to do what they’re doing and this is not to steal from that,” he said. “I’m sure, initially, there will be some of that, but in the long run, there’s no doubt we’ll have a heck of a lot more employees and a heck of a lot more tourists.”

In its short history, the Big Woods family of companies has become one of Brown County’s largest employers.

Ryan believes getting bigger has made things easier in some respects.

“I think, really, what this does is it gives us the ability to get better, because we get more talent. If we weren’t growing like we are, guys like Skolak wouldn’t be interested,” he said. Skolak had been a top salesman at Sysco, a food service provider, and is now overseeing the Franklin and Speedway properties.

“The neat thing for me is, we’re already starting to see two things: a lot of our young employees with young families are asking about moving to Brown County from our other locations. We’ve already had some people that have done that (from Franklin and Speedway),” Ryan said.

“I really do think the No. 1 thing we need to do economic development-wise and just socially for our county is, we can’t have enrollment going down in our schools. … Anything we can do to help reverse that trend is a great thing for Brown County.”