20 Nov Muncie Makes Its Play For Craft Beer Capital Of Indiana
It was a rainy November afternoon and evening with me in Muncie and Walter at home nursing the effects of an epic bottle share the night before at Indiana On Tap’s November Tasting Society event after-party. I was sitting at Books and Brews-Muncie talking with Ryan and Corey about a mug club specimen that goes off at 3 lb.s and 26 oz. when full. Simple Minds was on the music system and I was sharing the bar with three other people on laptops.
My mission, since I had accepted it, was to visit a bunch of the Muncie craft beer venues in a single day. I know that there are more breweries in Indianapolis, and there are more breweries per capita in Griffith (16,000 people and three breweries – Pokro, New Oberpfalz, and Wildrose), but I hypothesize that an argument could be made for Muncie as a craft beer capital for Indiana. I was in town to see if the people of Muncie feel the same way and are making good use of their craft beer opportunities.
As I have written before, Muncie was a latecomer to the craft brewery game (Wolves’ Head is the oldest brewery and it is only five years old), but that doesn’t mean that Muncie isn’t craft savvy. The Fickle Peach, Savages, and The Heorot have been mainstays of good beer for years. True, there is definitely a PBR/Bud population in the city, and Ball State students are almost always going to go for cheap macro-beer, but there is a deep craft beer culture in what was once billed as America’s most average city.
Ryan told me that the Muncie site of Books and Brews has pretty much been hitting its projections for its first two months of operation. A couple of events didn’t pan out exactly as they were hoping, but overall they are pleased with the state of the operation at this early stage. Books and Brews has broken new ground in Indiana craft beer circles by franchising the concept to Carmel, UIndy, and Wheat Ridge, CO, but the Muncie location isn’t a franchise, just one of the offsite taprooms and restaurants for the original company (96th Street, Zionsville, and Brownsburg being the others).
After I had my first generation mug rinsed out (the Shogun is always a good choice), I headed the 2.5 miles east to downtown and The Guardian Brewing Company. Bill, Jason, and Sean have made the most of their move from the White River Parkway (the current location of Books and Brews) to the MadJax Building on East Jackson Street. I wrote about their grand reopening in late September, and since then they have grown into their bigger brew house, added accounts for sending beer out the door, poured at a Tasting Society event in Indy, and held their second anniversary party.
As I entered The Guardian, Jason was finishing up as head referee for the indoor corn hole tournament. He passed out the prizes to the winners and runners up (Guardian swag), as other folks watched Big Ten football. Down the bar I saw three young ladies, each with a four-beer flight of her own. This is certainly a sign that Muncie is continuing to grow as craft beer city – people this age are what will keep craft beer growing in the decades to come. As I settled into a hoppy wheat ale and a few more lines of this story, I noticed that the coaster was an advertisement for Hops & Vines, the brew bus company in Muncie run by husband and wife team, John and Amy Lahr Mickle.
At the same time, I took a gander at the new Guardian T-shirts. They feature an outline of Indiana with The Guardian crown logo placed in the general vicinity of Muncie. These are two more signs that Muncie is coming into its own as a beer haven. A brew bus company that has the forethought to showcase the region, and breweries that have pride in their state and city are good indicators that Muncie takes pride in its craft beer personality.
From The Guardian I drove north to the Muncie Mall. Heading to a mall on a craft beer tour, you ask? Yep, here is another reason Muncie has to be considered a craft beer destination; they have the first craft beer kiosk in a mall that I have ever heard of. I wrote in April about Redemption Alewerks’ innovation in conjunction with Washington Prime management. It took a while to get the i’s crossed and the t’s dotted, but Saturday (Nov. 18) was their grand opening and ribbon cutting.
Josh, Brandon, and all the guys at Redemption quickly bought into the idea of a craft beer taproom (with some catered food as well) in a mall, and this is yet another reason that one must consider Muncie a craft beer mecca. If Muncie weren’t a great location, they would have gone somewhere else to try out radical ideas like a mall kiosk and a taproom for the fast growing craft beer brewery in the state.
Redemption’s kiosk taproom is down an arm of the mall, in front of the Macy’s main entrance. Some places get looks as people walk by, but they don’t come in. In Redemption’s case, they got lots of looks and most of the people did come in to have a beer, listen to the music, check in on a football game (on the TVs), or just to ask whether they were going to be there permanently.
One gentleman at the bar voiced the philosophy behind the kiosk well. He said, “Now I won’t mind coming to the mall with my wife. This is something that has been needed, I’m surprised nobody thought of it before. This gives me a reason to come to the mall, even if I’m not shopping.” The nephew of Stan Stephens (owner of the Heorot) works at Nirvana, just outside the Redemption Alewerks kiosk. He said that he will come often and wished his uncle had had the idea.
This idea of the mall workers being interested in the kiosk is crucial. For most craft breweries, their neighborhood is important for their establishing a connection to the community and building a clientele. In this case, the mall is their neighborhood. That’s why Brandon and Josh are planning to leave the kiosk open two nights a week after the mall closes, just to cater to the mall employees after they get off work. That’s how you build community, and will likely bring the other retail outlets together more than they have been in the past.
I met my sister and brother-in-law at Redemption Muncie. Tim was impressed with the architecture and design of the kiosk and predicted that it will be successful – if enough people come to the mall. Lack of success in his mind will be more of a reflection on the mall than on the craft beer kiosk idea.
With Walter at home in Indy, I had an extra media pass to check out the anniversary party and culinary preview at Elm St. Brewing. My sister isn’t a craft beer fan, so only Tim and I drove south back toward downtown and into the Elm St. neighborhood. The old icehouse which is now Elm St. Brewing might not have been many people’s first choice as location for a brewery, but Bill Lett, Eric Jones, and Tyler Hutchison have made it work. They quickly garnered a reputation for being one of the coolest places to hang out in Muncie, and their first anniversary party did nothing to dispel this feeling.
Despite their location on Elm St., Tyler hasn’t found time to do a Nightmare on Elm St. beer yet. They did do a randalled infusion of their Death of a Norseman IPA with Carolina reapers, ghost peppers, and Trinidad scorpion peppers that they called the Nightmare Challenge, but all that managed to do was to make the randall glow in the dark for the next century or so. Through their first year, Elm St.’s willingness to do many different beer types and use out of the box flavors have marked them as a place for creative beer.
And Saturday they added food to that creative bent. Not only was this their one year anniversary party, it was a coming out for their kitchen and the menu of Chefs Matt Burns and Rocky Fuller. The ticketed event on Saturday included a buffet of their creations, and the people ate it up quickly – yet here came more right behind it. The pizzas were especially good, including the margherita with buffalo mozzarella and sliced heirloom grape tomatoes, the three little pigs with pork, pork, and pork, the vegetarian pesto pizza, and the chicken and mushroom pizza with white sauce.
There were also sliders of their sandwich offerings, including cajun fried chicken, burgers, and smoked brisket cheese steak, but my favorite item of the evening was the cauliflower bisque with smoked garbanzos and coconut milk. The sticky chicken wings with sweet tea and shishito pepper glaze were a close second, but really, nothing touched that bisque in my opinion.
It is interesting to note that prior to coming to Elm St. to start their kitchen, Chef Rocky was previously at Redemption Alewerks in Indianapolis where he revamped their menu. Everyone knew that Redemption was a short stint for Rocky, so he trained Ray Moore as his replacement. Now I can get Rocky Fuller inspired food close to home and when I visit Muncie.
Elm St.’s addition of a top-notch kitchen in a Muncie brewery adds another dimension to the craft beer scene in this small city. Perhaps the only drawback to this is that Elm St. is going to need more seats. Owner Bill Lett whispered to us that night, “They must like it…nobody’s leaving!” By starting as a taproom and encouraging people to lounge for hours, Elm St. might have created a problem for itself. Of course this was a ticketed event, so people may have been staying longer than normal. The non-stop live music probably contributed to this as well.
These were the four places I visited on Saturday in Muncie, but that is hardly the extent of their craft beer environment. Wolves’ Head Brewing in the Heorot, Sean Brady’s New Corner Brewing on the far south side, as well as the Fickle Peach, Scotty’s Brewhouse, Thr3e Wise Men Brewing, and Savages all add to the ambiance of the town. This is to say nothing of the possible future addition of craft beer service at the AMC movie theater in Muncie (a little up in the air right now, permit wise).
Together all these factors make a strong argument for Muncie as a craft beer capital in Indiana – if not the capital, then certainly a capital. A taproom for the fastest expanding brewery in Indiana, the first mall kiosk taproom in the nation, a high end kitchen in a brewery, decades old craft bars, a brew bus of their own, not to mention seven breweries (four making their own beer) in a city of 69,000 (compare that to eight breweries in Fort Wayne, with a population of 265,000 people). Add in a movie theater that serves craft beer (see note below) and you end up with a craft beer town of rare caliber.
For me, the only issue that might prevent Muncie from claiming a title as capital is their relative lack of craft beer festivals and other beer-related events. The Muncie Brewfest in March and All Beers Considered in October are the only ones I am aware of (they had a Muncie Beer fest in 2016, but not 2017). To be considered a true craft beer capital, we will need to see more festivals, more beer dinners, and even a growth of home brewing clubs (MECA hasn’t posted on its Facebook page since 2016, although they were home brewing club of the year in 2007) in Muncie. But you have to admit, the town’s got it going on and deserves a weekend trip.
Note: The AMC Showplace received a Delaware County beer, wine, and liquor license in March, 2017. But a mix up with the posted date of the hearing meant that another hearing was required. This hearing was to take place in May, 2017, but as of this writing, the permit situation remains unresolved.