What Does It Mean to Brew? Who Is and Isn’t a Brewery

What Does It Mean to Brew? Who Is and Isn’t a Brewery

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

originally published in 2019. updated for 2021.

Properly naming places to have a craft beer may not be as important as say, curing cancer or getting manufacturers to put the same number of hotdogs and buns in their packages, but it is a thing. A brewpub isn’t the same things as a restaurant, and brewery is different than a taproom. Since language is the primary way that we transfer information from one person to another, how we label things does matter in getting their identity across to other people.

A brewery is a place to make beer, while a taproom is a place to serve beer. Many breweries, but not all, have taprooms attached in which to serve their beer. If a taproom has a food menu, you could call it a restaurant, and then if they brew on site, it could be a brewpub. So what is a bar? Usually that moniker is reserved for paces that serve spirits and wine as well as beer, and is not made on site (or even by the company that owns the bar).

If a bar sells more beer than wine or spirits, it might be called a taphouse. This adds another layer of complexity, in that many brewery taprooms or brewpubs have three way licenses and sell their beer, guest beer, wine, and spirits. So are these bars or taphouses – not in my opinion, I think they should still be considered a taproom or brewpub if they have food.

219 Taproom doesn’t make beer, so it isn’t really a taproom, but it specializes in craft beer, so it is better described as a taphouse. image credit: 219 Taproom

Some breweries have second locations at which they don’t brew beer. MashCraft on Delaware didn’t brew when they first opened – so it was a taproom with a restaurant, but they have started fermenting and perhaps doing a bit of brewing, so once again, we see that there can be nuances and changes in what a location can be considered.

On the other hand, MashCraft Fishers has brewed since it first opened and they have a full menu, so they can be considered a brewpub on their own. In Indiana, Chapman’s Brewing is the king of off site taprooms. Everything is brewed in Angola and they have a taproom on site, but they have taprooms in Wabash, Fort Wayne, Huntington, Columbia City, and Huntington, some with restaurants and some without. Books & Brews has several locations, but some of those are franchises and all the Books & Brews beers are brewing Indianapolis, so you might be able to call those places plain old “bars & restaurants.”

Some breweries that have a taproom and a three-way license call themselves a “taproom and bar.” Little Miami Brewing in Milford, OH does this. Then again, a “bar” might just be considered the 21+ drinking area of restaurant, taproom, restaurant, or brewpub – but that’s more about restrictions and perhaps furniture rather than what is served there. Ruhe152 in Nappanee calls their 21+ space a bar, and they do have a great selection of spirits – but they also serve their own beer. Maybe it’s not so easy to define these terms after all.

Let’s see if defining brewing is easier. A brewery is where you brew – but does it matter what you are brewing? You can brew tea or coffee and kombucha is fermented tea, so are these places breweries. Traditional root beer/sarsaparilla and ginger beer are brewed, and some companies still make brewed botanical sodas – are these breweries? Distilled spirits start out as grain and hot water, steeped together to release sugars into the liquid to make them available to yeast – so are distilled spirits brewed before they are distilled? That would make many distilleries also breweries, although some huge distilleries just do the distilling part.

However, to get more information on the spirits example, I talked to Bryan Smith, the head distiller at Hard Truth Distilling Co. in Nashville. He agreed that in many cases the processes are similar between beer making and the first part of spirits making. Despite the above examples that blur the lines around brewing, almost everyone will assume you mean beer when you mention a brewery. So, in a bigger sense then, what does it mean to brew? Is it the same thing as making beer? No- it most definitely is not. What most people think is brewing is actually fermenting – turning yeast loose on wort to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. Many of the examples I gave above (other then beer, kombucha, and spirits) aren’t even fermented, but you could make an argument that they are all brewed.

Root beer, both craft soda and hard root beer, can be brewed. image credit: Sprecher

Steeping the botanical with hot water to extract sugars and other compounds is the essence of brewing, but Bryan did make a distinction between tea, coffee, or beer and spirits. In the cases of beer, coffee, tea, brewed sodas, etc. the botanicals are separated from the liquid. But as most of you know, the vast majority of spirits are fermented while the grains are still present in the liquid, while the grain sugars are separated from the grains (mash out) when making beer. That’s why the sugar-containing liquid for beer is called wort, while sugar and grain containing liquid for spirits is called mash.

Because of this distinction, Bryan said that distillers refer to “cooking” mash, instead of brewing it. But even here we have a grey area. Some malt whiskey producers drain their sugary liquid from the grain before fermenting. As explained on the website for The Scotch Whiskey Experience, scotch whiskey makers will stir the mash to increase the sugar extraction into the liquid and break down the starches to simple sugars. Then the “wort” is drained from the grain or “draff” to be cooled and fermented. This is very much like brewing beer, so I guess one could scotch whiskey is brewed before it is fermented or distilled.

This discussion on what brewing is and whether it applies only to beer is the preface for our final question of the day, what if a brewery only ferments wort to beer – is it still a brewery? I have a specific example in mind as it relates to Indiana beer, are the Granite City Food & Brewery locations in Indianapolis, Carmel, Fort Wayne, and Mishawaka really breweries (update: Indy, Carmel, and Mishawaka have closed, leaving only one location left in Indiana)? Let’s talk about their mode of production and see.

There are 18 Granite City locations across the Midwest, yet the brewing itself takes place at one location in Iowa. Brewmaster RJ Nab and Director of Brewing Operations Corey Birkey carry out Granite City’s patented program called Fermentus Interruptus™, wherein all wort is produced in a single set of tanks, and then it is fermented to beer at the individual restaurant locations. Yes, there are Granite City trucks hauling wort across the center of the country every day of the week.

Click for a larger image. This is how Granite City brews beer. image credit: Granite City Food & Brewery

Here’s how it works (see image at right). The facility in Iowa receives the hops, malts, and generates the water that eventually will be in the beer. A specific water is built for each wort, to which the malts are added and mashed in. After mash out, this is a true wort which is boiled along with hops. After the boil is completed, the wort is whirlpooled to help take out any sediment (hot trub) and then quickly cooled down by passing it through a heat exchanger.

So far, so good. This is where things change. Instead of moving the cooled wort into a fermenter and pitching yeast into it, the hopped wort is pumped into large plastic containers and moved into a semi tractor trailer. This refrigerated truck then makes rounds to several Granite City locations and pumps the wort through a heat exchanger to warm it slightly and into a fermenter. These are the tanks you see when you visit an individual Granite City – if you can find one now.

There is also call for water during the latter stages of beer production, so the trucks haul engineered water from the Iowa location to each of the restaurants, but that isn’t all. The Iowa brewery is also where Granite City stores and grows all their yeasts. When the truck delivers wort to a restaurant, they also deliver the yeast which will be used to ferment the wort. From this point on, the making of the beer occurs just like at any other brewery. Fermentation, brite tank conditions, and carbonation. Then you buy it and drink it.

The company is right in saying that this central production allows them to save money in ordering ingredients, but it also helps in producing a consistent product across all their “breweries.” Really, is that what we strive for in craft beer, getting the same exact beer in different locations? No, we look for individuality, interpretation on a style, and terroir (local differences based on local ingredients and water). Making the beer the same in every Granite City is basically turning them into McDonalds – that was the very essence for the birth of McDonalds, that you could get exactly the same food wherever you were across the world.

To sum up, there are taprooms, brewpubs, restaurants, etc. The definitions can grey between them, but the bright line is that a brewery is a place where wort is produced. It might be for beer or it might be for another brewed beverage, but to call yourself a brewery, you need to brew on site. Therefore, Granite City’s Fermentus Interuptus™ protocol means that despite their name, the Granite City Food & Brewery locations are definitely not breweries. And as I opined, they don’t really hold dear the methods and individualities that are important to craft beer. However, it is beer, and it’s worlds better than mega-beer, so if you like Granite City beer, have at it with my blessing.


banner image credit: Carson’s Brewery

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