12 Apr Are Indiana’s Neighborhood Brewpubs Bubble-Proof? Are They Shutdown Proof?
by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap
NOTE: Originally published in December of 2016, I feel that hyper-local brewpubs still have the best chance of avoiding any “bubble” that may occur in craft beer. However, the current lockdown creates a completely problem, one to which the local brewpubs might be most vulnerable. This time of forced closure will be hard for many to overcome.
I wrote a piece a few weeks back about the Indiana beer deserts and how filmmaker Jonathan Hoyt felt that the way to get rid of them was to encourage the opening of neighborhood brewpubs – establishments that define success as serving a smaller population good beer and creating a community within their locality. It isn’t better or worse, it doesn’t even mean just scraping by. It’s just a different type of prosperity.
IF craft beer can’t keep growing at the rate that it has over the last few years and actually begins to contract, is there a niche in the market that could withstand the popping of a bubble? I hypothesize that the neighborhood brewpub is just that. There are several reasons why I feel this may be so, but for any of them to matter, there must first and foremost be an owner and brewer that are willing to work a different business model. They can’t feel that bigger is always better and that more beer means more success. If that threshold could be met, then what would the owner/brewer have going in their favor? There are more than a few plusses to a brewpub type of business. My opinion grows out of talking to a group of brewpub owners located in small towns or specific neighborhoods or Indiana over the past few weeks.
For the purposes of learning about how neighborhood brewpubs work, I contacted six breweries from around the state: Chris Weeks of Wasser Brewing in Greencastle, Amy Gentry of Hunter’s Brewing in Chesterton, Sean Manahan of the soon to be open Kopacetic Beer Factory in Monticello, Mark Swartz of Cannon Ball Brewing in the King-Kennedy neighborhood in Indianapolis, Nathan Point of Point Blank Brewing in Corydon, and Josh Brames of LaOtto Brewing in town of the same name near Fort Wayne. This is a representative group with lots to say about serving a smaller community of drinkers.
However, my conversations were in no way comprehensive for the genre. There are many places that fit this mold of brewing for smaller Indiana communities – Lil’ Charlie’s in Batesville, Basket Case inside the Mill House Restaurant in Jasper, Ironwood and its owner Barb Kehe in Valparaiso, Salt Creek in Needmore, and many more. Use my examples as a general idea of how neighborhood brewpubs might be a hedge against any contraction in the craft beer world.
Perhaps the most obvious reason that neighborhood brewpubs have success is that they are not just a place to go drink craft beer. They serve food, so they can bring in non-craft beer fans, families, cider lovers, and even people that just come for dinner and drink water water (ugh – are there really people that do that?!). Different pubs use varied menus, but they are all getting to the same place. Erin Kem was the chef at R Bistro on Massachusetts Avenue before joining Mark at Cannon Ball. Now she’s serving an octopus salad and Tunisian rabbit curry out of perhaps the smallest kitchen space I have ever seen. It is a marvel of efficiency. And even better, the magic happens right in front of you at the bar.
Following a different path, Sean at Kopacetic is planning on a pizza and wings, based on his family’s already successful restaurant in Monticello. Amy and Justin Reinsetter at Hunter’s Brewing are proud that they are perhaps the state’s only vegetarian/vegan brewpub. In whatever these brewpubs feed their customers, the point is that these establishments don’t require beer sales alone to drive their survival/success.
Where the brewpubs choose to locate also play into their longevity and success, for several reasons. In the first place, they are providing good craft beer to an under-served part of the state or city. Brewpubs in small towns that exist within or near Indiana craft beer deserts mean that you have an almost captive audience; they drink your beer or they drive 35 miles for someone else’s. This may not be the best reason to have people come in for your beer, but it does factor into the equation. It’s just smart to put your beer where the thirsty people live. However, Sean at Kopacetic told me that this isn’t as easy as it seems. He sees part of his job as expanding the palate of the people of Monticello. He has worked them toward IPAs and pale ales by serving them at the family pizza joint, but his goal is to move them toward a big Russian Imperial Stout. Then he knows he’ll have them in the palm of his hand.
Nathan at Point Blank says that location selection can work both ways. His small town of Corydon often gets pulled into the Louisville market, with people driving to Against The Grain or Monnik for growler fills, in addition to drinking his beer when they stay close to home. Thankfully, Louisville people are also making the drive to Corydon to drink at Point Blank. Of course, being located in the historic first capitol of Indiana with all its history helps drive customers his direction as well.
By placing their breweries in small towns and distinct neighborhoods, the brewers/owners have gone to where the people live and spend their free time. This can’t hurt when you are looking for walk up business on a Tuesday night in February. Josh at LaOtto Brewing is well aware that his brewery is in the middle of an extremely small town. If he isn’t the only game in town, he’s close. After people arrive home after a day of work in Fort Wayne or in the fields, they don’t want to drive a bunch of miles for a burger and beer. And there he is, located in downtown LaOtto, right where they are. Likewise, even if Wasser Brewing is located in downtown Greencastle, it is only a short walk from several neighborhoods and DePauw University.
Each of these neighborhoods and small towns has a heart, be it a park, a diner, or even a VFW post – why not a brewpub? Amy Gentry of Hunter’s Brewing in Chesterton wants their brewpub to be just that. After work, people wander in to talk about their day. Business gets done over a salad and Belgian golden or dark strong (Hugo or Happenstance – get up there in Autumn for these beauties). Josh at LaOtto told me that on a weekday night, he might recognize 80% of the faces in his place. That is what being the heart of a locale means – regulars like what you do and they make you part of their lives.
Rest assured, it works both ways. The towns themselves are a reason why brewers/owners locate their brewpubs in these places. In the majority of cases, these are their hometowns or close to them. Josh Brames is from Steuben County, just north of LaOtto – he was looking for a small town with a broken down, forgotten downtown to revitalize. Chris Weeks is raising a family in Greencastle; he is connected to the town and plans to stay for life. The same is true for Amy and Justin at Hunter’s Brewing; they think long term – it isn’t a business address, it’s their home.
The point that Sean Manahan made to me most emphatically is the role that his hometown of Monticello plays in his life plan. Sean has brewed at People’s in Lafayette and Flat 12 in Indy, but when it came time to settle down and plan for the rest of his life, it was Monticello all the way. He stresses what a great town it is in which to raise a family. He, and the other people I talked to, have a pride of place that can’t help but manifest itself in their beer and their restaurant.
As integral parts of their locales, these establishments give back to their towns as well. Chris at Wasser Brewing donates part of his profits to local teachers. Being a former teacher himself, this is an issue that is close to his heart. Mark at Cannon Ball attends all his neighborhood association meetings; he wants to be involved in helping King-Kennedy be the next neighborhood to remake itself from the inside out. It isn’t a matter of gentrifying; it’s about bringing the current neighbors along for the ride with you. Sean Manahan in Monticello started a beer fest to benefit the local library. Josh supplies LaOtto beer to numerous local events, as does Hunter’s Brewing in Chesterton and Point Blank in Corydon. This may be one of the crucial factors in ensuring the success of a local brewpub. Even if the craft beer bubble bursts – they are anchors for their community.
Inherent in being a neighborhood brewpub is brewing on the correct scale. Sean said that he doesn’t expect/want to see Kopacetic Beer Factory beer on the shelves of Krogers. He is starting out with 1.5 BBL kettle and 3 BBL fermenters, and that is just fine. LaOtto Brewing is working the heck out of a 5 BBL direct fire system, and Josh says that slow and steady grow is the way to go. Likewise, Point Blank has a 10 BBL system, but they only work it at half capacity – there’s room to grow if the opportunity presents itself. Sustainable growth was the watchword for Amy and Justin at Hunter’s. They know that their self-financing budget is an inborn brake on exuberant growth. But even if the money was there, they would probably choose to remain the size they are now – at least for the present. It’s an attitude that works well for where and how they are pouring; not every brewer wants to see his beer on tap in every restaurant, and not every brewery needs to see his/her beer in cans at the grocery.
Finally, the correct scale for making and selling beer is part of a different definition of success. Sun King defines success one way, Chris at Wasser defines it as something else. Both definitions involve making beer they are proud of, but the amount of beer you push out the door doesn’t have to define how successful you are. Amy Gentry says that is her best definition of success is making beer in which she and Justin are confident, and being allowed to do it for a very long time. Interestingly, both Sean and Nathan gave almost identical answers to the success question. They each said that success is looking across the bar and seeing a full rail; some regulars and some people that are about to become regulars. If that isn’t winning at life, I don’t know what is. And to my way of thinking, it’s the correct formula for long-term success – no matter what happens with a craft beer bubble. Wait – aren’t beers supposed to have bubbles?