Beer Run (Part 5): Barley Island on Its Own Terms

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An Indiana On Tap Original by Donovan Wheeler

This is the fifth a multi-part entry detailing my journey around Indianapolis with my son, a few weeks after his 21st birthday.  See below for a list/links to all stops on our two day craft beer odyssey.

I met Dirty Helen at the Crotch, and I fell madly in love with her the first time I tasted her.

Of the two liquor stores in Greencastle (both owned by the same corporate entity), the best one, located at the confluence where two streets merge into one and form a slightly crooked “Y” formation, is aptly called “The Crotch.”  While most of the store’s shelf space is dedicated to the Natty Light, Jack Daniels, Hustler Magazine crowd, the back corner is (by Greencastle standards at least) a mini cornucopia of regional and statewide craft beers. 


An illustrated Helen, her bare shoulder askew floods the right half of the box.  Her eyes seductively peer at us from under her wide-brimmed, Prohibition-era Cloche hat.  Her bobbed haircut exposes more of her shoulders than any self-respecting woman of Gatsby’s era would stand for, covered only by small spaghetti straps leading to a swimsuit? A bra? A summer dress?  Whatever Helen’s wearing, the church deacons will be sure to talk about it before Sunday.

Many months ago I discovered one overlooked refrigerated shelf about two-thirds the way down door number three.  Ranged upon it, stacked shoulder-to-shoulder, if you will, were the standard-bearing brand names of the Barley Island Brewing Company, and standing in the proverbial drum major’s spot was the brewery’s signature beer: Dirty Helen Brown Ale.

The first time I bought a six-pack I was intrigued by the artwork on the box.  An illustrated Helen, her bare shoulder askew floods the right half of the box.  Her eyes seductively peer at us from under her wide-brimmed, Prohibition-era Cloche hat.  Her bobbed haircut exposes more of her shoulders than any self-respecting woman of Gatsby’s era would stand for, covered only by small spaghetti straps leading to a swimsuit? A bra? A summer dress?  Whatever Helen’s wearing, the church deacons will be sure to talk about it before Sunday.  Left of the image, almost stenciled onto the box in a muddy almond color: “Dirty Helen Brown Ale.”  And above the proud brand name, the most titillating element of the packaging (you’ll forgive the Freudian pun I’m sure) was the beer’s tag line: “Bold, delicious, hand-crafted ale with the reputation of a legendary tavern owner.”

Sold. Never underestimate the power of effective packaging.

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When Jim and I awoke on Friday, day two of our Indy craft-beer excursion, we were both excited but for different reasons.  Jim was eager to hit the streets and find another set of brews, so many of them brand new to him.  I, on the other hand, was specifically looking forward to stop number one: Barley Island Brewing Company in Noblesville.  For the last two years, much of it spent drinking a good deal of the brown ale, I’ve always marveled at the Barley Island logo and imagined what the place would look like.  Maybe it was the proud, stout-looking farmer standing in the middle of the semi-circle, or perhaps it was the subtle implications that a name like “Barley Island” evokes.  Whatever the reason, I imagined something that looked more like a vineyard than a brew-house: rolling pastures, a meandering river nearby, lots of sunshine, and a rustic cabin in the middle of the set up.  Something about the beer, about the name put me in an agrarian mood.

When we finished the 20-minute drive from the north side of Indy, what I saw wasn’t bucolic in the least.  But once I stepped through the doors, I realized that what Barley Island is in reality is much, much better than the distorted daydream I’d imagined before.  

The “island” it turns out is a beige-colored cinderblock building surrounded by a sea of asphalt and concrete.  Located on Connor Street across from the Hamilton County courthouse annex, the outer urban appearance, combined with the Yelp reviews were both pushing me towards a gnawing sense of disappointment.  As it turns out, however, the only people who take the time to post on Yelp are angry, frustrated customers who would rather take steak knives to their servers.  In other words, I was about to re-learn two lessons I should have already known by now: 1) appearances only matter to the superficial, and 2) Yelp is about a reliable as a 16-year-old’s self-assessment of his driving ability.


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Under the weathered awning suspended above the front entrance, Jim and I both immediately noticed the darkened woodwork framing the front windows and doors.  The aged, brass handles and the even darker rust-colored concrete floor across the threshold all worked to give distinction to the term “tavern.”  Shutting the door behind us, we were both instantly impressed by the quaint, turn-of-the century atmosphere (the “other” turn-of-the-century that is).  We stood in a very darkened foyer-way facing a glass display case showing off growlers, a row medals, bottles of the brewery’s house beers, and other eclectic paraphernalia.  Next to the case, rested an upright wooden keg, one of several peppered throughout the tavern further accentuating the worn feel of the past reverberating throughout the place.

For some people, those Yelpers included, this mixed-presentation is an irritation, a cosmetic annoyance with bleeds into their extended perception of both the food and brews.  But for most of us, it is homey and relaxed.  The message I took from it was: “Come in and have a seat.  Enjoy the beer we care so much about, and make yourself feel at home.”  Barley Island is not a place for the snobby and pretentious, but it’s a hell of great joint for people who like good beer.

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Contrasting the effort to make Barley Island feel like a pre-Prohibition pub was the haphazard assortment of modern accoutrements which sometimes stylistically clashed with the rest of the setting: the gumball machine wedged next to the old, wooden pew; the children’s booster seats butting up against one of the kegs; the tall street clock tucked in a corner encircled with neon green fluorescent light; a digital jukebox; a couple clothes hangers dangling from a stuffed moose head above a sliding-door cooler, its glass smothered with competing brewery bumper-stickers.  Having grown up on a family-owned golf course in the hills of Owen County, all of this brought back memories of the course’s pro shop, which like the pub was part business operation and part home for the owners and employees who practically live there.  

For some people, those Yelpers included, this mixed-presentation is an irritation, a cosmetic annoyance with bleeds into their extended perception of both the food and brews.  But for most of us, it is homey and relaxed.  The message I took from it was: “Come in and have a seat.  Enjoy the beer we care so much about, and make yourself feel at home.”  Barley Island is not a place for the snobby and pretentious, but it’s a hell of great joint for people who like good beer.

When we approached the bar (arguably the coolest part of so many cool elements going on inside the place), we were welcomed by a very friendly lady who was more than ready to start us off.  But first, the formalities…

“Can I see your ID?” she asked Jim.  No one had asked me once on the trip thus far, but I’d gotten over the reality of graying hair and wrinkles a long time ago.  Jim, on the other hand, looked so young for a 21-year-old, I’m surprised most of the bartenders didn’t ask me to show them the time-stamp on the family videos we took the day he was born.

Reaching into his pocket, Jim froze and his eyes looked away…absent, distant.  Then he turned them to me.

“I can’t find it,” he said. “I think I left it at the hotel.”

I can’t write the word I was thinking, and even though I knew we only had one option, I turned to the lady behind the bar and flashed her a partially-masked, pleading glance.

“I’m sorry,” she said sweetly and sincerely.  

There was nothing she could do, and I couldn’t begrudge her for it, either.  No one questions the serious problems of underage drinking, and furthermore, everyone understands on some fundamental level that parents play a much guiltier role in underage abuse than anyone is willing to say.  The bartender had a job to do, and she did it.  Besides, for all she knew we could have been excise officers.  Given that Indiana’s liquor laws often seem to have been written by a secret cadre of hyper-conservative Utah residents, who would put it past the state to hound taverns at 11AM on a Friday?

Two-and-a-half hours later, after a 20-minute trip back the hotel, a lengthy nap, and another jaunt back to Noblesville, Jim and I had returned to the same spot and hit the “play” button.


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We sidled up to the bar directly in front of a relic, a roughly turn-of-the-century (again, the “other” turn of the century) porcelain tap tower.  There were two of them at each end of the bar and, mixed with the already-mentioned dark woodwork, they created a very Victorian feel…sort of.  When the very nice lady asked us what we wanted, I didn’t hesitate.  When I drew up the plan for this trip, Barley Island was the centerpiece.  As I mentioned earlier, all of this started for me when I took that first swig of Dirty Helen.

Brown Ales are arguably the most difficult beer category to define in a few words.  Porters, Stouts, and IPAs vary from one small degree to another, yet something in terms of taste, bitterness, body, or even smell all seem universal regardless the brewer, regardless the name.  But brown ales sometimes share only the name.  Like many people who gradually converted from the Big Three vanilla beers to the craft market, my first brown ale was probably the same one as everyone else: Newcastle.  Months after that, by the time I’d picked up that first six-pack of Dirty Helen, I had experimented with other browns, and I was dimly aware than not all were the same, but that beer…wow.  Of all the craft beers I’ve sampled, none (and this is not an exaggeration), none are as unique and distinct as Dirty Helen.


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Named after a Milwaukee tavern owner legendary for cussing out customers who ordered booze she didn’t have in stock, Barley Island’s website describes its flagship brew as, “a medium-bodied Brown ale with moderate hop bitterness that has a unique slightly nutty flavor in the finish.”  All of that aptly details what you will experience when you try the brown, but I would take it a notch or two farther.  Dirty Helen is “sweet.” It carries a sort of almost caramel-like initial bite with a smidge of a coffee finish.  No single one of these flavors ever stands out individually; they all mingle constantly and create a taste that I can only describe as “Helenish.”  Suffice it to say, it’s the only beer I’ve enjoyed which bears no similarity to any other.

Because of its unique flavor, not everyone swoons for it, and Jim made it clear very quickly that he hated the stuff.  He did, however, love the Barfly IPA.  Like Dirty Helen, the name hearkens back to Prohibition, this one referencing famous author Charles Bukowski.  And another beer in the hoppy department, Blind Tiger Pale Ale, draws its name from the stuffed animals speakeasy bartenders used to leave in the windows signaling to patrons that hooch was on the menu.  If you’re more of the citrusy beer drinker, Barley Island delivers with Sheet Metal Blond Ale (named after one of Dirty Helen’s close friends) is vastly more citrusy than most others.  But if you’re not prepared for the pinch, even on a hot day it’ll make you pucker.  


Here lives a product line of beers that forces the customer to re-think what browns, pales, and blondes are supposed to be.  Here is a brewery that reminds us that there really are no actual, universal taste codes for beer. 

But this is what makes Barley Island, Barley Island.  Sometimes, I get the sense that even the most “revolutionary” breweries are all, for legitimate marketing reasons, building off of standard expectations when it comes to beer type and taste.  A Wee Mac tastes a bit unique, and a Robert the Bruce tastes even more so, but both play off of every customer’s expectations of what a Scottish Ale should be.  But Barley Island could give a care less.  Here lives a product line of beers that forces the customer to re-think what browns, pales, and blondes are supposed to be.  Here is a brewery that reminds us that there really are no actual, universal taste codes for beer.  Barley Island does beer their way, and they dare you not to like it (and they’ll dangle a couple of t-shirts from the moose head just to remind you that this this is their show).

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The visually stunning artwork for each of the brewery’s beers; the history behind all of the names; the further sense of history oozing out of the woodwork at the tavern (almost darn-near literally out of the woodwork) all combine to create a trip that I won’t forget anytime soon.

As we left, I noticed a commons area which I had failed to spot on my way in (both times).  Darkened, covered with swank-looking green carpet, arrayed with a smattering of stools and pub tables, and punctuated by tall drums in the corner…I could tell this was a hot spot for the Noblesville locals.  Barley Island certainly may market throughout the state, but everything about the place told me that they take care of their people first.  How lucky they are.

All photographs were taken by Donovan Wheeler.


 
 

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