15 May Greencastle Man Bringing BrewPub to Thirsty College Town – The Story of Wasser Beer Company
Minutes into my conversation with Greencastle’s Chris Weeks, he pauses mid-sentence to address a nagging technical crisis unfolding at our patio table. Picking up the menu in front of him, he props it upright between the pitcher of Dale’s IPA sitting before us and the table’s umbrella stem, blocking the sunlight from the beer.
“Most people think that beer gets skunked because of heat,” he explains waving his hand toward his handiwork. “But it’s not heat that does it; it’s light.”
“That’s why it’s sometimes risky when you buy beer at a liquor store,” he continues. “Sure, they put it in brown bottles, and that helps, but the longer it’s exposed to light, the more likely it’s going to end up skunked.” As he spoke, my thoughts drifted to a few craft brews I’d purchased at the local store here in town, both of which tasted like pickled, hyper-sweetened vinegar extract despite the fact that they were delicious when I sampled them at their home taprooms. Weeks’ point was made directly and succinctly, and suddenly the anecdotal stories about the mystery beers I’d bought made sense.
Weeks is traversing the very early stretches of what promises to be an exciting business venture: bringing a brewpub to the small town an hour west of Indianapolis.
With both a California and Indiana background, Weeks’ journey into the world of craft beer began mostly as a novelty. A journeyman teacher, working with everyone from special needs and autistic children to female prison inmates, Weeks (who had always enjoyed cooking and good beer) was given a “Mr. Beer” kit for Christmas in 2009.
“I figured out very quickly,” Weeks explained, “that the ‘Mr. Beer’ kit was the ‘Easy Bake Oven’ way of doing things.” Fascinated by the process, Weeks decided he wanted to know more about it. But that journey, from novice aficionado to master brewer would not be traveled without additional stress from other sources. As Weeks’ love for the brewing process grew, he would also experience a very trying period working in the classroom.
“If you dropped in,” he said speaking of his work at IPS, “you would never know it was a struggling school.” Nonetheless, as a period which Weeks describes as “five years of job insecurity at the public schools” continued, he eventually transitioned to another program in Lafayette. As the instability escalated, he realized that in his current position, he would never have the opportunity to see education reach its potential. Even before he left IPS for Lafayette, Weeks’ work as an emerging brewer was becoming something more. But experiencing a moment of eureka is one thing, acting on it is something altogether different. And acting on it thoroughly, doing the best one can? That’s simply Herculean.
“Teaching may not have been as stable as I had hoped,” he said, “but it was a hell of a lot more stable than saying, ‘I’m going to start my own business.'”
For Chris, the first step included a slow process teaching himself everything he could about brewing. While his early home brewing had evolved over two years from that initial “Mr. Beer” to work with extract brewing and extensive self-study (reading staple works like John Palmer’s How to Brew, Zainasheff’s invaluable tome on yeast fermentation, as well as a regular podcast titled Brew-Strong), Weeks knew he needed to fully immerse himself in the brewing culture in order to become the master brewer he would need to be in order to successfully run his business.
So Chris traveled to St. Louis, stayed with a friend, and started working at Shaffly’s brewpub for the first two weeks of his stay.
“It was very physical labor,” he said in reflection, “but I enjoyed it. Actually, I loved that part of it.” But what Weeks particularly valued was the education his internship provided.
“I like the scientific aspect of truly understanding how things happen,” he mentioned. “And I loved the beer culture as well. I loved sitting with other brewers talking about how a certain Belgian yeast came to America.”
Once back in Indiana, Weeks had to finish his education and master the sometimes more critical element in brew pub operation: the development of a business model. Fully aware of his limitations, he wisely sought the help of local experts who were, in his words, “crucial to the process.” Foremost among them was Greencastle’s Ken Eitel (owner and founder of Hometown Visions) and Terre Haute’s Richard Pittlekow (serving on the Indiana Small Business Development Committee).
As important as both brewing skills and business acumen are, the final cog is arguably the most important one. The centerpiece of Weeks’ presentation to his investors, and the success or failure of any brew pub for that matter, ultimately lies in the beverages themselves. To that end, Weeks has deftly built on Wasser’s H20 motif (“Wasser” is the German word for “water,” pronounced “Vah-ssser”) with a quintet of house beers he’s extremely proud of.
Regardless which brew hooks local patrons, the over-arching water theme remains critical to Weeks’ vision, because as he put it: “Water is the most powerful force in the world,” and it’s the most critical element in the brewing process.
With key presentations behind him, Weeks is cautiously and eagerly awaiting the next step toward creating a fully-operational physical brewing site. And while he fully hopes to enjoy the success which his hard work will earn him, he is also a man who doesn’t forget where he’s been and what he’s given so much of his working life toward. Still a man driven by the sense of public service which propelled him into teaching, Weeks’ brewery will also promote a “2% for Teachers” non-profit element, where a share of his revenue will go back to the schools.
Whether they are motived by good beer, a charitable spirit, or a respect for a hard-working entrepreneur, Western Indiana craft beer lovers will soon have the chance to enjoy local, fresh beer without having to plan their growler-runs around time-consuming trips to Indy. For Chris Weeks the emerging reality of Wasser’s birth has been, in the end, a chance for him to celebrate the greatest by-product of his very hard work: “There’s an inherent pleasure in being able to give someone a beer and say, ‘I made this.'”
It’s a pleasure we can’t wait to share with him.