09 Apr Spencer Provides Civilian Brewing Corps A Welcome Home
Ben Williams, part owner and brewer at Civilian Brewing Corps, has three things in common with me. One, we both grew up near Spencer, Indiana. Two, we both moved away when the opportunity presented itself. Three, we both moved far enough away at the time…but not really that far at all.
The connotative meaning of “home” caromed off of the curves of my mind as I stood outside Civilian’s front door, on Washington Street, smack-dab on the northeast corner of the courthouse square. I spent many nights along this street as a kid. My brother and I walked it after watching the Sam Jones’ version of Flash Gordon. Two years later we stood on the opposite sidewalk with the rest of the town and watched Dunigan’s Appliance Store (located on the exact spot where Civilian now stands) burn to the ground. My mom used to work as a teller at the old savings and loan on the northwest corner. I used to buy model cars at the “five-and-dime” store on the southwest, I checked out books from the old Carnegie library on the southeast, and I bought a ton of fifty-cent comic books at the old Rexall Drug Store which sat in the middle of it all.
The Spencer of my childhood was probably like a lot of towns in the 1970s and 80s. Vestiges of my parents’ glory days, when the square served as the hub of life, still hung on back then. In the grainy film of memory, I can recall frequent foot traffic on the sidewalk and lively conversations among the parking meters. Then things changed rapidly. When I was a high school senior, Walmart arrived. By the time I was a college senior, the town square had dried up.
“They’re doing some really neat things in Spencer, now,” Williams tells me. We’re sitting at Civilian’s bar. It’s Monday afternoon, and the place is closed. The taps are sealed off and the lights are dimmed, but I can feel the energy around me nonetheless. The place is alive, and the town is coming alive with it.
Williams beams as he talks about Spencer’s transformation. The long-shuttered sporting goods shop on the corner of Franklin and Main is now a coffee joint, and everyone loves it. Money is coming in. Old facades are getting much needed facelifts.
And now there’s a brewery.
An Indiana University graduate with degrees in English literature and communications, Williams found himself working the counter of a Bloomington pawn shop for more than a decade. When he began tinkering with own home brews, however, his new calling worked its way into his consciousness.
“The first beer I tasted which represented what beer could be like was a Sierra Nevada,” Williams says, “way back in the day. I was thinking: ‘What was that?’” Ten years into his hobby, Williams started “getting serious about it.” He would spend the next five years “hammering and hammering and hammering the same handful of recipes until I got them perfect.”
“But when you go from five gallons to three-and-a-half barrels, it’s going to be different,” he adds. He’s matter-of-fact when he says it. The seven beers he opened with—all first-run batches—were good. He was proud of them, and his new patrons loved them. Knowing what you want and not quite being there would sting with some brewers, but Williams takes it naturally. Sitting by his own bar, leaning casually into the elbow resting on the counter, he flashes his trademark disarming grin and punctuates it with a soft three-note chuckle. He’s going to get them where he wants them. No worries.
And that was definitely the vibe I soaked in sitting at that vacant bar: that sense of partnership with his home town. People are excited, and a month in he’s already chatting it up with twice-a-week regulars. To his credit, he has played his market well. One of his first beers, a summer blonde, he produced in large quantities.
“It’s a beer I really like,” he says. “It’s very light, very neutral-flavored, and I brewed a lot of that specifically for [the reticent Bud Light crowd]. I anticipated that being a thing, and I guessed that it would be a good gateway beer. So far people have been very receptive.”
In fact, Spencer has proven more than receptive. It is, as Williams calls it, “a multi-beer town.” The first two brews the locals drained were a hoppy pale and a mosaic IPA, and both his stout and his amber have scored well also. Such are the times. Five years ago craft beer deserts existed for a reason. Now, each one craves its own oasis.
Civilian, a name Williams chose as a nod to the Depression Era relief program which employed over three million Americans and constructed some of the nation’s most recognizable landmarks, is not his own, however. And the affable part-owner is more than happy to acknowledge the efforts of his wife, Kylene, and his other partner, Matt Kilbride. A contractor by trade, Kilbride’s hand is evident throughout the brewery.
“He did all the work in here,” he said, “and this place looks amazing.”
Williams also notes the work of his employees: “People talk all the time about how bad staffing is…how it’s the worst part of the job, and that you just can’t find good people…but we did. We found great people willing to help out.” He casts a bit of youthful giddiness when talks about his team, but a type of buoyancy evinces itself when he chats up Civilian’s chef, Kayla Cornwell.
“When we met her we all hit it off quickly,” he explains. “She’s got amazing ideas and makes amazing food. I was worried at first that I was going to have be spending a lot of time teaching someone how to flip burgers and whatnot, but she has completely taken control and has turned it into something awesome.”
Bounding into its second month of life, Civilian stands not only a critical, signature stopping place in a town rebuilding itself, it’s also a testament to the shifting winds of the craft brewing industry. The secret sauce in craft beer is local sauce, and Ben Williams understands that.
“Someone asked me ‘Where you picture yourself in ten years.’ I said, ‘I see myself right here, pouring you a beer. Handing it to you and talking to you about it.’ This is a lifestyle business for me. This is the thing that I’m going to do for the rest of my life, God willing.”
If there’s a perfect place to find your life’s work. Let that perfect place be back at home.