23 Dec How to Design the Perfect City: Start with Charm, End with Great Craft Beer. Meet Columbus, INdiana.
You know that moment when you’re watching Chariots of Fire, the moment when the runners get into their stance before the race? I can’t remember which Olympian the camera zooms toward, the American harrier played by Dennis Christopher or one of the two British sprinters (Liddell and Abrahams), but what I always remember specifically are those shoes…those black, leather, hard-soled, mid-tops. Even as long ago as the early 1980’s, when I was only a kid, I recall watching that movie and thinking, “There’s no way I could run very far in those things.”
Fast forward about 33 years, and move the camera from the fictionalized re-creation of the 1924 Paris Olympic games to the friendly streets of Columbus, Indiana on a brisk November Saturday night. It’s then and there where I discover that I can actually run pretty well in shoes like that after all. On that particular evening Wendi, some of our good friends (Glenn and Lori), and I had just left the Columbus Bar on 4th Street, and we were working our way north looking for Zwanzig Pizza and Brewing Company. After casually walking the first three blocks, something about the evening…the crisp, cool night air; the peaceful, quiet streets; the sights and sounds of the holidays surrounding us; or maybe the alcohol [the writer shrugs his shoulders]…whatever it was, I found myself filled with an exuberant spike in my “joy” levels. Once that happened, the metaphorical gust of wind lifted my soles off the concrete, and into a sprint I went.
Our excursion to the “Athens of the Prairie” began much earlier, when we had spent the day 20 minutes north woefully sauntering the sidewalks of the Edinburgh Outlet Mall like the dead Greek spirits in Dante’s first ring of hell…or, if you’re Wendi, exuberantly parading from one cascading collection of clothing treasures to another like a kid in Willy Wonka’s factory. I’m not saying that outlet malls are by definition horrible places to spend most of a Saturday, but as I like to say about a lot places like this: “It’s nothing that a cash-bar can’t fix.”
I had only been to Columbus one other time, 23 years ago, which means that I didn’t remember much about the place at all. So, as we entered the city from the interstate, the vista we took in crossing the mini-suspension (or…mini-suspension-looking) bridge, with the courthouse sitting front-and-center in the visual frame was eye-popping impressive. Right away, Columbus scores major “atmosphere points” which other towns and small cities can’t replicate.
After no more than a zig and zag, across the bridge and into the town, we reach our first destination, Columbus’s own Indigo Hotel. As we pulled in, I did notice both the added architectural flair emanating from the building (as well as several other edifices along the way), and I also caught sight of the contemporary-looking, rather cosmopolitan 3-D art situated around the parking lot. Different, yes…but I wasn’t fully soaking it in. Once I stepped inside, however, I realized this weekend was not going to be the average trip to the equally average, little Hoosier city. Besides the colors–soft ranges of pastels which blended artfully into photographic murals and rounded corners–the most striking feature inside the Indigo was the decor. A set of tall-backed, throne-like lounge chairs occupied one corner of the lobby, casting an inviting net, asking you to sit in them and lord over the scene like an Elizabethan noble. The throw rug beneath the seats, embroidered with a set of jutting, primary-colored block lines looking every bit like a Saul Bass credit sequence for a Hitchcock film, crept over the hardwood floor enveloping a semi-circular 60’s-era lounge sofa sitting on top of it.
Separating the lobby’s sitting area from the bar-lounge-dining room combination was the reception desk, an island counter top smothered in kiwi green and sporting one mellow poodle named Miles, a seven-year-old who welcomed every chin-scratch and soft pet along the brow. The Indigo is an openly-proud, pet-friendly hotel, not only encouraging owners to bring their dogs on the trip with them, but even offering a dog “happy hour” as well.
After we had settled into our room (an inviting place offering all the standard hotel amenities plus more color, wall design, and furniture arrangements making the place look like a mix between Mad Men and The Fifth Element) we joined Glenn and Lori at the Indigo bar–a set up right out of a James Bond flick (Sean Connery version). Although the Indigo didn’t carry any of the local brews, we had some great options to start off the night: two good beers from Peoples, Upland’s top-selling brands, and the larger market out of state varieties like Fat Tire and Sam Adams. Glenn, Lori, and I opened with People’s Mr. Brown but Wendi, adhering to the “Beer before liquor” mantra, opted for a Pinot. And before all the craft-beer loyalists out there let out any groans of betrayal, let me be clear: A Pinot in Wendi’s hand classes up any joint, on the spot.
One more Mr. Brown each and few polite “good evenings” later, we had all left Indigo, walked no more than a block up and couple blocks over, and we were in the middle of the town. People comfortable with the bustle of Indy, Bloomington, or other Hoosier towns, might find themselves a bit taken aback by the silence which blankets Columbus. But as we strolled to the Columbus Bar, our first destination on foot, we soaked all that quiet in. Long known for its architectural history, the city easily blended the old-century brick and brownstone with the modern wall-glass and concrete pillars. And then, once we reached the bar on 4th street, we stood in a part of downtown that reminded me a little bit of Indy’s Georgia Street: urban and pedestrian, mixed with a bit of Bedford Falls, quiet and nestled. Christmas lights glowed from the storefronts, from the street-lamps, and from the barren trees along the curb. Music echoed around every corner, and those few we passed welcomed us with genuine smiles.
We snagged a cozy alcove table facing the front window of the Columbus Bar, ordered a couple flights, and took in the setting. Decked with lightly varnished wood panels from baseboard to crown moulding, the bar carried itself with a well-worn feeling. This had clearly been the post-game watering hole for generations of people, possibly gathering after Bulldog and Olympian ball games, and sharing their frustrations over bad calls…by both referee and coach. From my spot, my back to the street, I could almost see all that local history bleed from the walls. Most of it called out from the bar jutting out in a long “U” from the kitchen and hooded by overhead storage cabinets which created yet another example of that cramped yet intimate feeling that defined the place. Even the booth seats along the far wall blended that paradoxical mixture of the neighborhood gathering place and isolated getaway. We could sit in our little corner of the bar and get lost in conversation and good beer, but we could also take one step off our stools and be immersed in the culture of the town, and all of that in an area which felt little bigger than a grandparent’s family kitchen.
But as much as I have always enjoyed the stout, getting to know Jack the Bum was the highlight of the Columbus Bar for me. Like a lot of ambers, this one was a mystery going in. Having gradually shifted my palette from low-IBU brews to the hoppier (then much, much, much hoppier) breeds over the last 18-months, I was pleasantly surprised when I tasted a little bit of bite in the Bum. While offering up a little bit of pinch, the beer wasn’t so overwhelming (as many of the extremely hoppy ambers and browns can be) that I wasn’t able to enjoy the distinct flavor which you get with the brown beers. Jack the Bum balanced the sting with the taste, and the result was a beer which was full-throated, filling, and tasty. I enjoyed it so much that I made it my first full pint after we finished our flight.
Then I made it my second pint.
And because we weren’t driving that night, I figured I’d make it my third, too.
Because my pints went down ahead of my meal, because I was fully enjoying myself in the company of good friends, because of that “not driving/walking distance” detail…I ended up making that “movie-score” run on the way to our next stop. In a full sprint, I bounded across 9th Street, straddled 10th, came to a stop on 11th and looked to my right. Just another couple blocks to the east, ZwanzigZ’s building beckoned. An atheistically pleasing combination of limestone, plate glass, and a gabled rooftop, the brewery and pizza joint blended in nicely with the residential homes nearby. In most other towns an operation such as this would have been situated in a strip-mall, or isolated just off an interstate surrounded by concrete islands sporting that fake mulch made out of my dad’s old Michelins. But here, Zwanzig sat on a small town street, on a corner block. Ample parking was available, but even that was snuggly tucked out of sight allowing the brewery to hug the sidewalk and become a part of the city. I was already in love with Columbus’ intimacy, but ZwanzigZ’s “anti-sprawl” statement more than anything else sold me on the town.
The pizza half of the operation sitting to my left was closing for the evening, but the brewpub, a closed-quartered, inviting little hangout to my right was good to go for the rest of the night. As we were perusing the draft board and weighing our options, a friendly gentleman sitting at the bar struck up a conversation with me:
My answer seemed evasive, but it was honest. I liked all kinds of beers. When I told him I liked everything from IPA’s to the mellower, darker beers like porters and stouts, he suddenly knew what to recommend.
“Oh,” he said, “you want an 80/20.”
The “80/20” is a potent concoction garnering its name from the mixture levels in the glass: 80% dark IPA, 20% stout, and about 100% alcohol. It was delicious, and the engaging and passionate host who offered it to me, Mike Rybinski, turned out to be more than a mere, enthusiastic beer drinker, he happened to be Zwanzig’s brew master. Friends with Kurt Zwanzig since their days as college roommates, the two reunited in 2007, a half-decade after Zwanzig walked away from corporate life as a Ford engineer and started the pizza shop.
“By 2011,” Rybinski said, “we were both saying, ‘What are we doing [by not getting into craft beer]?’ So we both said, ‘Yes, let’s do this.'” The result is a modest 7 barrel operation which produces enough beer to bottle and modestly distribute (the artwork, logo design, and packaging is quite impressive), but the brewery’s primary service is to its many loyal customers who give ZwanzigZ’s setting a strong local flair.
“To me,” Rybinski said, “[brewing at this scale] reminds me of the difference between being a stand-up comedian versus one in a movie. I’m like the stand-up comic because I get immediate feedback. I don’t have to wait to see what their reaction is.” Given that the product Rybinski offers “makes people happy,” it’s a safe assumption that most of that feedback comes with the same types of smile and handshakes our gang gave him as we left for the evening.
Given that the state’s largest city has spent the better half of a century shaking off the “Nap” in Naptown, the small towns and burgs in the Hoosier state often seem to have the social-activity deck stacked against them when it comes to expectations. But there was no napping in Columbus. After enjoying the work of two great breweries, plus several more hours at a great Irish bar, all within easy walking distance, Columbus proved to be a great overnight getaway.