When Searching for New Breweries, Take Advice (and) the Road Less Traveled

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Walter is a big believer in breweries as drinking spots. She and I do go to craft beer bars, and we love a nice gastropub that has a great beer list. Yet, when it comes to getting and drinking beer, we almost always end up in a brewery taproom or a brewpub. We don’t buy much beer at the beer stores to drink at home; we see craft beer as a social experience, one that should be shared with old friends, new acquaintances, and the brewers/beertenders themselves.

That being said, how do we decide where to go? We end up at places near our home quite often during the workweek, but free days are often reserved for finding new breweries around the Midwest. There are many breweries that we will visit only once because of distance or personal opinion about their beer, but our quest is to experience as much of the craft beer community as we can. It’s not an effort to compile a huge list of places we have visited just for the sake of the number, it’s more about finding out what these artisans are doing.

A brew map is a fine place to start, but don’t take it as gospel. This map doesn’t even include Monnik Beer Co. or 3rd Turn Brewing. Image credit: WDRB.com

When we both have a couple of free days, we will start to look at cities/regions that we have not been to or places we haven’t visited in a while. We will develop a list of breweries and their hours as a jumping off point, and see if any breweries are located between our destination and our starting point. We might even map out an order based on opening times, food availability, and for minimization of total distance traveled. But make no mistake – this is just a tentative schedule, a jumping off point. What we are actually hoping for/counting on is local input to help mold our trip.

We know more about Indianapolis beer and breweries than any other place simply because we live there and are immersed in the local scene. It’s true for most of the places we visit too; the people we run into are often locals that know alot beer in that town or region. So why not listen to what they have to say? Beertenders, brewers, and the people you meet at the rail are going to have opinions about what your next stop should be. Talk them up, see what they have to say. For Walter and I, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

The examples are numerous. While visiting Perennial Artisan Ales in St. Louis on a Friday night, Kayleigh the chef/beertender, was nice enough to talk to us about the local beer. When we mentioned that we were going to go back home via southern Illinois, she suggested that we stop in Ava for a brewery called Scratch. Being a chef, she was interested in their field-to-fork and field-to-pint concepts for their brewpub. It was easy to see how enthusiastic she was about Scratch, and that made us enthusiastic too. We looked up their information and location, and found that another small brewery, Little Egypt Beer, was also in that vicinity.

An off-hand comment from us about traveling in southern Illinois resulted in our finding two stunning microbreweries – places that we will definitely visit again and will tell other people about. Such is the power of a good conversation. In similar fashion, a recent trip to Columbus, Ohio was started with the intent to hit 5-6 breweries. We had a list of places we had heard about and thought would be good. Yet, a cog was thrown in the works when we talked to a couple at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing.

Scratch Brewing is a must visit for any beer geek. A wild carrot beer – yes, please. They grow some hops, but they also bitter beer with other herbs and spices. Photo credit: Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine

There it was, 10:30 on a Sunday morning, and two couples were sitting next to one another with massive flights of beer in front of them. Chit chat ensued – why were we there, why were they there? They were in town for a baseball tournament for their child, we were hitting several breweries. What kinds of beer did they like, what kinds of beer we do like, etc. They asked if we knew about Rockmill in the brewing district. I looked puzzled, I thought that Rockmill was in Lancaster, OH. They said yes, but they have a brewpub here too and they specialize in Belgian beers. Oh, well… in that case, throw the itinerary out the window.

Knowing what we did about this couple beer tastes and experience, Walter and I were more than happy to chuck our schedule and head straight down to the brewery they suggested. Man, did it turn out great. Great beers, interesting food, good people to talk to, and an interesting old building that they redid completely. Walter and I couldn’t have been happier with the suggestion.

This type of experience has been repeated again and again. A patron at Backpocket Brewing in Coralville, Iowa sent us to the middle of nowhere to visit Kalona Brewing. Located in a small, mostly Amish town in southern Iowa, Kalona turned out to be one of the best breweries we visited on our beercation. A couple from southern Michigan that we met in Asheville, NC suggested that we try Tapistry Brewing when we got to that part of the country. We wrote it down, kept the advice in mind and visited for the first time almost a year and half later. It was worth it.

Shoreline has some amazing beers, and they are a great gateway to lower Michigan breweries too. Look for a big expansion at Shoreline this year. Photo credit: roadtps.typepad.com

Finally, on that same trip to lower Michigan, we met a young couple at Shoreline Brewery in Michigan City that told us about a newer brewery in the southern Michigan region called Cultivate. They grow their own hops and use many ingredients that they grow themselves for their beer. It was a wonderful find for us, and wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t engaged people in beer conversation. What’s more – we told the people at Cultivate about Scratch Brewing and their similar modus operandi, and now the Cultivate folks are making a trip to southern Illinois.  It’s a pay it forward type deal – craft beer style.

These are all great memories for us, but it doesn’t mean that the outcome is always positive. No matter how much you think you have learned about the people with whom you’re talking – their opinions, and yours as well, are going to be subjective. Some suggestions just don’t turn out well. While at One Trick Pony Brewing in Lansing, IL, a brewer sent us further north to a supposedly great Belgian brewery. We got there to find decent beer, a crowded space, and earth-shakingly loud headbanger music. Not our kind of place, but the person who made the suggestion couldn’t have known that. Perhaps the experience would have been different if we showed up at noon instead of 8:30 pm, but such is life. Overall, our outcomes have been much more positive than negative.

So whose advice do you follow and who do you listen to politely and then ignore? It’s kind of a crapshoot, but you can increase your odds by talking about styles and brewing philosophies that each of you like. If they make sense, if they use a little terminology that holds up, and if they understand what you are talking about, then the chances go up that the suggestions might be worthwhile. If the young man asks the beertender for the beer that tastes the most like Coors – then you might want to steer clear of the breweries he states that you just HAVE to visit. In general, the more information you gather and the more opinions you obtain, the better. Don’t dismiss a destination just because you haven’t heard of it, and don’t take anyone’s opinion as gospel. Your smartphone can help, but don’t rely on slick websites and professional photography alone.

Do your homework after talking to patrons and brewery folks. In Missouri, we asked for additional places to go, and the beertender didn’t tell us about a great, very new, brewery just two blocks away. Image credit: theregister.co.uk

When Walter is talking with a new friend about where we are from and the beer we like in Indianapolis , she is often asked about what breweries should be visited when they get to Indy or Indiana. We take this responsibility very seriously. We can tell them what we like and the various philosophies that abound in Indiana beer, but we almost always start a discussion like that by asking what breweries and beer styles they like. Having visited over 110 Indiana breweries, we can usually think a place with good beer in the area they will be visiting, but that’s the easy part. The key is to find something they will like too. Are they going to be in Northern Indiana and they happen to be vegetarian/vegan – they should certainly try to get to Hunter’s Brewing in Chesterton. They like sour beers and will be touring Indy? Then Central State and the Koelschip should be right up their alley.

We realize that their experience will be based on many factors, but we want give them the best shot at finding Indiana beer that they will rave about to their friends. To increase the chances of a good experience, we give them a few suggestions (not more than three so they don’t get overloaded) and tell them about we like about each place. Walter and I definitely have our favorites, but this conversation isn’t about us, it’s about our new friends and what they will enjoy. Luckily, Indiana beer is so good that they’re likely to be happy with their choices no matter what. Now – where do they suggest we go when we hit their city?

 

Walter’s words of wisdom – Average beer teaches you more about what you like and don’t like than does amazing beer.

 
 

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