Indy's first beer fest is old enough to drink! 

A look at Phoenix Theatre's 21st Brew-Ha-Ha

  • Brew-Ha-Ha
Phoenix Theatre literally wrote the script for a beer fest when Brew-Ha-Ha surfaced 21 years ago as a fun[d] raiser. The idea of a beer fest was hatched at a ‘what are we going to do to raise essential funds’ brainstorming at Broad Ripple Brewpub — at a time when Indiana counted all of five craft breweries, derisive ha-ha’s followed.
Twenty-one years later, guess who’s laughing — joyfully. For starters, the people who have been loyally attending, the newcomers who follow up on word-of-mouth reports, and yes, the brewers. Add to that, the venue and creator, Phoenix Theatre. The theatre is now at a point of change as they make the move from their snug corner at St. Clair and Park westward a few blocks along the Cultural Trail to a commercially-oriented location at Walnut and Illinois. This move will allow the theatre to thrive and may make future Brew-Ha-Ha's to be even more grand.

As Brew-Ha-Ha VIP ticket holders lined up for early entry on June 18, I did a general survey. I first wondered if the crowd was full of veterans, or if it was made up mostly of newcomers. One person had been coming for 20 years, “Missed the first one, never missed after that.” “Nine out of the past ten years,” said Kerry. Kerry's wife added, “Brew-Ha-Ha comes at Kerry’s birthday . . . I know what to get him and he’s happy.” Wabash College Theatre Professor, Jim Cherry and his wife Crystal, are first timers, coming to  Brew-Ha-Ha because they’ve been attending Phoenix Theatre performances.

My follow up question — “Would you keep attending if the site moves?” Noblesville resident Rick said yes, but the charm of the current location is a major draw. This echoed down the line, most adding “Having trees to stand under” as a boon, with the suggestion that trees need to be planted at the theatre’s new home.
Twenty-one years of “Neighborliness” led me to chat with the fest's neighbors. Some  make sure members of the police force on duty have a shady spot and prepare a snack for them on their porch. One pre-teen and her friends set up a lemonade stand on the family lawn. Just about everyone living along Park Avenue participates in one way or another. It just adds another layer of positivity to this long running event. 

The reason people have been coming here for 21 years are the brewers, and so, I had to to invite them to share their thoughts. While Indiana craft remains the feature, Sam Adams has been a 20-year mainstay. “Loyalty to the Phoenix,” was the answer when I asked their team ‘Why?’ Newcomer San Diego-based Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits said the word is out, Brew-Ha-Ha is the place to be. Up and down the two-block event, all the other brewers agreed. I asked a few to share more fully. Here are the replies:
  • Evil Czech Brewing

From Jeremy T. Nicely, Evil Czech Brewery Representative :  

NUVO: What is special about being at Brew-Ha-Ha?

Jeremy T. Nicely: The people involved, the location and the cause make Brew-Ha-Ha a special event. It is unlike others in that typically we are in areas built for masses of people such as parks, convention centers and fairgrounds. At Brew-Ha-Ha the street is closed off and we set up in the street as well as the yards of the residents.

ECB was fortunate to be located in one of the yards where the owner made me feel welcome with her hospitality. Basically it is a neighborhood gathering around beer, with the proceeds going to a good cause. In this case the Phoenix Theatre.

The event highlights what the brewing community values as far as giving back to the local community and economy, along with contributing to a positive cultural experience.

NUVO: What's different between your home base in Culver and Mishawaka & Indianapolis regarding patrons?

Jeremy: In Indy, the experience of the patrons is filtered through the bar/restaurant owners and managers. [In Culver and Mishawaka] our entire portfolio is available, readily allowing our patrons to know us more intimately. As far as palate preference between demographic makeup and geographic location they are very similar. Patrons in Indy have limited access to our brand due to the aforementioned filter.
Participating in events such as Brew-Ha-Ha allows us to impress the market and patrons with beers that are not as easily accessed as they are in our local market.

NUVO: What criteria did you use for what beers to bring to Brew-Ha-Ha?. Is it different from criteria for other festivals?
Jeremy: We try to bring a range of beers to satisfy every festival-goer, keeping in mind popular styles and trends, seasonal factors, as well as what other breweries offer. Most breweries will have IPA's, seasonals and new beers, and we do as well; but not being as accessible to the local Indy consumer allows us more freedom to showcase our soft underbelly like our local patrons get to witness and experience.

Compared to festivals that are in closer proximity to our location, Brew-Ha-Ha patrons were more curious about our brand, with the exception of a handful of transplants and students from our area. At festivals with closer proximity to the brewery, patrons come to us because we are familiar, safe, and they are loyal. Being outside of our local market makes for a perfect learning opportunity because of the feedback we receive from a consumer market outside of our local captured demographic. We value this experience because it drives us to continue to improve and influence the needs and demands of the consumer.

NUVO: Add anything else about participating with Brew-Ha-Ha.
: Personally I feel a lot of division in our current society. Events such as Brew-Ha-Ha completely erase any division for the time being and encourage the community to come together to support a local cause and discuss/enjoy the creations of the best industry in the world.

Speaking for The Tap Bloomington and Indianapolis are Jarrod May, head brewer, and Zach Rappattoni, assistant brewer:

NUVO: What was special about returning to Brew-Ha-Ha?

Jarrod: It’s my second time around! I really like this festival. Having a presence in the Indiana brewing community added another layer to this festival for me. Seeing brewing friends and making new ones. Some great new breweries were there too. Makes for a great time!

Zach: This was my first Brew-Ha-Ha, but based on all the good things I heard, I was looking forward to it in the weeks leading up to it.

NUVO: What responses did you get to your Spring & Summer Bicentenni-Ales?

Jarrod: We had a great response on these two beers. People really liked their unique nature and I feel were genuinely happy to see locally sourced ingredients [and a beer] inspired by the state history.

Zach: Of the five beers we were pouring, Double Barrel Buckshot and Ice Melter were by far the most popular. We received a lot of comments both on their drinkability and how unique they were. A few people even came back for more and to tell us that our Bicentenni-Ales were some of their favorites of the fest.

NUVO: Add anything else about participating with Brew-Ha-Ha — how is it different from participating in other festivals?

Zach: This festival lived up to the hype! The atmosphere was very laid back, and given the setting, the event felt more like a big block party than just another beer festival. The staff did a great job of keeping things moving smoothly for everyone and it was clear that everyone involved was having a good time.

Jarrod: I think Zach hit the nail on the head with his answer. I couldn't say it better.


click to enlarge BLIND OWL BREWERY
  • Blind Owl Brewery
Alex Peterson, head brewer at Blind Owl shared this:

NUVO: What is special about being at Phoenix Theatre Brew-Ha-Ha?
Alex: I feel like Brew-Ha-Ha really started a movement of combining community and beer. They were one of the first Indy groups to utilize beer as a fundraising opportunity. Many have followed suit in pairing local breweries and community engagement, but it is hard to beat the charm of the Phoenix and the Mass Ave. neighborhood.

NUVO: Is there a difference between your home-base at Blind Owl Brewery & Restaurant and Indianapolis patrons overall?

Alex: Blind Owl consumers seem to tend toward more balanced styles. We have had very hoppy options on with our guest tap and we have brewed a few ourselves, but our guests really enjoy beers that can be enjoyed without crushing the palate (not too malty or bitter). I would say the general market has been leaning towards hop-forward beers for the last few years. We always get asked, ‘What is your hoppiest beer on tap?’ whenever we go to events. Chris and I really enjoy all types of beers and I think that always keeps us grounded. We let the consumers be the crazy ones and demand the super, crazy, off-the-wall styles.

We have brewed a few things to meet consumer demand like our White IPA and our Pecan Pie Porter. Don’t get me wrong, we loved drinking and making those beers, but we definitely like to be more traditional and balanced in all styles.

NUVO: What criteria did you use for what beers to bring to Brew-Ha-Ha? Is it different from criteria for other festivals? What reactions did you get to your beers?

Alex: We always like to bring a few house beers because a lot of consumers still haven’t had the opportunity to visit our location. It is important for brand recognition that consumers know what to expect at the brew pub.

That being said, we really love Brew-Ha-Ha and always make sure to save a few special beers to bring with us like the Kiwi Kolsch this year. Being such a tried and true festival, people tend to think they know what to expect, so surprising them with new or different beers is always fun. People are always surprised at how refreshing our beers tend to be no matter the style. We are very proud of how smooth and refreshing everything tastes, especially when we introduce new styles to consumers like the Black Forest Marzen.

NUVO: Add anything else about participating with Brew-Ha-Ha. 

Alex: Looking forward to more community events and other ways to support the Phoenix Theatre!


click to enlarge KATIE BREDEN
  • Katie Breden
Aaron Koerner, Metazoa head brewer, on June 11 wandered between his new and his ‘old’ breweries — but so did a lot of others even because after 21 years Brew-Ha-Ha is family:

NUVO: 2016 Metazoa is a ’first timer' brewery —What lured you to join the ranks of breweries supporting Phoenix Theatre Brew-Ha-Ha?

Aaron: I have worked the Brew-Ha-Ha with Oaken Barrel before and I love the event and cause. I felt it natural for Metazoa to help out as well.

NUVO: What was special about being at Brew-Ha-Ha?

Aaron: It is such a community driven event. Being shoulder to shoulder with your industry friends on a residential street gives it an extra feeling of camaraderie.

NUVO: What criteria did you use for what beers to bring to Brew-Ha-Ha? Is it different from criteria for other festivals? What reactions from people attending?

Aaron: We wanted to bring something that people knew and were familiar with, and also something special that works with the hot weather. People seemed to enjoy the mix. The special beer usually does better, but you cover all your bases and try to bring something for everyone. This isn’t an event that you need to, or really care to, advertise your brand heavily. This makes it a more comfortable setting where you don’t feel like you are even working.

NUVO: Add anything else about participating with Brew-Ha-Ha.

Aaron: Brew-Ha-Ha is one of my favorite events, for all the right reasons. Yeah, I’m technically working, but it just feels like a ton of friends just hanging out.

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Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn has been covering craft beer and the arts for NUVO for two decades. She’s the author of True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana.

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