29 Jan Winter Beer Run, Part 2: How A Tiny Brewery in the State Creates its Own Universe
Last summer at the Indiana Brewers’ Guild festival at Broad Ripple, hundreds of attendees rushed from the entrance gate, dashed past the out-of-state breweries, past dozens more Indiana booths, and converged at the Three Floyds tent forming a line which almost spilled into the little sliver of the White River running past Broad Ripple’s Optimist Park.
But on the other side of that line, obscurely tucked under the shadow of the largest craft brewery in the state of Indiana (and further hidden by that wall of people waiting for their four ounces of Zombie Dust), sat a gang of beer enthusiasts serving brews they’d produced in a slightly smaller operation. And by “slightly smaller” I really mean one of the absolute smallest in the state. Using a two-barrel production system, set up in a pair of tiny adjoining office spaces in the Polk Street Business Park, Planetary Brewing Company offers its patrons a personal, intimate relationship: with the owners, the brewers, the visionaries, the realists, and especially with the beer.
When the four of us (myself, my fiancée Wendi, my son Jim, and his life-long friend Tyler) wound our way through the beige office fronts which made up the business park, we were all starting to wonder if we hadn’t somehow managed to get lost…even in the age of Siri. And even when we did find it, even as we trundled out of my little Chevy and walked to the door, I kept thinking, this isn’t really a brewery, is it? Facing us, as we crossed a little frontage street were two entrances: one framed by a sign reading “Brewery” and “Tap Room.”
Two steps inside, I realized that Planetary not only embraced their humble starting point, they have thrived on it. The eclectic mixture of the astronomical (dangling pin lights mimicking the stars, and a partial 3-D mural of planets and their moons along the entranceway) mixed with the mechanical (the “bulkhead” grey paint encompassing the taproom, giving us all the feeling that we were on board for a journey across the galaxy) served as a masterstroke. In closed quarters, in an off-the-thoroughfare location, Planetary found a way to turn geographical disadvantage into a “place to be.” You don’t want to go to Planetary simply to drink the beer; you want to go there so that you can feel like you’re six years away from Earth, drinking beer with chief engineer and head yeoman. Brilliant.
Faced with either the $4 “Flight Test” or the $8 “Flight Plan,” Wendi and I settled in for our own set of samples, while the boys grabbed a few of their own choices as well. Following a pattern Jim and Tyler noticed months ago at Bier Brewery, Planetary operates a set of “rotating” taps. The philosophy is simple: one of the benefits of operating on a small scale is the freedom to brew whatever the hell you want to. On that rainy Saturday, Wendi and I opened with a citrus wheat called “Solstice,” surprisingly hoppy given the name, but bold and delicious notwithstanding. From there, we transitioned to a RIPA Hefe amusingly named “Apes#!t” (that’s exactly how it looked on the monochrome chalkboard above the taps). I’ve had several wheat beers, and I’ve enjoyed some pretty hoppy ones as well, but “Apes#!t” balanced the hops with the sweetness well. And coming in at 7.5%, it struck me as the kind of brew that could easily sneak up on you as well. We also sampled cleverly named cream ale dubbed “Chemtrails” (a very tasty rival to Sun King’s now-famous signature beer), but my favorite—hands down—was a nut brown named “Fly Casual.” It was full-bodied, easy on the palette, yet still had just the smidge of bite you kind of want out of a dark beer. It was, for the entire night, my favorite beer of the trip.
While working as the buyer, Goins often tasted Groves’ home brews, offering his opinions. Eventually the two decided to start their own operation, but unlike many entrepreneurs, who often abandon all caution and move quickly to large scale production, Goins and Groves opted to keep things small and, at least in Goins’ case, keep their day jobs as well.
“I like having a life,” Goins said, “and being married, and I want to keep things that way.”
The best part of the tour was seeing the residual leftovers of the “old days.” A small bar table on wheels sat by the front wall, mostly abandoned, save the smattering of tubes and washers strewn across it. But in the infancy of the brewery (when the two founders operated from only the tiny space we stood in at that moment) they would spend their nights after work making beer, shove all the equipment out of the way during the weekends, roll the bar into place, and serve their growing host of patrons.
As Goins explained his operation, he spoke with a steady mixture of “just the facts, ma’am” and beaming pride. And honestly, who can blame him? In an era when operations such as Sun King are making news because their production numbers legitimately raise the question of what it means to be a “craft” or “micro” brew, Planetary stands as the absolutely perfect symbol of what we love the most about the craft beer movement: passion and personal contact. If you’re going to measure the overall quality of Indiana’s craft beer experience, you should start not at the top, but instead look at the smallest operations. At Planetary, the atmosphere is fun and original, the comradery is personal and lively, the passion and knowledge is certainly evident, and the beer is damn good.
Craft beer in Indiana is in great shape.
Editors note: We’ve had other breweries that operate on smaller systems reach out after publishing this story. We have edited the language to reflect that. 1/29/2015 10:45 AM