Inaugural Craft Beer, Wine & Food Festival Shows There Is Much To Savor In Lebanon
After our recent trip to Michigan City and the Shelf Ice Brewfest (see the summary here), Walter and I were pumped up for another great festival, so we made the short trip up north for the inaugural Savor Lebanon Craft Beer, Wine, and Food Festival this past weekend. It’s nice to see that there are more festivals taking place in the winter now; craft beer isn’t just a fair weather hobby. This festival was held at the Boone County Fairgrounds; the two buildings the organizers used allowed for any kind of weather, which was nice because there was snow and wind, but it was the breadth of the festival that impressed us. Not just craft beer, but wine, cider, and oh, the food!
I know this a craft beer venue and my readers (both of them) expect me to talk about beer, but man was the food good. Even though the two buildings joined together by a completely enclosed passageway, the overpowering aroma of smoked bacon permeated the entire festival so that you knew there was something good going on in that second building even before you got there. The food and wine booths were an equally important part of the festival, but I did have some queries about holding a beer festival in Lebanon.
The primary question I had was just why a town that doesn’t have a brewery would host a craft beer festival. It seemed a strange direction for a small city to go – but then I talked to Joe LePage and things started to make more sense. Joe is the Communications, Community, Redevelopment, and Economic Director for the City of Lebanon. He is charge social media and community projects for the city, as well as managing the downtown redevelopment organization called Heart of Lebanon.
Joe told me that the festival was the idea of their mayor, Matt Gentry, a millennial and craft beer geek. There was certainly more to the event than just beer – there were a dozen or so food establishments represented and a few wineries brought their wares as well, but Mayor Gentry really relates to craft beer and therefore his idea was given serious consideration. Indiana On Tap was brought in to organize and manage the event and it took off from there.
The city desired to bring more people into the city, especially younger people, so different ideas were floated, with a food and beer festival taking top spot. The organizers predict a ripple effect from the festival in the future, with attendees returning more often and even relocating there once they see what Lebanon and Boone County have to offer. Plus, the city had some success with the similarly focused Augtoberfest in late 2016. The city fathers decided that craft beer was an excellent way to gain exposure for the city’s resources, and a way to bring people into town. Joe sees the festivals as both enhancing quality of life for the residents and bringing more people to see what Lebanon has to offer.
Of course, the Savor Lebanon Festival isn’t the only craft beer target the city is using to improve the attractiveness of the city. The Boone County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) worked with the city to identify desirable business types to recruit for the city. Together they decided that in terms of community involvement, direct and indirect economic impact, and appeal to the target demographic (twentysomethings to fortysomethings), a craft brewery was ideal.
It was with this idea in mind that the EDC and city reached out to Chris Johnson and People’s Brewing in Lafayette about opening a taproom or brewpub in Lebanon. Chris was open to discussions and the EDC showed him a downtown building that was to die for. The city also contributed ideas on refurbishing an adjacent alley as a pedestrian walkway with room for patio seating. Chris came on board, and they opened the Revel Room on Lebanon’s courthouse square in December.
Walter and I visited the Revel Room on Saturday before the Savor Lebanon Festival began. Located across the street south of the main doors of the Boone County courthouse, the building they are in used to be the home of Bijou, a local restaurant of some renown. By the time the courthouse clock chimed twelve bells, there were already people standing outside the Revel Room waiting for it to open. Although we were waiting just across the street, by the time we got to the bar, there were nine groups of patrons at the rail and tables. The People’s establishment has food too, focusing mainly on pub staples with a twist, but not the high-end French food of the Bijou.
The walnut and hickory bar is beautiful, so we bellied up and tried a couple of the sixteen People’s Brewing beers on tap. Walter was partial to the 7th anniversary pepper ale infused with habeneros peppers while it spent some time in a bourbon barrel. I really enjoyed their Duncan’s Scottish ale (the one on carbon dioxide more than on nitrogen). It had just a bit of smoke to go with the carmelization from a slight scorch of the wort before the boil. Looking around the room, we could tell that Peoples’ beer is a hit in Lebanon. The food was good as well, Walter had a burger with artisan made spicy peanut butter and bacon on it, while I noshed on hand cut fries with homemade sauces.
People’s Revel Room has already had an effect on downtown Lebanon. Walk up traffic is always a significant factor in locating a downtown business – who might drop in who just happened to be downtown and what other businesses can be positively impacted by having the taproom nearby. Chris from People’s definitely had this in mind when he considered the downtown location and so did Joe LePage. Joe told, “I can tell you that I have never seen so many cars parked in Lebanon’s downtown ‘after hours.’ There is a buzz in The Heart of Lebanon, and People’s is playing a significant role.” This should only increase since the city is extending the Big 4 Rail Trail into downtown; it will literally pass right by Revel Room’s front door.
All of this upside has been noticed in Lebanon and People’s has been welcomed heartily. Of course, another step in this direction is to hold interesting events for the residents of Lebanon and events that will bring people to town. One such event is the Savor Lebanon Festival – so Walter and I investigated further. As we entered the first building for the fest, Walter and I heard live acoustic music, saw a giant Jenga game toppling over and people gathered in groups discussing the beer and wine they were tasting. It was a very good crowd for an inaugural event, and greater than what was expected. There were enough people that every beer, wine, cider, and food booth had a constant flow of patrons, but not so many that people were forced to stand in long lines at each booth. That being said, certain purveyors did have longer lines and seemed to be the favorites of the day. These included 450 North Brewing/Gnarly Grove Cidery out of Columbus, New Corner Brewery from Muncie, and one of the food outlets – 5280 Bistro from nearby Fishers.
We noticed that the crowd was a bit different than most of the other festivals we attend; it was split more distinctly by age. Most events have a wide swath of people in their 30s to 50s, but Savor Lebanon had a good number of people in their 60s and a noticeable proportion of people in their 20s. This might have been because of the nature of the festival, with wine and food representing a larger than normal portion of the booths, but perhaps also because people that don’t often have this kind of event nearby were coming out to see what craft beer had to offer them. Walter clued me in on another point. Based on T-shirts (exotic breweries vs. Waffle House) and questions that were asked, the crowd seemed to be split into seasoned craft beer festival attendees and those might have been visiting their first festival.
With this in mind, we wandered around listening to conversations and appreciating how much everyone was trying to learn about craft beer. I was pleasantly surprised by the first couple of beers I tried, the Scottish ale (Naughty Steven) and Belgian wit (Nit Wit) from Rock Bottom Brewery on 86th St. in Indianapolis. Brewer Jason Cook is doing a great job there and I think they deserve more attention from the craft patrons across the state. Walter went back a few times for one of her favorite all time brews, the Ivory Stout from Brew Link in Plainfield, while I tried their IPA with pineapple (Pineapple Cosmic Jacuzzi).
As we walked around, a projector threw pertinent information against a screen above one of the stages, including an item noting that a portion of the proceeds from the festival will go to the Boone County Humane Society, with other portions going to future community events and quality of life building projects in town, as well as to the 2018 Savor Lebanon Festival. Spread about were games for everyone to play, including giant Jenga and cornhole, and there was a photo booth with costumes so that everyone might create a picture which they could ponder and regret in the days to come.
The second stage for live music was located in the other building, along with some of the brewers and all of the food vendors. Also in this tent was a festival amenity that few people think about but was done well by the organizers. A trailer was on site from Classy Comforts. These are portable bathrooms that, 1) increased the number of facilities available, and 2) are so much nicer than port-a-lets as to not even be comparable. They look a lot like a home bathroom, with more room, less smell, and a classier atmosphere than a typical port-a-john. It’s a detail, but an important one for anyone who spent more than a couple of hours at the festival – which was everyone.
Other great components included the food samples available for just a dollar or two. You could get more if you wished, but you could also just a get a decent taste and move on to the next booth. Walter tried out a spiced pickle from the Indiana Pickle Company (located in Indianapolis), made with the Wee Mac Scottish Ale from Sun King Brewing, while I sampled a small version of the PB&J from 5280 Bistro and a pretzel from Titus Bakery in Lebanon. The PB&J was a sandwich made with pork loin, bacon, and fig jam on a pretzel bun, and was just as good as that spicy peanut butter bacon burger Walter had tried earlier in the day at the Revel Room.
The Savor Lebanon Festival accomplished its goal – it brought people to Boone County and the city (like how Walter and I visited People’s, our first time there). But the search continues; Joe says that the city is still recruiting potential breweries. The Heart of Lebanon organization has discussed approaching local home brewers about going pro. This has been a very successful model in Indiana recently (see this article), and is a strategy being pursued by other Indiana cities, namely Anderson (more on that in a few weeks). Moontown Brewing is an excellent example of amateurs going pro, and Lebanon could benefit greatly by following this example. Got an abandoned high school in Whitestown – why not turn it into a brewery?
As for the first Savor Lebanon festival, the beer was great and the crowd was fun. Joe said that the goal was to establish a relationship with the craft beer community and Indiana On Tap so that they can build on this success and make the future savor Lebanon events even bigger, and this is exactly what they did. For our part, Walter and I were privileged to have some great conversations, try some wonderful beer and food, and learn more about Lebanon than we knew before, even though we live close by. The downtown is quaint with nice shops and restaurants; we will definitely make another visit soon.