Ellison Brewing Company to Fill Space Left by Tow Yard Brewing in Downtown Indy

Ellison Brewing Company to Fill Space Left by Tow Yard Brewing in Downtown Indy

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

The space was just too good to lay empty for very long. The first story of the building at 501 Madison in Indianapolis was home to Tow Yard Brewing from 2014 to early 2018, and now will be a second home to a brewery that was born a full year after the now defunct Tow Yard started brewing.

Ellison Brewering of East Lansing, Michigan is looking for a late April or early May opening at 501 Madison, complete with its own brewing system, new décor with a bigger, more open feel, a wood-fired brick pizza oven and full kitchen with complete menu, and a future event space. Pizza is always a great food to go with beer, and Ellison is partnering with Detroit Frankie’s Pizza truck to bring some more great pizza to Indianapolis. Detroit Frankie’s has named best pizza in Michigan by Time Magazine and Yelp. While Frankie will remain in Lansing, his magic will come down to Indy and take up residence here.

Ellison was opened at 4903 Dawn Avenue in East Lansing in 2015. Owner/head brewer Aaron Hanson planned on distributing beer outside the taproom from day one since the 2015 version of Lansing didn’t have a brewery that could move beer out into the community and package stores. Now Ellison distributes to over 700 locations in Michigan, has started to sell beer in Ohio, and are now ready to set down roots in Indiana.

The Tow Yard Signs will be coming down and the Ellison Brewing signs will be going up in the next couple of weeks. image credit: Ashley Taylor on pintrest

Ellison is a true multi-tool player – brewing beer, distilling spirits, and fermenting wine and cider all at the same time. Aaron said that the original plan was to open an artisan distillery based on experiences and knowledge he gained while living in Brazil, Germany, the UK, and Scotland. Unfortunately, the initial investment for a distillery and the time involved to put out the first bourbons was so great that he wondered, “What can we sell in the mean time?”

Beer was a great answer, and they have become very good at it. Aaron is a mechanical engineer by training, so designing and putting in systems for beer or spirits was right up his alley. The wine and cider production came along a bit later, and is still a smaller portion of Ellison’s business. Wine production was born from Aaron’s connections with Napa Valley vineyards from which he procures barrels each year for aging beers and spirits. In fact, the first bourbons produced by Ellison were released last December, after spending time in charred barrels and then being finished in port or cabernet wine barrels.

While Aaron is both the head brewer and head distiller for Ellison Brewery and Ellison Distillery. His philosophy of beer, which is carried out day-to-day by two solid assistant brewers, is based on his training. He says he is a “less is more” brewer, with a fact-based process that seeks out people who know how a certain ingredient or grain will taste or affect the beer so that recipes can be simple, repeatable, and clean.

Aaron thinks that a beer can be broken down into the three elements that matter most. “Does it look good, does it smell good, and does it taste good?” If a beer succeeds with those three parameters, then you can enjoy it, and not worry about thinking too deeply. If you want to delve into the papaya and mango aromas of the hops after that, fine, but that is secondary to producing a beer that is simple and permits a good experience.

Moving in the 10 bbl brew house for Ellison Brewery took place last week. The original 30 bbl Tow Yard system is at Ellison Brewing in Michigan. image credit: Ellison Brewing

The Tow Yard Brewing equipment was purchased by the owner of the building and put into storage last year. When Aaron became aware of the property and the situation through visits to Indy and friends/family who have recently moved to the Fisher and Carmel areas, he purchased the 30 bbl brew house and moved it to the East Lansing location. This permitted him to move one of Ellison’s smaller systems (10 bbl) here to Indy, where it was delivered recently and is being installed.

The downtown brewery will first produce mostly core beers, using a brewer Aaron will hire and train. The important point is to keep enough beer on hand to serve the taproom patrons, as the Tow Yard space is large, and will get larger with their renovations to make things a bit more open – up to 228 seats if you include the patio. Specialty beers will be brought down from Michigan at first, and distribution in a larger area will be on hold until they see if they can keep the taproom’s 10-12 taps full of beer, have enough on hand for growler fills, and still sell packaged beer as well.

The second phase of the renovation will include a private event space with an internal courtyard, and perhaps a small distilling operation if the details with TTB and ATC can be worked out. The space is available at 501 Madison and next door in the 502 Madison warehouse, but as stated above, that will be down the road. For now, distilling and wine making will be in Michigan only.

Having Ellison Brewery take up residence at 501 Madison seems fitting given the history of the site. The location has long been associated with the growth of the city and with alcoholic beverages. Indeed, the first mercantile in the entire city was located inside a double log cabin on the very site where Ellison Brewery is going in now. Daniel Schaffer opened his store in 1821, just after the city was platted out and the state started selling lots. Daniel was smart though, he built his cabin just south of South Street, officially outside the city and therefore free to settle on instead of paying the state.

Schaffer sold building supplies and necessities to the early settlers of the city, which most certainly included hard cider, beer, and spirits. These were definitely categorized as “necessities” for early citizens of the city. Later, after the Madison Road (now Madison Avenue) linked the Ohio River to the new capital in 1825, the government moved up from Corydon to Indianapolis right past where the brewery will be located.

The new brewery will focus on core beers to begin, but there will be packaged beers as well.  image credit: Ellison Brewing

The building now on the site was built in 1899-1900 and has housed a couple of the most venerable businesses and colorful characters in the history of the city. The Geiger-Sullivan Metal Works was there from 1908-1926, using all three floors for their manufacturing. It was while Geiger was there that an overloaded circuit sparked and set fire to the building. The edifice was saved, but look around and you might see some of the smoke damage to the wood still visible.

The owners of Geiger-Sullivan had several hobbies, including one who was a writer of drama critique and penned a professional biography of the great actor John Wilkes Booth, who just happened to be the assassin who killed President Abraham Lincoln. His brother Russell was a fantastically famous amateur astronomer, who was involved in the naming of Pluto, discovered much of the evidence to prove the existence of galaxies and their outward movement, and because of this was elected to the Royal Society in London.

Later, the second largest wholesale druggist company in the state, Mooney-Mueller-Ward, took up residence at 501-509 Madison. They were very successful and expanded into liquor wholesaling in the 1940s. After Mooney-Mueller-Ward left in the 1960s, the 501 Madison had several tenants, including the Chateau Thomas Winery and Tow Yard Brewing. Therefore, since the founding of the city, this piece of land has been associated with spirits, hard ciders, liquor wholesaling, wine, and beer. Is it any wonder that a brewery that make all these things will make this spot their new home?

Ellison and 501 Madison are a natural fit, but Aaron understands that they will have a lot of work to do to make themselves a part of the city and the neighborhood. Occupying the site of a closed brewery means that their will be some stigma and history to overcome, but Aaron is convinced that their environment of friendly atmosphere and community involvement will make them successful.

The taproom in Indy will have the same feel as in Michigan, with lots of heavy dark wood. No more chalk beer boards or can collections. image credit: Lansing State Journal

The taproom in East Lansing is known as the clubhouse, a home away from home for many patrons. Everyone gets a hello and a smile, and the décor is very inviting. They will recreate this in Indianapolis by redecorating and making sure to get around the neighborhood to introduce themselves. They have already been approached by the groups using the Convention Center and will be getting involved in supporting groups that come to the city for meetings.

Perhaps a more concrete example of community is the way the kitchen will work. Aaron is aware that nearby Eli Lilly and Rolls Royce have many employees from Europe and elsewhere and who are downtown every day. Therefore, the menu will feature several European-inspired dishes to make them feel at home. One of these is a dish that Aaron particularly loved while living in Stuttgart, something called a döner (pronounced doo-nah). Perhaps originally from the Turkish döner-kebap, this is a popular German street food that is a cross between a stuffed soft taco and a gyro. The possible fillings are endless, but there is a warm pita and spit-roasted meat. Aaron says he can last about 48 hours after landing in Germany before he has to have one. He hopes that having some European style dishes on the menu will be inviting for the people making Indianapolis their home while working for Lilly and Rolls Royce.

We may need to wait a couple of months to get Ellison’s beer and food here in Indy, but you can easily make the trip to East Lansing and discover what’s in store for us. Aaron commented that he already has connections and relationships with Indiana craft beer fans and groups, and a dedicated group of followers often travel up to the taproom from Indy when there is a beer release. They may have been ahead of the curve, but I think all of Indy is ready to welcome Ellison Brewing Company to town and to the Indiana craft beer community.


banner image credit: Hops Against Hunger

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