Should We Stay Or Should We Go? Supporting Craft Beer Near and Far

Should We Stay Or Should We Go? Supporting Craft Beer Near and Far

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Recent times in the craft beer world have seen the emergence of two primary pathways for breweries to follow. One is the ultra-local path, where a brewery aims to cater to the people in its neighborhood as well as people who like to travel to them for craft beer. This model is very popular right now, and to my way of thinking, is almost bubble proof if you have good beer and good food.

The second path is for those breweries that are looking to have a home base, but are equally interested in extending the reach of their product, either through state or regional distribution or through the addition of off-site taprooms. The off-site taproom still keeps a brewery fairly local, but distribution can lead to a search for patrons far from where the beer and the craft relationships with patrons are made.

On the drinker’s side of the rail there are decisions to be made as well. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you only have a limited amount of money to spend on craft beer, so you have to decide just who gets what percentage of your dollars. Where is your money better spent – patronizing local breweries that cater to the person across the rail, or visiting breweries that are farther away, and buying beer from those that distribute beyond your local area? There is a continuum on both sides of the rail, but that doesn’t change the fact that you have to choose where to put your beer or where to put your dollar.

image credit: McWhite Brew Tour

You have several ways to spend either locally or spend regionally/nationally. You can visit local breweries or buy local beer in the package store. You can buy tickets to local brewfests – the health of craft beer events is important for driving new patrons to local taprooms. By purchasing a ticket to a local festival, you keep those festivals growing and building enthusiasm for local beer.

On the other side, you can buy national or regional brands in the package store or you can purchase tickets for distributor driven festivals (near or far), and then of course there is craft beer tourism. It’s no secret that I am a fan of craft beer tourism, so I can’t be all about keeping your dollars local. However, my hypothesis has always been that if you are a good craft beer evangelist for Indiana when you travel, then some money will trickle back in when people come to visit Indiana and drink.

People in other states recognize Three Floyds and Upland Brewing’s sours, and places like Brew Link Brewing and Quaff On! Brewing are establishing footprints outside the state. You can’t believe the number of people who are talking about Brew Link’s Ivory in Florida; there will be people who come drink Indiana beer based just on that. These and a few other breweries show that Indiana’s reach is getting longer; they are spokespeople for Indiana beer.

When Walter and I travel, we try to do the same thing. We talk up Indiana beer, hand out a can or bottle, and invite people to contact us when they come to Indiana so we can take them out to some great breweries. Therefore, traveling to drink beer doesn’t necessarily mean trading near for far, hopefully the trade off in dollars is somewhere near 1:1, dollars ending up in local tills as compared to what you spend while traveling. On the other hand, supporting ultra-local is a no-brainer when it comes to small business and craft beer.

The answer for Walter and I isn’t really that hard. We try to spend the majority of our beer money close to home; we do much more drinking in taprooms than from package stores, so we are almost always drinking ultra-local product. For my writing I will travel farther, but again, I will be in taprooms and brewpubs, so this is also local money.

image credit: Munster Ale Fest

But Walter also likes to travel a bit, so a small percentage of our time is spent drinking beer from farther away. We visit a few distributor-driven festivals that support regional and national breweries, and we take beer trips through other parts of the country, so we can see how they are managing the craft beer environment and to talk up Indiana beer. You decide how you want to divide up your spending, but we encourage you to spend a good amount on the people making beer in your backyard.

On a very recent weekend, Walter and I had the chance to partake in both a regional and a local event; a craft beer festival called Munster Ale Fest up in the region, and a bottle release party in our backyard, at Urban Brews in Westfield. Both were enjoyable and worked to help me cover Indiana craft beer, but the question remains, would it have been better to go to a couple more events around Indy where we live, or did we serve Indiana craft beer by traveling farther away and drinking more Chicago and national beer?

My example of traveling farther away and how it may not serve local beer as well falls a bit flat because there were a lot of central Indiana breweries at Munster Ale Fest. But we have other examples of going far away – many of them, and several of the things we do at festivals are the same whether they do or don’t have Indiana breweries pouring. The reasons we wanted to drive the 2:45 from Indy were several. First, there were Indiana breweries serving there and we could talk to several instead of doing individual trips for each – plus, there was some of their beer I really wanted to try. Second, this is a festival that is run by a company called Brew Fest Partners, and we hadn’t been to an event of theirs before. And third, we could sample some beers from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois and see if there were some trends or beers that Indiana is not exploring, or if Indiana is outshining them (in many ways, we are).

A secondary reason to go to a farther festival where central Indiana beers were poured was to see how they were received. Daredevil, Triton, and Upland send a good amount of beer up north, so they are known and were well patronized at Munster Alefest. Black Acre Brewing from Indy and People’s Brewing in Lafayette send less beer that way, and it was nice to see people trying them out. We sent several people their way to try the Amazon Princess from People’s and the Stormblast from Black Acre. Anything we can do to build a fan of Indiana beer.

image credit: Lou Gans

In terms of the Indiana beer that we get to drink less often and people we get to talk more rarely, we were thrilled with what they brought and how they were received. My two favorite beers of the day came from northern Indiana brewers, the Pok’s Bock from Pokro Brewing in Griffith – a very flavorful and clean bock that was cellared traditionally, and the Carriage House DIPA from Zorn Brew Works in Michigan City. Shoreline Brewery brought two barrel aged gems, the most recent Curse The Goat and the 2010 Big Bella, so those were must tries, as was the Barrel Aged Bitches’ Bank from 18th Street.

Beyond the beer, Centennial Park was a nice venue, rolling and still green. The parking was a situation ($10 to park on site), but the offsite parking wasn’t too far away. There were ample volunteers and they had a PA system to make announcements. One of the nicest parts of the set up was that there were port-a-lets stationed around the grounds, not all lumped together. On the other hand, there was ample mention and visibility of sponsors, but no mention at the festival or on the website of a charity partner. I guess we’ll have to see more from Brew Fest Partners before we decide on whether they are good for craft beer.

The crowd seemed to be knowledgeable and interested in learning, but Walter and I had to move on, so we didn’t see the end of the festival. We had work to do closer to home, so we headed south and pulled in to Urban Brews on 161st Street in Westfield about 7:15. The party was in full swing by that time, and their ample parking lot was full to capacity.

Noah Herron and crew have a stout that people have really taken to in the 11 months that they have been open. Dead Man’s Stout has been in barrels already, and the system is taxed just to keep the base beer on tap most days. Therefore, it was a great idea to design a bottle release and tasting party around this great beer and variants of it, and call it, of course, Deadman Festival. To carry the motif further, two Grateful Dead tribute bands (Replaced by Robots & Graciously Departed) played live in the tent out back, with the obligatory psychedelic light patterns on the roof of the tent.

image credit: Urban Vines

This was a ticketed event, but the taproom was open at the same time. Walter was skeptical, but it turned out to work OK. The event was held on the back patio and in the tent and had wristbands so that people could take advantage of the additional taps inside. Meanwhile, the people that had come to drink……wait on it……, could use the taproom without wandering out back into the territory of the festival. Remember that Urban Brews is also home to Urban Vines; they made and served wines several months before the beers came on line.

Walter and tried all the Dead Man’s variants and took home some bombers (a ticket came with a three bomber pack of coffee, chocolate and vanilla Dead Man’s), but the star of the night was the triple mash version of Dead Man’s. If I’d had a fork, it would have stood up in this beer. Later we went off the board and had a grapefruit IPA which didn’t disappoint. The crew has shifted a bit in recent days, with Derek Kunzman taking over for the newly married Marc Rupenthal (congratulations Michelle, have you really thought this through?). However, the beer seems to be in good hands as Marc goes back to tending and stomping the grapes.

Here we had an ultra-local event that came off so well, people talking and drinking late into the night, and we were very glad we had the chance to get back to town in time to attend. But there were other local events that day, like Nailtoberfest at Nailers Brewing in Whiteland. If our first stop had been south of Indy, it would have been that Nailer’s event that we attended in the evening, but fate had us going north. Besides that, there was IPR’s All Beers Considered in Muncie the same day, so we could have done a complete day of Central Indiana beer events, and been perfectly happy. Did we do right by traveling up near Chicago? I say yes, but that’s just to our way of thinking; there are those people that probably would have been happier sticking closer to home.

image credit: Nailers Brewing

I justify our going away when we could have supported a local event or two with several points:

  1. I don’t feel bad about going away to drink other people’s beer, because we work for Indiana even when on a trip.
  2. I don’t feel bad for going to festivals that support distributors and breweries from far away, because we spend way more time drinking locally.
  3. We love local festivals (local meaning Indiana) and will continue to spend most of our time at even the smaller events because these do the most for the local scene.
  4. I am proud that we drink more in local taprooms than in bars or from beer stores, because that way we give them the biggest margins and we build relationships.
  5. We will continue to stay away from national or regional breweries when buying beer at the store – except for bottle shares – and even then, we’ll take local when we can.

How we justify our beer spending may or may not correspond to how you divvy up your funds. Some people just want something they haven’t had before, no matter where it comes from. Other people only drink local. Still other people may care about whales and only whales – the most coveted beers from around the world. We have friends who buy national from the beer store, but then only attend local festivals because they want to be Uber-able (is that a word?). That’s a well-considered course of action and I respect it. The most important thing isn’t what you drink, but that you think about why you drink what you drink. Welcome to craft beer at the meta-cognitive level.

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