15 Jan The Power of Craft Beer and Memory: Reliving a Time and Place
by Donovan Wheeler, contributing writer to Indiana On Tap
When I was a kid the “past” belonged to other people. Older people. I sat in front our wood-paneled Zenith and watched those grainy, black-and-white reruns of Leave it to Beaver after school, but I didn’t feel them. I couldn’t. All the work making them… All the anticipation waiting for them… That was borrowed nostalgia which I blithely noticed, a passing acknowledgment that the world existed before my zygote had formed.
As we get older, however, the past becomes more concrete. That doesn’t mean that all my memories swirl around in 1080p high-definition. Far from that. Many of them—too many of them—exist as fragments. I can see me and my brother hauling water for the hogs around our grandparent’s farm, but I can’t remember what my Grandaddy is saying to us. The images also feel half-veiled, as if the movie screen is hanging behind a mesh curtain. Other chapters of my past are less pixelated. Snippets from my first year on the job as a high school teacher, for example, pop into me as vividly the screeching fluorescent lighting which illuminated their creation.
Earlier this month, when my fiancée Wendi and I joined a pair of friends for a mini-brew tour around the Circle City, I dusted off what has become one of my favorite chapters in the anthology of my life. Somewhere in the pages of my head, this memory is one of those few marked by a dog-eared page corner and pair of curled-over post-it notes sticking out of the rough cuttings of the page edges.
The four of us settled onto a high-top at Indiana City Brewing. By now I had come here several times. If I were an Indy resident I have no doubt I would be a frequent “regular.” But as a Hoosier living an hour west of the city, we settle instead for “every chance we can get.” It’s a deal we’ll take. As soon as I had swallowed my first swing of Tribute—one of the brewery’s two signature concoctions—the conversation caroming across the table transitioned into that clichéd dull buzz. Replacing the moment was the day I first walked through Indiana City’s doors.
It had happened almost five years earlier. Jim and I were enjoying a father-son brew tour over the course of two days. We were also both going through our own significant, existential episodes at the time. He had just turned 21. College for him was drudgery—a familial and societal obligation which was costing him money and making his life miserable. Being 21 is cumbersome for everyone to a degree. But when you’re not sure what you want to do with your life the 21st year can quickly become something worse than awkward. It can fester and become that gnawing emotional hurt that interferes with all of life’s basic pleasures. Think fancy steak dinner with a fever-blister under your front upper lip…but more emotionally gripping.
My own issue was more of—to quote everyone’s favorite US president—a “malaise” of sorts. Most of my life-upheavals (divorce, bankruptcy, foreclosure, changes at work) had happened a few years prior. But I was still trying to reassemble the pieces of my new life.
It was there, sitting along the bar in the Indiana City taproom, where both our lives changed. Jim watched raptly as Indiana City owner Ray Kamstra worked in, around, and in front of the steel tanks which surrounded him. The fact that most of what Jim observed—namely Kamstra performing glorified janitorial work—didn’t matter. What did matter was that the flight of beers in front of him—that array of deep black, wooden brown, and golden yellow—somehow came from that back room. In some way, those steel silos made the stuff in front of him.
As Jim’s thoughts slipped deeper into the folds of his brain, I snapped away with my iPhone, collecting a catalogue of photos. I debated with myself about sharing them. One enormous Facebook spread came to mind, and an accompanying Instagram display seemed apt as well. But seconds after shooting the chalked artwork around the tap handles, Epiphany tapped me on the shoulder.
“I’m going to write about this,” I said to Jim. He looked at me for a second, curled his lip into a grin, and nodded.
“Good idea,” he replied. “I like that.”
Five years later so much has changed. Our first stop on that brew tour, Cutters in Avon, has shuttered. The other breweries have evolved in their own ways. Sun King, already a behemoth back in 2014, has become even more “behemothy,” fingering beyond its College Avenue roots to satellite locations north of the city. Fountain Square and Bier still hold much of the charm which won me over when I first saw them. But the former’s ownership changes and move towards uniform branding (i.e. those bland looking bottle labels for example) always reminds me that sooner or later gentrification snags everything.
Jim is no longer that lost kid, either. Inspired by our two days together, he moved to Bloomington. Patiently working for Jeff Mease’s Pizza Express operation, he bided his time until he could slide over to the pizza chain’s sister business: Bloomington Brewing Company. Today, he works at Upland, bouncing back and forth between the traditional brewery and the neighboring sour facility. A kid who once marveled at Kamstra’s steel tanks can now tell you what’s going on chemically and biologically inside them.
Jim became a brewer. I became a writer.
And here, back in the Indiana City taproom in the infancy of 2019, I can do more than cull those bits of memory out of the closet in my head. Indiana City is one of a handful of breweries which still feel “2014” to me. Here I still feel like I am in the care of the business owner, who thinks of his brewery as his child, and thinks of his customers as his child’s best friends.
I get it. Craft beer is a business. Corporate powers are irresistible and “growth” (whatever the hell that is) always changes things. I don’t know if Indiana City will follow other breweries who are “Sam Adams-ing” themselves into these new hybrid craft/corporate, quaint/monolithic harpies of the beer world. I only now that right now, I can go there and tangibly feel one of those treasured moments from my past. Right now, I can go to Indiana City, and once again sit by that very young version of my boy. Right now, I can go there and run my fingers along that mental book of happy moments, touch that worn bit of post-it note, and open the page.
Yes, craft beer is a business for a lot of people. But for me it’s a life experience akin to summer family reunions and Thanksgiving dinners. For me it’s a distinctive element of one of the most defining days of my life. It all happened here, and I’ll be coming back as often as I can so to re-live it as often as my years on earth will allow.