15 Feb Indiana City’s Ales From The Crypt: Tasty, A Bit Creepy, and Full of History
Craft beer events each have their own feel. Some are so upbeat as to be considered bubblegum and Justin Bieber. Some are so hip that they could have come straight out of Woodstock. Others are esoteric, with in depth conversations about yeast strains and food pairings. Walter and I like them all, the different feels are like different styles of beer – all good and all welcome.
Yet we were taken aback just a bit by the prospect of attending Ales From the Crypt at Indiana City Brewing in downtown Indy. A craft beer based on freaking you out? It turned out that the evening was only mildly creepy, monstrously educational (see what I did there?), and very tasty. Here’s how it went down.
Indiana City Brewing was started as a community funded craft beer brewery in 2013. Owner Ray Kamstra embraced the city and his location, and this has led directly to Ales from the Crypt in several ways. The coincidences are several and interesting. But first some background.
When it was time to find a home for Indiana City, they were happy to locate the only pre-Prohibition brewery building left standing in Indianapolis. On west Washington Street, just east of the 65/70 interchange (known as the spaghetti bowl in former days), there was the bottling house of the old Home Brewing Company. While the brewhouse directly to the south was gone, the bottling house was still standing, although abandoned and in disrepair.
The bottling house had gone through many owners through the years, including perhaps as a boxing club – Richard from Indiana City told us that someone had come through for a tour and recognized the basement as an old boxing training room of his. As a link to the past brewing tradition in Indianapolis, it was fitting that a craft brewery took up residence, and that it was a brewery whose people were interested in preserving its history.
The bottling house is two-story brick building, but it has an extensive basement that is perfect for barrel aging craft beer. That’s exactly what they’ve been doing; and on February 10, Indiana City brought out five brews that had spent time downstairs in barrels. For the Ales from the Crypt event, only 140 tickets were sold. Each included a very cool tasting glass with gold leaf, an ID card that got you 5 oz. pours of each released beer, a tour of the “crypt,” and a chance to buy bottles of these rare beers.
Walter and I arrived about 5:15, in time to pick up our taster glasses, the complimentary six pack bottle bag, and still had a fair amount of time to look around the Bottling Room event space. The stage is at one end with a great sound system. Exposed brick walls, metal beams, and wooden slats as the ceiling make for a rustic but chic kind of event room.
But as we walked around, we did notice a stairway that basically led to nowhere, just down into the darkness. When Walter first spotted it, she said, “Yeah, well that looks creepy. Now I know where they got the name for the event.” Usually there is a sliding gate in front of the stairs, but tonight it was wide open, and we took a moment to walk to the top of the steps and stare into the dark maw. I needed a beer.
Luckily, just before 6:00 the barrel-aged beers were put on draft. We had a lanyard and card with the beers named on them, and the card was punched as we got our 5 oz. samples. I started with the Crimson Bombshell, an imperial red ale aged in bourbon barrels. This is the most established of the barrel series, and one of the few red ales that doesn’t give Walter a headache. Walter started with the Udder Annihilation, a milk stout aged in Heaven Hill barrels. The bourbon was more prominent in this one, and it balanced well with the sweetness of the lactose.
With our beers in hand, the tour started in the brew house with Ray explaining how Indiana City started as a community-funded brewery with a plan for organic growth. Almost five years later, this plan is definitely coming to fruition, with Indiana City’s plan to double production this year. The addition of fermenters purchased from Sun King will help them to produce over 2000 barrels of beer in 2018.
Walter and I headed back to the bar for our second tastes, because we weren’t going to face the crypts without a beer in hand. She decided on the Crushin Roulette Russian Imperial Stout aged in Heaven Hill barrels. This is the third year for Crushin, and I think this year’s had a bit more bourbon on it. I tried the Le Haymaker, a cognac barrel aged oatmeal stout with great body. With our courage thus screwed up, we headed down that metal stairwell. In truth, we couldn’t show much fear of falling or what we might find below because right in front of us was Rita Kohn, heading down the stairs with her cane, a beer, and a good attitude. We’re such wimps.
Once downstairs, shadows danced across the walls from the lights stashed behind the barrels while our vision had to adjust to the low overall light levels. The atmosphere made it easy to think about all the history that had taken place down there and the significance of beer being back in this basement almost a hundred years later. Ray didn’t tell any creepy stories of murder or death…..but they do have a ghost name Albert.
Since Indiana City opened, several “mediums” have been in the basement and concluded that they do sense a presence down there. No malevolence, just a spirit. And each person, unknown to the others, has said that the spirit told them that his name was Albert. I may have to look up if the Home Brewing Company had an employee or owner named Albert.
The first room we looked at in the crypt was the old ice room. The walls were interesting, we could see a thick brick layer covered by cork, which was then stuccoed over. This keep the ice solid for much longer in the warm months, and helped the beer last longer. You could tell that Home Brewing cared about this space, because we could see remnants of a decorative painting on the stucco that remained.
In a larger room, Ray talked about the barrels that were there. He was happy to say that there is much more room for barrels, and this will definitely be a part of the increased production plan. The goal is to get 6 bbl of beer a month into barrels. They’re of the opinion that they can get 300 barrels stored in the basement at any one time.
In that same room, we could see bricked up holes on the south wall that represented where the pipes brought beer into the bottling house from the brew house that used to be located to the south, near the railroad spur for shipping. There are still some pipes that run overhead from the Home Brewing Company. Rita and Ray described the Home Brewing Company which was closed when Prohibition was instituted. In its heyday, the brewery shipped out more than 40,000 bbls of beer each year.
They drew a nice parallel between Home Brewing and Indiana City, including that they both started with community financing. The original brewery had 2000 subscribers who would receive home (hence the name) delivery of beer for their investment, while Indiana City had a public Kickstarter to raise initial capital. And even more, both breweries use the torch from the Victory statue on top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument as a logo, although Indiana City didn’t know that Home Brewing had used the torch when they put their logo together.
Since the bottling house is the only hold over of Indianapolis brewing before Prohibition, it’s nice that a company that honors and reveres that history took up residence there. Although, it should be noted that just before Indiana City closed on the building, Mark Swartz from Cannon Ball Brewing looked at the same property. It is rather poetic that Mark passed on it and ended up in a building on 17th Street with a special link to Erwin Cannon Ball Baker. Ask Mark about it; things often work out just as they should.
After climbing back upstairs, Walter headed straight for the bar to try the BBA Beast. I joined in trying this beer, as it was the one we were looking forward to the most. This bourbon barrel aged Belgian Strong Ale was great, one of everyone’s favorites of the night. Overall, the ABVs of the barrel-aged beers were manageable, the barrel characteristics came through in each beer, but they weren’t that hot, and it made it easier to appreciate each in a single evening. They were all very drinkable, which made people enthusiastic for the bottle purchase opportunity later in the evening.
In groups of ten or twenty, the attendees had the opportunity to go into the brew house and purchase bombers of each of the five barrel aged beers. Many people took advantage of this opportunity, and stored their purchases in their commemorative carriers while the second tour went downstairs. We took time to talk to other attendees, including a couple that came in from northern Ohio just for this event.
The evening was very enjoyable for beer geeks and casual fans alike. The crowd was knowledgeable and enthusiastic for the beers, and I can’t say enough about how much we learned on the tour. Ales from the Crypt is definitely worth a return trip next year. Who knows, maybe we’ll run into Albert.