Mad Science Comes to Indiana Craft Beer in the Form of New Westfield Brewery

Mad Science Comes to Indiana Craft Beer in the Form of New Westfield Brewery

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

We are amid a whirlwind of Central Indiana craft beer openings this autumn and winter; C.T. Doxey Brewing in Anderson, Pax Verum Brewing in Lapel, Moontown Brewing in Whitestown, Happy Brewing in Butler Tarkington, Crasian Brewing in Brookston, Traders Brewing in NW Indy, Mind Over Mash Brewing in Brownsburg, etc. I know have forgotten at least a couple, but we’ll get to them sooner rather than later.

Westfield hasn’t been left out of this brewing melee, with the opening of Urban Brews (303 E. 161st St.) in late November. As more breweries open, it’s harder and harder to find a unique niche for brewers and owners to exploit, but Urban Brews has a formula that will likely prove innovative and appealing- theirs is a place with a little something for everyone, and it is tied together by some true mad science.

Owner Noah Herron is an IU graduate in biochemistry who worked for Eli Lilly before moving into marketing for several years and then opening Urban Farmer, an online seed company. He home brewed in college and has known for a long time that he wanted to open a brewery. This idea rattled around in his brain for a few years, and just a couple of years ago he discovered wines and wine making.

This can be a bit confusing – Urban Vines is the winery, while Urban Brews is the brewery. But they are both in the same tasting room. Image credit: Trueblood Web Studio

After making wine at home and starting his online Urban Farmer seed store, his idea expanded to opening a winery/brewery. And if you are going to invest that kind of time and assets, you might as well make it wine/beer/and spirits, so a distillery is in the planning as well. One of Noah and his wife’s favorite places is Round Barn in Baroda, MI, a brewery/winery/distillery of rare abilities. He liked the idea that you could sit down, and whatever you ordered, it was made right there.

Urban Vines, the winery portion of Noah’s empire, opened in May. That, along with his seed company, stretched Noah to the extreme. To help manage the work he has made for himself, especially by adding the brewery, Noah has brought in vintner/brewer Marc Rupenthal. Marc worked at Daniel’s Family Vineyard & Winery in McCordsville, IN, for the past two years. He mostly found himself in the vineyard itself, doing chemical assays on the grapes, the soil and planning the harvest.

Now at Urban Vines and Urban Brews, Noah has taught Marc to brew the beers and ferment the wines. Marc has taken to brewing and fermenting like few could – using his chemistry skills and instincts. As of now, Noah is developing recipes, but Marc has taken over most of the actual brewing duties. Noah considers himself more of a director now, giving him more time to work with Urban Farmer.

Here is where Urban Brews gets very interesting – since Marc and Noah are both trained chemists, they can rely on their education and experience to do some very interesting things with beers and wines. Their hoppiest beer is aptly called the Mad Scientist IPA, and it looks like craft beer fans – and wine and spirit fans too, can look for some interesting reaction products to come out of Westfield. Noah wants to produce beers Urban Brews puts out to be reflections of those that he likes – a nice philosophy, but at the same time he realizes that he needs to make beers that people will buy. The hops will be present but not overpowering; likewise, the malts will be a strong backbone but the beers won’t be liquid bread.

Biochemist Noah Herron can make a beer, pour a beer, and, I think, drink a beer. Although he might make a wine and drink wine instead. Photo credit: Current in Carmel

Chemistry is a valuable skill when it comes to fermenting, brewing, and distilling. It gives a person insight into what parts of the processes are immutable and which can be played with a bit. As such, the beers of a chemist should be technically sound, and yet have room to become innovative. This is how Walter and I found Urban Brews first beers to be when we visited a week ago. Forget the need for eight months to a year of growing into their system, I think this is one of the rare occasions where first beers turn out to be mature beers.

For example, Noah and Marc have produced a 4.8% Scottish ale called Smokehead that uses peat-smoked malt and just a bit of scald on the wort. That’s always a nice thing for me, but I wouldn’t expect it from people brewing on their professional system only since October and have only dumped a couple of batches (that’s rare when beginning, usually a fair number of batches end up down the drain). This beer is not only an example of chemistry as a way to make good beer, but also chemistry to tweak beers and do interesting things.

The most recent batch of Smokehead has been altered in terms of the grain bill. Just a bit less peated malt, a bit more Caramel 80L malt, and a slight alteration in hops as well. The result is a beer that has just as much smoke on the nose (still delicate, not overpowering), and a definite malty earthiness as the previous batch had, but is a tad drier and has a bit more toastiness. It seems like a small thing, but it shows how complex the chemistry of brewing is. I like having chemists for brewers.

Other examples of mad science at work at Urban Vines/Urban Brews can be seen in both the wines and the beers. Who else would be willing to do a bourbon barrel aged American stout as one of their first three offerings. Nail pulls after only three months indicated that they had a good bourbon flavor without too much heat from the Four Roses barrel, while the stout roastiness is well balanced with the bourbon. Who does that right out of the gate?

This use of a barrel so early in the brewery’s life may reflect a certain comfort Noah and Marc have with barrels, using them as they do for their wines. Or it may be an indication of their relative precision in melding brew and barrel, using their chemistry training. Either way, I look forward to future bewitching offerings, whether they be bourbon barrel aged beers, bourbon barrel aged wines (both red and white), wine barrel aged beers, distilled beers, etc. This could even include meads and ciders, as Urban Vines is already making these products on their farm winery license.

Noah chose a can glass for his logo merchandise. However, he will probably end up bottling beer instead of canning it. Photo credit: Indy Star

And then there is Urban Vines dry hopped chardonnay. I don’t know if I am just becoming aware of the trend, or if it is just coming on now at full strength, but there are many hop flavored products now. I bought Walter some hop flavored hard candies for Christmas a few years ago (they weren’t a big hit), but now it seems hops are being used to flavor many things. There are recipes for Thanksgiving turkeys flavored with wet hops and for hop ice creams, but I’m talking now more about hop flavored beverages.

There are hop flavored ciders, sodas, kombuchas, and coffees. Hotel Tango has a cocktail made with hopped simple syrup and FruitLab makes a hop liqueur. Without knowing it, Urban Vines has hopped aboard this flavor train (see what I did there) with their dry hopped chardonnay wine. Walter and I bought a bottle for the wine drinking heathens at our Christmas party, a not so subtle injection of beer into any talk about wine. The chardonnay is now Urban Vines’ first or second best selling wine, so hop flavors are definitely part of their mad science.

Wine has been pouring at Urban Vines for seven months and beer for only three weeks, but the results are nothing less than amazing. To keep up with the demand, they have produced 35,000 bottles wine, where they had planned on only doing a small fraction of that number. They blew through their five-year projections in just six months – it’s obvious that Noah and Marc have the right formula.

A brewery and winery might seem like enough for most, especially given the short time they have been open, but the mad science continues at Urban Vines/Urban Brews like an electron avalanche or nuclear chain reaction (yup, chemists have their own similes). By mid-spring Urban Vines will have an outdoor concert amphitheater. The first scheduled show for the amphitheater is The Bishops on May 31st, followed by the likes of My Yellow Rickshaw, Dave & Rae, and more. Noah is planting a vineyard and trellises of hop bines on a portion of their five acres of land in late spring, and an addition onto the west end of the building about the same time will include a huge wood fired pizza oven and additional seating.

The tasting room for Urban Vines isn’t an architectural wonder, but it does the job. And the five acres of land around the winery will be well used – patio, concert amphitheater, vineyard, and hop farm. Photo credit: Trip Advisor

The taproom is a utilitarian space; Noah admits that he designed it with the winery in mind. If he knew how soon the beers would come on and how well they would sell, he would definitely have designed it differently. However, when developing the business plan (with beer, wine, and spirits always part of the plan) he decided that what Westfield needed most and could support best was a winery, so he started there.

The six current beer taps can easily be expanded. Noah is hoping to run 6-10 beers at a time, with a myriad of styles on at a time. I do like being able to see the barrels in the event room from the taproom side. The event room isn’t huge, but is a nice spot for private dinner parties – I smell some pretty radical pairing dinners coming in the near future, for both beer and wine.

With a winery initially in mind, Noah built the tasting room without a rail to separate the 21+ area from the family area. It turns out that farmhouse wineries don’t need a separation thanks to a recent change in the law, kids can stand or sit at the rail while mom and dad imbibe. It’s that way for craft distilleries too – but if you make and sell beer, the blockade MUST be there. Never mind the moonshine (60 to >80% ABV) and Sauvignon Blanc (around 13% ABV), Indiana really wants to keep your kids safe from the evil session IPAs (4% ABV) and stouts (often around 8% ABV) – welcome to Indiana.

This is the Upland Carmel taproom. The separator that runs around the bar separates the family and adult sections. Indiana law is so weird, and Urban Brews is caught up in it all. Photo credit: trip advisor

When Noah got ready to pour beer, it had to be all table service since there was no legal separator. A simple pipe rail might be able to do the job, but don’t put a flat surface on top, because then it becomes a table and no longer functions as a separator. This is the problem Tin Man Brewing in Kokomo ran into; they still have to walk every beer around the bar and serve it to you directly – it all depends on which excise inspector you get as to how tall and solid the separator must be.

To overcome the hindrance, Noah installed a short rail at the northwest and southwest corners of the rectangular bar. To most people they are completely innocuous – I had no idea they were even there. But for Indiana law, this means that the south end of the bar can now have beer served across it. Go take a look – Urban Brews is a physical monument to odd Indiana alcohol law. I guess the good news is that no changes will be needed when the distillery comes on board, at least not on the serving end of the equation.

The distillery is a longer range plan, but just imagine what these two mad scientists will be able to do when they have a still at their disposal (I know, I built one in college with borrowed equipment from the chemistry lab – you can distill all kinds of alcohol containing liquids and make some interesting products). And having access to all their wine barrels and spirits barrels – I quiver at thinking about the beers that are going to be possible. Grapes, malt, barrels, and expertise – they all join together to form a strong chemical bond at Urban Vines/Urban Brews.

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