St. joseph Brewery Brings Religious Experience To Indianapolis

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By Donovan Wheeler of Indiana On Tap 

I have several Catholic friends in my home town. They’re all great, amazing people, and they’re impressively devoted to their faith. And all of them like to drink. It’s a feat they do very well. Despite my now established yet very limited Catholic acumen, when I entered St. Joseph Brewery and Public House (on College and North near Mass Ave) it occurred to me that, had it instead once been a Baptist…or Presbyterian…or simply a Christian church1, then perhaps its eventual “evolution2” into a brewery might seem more ironic.

However, sitting inside what was clearly the old sanctuary, I couldn’t help but look at the sweeping arches above me, absorb the echoed smidges of conversations bouncing off the ceiling, take in the light from the towering Lancet windows peering over us as we enjoyed our brews, and think that the transition from a once staunchly Catholic place of worship into a house of fermentation seemed not only appropriate, but destined.


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Consecrated at the turn of the last century, the church thrived for its first three decades before finally falling out of use in the 1940s. When my fiancée, Wendi, and I walked through the cramped vestibule, stopped at the hostess booth, and peered into the vast open space awaiting us, we couldn’t help but absorb the history echoing throughout the enormous chamber. Christenings, weddings, funerals, Christmas Eve masses all haunt the sharp corners crisscrossing the high ceiling and whisper from the hardwood beneath our feet.

When St. Joseph was built in the late eighteenth century, it modeled the cruciform architectural plan often used by European cathedral builders throughout the Middle Ages, meaning the layout was shaped in the form of the cross. From our table3, I took in the neatly ensconced bar setting to my left (under a long-running staircase leading up to a narrow balcony running along the “base of the cross”). From there my gaze swept across the open seating area, far below those looping ceiling edges, all feeding to the midpoint of the cross design. The refurbished and/or replaced hardwood floor blended well with the wooden-textured seating and the soft brown color arrangement along the walls. That, combined with the wide swaths of sunlight raining into the room, evoked a serene sensation. While it’s true the dining area did cast off a sort of “airport echo” effect, it actually served to enhance the visit and further connect us with the building’s majestic past—a far different experience than the often claustrophobic, cramped noise which we get in bars and other brewpubs. And even though the place was filling up quickly as the afternoon faded into the evening, all of the unique design elements in St. Joseph allowed us to feel comfortably isolated. It created for me the sort of perfect merging of two worlds. If I wanted to be by myself, I could find a seat among the sea of people in the middle and disappear. If I wanted to hang out and socialize with the locals, I could walk over to the bar and settle into its tight corner and experience that more intimate interaction.

From our spot out in the open, we ordered a flight, and enjoyed both Dowd’s Export Style Stout4 and the house brown ale; however, Wendi and I both agreed that St. Joseph’s second-best concoction was the Sanctuary Saison—a smooth Belgian taste crossed our palates when we drank them. And hands-down, we saluted our favorite brew, the Confessional IPA. Mixed with an excellent Cab Grilled Chicken platter (for me) and the Classic Cob Salad (for Wendi), St. Joseph’s offered an excellent, on-the-spot getaway from the bustle that is sometimes Mass Ave.
Recently, a friend of mine who had stopped in less than a week before us, referred to St. Joseph as “a religious experience.” As our visit ended, those words ran through my mind while I turned my eyes to make note of the brewery’s production system. Where the altar obviously once stood, an arrangement of presumably brew kettles surrounded the pulpit, while what appeared to be fermenters and mash-tun containers ran along the old church’s south side. Appropriately cordoned off from the dining public by high rails, the visible presence of all that steel, complete with the brewery’s clever logo on the highest tank, functioned as the final merger of two oft-competing cultures: alcohol and godliness. Here now, we sat in the church of beer, and instead of sitting under the stern eye of an old man sporting an uncomfortable habit awkwardly rambling on about the sins of both sex and contraception5, I sat before the warm sheen of resilient silver and indomitable gray contemplating the joys of hops and yeast.

A religious experience it is.

1—I left out the Methodist because they’re actually pretty mellow. If you’re a protestant beer-drinker, this is your best option in my opinion.
2—I can have fun with this allllllll day long.
3—As a point of reference I remarked to Wendi that we were near Jesus’ left hand…she didn’t find my comment very appropriate, however.
4—St. Joseph’s pastor for over four decades.
5—I think they also frown on masturbation, which doesn’t leave a fellow with many options.


 
 

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