If You Want To Be Great in Craft Beer, You Gotta Own It

If You Want To Be Great in Craft Beer, You Gotta Own It

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Owners can be one of the less seen aspects of a craft bar or brewery. The smaller the operation, the more likely you’ll see them daily, but as things grow and get even more complicated, much of the work can keep them away from the customers and the bar. And in some cases it can be even harder, they have a day job that helps them pay for the brewery/brewpub/bar/restaurant. Think about it, how many owners do you know at the breweries or craft bar/restaurants that you frequent? Most likely, the ones you know runner smaller, more personal shops.

And yet, the effects of ownership are seen and felt throughout the business. They set the tone, they make the decisions, they define the philosophy of the enterprise. Owners work hard to make sure that employees buy into that philosophy and present the business as they would wish it to be presented. The bottom line is that they are responsible for the bottom line and you hope that they do the job to improve chances of success.

There are instances when ownership isn’t what people would hope it would be, but in the cases where those businesses survive, it is usually because the employees have a sense of ownership, either from personal drive or because a manager or such builds it in them. It’s rare but it does occur that a business will survive despite its owners, but it’s harder and usually won’t last as long.

Every time you spend a dollar at a brewery/pub/event, you are casting a vote for how they do business. image credit: plagiarismtoday.com

Walter and I get to know more of the owners because of the work we do, but there are still several I don’t know personally. Yet, I have a sense of them through their actions and their products. We have found that the vast majority of Indiana craft beverage business owners are enthusiastic standard bearers, and take pride in what they have built and how they built it. It comes out in everything they do, including their events.

This weekend we visited three great events that reflect their owners, people we respect and with whom we enjoy spending time. Each event reflected the personality of the owner, and the people who were involved in the events were treated respectfully and as important partners.

Midwest Distillers Fest. Our Saturday started with a drive to beautiful Brown County and the 325 acres of Hard Truth Hills. Jeff McCabe is the Quaff On! Brewing/Big Woods Restaurants/Hard Truth Distilling co-owner that we know the best (along with Ed Ryan, Tim O’Bryan, and Jim Dunbar) and so much of his attention to detail and enthusiasm could be seen in the 2nd Annual Midwest Distillers Fest at Hard Truth Hills. This year’s version was larger, more open, and was built on a solid base from last year’s inaugural event. The gorgeous day helped, but the location in the woods behind the distillery and restaurant were more than enough to give everyone a relaxed afternoon, just as Jeff and his team envisioned (see the banner image).

The second year grew in both size and depth, with talks by Spirits of French Lick head distiller Alan Bishop on the history of distilling in Indiana. The live music early in the afternoon was great instrumental jazz, very appropriate for the high level of spirits being served. These and more amenities brought in a significantly higher number of attendees, and the appeal of the event has spread across the country.

Midwest Distillers Fest included talks by master distiller Alan Bishop from Spirits of French Lick. image credit: Walter

Walter and I met many people at Hard Truth who had crossed over from the beer event crowd. It’s apparent that some people’s taste buds have an affinity for more than just suds. We also met new friends, like Lisa Gagnon and Cheryl Small from North Carolina. We saw Cheryl’s Sour Wild Funk Fest T-shirt and got to talking about sours and the dumpster fire that was the UnTappd Festival, and we learned that they had driven out here just for the Distillers Fest. After purchasing the SWFF tickets, they received periodic notices from On Tap Tickets of other events in Indiana, and this one appealed to their sense of adventure. I’m pretty sure we’ll see them at other events too.

The distillers at the festival represented all of the Midwest, and brought their best stuff. There were samples and cocktails, food and music, and all with the beautiful backdrop of the Brown County forest. The ownership team of BWQOHT (the umbrella company for all three brands) was very forward looking and smart about building this destination location and making sure that it fit harmoniously into the hills. This also describes Jeff, working with what and whom he has to make sure that everything is allowed to be at it’s best. That’s why he always asks employees what else they do (when not working) and finds ways to allow them to use their talents for BWQOHT so they have a sense of belonging, ownership, and responsibility. It’s working, BWQOHT now has more than 400 employees, is looking to expand, and to go national with the Hard Truth brand.

All the vendors were pleased with the results of the day and the hospitality provided to them by Hard Truth Hills. Look for next year’s event to use even more of the space in the back forty of Hard Truth Hills, and expect the number of distilleries and attendees to grow as well. Go here and get your tickets now for Oct. 24th and the 3rd Annual Midwest Distillers Fest.

7th Pumpkin, Cider, and Fall Beer Festival. In mid-afternoon we headed north to Indy for the 7th Annual Pumpkin, Cider, and Fall Beer Festival put on by Union Jack Pub in Broad Ripple. Owners Jay and Chelsey Wetzel have put together an excellent afternoon of fun, easy to approach beers. Chelsey and Jay have owned Union Jack-Broad Ripple for more than half decade now, and this event has taken on their personality, just as the pub has. They know their beer and they love passing on that knowledge and experience, but they want it to be casual and fun, not stodgy and snobbish.

The 7th Annual Pumpkin, Cider, and Fall Beer Festival keeps growing in size and reputation. image credit: Walter

The Pumpkin, Cider and Fall Beer Festival is unlike any other beer festival in content and demographics. It increases the size of the craft beer tent in Indiana more than other events. In a time when events are contracting or struggling to grow at all, this pumpkin beer fest is growing by leaps and bounds. In a time when the younger consumers are avoiding beer in favor of abstinence or spirits, the largest age segment of ticket buyers for Pumpkin Beer Fest are 21-34. In a time when craft beer struggles to appeal to women, well over half of the ticket sales to Pumpkin Fest are women.

This is reflective of the Wetzels’ commitment to the Indiana craft beer community and showed up in all aspects of the festival. The decorations of fall, the expansive beer list, including home brew and local breweries, and the inclusion of many local vendors and artisans all work to make this a success. The volunteer and professionals doing the pouring were happy to discuss the beers and to make recommendations or talk about their favorites. It was an enthusiastic crowd and they were met by enthusiastic hosts.

There were more than 105 different pumpkin and fall beverages at Opti-Park on Saturday afternoon. Heck, you received a Oktoberfest beer when you checked in and got your tasting glass! Chelsey herself was pouring the beers for the people entering and was welcoming everyone to the event. The beers were fantastic too, even if some weren’t specifically pumpkin beers. The 2016 Abyss from Deschutes Brewery, the 2019 Tripper Noche from New Holland Brewing, the 2017 Rumpkin from Avery Brewing, the 2019 Funky Jewbelation from Shmaltz Brewing, the Apple Saison from Birds Fly South Ale Project as well as several bottles from Bruery Terreux and many others……so many excellent beers, all well labeled and easy to find.

We had a wonderful time talking to people who don’t go to many other festivals, but who are just as enthusiastic about their craft beer as anyone we know. Trinity and Jon are definitely beer geeks who we hadn’t met before, but they fit in to this crowd as easily as did Walter and I. Even at a time of year when there are more beer events than Carter has liver pills, look for this festival to keep growing, in great part due to the leadership of Jay and Chelsey.

Deadman’s Festival at Urban Vines was a nice end to the day. image credit: Walter

Deadman’s Festival at Urban Vines. Our last stop of the day was the nighttime festival celebrating all things dead at Urban Vines in Westfield. Owner Noah Herron has built a business there that’s the equivalent of a permanent block party. Everybody stops by, they all talk together and have drinks, and the kids run around and play.

Approachable is the key word at Urban Vines, just like for Noah himself. The wines are well made and exacting, but they aren’t pretentious. The fabulously popular Cotton Candy wine is evidence of that; no matter how much they make, it’s not enough. There is the dry hopped chardonnay too; wines that connoisseurs and neighborhood families alike can get into.

It’s the same story with the brewery at Urban Vines. The biggest beer they make is the Dead Man Stout, and yet it is still an eminently drinkable beer, a 2-3 pinter, not a one 10z. glass and you’re done kind of beer. As such, the Dead Man is a great beer to build a festival around. The variants are so good – a marshmallow version, one with chocolate and raspberries, and new this year a Maple Dead Man. But the winner of the night, as with last year’s festival, is the triple mash Dead Man. This is a big beer, yet still drinkable. Kudos to brewer Derek Kunzman for these fine beers.

Graciously Departed lit up the night at Urban Vines. image credit: Derek Kunzman of 4th Law LLC

Noah is the perfect owner for a festival inspired by the Grateful Dead. Music means a lot to the winery/brewery philosophy, and chords and harmonies can be heard at Urban Vines several nights each week. Noah put in a large outdoor permanent stage, but the Deadman’s Festival is run outside under a tent for the bands, with light shows and everything to evoke the spirit of the Dead. This year’s cover band, Graciously Departed was everything you would want for a festival like this, and the atmosphere of the evening was quintessentially Urban Vines. With or without a Grateful Dead band and stouts on tap, the back lawn always has a hip, relaxed, and friendly feel.

Noah’s place runs like a well-oiled machine and that allowed he and Amber time to get out the Adirondack chairs and kick back to listen to the music. Many owners would have been running around getting in to everything, but Noah has prepared his team, knows that they know what to do, and let’s them do it. It’s laid back, but it’s not lazy. There is attention to detail, but with a relaxed attitude.

Conclusion. It’s nice to have knowledge of some of the workings behind the scenes of Indiana craft beverage businesses because we know many of the owners. We can see how they mold their companies to reflect themselves and to add to the state’s reputation for great craft beer and food. It also helps us to discern those places and events that we want to celebrate and visit, because we know the stories and motivations behind them.

We recommend getting to know as many people out of public view (or out front for many) who are the decision makers behind Indiana breweries and pubs. Knowing them will give you a better picture of their story and help you connect to them as a patron. Knowing and liking the people who run a destination are key factors in becoming regulars. You can like a place, but you won’t know that place and be invested in it until you know who runs it.

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