It’s The Little Things That Add Up To a Great Craft Beer Experience

It’s The Little Things That Add Up To a Great Craft Beer Experience

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

What matters the most when you drink beer? Is it the big things – the quality/type of the beer, the physical surroundings, the company you keep? Yes, great beer makes a favorable experience more likely, as do great locations and great camaraderie. But I would argue that in many cases, the little things that are harder to define and harder to see from afar do as much to create a wonderful experience or spoil a good time.

Walter and I spent the past Saturday in Northern Indiana, attending the Valpo Brewfest and then having dinner at Blockhead Beerworks just a block from the festival and then stopping at Crasian Brewing in Brookston on the way home. Along the way, we found several examples of how the little things can enhance or inhibit an experience.

This was the first time we had visited the Valpo Brewfest; it was a good idea to go since this festival sells out quickly each year and it draws a fairly large crowd, so we thought we should see it. We purchased GA tickets since the VIP ticket didn’t offer things that interested us (merchandise voucher, food voucher), and because the GA ticket itself was pricey ($55). This was made pricier by the fact that there was just one entertainment outlet (a Dead tribute band) and everything else was to be purchased (food, merchandise, raffle, etc.).

The bitters at Blockhead Beerworks were a source of experimentation for Walter – but only because Brandon took the time to indulge us. image credit: Walter

One of the little things (could be considered a big thing) that altered our experience was that for a festival with such a good reputation was that we were expecting to see a lot of breweries, including some we hadn’t seen before. What we got was some breweries and a bunch of beer purchased from distribution and poured by volunteers. More than half of the beers were things we can purchase at many package stores, from national brands like Lagunitas, Dogfish Head, New Belgium, Blue Moon, Leinenkugel, etc.

True, there were great breweries there in person, with people that could tell you about their beer, place, and story, but we were, in fact, introduced to just one new brewery (Alter Brewing from Downer’s Grove, IL) and they were very nice folks. A $55 ticket is a bit much for that kind of return. We did have fun seeing Zach from Chapman’s Brewing and sampling his great Schwarzbier and Oktoberfest, and we were happy to see Beth and Jason from Four Fathers Brewing and their great dry hopped sour. Dave Hellwege was pouring beer for Off Square Brewing and I like their Aprihoppy very much (Walter isn’t an apricot fan). Finally, Walter did love the Super Haze Big Fluffy from Chris at The Devil’s Trumpet Brewing.

In all, it was a good fest, but little things kept it from being great – lack of local involvement of artists and other small businesses, more entertainment, more brewery driven instead of distributor driven, more room around the grounds for congregating. The little things really do count.

After the fest, we walked the single block to Blockheads Beerworks, a place that is quickly becoming one of our favorites. The Asian fusion food and sushi are fantastic, and the beer is solid. I did a Brewefest Brunch smoothie that was amazing, and our food was complimented by all the Blockhead beers. The fellow sitting next to us apparently agreed with our assessment of Blockhead – he lives in Chicago and regular drives to Valpo just for dinner and beer at the Beerworks. He wasn’t even aware that there was a beer festival going on that day.

We met a guy who drives from Chicago weekly just to get Blockhead beer and sushi. You see why, right? image credit: Walter

Things were getting busy in the bar and restaurant as the fest was winding down, but the staff at Blockhead were as nice and accommodating as could be. And it was here that we experienced a little thing that made a big difference. Blockhead has a three way license, so we were sitting at the bar close to where they display and store their bitters. Walter was lamenting the lack of massively bitter beers these days, so she and Brandon behind the bar starting doing some experiments with adding bitters to beers.

He explained the different kinds of bitters and how some are more for aromatics than for flavor, and some are sweeter than others, and the two of them started adding dashes to the Shaolin Shakedown Imperial IPA and the Pilot’s Pale Ale. Yes, he had other customers; no, he didn’t have to spend time with us experimenting for free with their product, but he did it anyway. And Walter tells me it was good, she’s going to buy her own supply of bitters and carry it around on our visits. She still respects the beer as made, but can beef up some bitterness if she wishes – and it all came about because Brandon was curious and willing to play along with us.

An hour to the south was our last stop of the day, Michele and Tom Bullington’s place in Brookston called Crasian Brewing. Our stop there was a must since we had some beer for their great beerslinger Missy, who had gone above and beyond to help out at Hops & Coaster Drops a few weeks ago. She was busy behind the bar as the place was packed, and we soon learned why. It was Bingo night!

Some breweries spend a lot of money on licensing to bring in live music and some go out of their way to do wild events, but Tom and Michele told us that the things that work best for their clientele were group events in which the staff was involved and in which everyone could participate as a group. Trivia and Bingo are huge favorites, so why spend money on licensing fees to bring in live music that appeals to only a fraction of their patrons and brings in far fewer people.

See the magnified area to better see the messages stuck in the brick walls of Crasian Brewing. image credit: Walter

It seems like a small thing, and risky at that – everyone tends to think that big name local music and high-end events are the way to go – but Tom and Michele know their patrons and what they want. Walter joined in and won a game of Bingo – you’d have thought she won the lottery, she was so happy. This is a community building and relationship building event, and it draws the brewery and the community closer together – a little thing, but a big thing.

Finally, we had one more experience at Crasian that is exemplary of little things helping to build a client/brewery relationship. On the wall at Crasian is a roll of paper and a pen. Above it is written “Leave your mark – with a word of wisdom, a drawing, a joke or a special occasion. Then roll it up and tuck it into the wall.”

You leave a message and then stick it into the chinks of the brick walls around the brewery. You’re literally leaving a little bit of yourself at the brewery, waiting there for your return. And you can experience a little part of other people who have been at Crasian. It’s a small thing, but it’s everything when running a people-based business.

These were three or four examples of small things that enhanced or stunted beer experiences this weekend. I’ve said it many times and it’s still true – You may make and sell alcoholic beverages, but you’re really in the people business, you just happen to do it through beer. The little things that build relationships with the people you serve make all the difference.

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