We're not Portland with dozens of breweries, yet Central Indiana enjoys a vibrant scene with two handfuls of brewpubs offering over a hundred variations in the three great traditions of beer: German, English and Belgian. Beer brewing and Indianapolis are historically intertwined. In 1834, William Werweg, a contractor for the National Road (now Washington Street) and John L. Young established the first brewery in Indianapolis. By the outbreak of the Civil War, Schmidt Brewery was producing a superior lager beer, and soon was supplying troops stationed in Indianapolis. In 1889, three breweries merged into the Indianapolis Brewing Company. Their Dusseldorfer beer won a gold medal at the 1900 Paris exposition, the grand prize at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St Louis in 1904 and the gold medal at Liege, Belgium, in 1906.
Home Brewing Company and American Brewing Company were also doing a brisk business until 1920, when Prohibition shut everyone down. December 1933 the 21st Amendment was ratified. The brewery that soon opened in Indianapolis closed when the owner was accused of "shorting the bottles." It was 1990 before brewing started up again in Indianapolis, with the Broad Ripple Brew Pub founded by John Hill of Yorkshire, England.
Contrary to current attitudes, beer was not intended to be guzzled and regurgitated as a rite of passage. From its beginnings in the fertile crescent of the Middle East, beer has become a food staple for succeeding civilizations and cultures as a beverage of choice over unsafe water. The classic beer styles we drink today originated in the northern clime of central and western Europe. While "beer," a word of Anglo Saxon origin, can also designate non-alcoholic carbonated beverages such as root beer or ginger beer, it's most associated with fermentation that is lower than that of wines. In Dutch, French, German and Italian the word "beer" is probably related to "barley," which is derived from the Sumerian "bappir," and was the bread-like mash from which the liquid was drained and drunk.
Bread and beer are thus linked as food staples from the beginning of grain cultivation between 13,000 to 8,000 years ago. Fermentation was an accidental process with wild yeast doing its own thing long before Pasteur figured out exactly what was going on with airborne wild yeast spores getting into the cracks of crockery and fermenting its contents.
"Liquid grain" or "liquid bread," in its pure form, is still made with four essential ingredients: malted grain (usually barley, sometimes wheat), water, yeast and hops (a vining plant acting as a preservative).
Water, the main ingredient, determined the character of early ales and beers from Europe. Quality of water contributed to a town or monastery becoming known for its beer. Brewers in Indianapolis modify tap water in some way to come as close as possible to what is used in an established style of beer. Brewers in Bloomington say they are less challenged by Lake Monroe water.
All the senses have to be actively involved
Beer drinkers are said to reveal a great deal about themselves by their choices of brew and establishments they frequent. Part of the fun of "trolling for beer" is striking up conversations to discuss personal choices. Fresh from the tap is first on everyone's list for choosing a brewpub. Beer that's been sitting on a shelf never touches "brewpub palates." Megabrewed beer is considered boring, bland, uninviting.
"Savor the aroma. Close your eyes and inhale," advised a newly-made friend during NUVO's recent round of brewpubs. While the aroma of ales is most often yeast induced and comes across as fruity, the elements that arise from lagers are malt, hop, herbal and spice.
"Look at the beer in the glass," inserted another voice. "Gorgeous color no matter what beer."
Holding the glass up to the light, turning it slowly, he pointed out the "lace" effect on the side of the glass left by the receding head. Carbonation, the sparkle caused by fermentation or that may be injected later, is more active in lagers and wheat beers than in ales. Color, which runs from straw gold to black, results from the choice of malt. The more intense the kilning (roasting, as for coffee beans), the darker the color.
"Swirl the glass and inhale," illustrated another, who was eager for his suggested beer to be tasted. "Smelling gets the taste buds alive. Take your time. Slow does it on the first sip."
Sweet, sour, salty and bitter have specific locations on the tongue: sweet at the tip, salty near the front, sour toward the back, bitter at the back. There are three stages: foretaste is the sensation burst when the beer first enters the mouth, midtaste comes into play as the beer swirls in the mouth, aftertaste is what lingers after swallowing.
Ales are more complex, with more happening in the mouth. They generally move around the shoulders and down into all body parts with a warming effect.
Lagers strive to get immediate full-tongue attention with a bracing bitterness that only hints at the other possibilities. Refreshing is the adjective most used. Pilsner, the first golden lager, has become the top selling beer worldwide. Its sunny color evolved from the original dark lagers in 1842 just when clear glass containers were first manufactured. For the first time people could see color, and they liked the glow of this new Czech Bohemia brew. Bottled widely in the U.S., American-style pilsner has acquired a lame sameness. The liveliness of a brewpub pilsner with a lot of personality surprises those who have been drinking megabrews.
The vocabulary of handcrafted beer on the palate ranges from dry to sweet; firmbodied to soft with hints of fruits, coffees, dark chocolate. Yeasty, malty, hoppy equally differentiate tastes.
Brewpubs craft their house brands on-site and offer a regular menu along with seasonal brews. With multiple honors from juried competitions that include World Beer Cup, Great American Beer Festival, Indiana State Fair and mentions in books by leading beer writers such as Michael Jackson, Central Indiana is regaining its tradition as a brewing center with renowned brewers.