What We Have Learned from Visiting Every Brewery in Indiana

What We Have Learned from Visiting Every Brewery in Indiana

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Walter and I achieved a minor accomplishment recently. As of this very moment, we have visited every open brewery in Indiana. Next, week that might not be true, but for right now I think it is – I would be totally amazed if there is a brewery in the state that is selling beer to the public and hasn’t had the imprints of our butts on their bar stools. Small town breweries are sometimes hard to get word of, but if we know about places like LaOtto Brewing in LaOtto and Point Blank Brewing in Corydon, then I have to believe we’ve gotten them all.

Check out the brewery map at Indiana On Tap; if it’s an open brewery (or most that are in progress) and it’s not on there, then we haven’t gotten to it. We would like nothing better than to be proven wrong, so look at the map and see what’s listed around you. There are a couple of breweries coming down the pike that haven’t made it on to the list yet, but many soon-to-be breweries and all the known open breweries are there.

Granted, this achievement isn’t as meaningful as adopting a child, volunteering at food banks and kitchens, working with the mentally challenged – but we have done these things (and continue to do so), so we decided to go for the brewery number too. After all, by visiting all these breweries we’re helping to keep a group of creative entrepreneurs in business; what could be more noble than that?

Bulldog Brewing Co. in Whiting, IN. image credit: Foursquare

In truth, we probably should have finished this project sooner; the last breweries we visited weren’t among those that just opened. As hard as it might be to believe, writing about Indiana craft beer kind of gets in the way of visiting different breweries. There is always a meeting or interview, and finishing articles is just as important as starting them (although not as much fun). What’s more, no one’s getting rich writing about beer (except maybe Stan Hieronymus), so long trips to the region and extensive bar bills can put a writer in the red very quickly.

Our Final Three Visits. In spite of the fairly sizable investment in money and time we chose to make, we kept going until we reached our goal. This meant that we had three breweries to visit on our last trip, way up in the region. Our first stop was Bulldog Brewing in Whiting. Our GPS-suggested route took us past infinite refineries, port properties, and other industrial mélange. And then a small town appeared, with a main street, a gorgeous church downtown, and a relaxing brewpub. Owned by Kevin Clark and assisted in the brewhouse by Rob Thome, Bulldog is a lesser known gem of Indiana beer.

They had a dozen of their own beers on when we arrived, so we did a flight of all of them. Only one beer was a miss, the other eleven ranged from good to great. Best were the session SMaSH IPA called Shore Sighted and the Key Lime Ale with teddy grahams in the recipe. Many key lime beers taste like lime, but this one really tasted like key lime and you could envision the graham cracker crust in there too. We had a good talk with Rob about the brewhouse and how much beer they send out the door, we watched Serena meltdown in the finals of the US Open, and then we headed on our way to The Sour Note in Hammond.

Located just blocks from where my grandmother lived out her days and from where my father grew up, this was a return home of sorts for me. The taproom isn’t that old, having been started when Drew Fox and the guys decided to move the sour production to its own location. The public space is small, but that’s OK, it leaves more room for barrels and beer. Once again we did a flight of everything on the board. I know it’s not their highest scoring beer, but the foeder peach wild ale is my favorite by far; I suspect there’s a good amount of pediococcus in that fermentation because it comes off a lot like a lambic. The Everything Bagel ranks higher, but the flavors were a bit more muddled to us. Walter like the blueberry gose best, along with the cherry beet sour.

18th St. Distillery is right next to 18th St. Brewpub, a two-fer. image credit: 18th St. Brewing

With two logo glasses stored in the car, we made the one block trip down to the 18th St. Brewpub for the last official brewery visit in our quest. However, it seems that other people like doing the brewery crawls too and may finish their own lists one day. We met one couple at Bulldog and then saw them again at 18th St., while we met two guys at The Sour Note and they followed them over to 18th St Brewpub.

Walter will talk beer with anyone, so we spent a good hour or so chatting with the couple we met at Bulldog. We talked about beer in Indy, favorites from across the state, and styles of beer that they enjoy (not sours, that’s why we didn’t see them at The Sour Note). Once again we did a flight of beers, and even though they had left a half hour earlier, we were informed that the couple (from Crown Point) had bought our fight for us. That’s craft beer folks for you. I’m lousy with names, but we gave them my card so perhaps they’re reading this (unlikely, I know). But if they are, get hold of us and we’ll do a night of Indy craft beer when you come into town.

As far as the 18th St. beers went, we liked just about everything. Saturday, the Cycle Brewing collaboration BBA RIS couldn’t be included on the flight (16% ABV), but I bought one separately and enjoyed it thoroughly. And the food…… the brisket tacos for Walter and the short rib frites for me. My food was great and I assume hers was too; she wouldn’t let me near it. I finished up by talking to Madelyn our beer slinger while Walter went next door to try out the spirits at 18th St. Distillery. Look for them at Midwest Distillers Fest in October at Hard Truth Hills in Nashville, IN – I know Walter will be spending a lot of her time at their booth.

The Criteria For Our Visits. So those were the last three breweries on our state list, and now we’ve done them all. But there were criteria for deciding if a place was a “must visit” or just a “want to visit” locations, and for what we had to experience at the brewery in order to count it as visited:

Owner/brewer Ben Thompson at Birdboy’s Roanoke taproom. image credit: Huntington County Tab

1) Breweries have to make beer on site (at least ferment it or 2˚ it ferment in barrels), or be the only taproom for a brewery (ala The Koelschip for Central State Brewing).

2) The brewery has to sell beer directly to the public, and not just growler fills. This is why we waited to visit Birdboy until Ben opened the taproom in Roanoke, and waited for Erica and Mike at 10-56 Brewing to do the same in Knox. Likewise, we will hold off with Webster Brewing in Greenwood until Clay opens a taproom.

3) We don’t count visits made before a brewery opens, or industry-only soft open visits.

4) We only require ourselves to visit one brewing site for a given brewery (but I think we have visited all those that brew in two places anyway).

5) We have to make a purchase and try at least two beers while we are there. However, we usually do more just to make sure we have the feel of the place. On first visits, we usually have a flight of all their beers on at the time – if it isn’t too busy.

6) We don’t talk about writing craft beer or visiting all the breweries until we get to know the people there. It’s easier to get the true feel of a place if you are just one of the patrons. It’s one of the reasons I use an avatar for my writing; the others being because I am just butt ugly and don’t ever look human in photographs.

What Have We Learned. Most of the things Walter and I have learned from visiting all the breweries are subtle, they don’t really make themselves known until a subject pops up and we have a story or observation to fit the discussion. Nonetheless, there are things we can point to based on our experiences.

1) It used to be enough for a brewery to make beer; they could thrive, not just survive. But with the increased number and the increased beer knowledge in the state, now they have to make good beer. I feel this lesson has been learned by people contemplating a brewery for the most part, and as a result, breweries are opening with stronger products and more honed marketing strategies. However, there are established breweries whose beer is made for a public that likes it while many other drinkers find it to be less than stellar. Don’t mind the detractors – make the beer that pays the bills.

You can’t just say A or B is the best brewery in Indiana. It depends on what your criteria and desires are. image credit: Brewpublic

2) It sucks to never be a regular. OK… Bier, TwoDEEP, Redemption, and Blind Owl might qualify as places at which we are regulars, but we still don’t know many family stories of the staff, and that’s usually what a regular knows. I guess it applies to me more than Walter, but traveling around to breweries all over the state just highlights that at most places, everyone knows everyone and that’s a good feeling (so I’m told).

3) Being asked if we have a favorite brewery in Indiana is understandable, but not easy to answer. There are too many different things that people can mean by the question – your favorite brewery for hoppy beers, for malt forward beers? Your favorite brewery for food? Your favorite brewery for atmosphere or fun? The places that make you feel the most to home or are the highest energy? The places with the best beer list day to day or do the most different beers? If you ask us for recommendations, be prepared to answer a lot of questions before getting any names.

4) We know our state better now – the roads, the towns, the people. We can now make connections between areas and people and the beer of that region. For example, Indianapolis drinkers want lots of choices for the most part. On the other hand, small town drinkers are more likely to have a beer they stick with all the time. Other regional thoughts – Richmond, though it has two breweries and another nearby in Liberty, has never really taken to craft beer; the opposite is true for Fort Wayne, they have immersed themselves in beer the last few years.

5) We have accumulated many acquaintances and friends, lots of Indiana beer knowledge, and a mess of pint glasses. But one thing we’ve learned about ourselves is that we don’t take enough pictures. Walter and I are verbal people, we don’t do a lot of photos (ask our kids), we collect stories instead. I think that’s a habit we need to change.

6) While at times it does seem like everyone in Indiana craft beer knows everyone else, the truth is that everyone doesn’t know everyone. Different breweries have different agendas and different foci, and that will partially determine with whom they interact (or don’t interact). What’s more, breweries will tend to take on the personality of the brewers/owners, and some folks tend to keep to themselves. Finally, we have found that brewers and other brew folk are the least likely to get out and drink beer at other breweries; they just don’t have the time. This keeps some of the relationships either non-existent or shallow.

Jeff McCabe, one of the owners of Quaff On! Brewing is a gregarious guy. His brewery ends up having that same personality. photographer: Kara Lucero

7) We’ve been able to see changes over time in how breweries operate, both at single breweries and across the state of Indiana beer as a whole. We’ve come to the conclusion that breweries do change, but not a lot. Perhaps a change of brewer or owner might bring a larger shift, but for the most part, you are who you are. As far as the state is concerned, changes do occur. As we spoke of above, many breweries nowadays are at time of opening then many (not all) of the breweries that opened years ago – this of course only applies to those breweries that we personally drank when they were young. Also, it seems that Indiana has come closer to saturating large towns (Fort Wayne excepted) and are now moving harder toward the small town, ultra-local brewpub model.

8) The best breweries are those that have knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. Without spoiling a good article coming up soon from a guest writer, we have come to know that good beer is spoiled by uninspired service or staff that isn’t willing to buy in to the brewery’s philosophy. The good breweries know and appreciate their patrons – and the face of that relationship is the staff.

9) The state of Indiana craft beer is strong.

So What’s The Number? We included Indiana breweries that we visited in the past but are now closed, only the ones that are open now, and didn’t count Granite City since they employ “fermentus interruptus” and it isn’t really Indiana beer (a future article will talk about this method). Using this method and the criteria above, our number was 176 breweries. Like I said, that doesn’t mean that 176 are open today (counted Twisted Crew, Tow Yard, Alcatraz, etc), and other people that visit them all could have a different number.

The other issue – this number won’t be correct for us for very long. Heck, while I was writing this piece, Beech Bank Brewing opened in Beech Grove and we visited on opening night to maintain the authenticity of our accomplishment. Who knows what the number will be at the end of the month, the end of the year, etc. The answer to the question is then – What do Walter and I do now? We keep going, that’s what we do. New breweries, new brewers, new beers – there is always something new to experience.


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