Rita Kohn and Doug Wissing chat about the history of Indiana beer 

Two Hoosier beer aficionados go head to head


There can never be too much of a good thing — or at least that's how we feel about local craft beer. Recently Hoosier writer and journalist Doug Wissing published a book called Indiana: One Pint at a Time which chronicled Indiana craft beer. Our own NUVO writer, Rita Kohn has a book about the history of malted Hoosier libations coming out soon as well, which you can read much more about in our cover story on page 16. NUVO Arts Editor Emily Taylor tasked Kohn with providing readers a writer-to-writer story. Here's the conversation as it evolved over a series of emails:

Rita Kohn (for NUVO): You and I first caught up upon publication of Pioneer in Tibet, your chronicle of the adventures of Indiana-born explorer Dr. Albert Shelton. The book brought me — and a lot of other 20th and 21st century Hoosiers — into the unusual connections between Bloomington, Indiana and the safekeeping of the Tibetan language in the 1900s. You followed with Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, which attracted attention among policy-makers in Washington D.C. After such wide-ranging internationally-based undertakings, what compelled you into chronicling Indiana brewing?

Doug Wissing: I've long been fascinated by Indiana's sometimes unexpected connections to the wider world, including the wholly counter-intuitive century-long connection between Indiana and Tibet. (At one point early in the 20th century, Indianapolis was the only place in America where you could learn to speak Tibetan.) So I guess it's not surprising that my book Indiana: One Pint at a Time began far away — in Belgium.

As beer fanciers know, Belgium has an amazing beer tradition with around 450 different brands and styles, including great breweries run by Trappist monks. I was visiting my business exec son Seth, who was working in Brussels. Seth told me that Belgians thought the country's best beer was made by St. Sixtus, the smallest of the Trappist breweries. The tiny beer production was only sold at the remote monastery.

So we made a journey out to St. Sixtus, where we drank the quite spectacular Westvleteren, an incredibly complex imperial stout-type beer that was akin to a port wine. At the time, you could buy six-packs of Westvleteren to go. When I got home, I put it in the refrigerator to save for a special event. A month or so later, Seth emailed, "Hey, that beer was just ranked as the best beer in the world!"

click to enlarge doug_wissing_-credit-tyagan_miller.jpg

St. Sixtus was soon overwhelmed with business, as beer geeks quickly exhausted the available stock of Westvleteren. When customers clamored for more, the cloistered monks sent word out to the crowds to go away — they were praying. The monks said something like, "We brew to live, not live to brew."

Well, the combination of revelatory beer and spirituality captured my attention, and I wrote articles about the St. Sixtus brewers for various pubs, including National Geographic Traveler and Forbes FYI. Hoosier beer lover and graphic designer Mike Schwab, then of Dean Johnson Design, saw one of the articles, and asked if I would be interested in writing an Indiana brewing book for the Indiana Historical Society. That led to Indiana: One Pint at a Time.

A remarkable coincidence happened just after I started research on the book: St. Sixtus's Westvleteren was knocked out of the top ranking by an Indiana beer, Dark Lord, brewed by Three Floyds in Munster. That was when I first realized Indiana brewers were producing world-class beer.

Kohn: As you traversed Indiana to learn about the scope of Indiana's brewing history, what most surprised you about Indiana's brewing legacy?

Wissing: When I agreed to write a book about the history of Indiana brewing, I had no idea how many breweries there had been in the state. It was a staggering number. I finally lost count at about 500 breweries [opening and closing from 1816-2009.]

Kohn: One Pint at a Time spans across 1816 - 2009 Indiana. How are your gleanings about the people who intimately connected with the industry of brewing in all its facets reflected/refracted in the essays in your recently published IN Writing: Uncovering the Unexpected Hoosier State, which encompasses your observations of Hoosiers from 1997 to 2013?

Wissing: Hoosiers are a complicated lot, and Indiana brewers are no different. They range across the political and cultural gamut, though they do seem to have one thing in common: they march to the beat of their own drummers.

Kohn: Three Floyd's story reappears in your IN Writing. What drew you to include "Strange Brew" above all the other stories comprising One Pint at a Time in this eclectic collection?

Wissing: My latest Indiana book IN Writing: Uncovering the Unexpected Hoosier State, is a collection of previously published articles on a broad range of subjects, from profiles of Hoosiers naughty and nice, to stories about our cities and towns, art, literature — and food. Co-published by Indiana University Press and Indiana Historical Society as a bicentennial project, IN Writing is kind of a pixilated alternative history of our state. So the bacchanal of Dark Lord Day, when the wildly idiosyncratic Three Floyd's brewers released their coveted imperial stout to a crowd of thousands of beer lovers on a cold blustery April day seemed to fit the book's theme.

Kohn: Researching Indiana's brewing story revealed an unexpected aspect of your own heritage — though I've chuckled at your retelling during times when we've appeared on programs together, your personal saga earns sharing here — please, share "the uncovered Wissing brewing connection."

Wissing: The other surprise was learning one of my Alsatian forebears down in Vincennes owned a large regional brewery. I vaguely knew about the family being involved with the Hack & Simon Brewery, which was located where the Vincennes University campus is now, where some of the repurposed buildings still stand. In the course of research, I learned my great-grandfather, John Ebner, Sr., was a French Foreign Legionnaire who worked the Ohio River steamboats after he came to America. In 1859 during the great heyday of lager brewing, Ebner started the brewery, originally called Eagle Brewery. With all the beer-drinking Germans immigrating to Indiana, Hoosier brewers got rich. Ebner was no different. The family mansion still stands in Vincennes, though unfortunately for me, Hack & Simon declined precipitously during Prohibition.

Kohn: Doing research a half dozen years ago you were concerned with visiting 40 modern age craft breweries — now it's closer to 140 statewide — what would have been your prediction in 2010 for the status of the craft brewing industry in 2016?

Wissing: Not so many years ago, the Hoosier brewers I interviewed predicted there would be a shake-out of craft breweries — less, not more. Not one person predicted the three-fold explosion of Indiana breweries in the last six years. While I chronicled the craft brewers's incredible enthusiasm, I sure didn't anticipate the amazing growth of commercial craft brewing in Indiana. Aren't we all lucky? I continue to be impressed by the high quality of Hoosier beers. Indiana brewers have been producing world-class beer since celibate German Utopianists began brewing down in New Harmony in 1816. Hoosiers have been brewing for two hundred years, and we are in the midst of one of Indiana brewing's most exciting and creative times. And as a bonus, the public library's bicentennial celebration of Indiana brewing includes music and great Hoosier beer!

Note: Doug Wissing's newest book, Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America's Endless War in Afghanistan takes readers into war zones and foreign policy to which far too few people have paid attention. As with the general course of his work as a journalist, he delivers the story from a two-pronged perspective — being inside on a daily basis with the people on the front and simultaneously standing back as an observer of the consequences of government policy. This book is a culmination of his 28-part Indiana Public Media radio series particularly focused on Indiana service people in Afghanistan.

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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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