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Oaken Barrel's Kwang Casey on beer, owning the state's second-oldest brewery & AAPI Heritage Month

Posted at 3:48 PM, May 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-02 08:02:23-04

GREENWOOD — Kwang Casey loves a good German lager or pilsner, but he also likes a pale ale and hops. Picking a single favorite style of beer is too hard of an ask for the brewery owner, as he appreciates all crafts.

"Every day there's new beers coming out so it's never a dull moment," he said.

As the owner of Indiana's second-oldest craft brewery — Oaken Barrel in Greenwood — his knowledge of craft beer seems to know no bounds.

"I got introduced to craft beer at Broad Ripple Brew Pub, the first craft brewery in Indiana. They were more of an English-style beer, but I just fell in love with handcrafted beers," Casey said. "I visited a couple of places on the West Coast and they had great beers, such as like Sierra Nevada, which was one of the first mass-produced breweries I tasted, and just I just fell in love with beer."

Casey's love for beer grew immensely in the 90s, prompting him and his business partner to open their own brewery on the south side of Indianapolis, in his hometown of Greenwood.

"I grew up on the south side of Indianapolis," Casey said. "We wanted to, you know, do something local, and we knew our family and friends would keep us in business for the first year ... and it worked!"

Now, nearly 27 years later, Oaken Barrel is not a place running solely on Casey's family and friends, it's also a Greenwood staple and an Indianapolis favorite.

"We started out as a small pub restaurant, about 5,000 square feet, including the brewery. Now we have expanded, we're over 10,000 square feet, including that also, we added on the front patio," Casey said. "We always had a beer garden outside, and we increased our outdoor space by two-fold."

With Oaken Barrel's physical growth, its menu also grew to include Casey's Korean heritage.

A couple of the restaurant's top sellers are recipes curated by Casey, who started in the service industry as a cook when he was a teenager. He explains that his menu is a "good fusion of both" Korean and American cultures, providing examples such as his Korean Quesadilla and Kwang's Dynamite Shrimp.

"I took Korean beef, I stuffed it inside a traditional quesadilla. And it's kind of like a Korean fusion of a Mexican food. And it's, you know, people love it here," Casey said, describing the Korean Quesadilla. "And we also have Thai shrimp, full of dynamite shrimp, it is my recipe, and ... as I said, people are open to Asian food and the culture."

Casey has been living in Greenwood since his family first moved here when he was 13 years old. His decision to stay in the Midwest, and Indianapolis, more pointedly, was because he felt comfortable.

"I didn't see the racism," Casey said of his upbringing in Greenwood during his middle and high school years.

"There were some (racism), you know, when I was growing up. It was four decades ago," he continued. "It seems like I was the first of few minorities on the south side of Indianapolis. So, there were some glares ... I think when people got to know me, they accepted my culture. And I tried to fuse my culture to them, and then I accepted American culture as well. So it's a good fusion of both. And it reflects on the food."

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It's a month that Casey says he didn't have growing up, but he's happy it's finally happening now.

"It means a lot, because people are starting to recognize (us)," Casey said. "And I'm glad the Asian community is being recognized. And it tells me that our culture's become more diverse, and people are accepting diversity with open arms."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Casey says he's "been so blessed."

He didn't have to let go of a single employee, some who've been working at Oaken Barrel for over 20 years, and takeout orders picked up enough in 2020 to help maintain similar numbers to years prior.

"I can't show enough gratitude toward our regular customers who supported us during the pandemic and got many, many carry-out orders," Casey said. "I want to give credit to my staff. They adjusted on the fly, and they, you know, adjusted doing carry out and they picked it up really fast. And it got us through the pandemic. And, you know, the PPP that helped us keep our doors open — I kept all my employees. In fact, I increased my staff, gradually."