South Bend Revives City’s Rich Craft Beer History with Annual Brew Fest
South Bend was a big player in pre-prohibition Indiana brewing. Muessel Brewing Company made good, local beer when they opened in 1852, but that isn’t what they are remembered for. In 1913, they decided that the best way to market their beer was to start a professional football team. As their coach they hired a senior Notre Dame student named Knute Rockne – and the rest is history. South Bend was also the one time home of Drewrys Brewery. They began as a Canadian company, but moved to South Bend after purchasing the South Bend Muessel Brewers in 1936. Once a very big player in domestic beer Drewrys closed in the 1970s after being purchased by G. Heileman.
A brief effort to revive Drewrys fizzled out in the past year or two, but this was an aberration. Overall, the beer gods have smiled on South Bend in the recent years. Starting in 2011, South Bend began to revive their role in Indiana brewing with the opening of Bare Hands just to the northeast in Granger. This was soon followed by South Bend Brew Works, Evil Czech and Crooked Ewe. So if any place has earned the right to host an outstanding beer festival, it is the city on the southern bend of the St. Joseph River.
The brewing history of the city and the great beer coming from the region now suggest that a beer festival in South Bend ought be dang good. This was the attitude that Walter and I arrived with on January 21 for the 2017 South Bend Brew Fest. Little did we know that in this old brewing town, we would get a chance to try many new beers and breweries
It probably won’t shock you to know that Walter and I have been to more than a few beer festivals. Unfortunately, this means that anywhere we go for a festival in Indiana, it seems that we often see the same batch of brewers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, each place usually brings something new that we haven’t had yet. It’s tough to get around to all the taprooms and brewpubs to taste the new seasonals every couple of months, so beer festivals keep us up to date with what recesses of brewing science each brewery is delving into. But we do find ourselves traveling farther and farther to find festivals with beer that we get to drink more rarely.
That being said, I was pleasantly surprised to see the number of places at the South Bend festival that we had not had before, at least not a beer fest. The stalwarts of north region bring were there to be sure, 18th Street, Bare Hands, Crooked Ewe, Burn ‘Em, ByWay and others were. Many of the Indianapolis breweries came north too – Daredevil, Central State, Fountain Square and Deer Creek all were pouring. There is no way for me to name in this column all the breweries who attended, but go to the festival list page here, check out the list, and then put the festival on your calendar for next year.
It was also nice to see some of the southern Michigan breweries travel south of the border. Jolly Pumpkin and Dark Horse attended the festival, along with Greenbush, New Holland, Short’s and others. All these breweries, along with festival regulars like Leinenkugel’s, Stone, New Belgium, Epic, Boulevard, and Brooklyn assured everyone that comfortable beers, those they know and love, would be available. Even those who prefer fermented drinks other than beer found a lot to cheer about in South Bend. No fewer than six different cideries, meaderies and distilleries were on hand. With an ample four hours to spend tasting, I think Walter tried more mead and ciders in the afternoon than she had in the previous two years total.
However, for me the highlight was being able to sample beers that we normally don’t see at the festivals we attend. Perrin from Comstock Park, MI was there pouring a wonderfully complex Blackberry IPA, and Hoppin’ Frog from Akron brought the B.O.R.I.S. Reserve Oatmeal Imperial Stout. Walter had drunk a bit from the Frog before, but having them in front of you with several different beers made for a great stop along our route through the Century Center.
North Peak Brewing was familiar to us via their distributed beers and bottles as was Jolly Pumpkin, but this was the first time we can remember drinking both those breweries at a festival. This might reflect the fact that we live in Indianapolis, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to get to South Bend then it is Traverse City. Even the breweries we were used to seeing surprised us. Rogue had an interesting new beer, a blend of their Hazelnut and Chocolate ales. It was a guest-suggested mix that previously had been served only in their taproom, but South Bend was the premiere of the bottles anywhere outside their brewery.
Other brewers there taught me how much I still have to learn about the craft beer community. We hadn’t heard of Burnt City (formerly Atlas Brewing) or Veteran Beer Company, both out of Chicago. Walter and I talked with Paul Jenkins, US Navy veteran and now President and CEO of the veteran-owned and veteran-run brewery. Most of the people working with Veteran are disabled ex-military, and Paul only works with veteran-owned and veteran-employing small businesses. For example, their logo bottle openers and tap handles are actually spent rounds from Iraq and Afghanistan that are cut and reshaped by a double amputee veteran in Florida. He has been so successful that he now has five more amputee veterans working for him. Putting veterans to work is a noble cause, but it only works because their beer is very good; their four house beers have all won multiple awards. I particularly liked the Bunker Buster Rye Brown Ale.
Our new experiences didn’t end with the Chicago breweries. Walter met Stefan King and Joe Hull of HopLore Brewing. Joe is a home brewer in the process of bringing his beer to us commercially, very similar to the story of Dan and Jesse at Black Circle that we talked about last week. He and Stefan are contract brewing at SBBW until the Old Leesburg Mill is ready for their brewpub, with Stefan in charge of the food and Joe in charge of the beer. They were very happy to have the opportunity to pour at the Brew Fest, getting their beer in front of many more people and receiving some important feedback. By the way, their Mellow Maple oatmeal stout is already a great beer. They mashed at a slightly higher than normal temperature that increased the proteins in the wort and led to an even rounder mouth feel.
Along with the new and less familiar breweries, it was nice to see the number of beers from each brewery, most brought four or five different brews. It’s always easier to understand a brewer’s beer if you have several examples. This helps you decide if a particular brewery does work that you find interesting and deserves more of your attention. One beer could be a hit or miss and you would get the wrong impression, while two beers is like a movie promo – you can hide a lot of average beer behind two great ones.
Spending an afternoon in an historic beer town drinking both local beers and those from farther a field was wildly enjoyable. Learning about unique breweries we had not encountered before made it a festival to remember. And talking to brewers that are bringing another brewery to life in the Goshen/Warsaw area was an unexpected surprise. All this in a spacious hall that was more than big enough for the hundreds of drinkers and with good snacks available. The third annual South Bend Brew Fest was a roaring success and portends great things for next year’s event.