A Couple of Indiana Craft Breweries Go Eskimo in Effort to Give Patrons a Good Time

A Couple of Indiana Craft Breweries Go Eskimo in Effort to Give Patrons a Good Time

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

There are just so many issues that crop up for people who run a craft brewery. Some issues are obvious – can you meet payroll next month or will you be able to source the hops you need for that beer that sells better than any other. Other issues seem less urgent, but can be just as important. Can your brewery meet its space needs both in winter and summer? It’s not like you can just add on to the taproom every time you need some more space.

To this point specifically, everyone loves a good patio on which to enjoy a beer on a warm spring, summer or fall day. That means that most craft breweries take the time and space to put in a good sized patio – perhaps covered, perhaps with a stage for a band, perhaps with a separate set of taps to serve the people who prefer to do their drinking as they commune with the sun.

Examples are rife in Indiana craft beer. Teays River has an indoor/outdoor bar space in Lafayette, and Books & Brews Speedway is located in an old bank building, so the entire drive through area now makes a great covered patio, complete with a long fire pit. Many breweries that didn’t originally have patios now do, and most of the new breweries include them in their footprint. Both the Upland Brewing Fountain Square location and the Taxman downtown Indy location will have massive beer gardens. and Auburn Brewing and Ol’ Lowell Watering Hole each opened with a nice patio.

It would seem that this would an amenity without a possible downside, and it is a great thing for larger brewpubs and taprooms. But for smaller taprooms, it means that they could be giving up space and/or labor in the taproom in order to accommodate people outside. The problem comes when winter hits – we’re in Indiana, so it’s going to hit sooner or later. When it gets really cold and nasty, everyone is going to want to drink inside and there just may not be enough room.

Igloos at Hop Lot Brewing in Sutton’s Bay, MI. image credit: Thyme & Love

It’s certainly true that not every taproom runs into a crowding problem in the winter, but if you had been at Metazoa Brewing on Friday night (Dec. 14), you would have wished that the patio seating could be moved indoors. For some craft breweries, winter seating does become an issue. Michigan breweries deal with this to a greater degree than even Indiana breweries, but last year they seemed to find an interesting alternative – the igloo. It worked, and in 2018 igloos are starting to appear in Indiana – plastic geodesic domes that have heaters, zippers to close them up, and tables or other furniture to allow patrons to enjoy nature without having to deal with nature.

Big Thorn Farm & Brewery in Georgetown, IL has found a different way to put their patrons into nature, with a tree house taproom in the summer and a rustic greenhouse in the winter, but that has more to do with the fact that they are an off-grid brewery; the tree house and greenhouse are their only draft options. They don’t have a traditional taproom of any kind, but it has more to do with their philosophy than a lack of space. This isn’t a normal choice, so most breweries are going to look more kindly on the igloo option.

The number of Michigan breweries that are using igloos, most of which come from a company called Garden Igloos from Europe, has exploded this winter. The domes won a design award in recent years, and were original designed not just for cold weather, but to keep people separated from the bugs while they enjoyed their garden. Hop Lot Brewing Michigan was an early adopter after seeing them in Chicago and Detroit, and their the igloos became so popular that they have added to the number they used last year.

It’s not a cheap undertaking to put in an igloo, even though they are very modular and easy to put up and take down (the website says two hours). Units on the Garden Igloo website are around $1300 US, although some business breaks are probably possible. But on top of that initial cost, there is a cost to put a heat source inside, add furniture or tables, and to electrify them for lights and music. It must make good business sense though because they have started to move across the border south to Indiana and I haven’t heard of breweries that did have them and now choose not to.

image credit: Ironwood Brewing

Two examples in Indiana of breweries using the geodesic domes for outdoor seating during winter have popped up recently on Facebook, so forgive me if we have missed any others. Let us know and we will definitely update the list. Those that we are aware of now are Ironwood Brewing in Valparaiso and Urban Vines Winery & Brewery in Westfield, so I talked to the owners to see why they pursued this option for more space and how they are working out.

Barb Kehe, owner and brewer at Ironwood Brewing in downtown Valpo said she got the idea from a regular. Ironwood is one of those examples that the outdoor space is used well in the summer, which leads to a cramped taproom from time to time in the winter. Barb told me, “This is an effort on my part to expand my winter seating. Ours is a very small space, so this is always a concern.” Limited space and a full taproom means you’re missing out on potential additional sales. I guess it’s the price one has to pay for making good beer and having a fun taproom atmosphere.

Barb has one igloo set up on the front patio so everyone sees it as they come into the taproom. She just has room for the one since her outdoor space is limited too, but it has become quite popular since she installed it. It has started out as a first come-first served amenity, but Ironwood may change to a reservation system since it has become a thing that people are searching out. Barb purchased the igloo outright, and says she will definitely be putting it up again next year….if it survives the vagaries of an Indiana winter.

Further south, Noah Herron and Urban Vines have invested more into this program. Noah said he first saw it at Hop Lot in Michigan, and thought it might work well in his space. Like HopLot, he is starting with three igloos in the first year, but is hoping to expand the program, just like HopLot did this year.

image credit: Urban Vines

Noah was also quick to point out that the indoor space was found to be limited in their first winter (2017), especially because they serve as both a wine tasting room and a brewery taproom. Their maximum capacity for the taproom is eighty, which they have exceeded or verged on exceeding in most weekends during the winter. Urban Brews has plenty of room outside during the nice weather, with both covered and uncovered space, but the limited space inside demanded that they look for a solution.

Noah takes reservations for the igloos, and the first two weekends since they put them up have been completely sold out. He told me, “I think it’s a great way to get people who would never come here otherwise to try us out! Once they get here we then show them a good time and hopefully they will be back!” They charge $10/hr for any size group, so if a group of eight rents one igloo for two hours, it’s really only $2.50 a person – that’s nothing. Each igloo has very comfortable furniture, a heater, a radio and turf as a floor, so each is a self-contained entertainment space.

For other breweries interested in the idea, Noah says that the reservations and added sales (if they hold up) will definitely pay off the igloos in this first year, and next year they’ll really start to pay off. Noah says, “Right now our phones are ringing off the hook for rentals. With the holidays coming up people are wanting something fun to do. We have posted a couple times on social media about them and everyone goes nuts! It’s been a big hit so far and think it will be all winter.” This means that paying them off will be quick, and we should look for the igloos on more brewery grounds in the coming year.

Ironwood and Urban Vines/Brews are most probably on to something here; just another indication that your Indiana craft breweries are always looking for ways to enhance the experience for their patrons. Seek out these new ways to enjoy craft beer throughout the winter and talk to your local breweries about trying igloos out this winter or next. The domes are just one more way to love your beer.


banner image credit: Urban Vines

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