Building a Brewery, Part IV: The Journey to the Starting Line Ends
My friend Glenn needed two steps through Wasser Brewing Company’s front doors to utter a singular, essential truth about life: “I used to come in here all the time to get my auto parts.” He’s right, of course. Ten…fifteen…twenty years ago hundreds of us walked under the same canopy, over the same threshold, and up to the same spot. We didn’t know back then, that instead of aftermarket alternators and fuel pumps, we’d be ordering up wheat beers and English ales. And that’s the thing: even when we think we know what’s going to happen, we really don’t.
When I first met Wasser owner and founder, Chris Weeks (Building a Brewery Part I), we sat in the patio of DePauw University’s Inn (still called The Walden by those of us who can get away with it). At that time, the early spring of 2014, Wasser existed as little more than an armload of portable demonstration taps, a handful of paraphernalia, and a vision.
The second time we met six months later (Building a Brewery Part II), Weeks’ sat at our basement bar on the eve of what then looked to be a failed Kickstarter campaign tragically hovering $1,500 short of his target. Worse yet, his first major move toward securing a property (south of the town square…next to the city’s new parking lot…within spitting distance of DePauw’s campus) had fallen through. Waxing philosophy over a home-brewed batch of his Hoptimism IPA, Weeks ran me through piles of numbers—data he’d pored over for years. The population in raw numbers, the consumer population in raw numbers, and the dollar amount his fellow citizens spent in nearby counties—almost $3 million annually. Despite the snags, those numbers still told him Wasser was going to work.
A full thirteen months later, Weeks and I sat down again (Building a Brewery Part III). This time in the empty shell of what would be Wasser Brewing’s home. The November winds slapping the plate glass which would one day cast an inviting light on the intersection of Franklin and Vine, he spread out the blueprints on the remnants of the old NAPA countertop. Buoyed by the last-minute surge which had saved his Kickstarter effort, emboldened the by the concrete under his feet, surrounded by the steel tanks waiting to go to work, Weeks now walked me through the byzantine bureaucratic process—federal, state, and local regulations—which swirl around all things beer, wine, and liquor. The federal permit still slithered through the miasma in Washington. The state permit had to wait. The local paperwork had to follow that. Slow.
For the next seven months I heard only one question: “When is Chris opening his brewpub?” While many were frustrated by his noncommittal responses, I couldn’t help but respect the tactics behind Weeks’ ambiguity. Why throw out a date when a thousand things could go wrong each day? It would open when it was ready. And finally, it was ready this summer.
Today, a little over a month into its soft opening process, Wasser is still a few finishing touches away from full-week, grand-opening status. The beer is drawn from hand-nozzles as the tap lines are installed. The kitchen is a couple of cloud-pulleys and sky-hooks away from completion as well. Chris and his wife, Angie still want to move the grain equipment sitting right of the bar and put in their sofa-adorned “cozy area.” And they want to mount another set of seating lights. But when you take in what is finished, when you absorb what has already been done, you can’t imagine my friend Glenn buying sparkplugs here a couple decades earlier.
The bar top and tables showcase native oak from Pingleton’s, a local sawmill. The original trusses, once obscured by the low NAPA ceiling, run over our head majestically casting a feeling akin to standing in an Anglo-Saxon mead hall. And dovetailing nicely with the wooden finish are the simple, academic library chairs (leftovers from Purdue no less) which artfully blend the brown into both the grey slab below our feet and the steel panels under the bar. All that beauty didn’t come without more headaches, however. Last April, Weeks took me below street level into the century-old cellar under the wooden trap door only feet from the bar.
“This is what $30,000 worth of fire suppression equipment looks like,” he said gesturing to the red, white, and silver painted network of wheel valves and multi-gauged pipes pretzeling their way in and around each other out of the bowels of the building. “And that’s not even the grand total for all of it. When you factor in the lines and fixtures, it approaches $50,000. All because somebody changed a law in Indianapolis.” While the upstairs glistens, showcasing Weeks’ vision of urban panache and small town humility, the cellar’s dirt floors and tiny dark corners remind me of the building’s starting point months earlier. Punctuating this lost-in-time effect: the remnants of an ancient furnace, still holding a load of coal inside it.
“Someday,” Weeks said exuding the same confidence he carried when he turned the keys the first time, “we’ll clean this [cellar] out, put down the concrete floor and start cellaring and aging barrels here. We’ll put in a glass door with a mirror so that you can look down and see all of these things being aged.”
But work on the cellar is for another time. For now, the immediate task sits upstairs. While Wasser’s chef, John Conrad waits for the kitchen to come together, he takes advantage of the summer heat and grills by the brewery’s open garage door. Serving up an arrangement of slider plates, chicken BLT sandwiches, and bratwursts—with sides ranging from corn-on-the-cob, cole slaw, and chips—the food is akin to the kind of meals we should all be eating. Filling rather than stomach-stuffing. Balanced rather than over-carbed.
Wisely, Weeks led off his brewing schedule with his popular Hefeweizen, a quality wheat beer which finishes clean and serves as an excellent transition brew for many locals new to the craft beer experience. A staunch proponent of what he calls “abiding traditions,” Weeks has opted to follow the Hefe with an English pale with a consistently small head, a sweet start, and a mildly bitter finish. Balancing his passion for old world beers, he complements the menu with a pair of “artistic innovations.” A multi-hopped pale and a Belgian golden. Forthcoming beers include a stout Weeks has made popular among the small throng who’ve long followed his work as a home-brewer, and his much-anticipated “Hoptimism.”
When Wasser was an abstraction, Greencastle offered one upscale bar, a honky-tonk, and a college joint. Surrounding that were weed-strewn sidewalks, decades-old facades, and a lot of wear-and-tear. Today, following a downtown renovation funded by a state Stellar Grant, the square sits resplendent. The upscale bar boasts a new kitchen. The honky-tonk is much less honky and tonky, serving up a host of crafts from Three Floyds to Fountain Square and anchored by one hell of a tenderloin. And in that once-promising piece of property where Chris Weeks originally thought he would put his brewery, a brand new tap house, funded to the hilt by corporate money, opened its doors this week. And all of it, including Wasser, sits clustered together in easy walking distance. We all knew we were getting a brewery. We didn’t realize we were getting a scene. Even when you know what’s going to happen, you don’t.
Wasser Brewing Company Bar Menu
Beer – $5 pints
Abiding Traditions – These beers are brewed true to style
English Pale Ale – Classic English grains, hops and yeast present a mild bitterness and well balanced ale.
ABV 5.5% IBU 36
Hefeweizen- German wheat ale. Light body and yeast flavors characteristic of banana and clove.
ABV 5.1% IBU 12.5
Belgian Stout– Big and bold with rye and chocolate malt. This ale is also charicterized by the Abbey yeast from Belgium that adds plumb and a slight spiciness.
ABV 7.8% IBU 28 12 oz Serving
Artistic Innovations – We design these beers as unique variations with a goal of having a specific flavor profile
Super 8 – Named after the Packard line of cars, this hop forward ale has 8 hop additions including Cascade, Chinook, Simcoe, and Citra hops. This presents a tropical fruit and pine note to the hop aroma. ABV 6.9% IBU 61
Wine – $5 glass
Cavit Collection – This Italian wine from the Trentino region includes a Merlot and Chardonnay
Cocktails – $5 Tumbler
Bulleit Bourbon – Award Winning
Whiskey Sour or On the Rocks
Tanqueray – Classic English Gin
Tonic or Gimlet
Jameson – Traditional Irish Whiskey
Ginger Ale or Soda
Appleton Estate – Highly Rated Jamaican Rum Coke or Pineapple Juice
Casamigos Tequila – 100% Agave Azul made in Jalisco
Margarita or Tonic