Rock Bottom Downtown Celebrates 20th Anniversary 

Spanning the change from Naptown to Funtown

Rock Bottom and the revitalization of Downtown Indianapolis

“I have a special place in my heart for the Indianapolis Indians, Rock Bottom and others who were instrumental, in the Summer of 1996, in building the momentum that helped to revitalize Downtown Indy,” commented Tamara. “When it opened in September 1995, Circle Center was certainly key to changing how residents and visitors viewed Downtown as “the” place to go for entertainment and fun, but each new addition contributed significantly. Downtown was no longer where “the sidewalks rolled up at 5 p.m.”
click to enlarge NUVO CVA winner, Tamara Zahn - MARK LEE
  • NUVO CVA winner, Tamara Zahn
  • Mark Lee
From 1993-2012, Tamara Zahn, as president of Indianapolis Downtown, Inc., now known as Downtown Indy, was in the thick of the ‘makeover’. Zahn’s personal connection is reflected in the camaraderie that continues that special feel of having done something special among downtown businesses and cultural organizations from that era.

A commitment to enliven downtown runs through a cluster of downtown Indianapolis 20th celebrations this year, including the June 17 opening of Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, the opening of Victory Field on July 11, and the 20th annual Midwest Bearfest downtown event in December.

The Murat Centre rededication in February 1996 showcased extensive renovations. The IMAX® Theater opened December 1996 in White River State Park as one of its earliest stand-alone attractions. When the Indiana State Museum opened in 2002 it essentially was built around and over the IMAX® Theater.

Rock Bottom is Downtown Indy’s oldest microbrewery, the second oldest Indianapolis brewpub and, as part of a group of eight openings in 1996, RB is the fourth oldest in Indiana along with still operating Back Road Brewery in La Porte, Main Street Brewing at Turoni’s Pizza in Evansville and Three Floyds in Munster. [Four others that opened have since closed.]

To refresh history, Broad Ripple Brewpub opened in 1990 as the first modern-er
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a craft brewpub. Alcatraz opened in 1995 as the first downtown brewpub in Circle Centre but closed in 2011. Opening soon after BRBP and still operating are Lafayette Brewing Company (1993) as the second oldest Indiana brewpub and Bloomington and Oaken Barrel Brewing Companies (both opening in 1994) as third oldest in the modern era. Indianapolis Brewing opened in the ‘old model’ as a production brewery in 1989, closed in 1997 and was bought by Oaken Barrel, who used the plant until 2003 when it permanently ceased.

Rock Bottom Downtown, the philanthropic side

At 10 W. Washington St., Rock Bottom is located along the Old National Road and atop a historic site. The Firefighter Memorial, at its front door informs: “This small garden tribute to the firefighters who lost their lives in the deadliest fire in Indianapolis history. In 1890, 86 firemen fought the Bowen-Merrill Company Stationary Two Bookstore fire, 13 of them losing their lives in the blaze.

It’s natural for Rock Bottom’s philanthropic thrust to include the RB fund for firefighter education. It is also the preferred destination for firefighters worldwide convening in Indianapolis for the annual April International Fire Department Instructors Conference. RB’s special Firechief Ale, winner of the Silver Award at the 2001 Indiana State Fair Brewers Cup, makes its annual appearance. RB also supports Indianapolis’ Firefighters Survive Alive program and the Indianapolis-Cologne Sister City Committee.

From its opening, Rock Bottom has been an active participant with the Indianapolis-Cologne Sister City Partnership that started in 1988. Notable among the many exchanges between the two cities’ cultural, educational and economic programs is the exchange between the two fire departments. When Cologne firefighters come to Indianapolis, Rock Bottom Downtown is a destination, as it was a few years back when Bob Mack, as part of World Class Beer, was hosting the Mayor of Cologne during his visit to Indianapolis.

click to enlarge Jerry Sutherlin, Rock Bottom's long-time head brewer - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Jerry Sutherlin, Rock Bottom's long-time head brewer
  • Submitted Photo

Long-time RB brewmaster Jerry Sutherlin recently shared the incident. “Bob Mack brought the Mayor and other people in and they were sitting at table. The Mayor looks like our expectation for a mayor from Germany. So we served the beer and the mayor says, “This is good beer. But this is not a Kolsch.” Of course we all laugh because unless extreme measures are taken to create an exactness, no matter what else you do, Indy water will not yield an authentic Kolsch-style beer. Of course, a few years later Jerry had nailed ‘the water thing’ and Rock Bottom became known for its Kolsch.

Among its other civic sharing,  Rock Bottom annually hosts a Christmas dinner for anyone in need.

Rock Bottom in the words of Hoosiers 

Chris Gahl, VP of Marketing and Communications at Visit Indy, points out that early on Rock Bottom, along with Alcatraz and The RAM (which opened in 2000) anchored the craft beer scene downtown for visitors to the city, as well as for residents who enjoy the immediate amenities of Circle Centre, the Indianapolis Arts Garden and the close-by White River State Park.

“With White River State Park serving as a magnet, along with the overall development of the Central Canal” the diversity has helped Indianapolis grow as a destination city. “We’ve added more than 8,000 hotel rooms since 1996, helping showcase the increased demand for visitors, which has skyrocketed from 18 million to 27 million 1996 to 2016 respectively,” cites Gahl.

Indianapolis native, and writer, Greg Kitzmiller moved away in the 1980s. During a recent email exchange Kitzmiller commented, 
“As I moved back to central Indiana (Bloomington) in 1995 searching for flavorful brews, I was quite pleased to be able to make Rock Bottom (plus The Ram and Alcatraz) my go-to places in Indianapolis. We all recall the happy days of yeast sharing or even some grain being carried on a hand truck between these three locations by brewing friends. I happily had beers at Rock Bottom Downtown this past Monday night, allowing me to be nostalgic about all of the great times I’ve had and all of the great beers in Central Indiana, but especially sitting right there in Rock Bottom Downtown. RB has been a key factor in the growth and importance of craft beer in the area and as a connection for many, many brewers.”

The breadth and depth of connections between brewers and breweries becomes evident through a survey of Rock Bottom’s 20-year brewer story. But aside from the RB genealogy is the continuing relationship with The RAM. Shawn Byrnes, RAM’s current head brewer, initiated the December 17, 2015 community-wide event to mark Jerry Sutherlin’s decade as RB downtown brewmaster—a rarity in an industry where brewers tend to move around. But now it is Jerry’s time to move, as co-founder of Round Town Brewery on Indy’s west side.
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Byrnes toast reflects the craft beer industry culture with a feel of the motto of the Musketeers, placing unity of purpose front and center: 
“Jerry has set a tone for Indy [brewers] for many years. It is important to inspire and keep the beer revolution to a high standard just like he has shown throughout the many years. It’s a good time to be in INDY. Cheers!” - Shawn Byrnes, head brewer of The Ram 

Five months after making the move from head brewer at Rock Bottom College Park to RB Downtown, Nathan Scruggs responded to my open-ended questions.

“Being back downtown is great since that's where I live and [where I] started at Fountain Square Brewing Co. [opened 2011] working with Skip [DuVall] and Dan [Kryzwicki], then was at The RAM, then Rock Bottom College Park and now RB downtown, it's been an adventure. Thanks to the relationships I had made with all the older brewers of downtown Indianapolis I am where I am today. They've all been great mentors and they've all put in good words for me and helped me out in plenty of ways. And it's all been great being a part of that veteran group of brewer's even though I'm like the little brother to them." 

“The biggest hurdle I'm faced with being downtown at RB during this craft revolution is trying to remind, or teach, people that even though Rock Bottom is a chain restaurant, we are still very much a local brewery. I've written recipes and brewed my five house beers that are always on tap and I do the same for the seasonal beers. Somehow that information has been lost and we are bunched in as a chain who doesn't craft their own beers. I genuinely have more freedom here and phenomenal hop contracts to work with. It's pretty great. The only problem is making it known that you can come in and get that local beer here too."

“On top of that, believe it or not, I'm still getting situated with the place. One of my biggest projects on my list is getting the basement office cleaned out and get a miniature barrel aging program going down here. You know I come from under Dan Kryzwicki's wing so I'm doing my best to make time to get some lagers going in addition to the annual Rocktoberfest. I always look up to Dan's top tier delicious Lagers [now being brewed at Chilly Water Brewing Co.] and it definitely pushes me to figure out how to brew delicious Lagers of my own. Barrel aged beers and a regular lineup of Lagers of haven't really been seen at this location so I'm hoping everyone will take to them well when the beers do start turning over.”

Nate reports a new all-Centennial Hop IPA on tap, called ’No Hearted’ with a nod to a well-loved Michigan brewery. The annual Summer Honey Blonde ale is on, too. And he reported, “I’m also going to brew Jerry's old brown because I love that beer and as a homage even though he will be very mad when he sees the name, I’m going to call it ‘Jer-Bear Brown’.”

Replying to a general ‘shout out’ for recollections of being a part of RB downtown, Max Schenk sent a memoir. Here it is in its entirety:
"I was 20 years old and spending the summer of 2007 in Indy for an internship at the Wank & O'Brien show. My internship was unpaid so I needed a part-time gig and my sister knew a server at Rock Bottom Downtown who got me an interview for a position behind the host stand.

It was my first job in the service industry and I remember at the time feeling so relieved that I wasn't one of the servers or bartenders even though I knew that's where the real money was. I just thought what they did seemed incredibly difficult, but I knew I was at least capable of looking presentable and keeping track of menus and wait times.

I quickly learned that the service industry has a dynamic which was and is unique from any other type of work I had experienced directly or indirectly. Typical labels such as age, gender, sexual orientation or any other category seemed to just disappear. Everyone shared a common goal when inside those walls and everyone was on a level playing field. Sure there was a pecking order, the bartenders and cocktailers being at the top of the hierarchy, front of house and back of house were their own separate machines working in conjunction with one another, and I was at the bottom behind the host stand. But no matter how many times outside forces may have caused a given employee to feel humbled or even a bit degraded at times, we never brought those feelings on each other.

I fell in love with Indy over that summer and returned in 2008 after I graduated, and again needed a quick source of income while exploring avenues to put my degree to use. Rock Bottom hired me back, this time as a server.

Boy was that an adjustment.

I'll be direct—I was blatantly horrible when I first started waiting tables. A personal flaw I have always struggled with is my extreme frustration any time I don't adhere to a skill right away. I was used to picking things up fairly quickly and easily, but serving did not fall into that category. I panicked if I had a table with more than four people at it, I didn't know to get salads out before entrees, how to roll silverware, where to find the water on the soda station, and I despised having to asking others for help. There was one manager there who was particularly tough on me, and I remember breaking down to him in the office and asking if I could just go back to hosting. However, the G.M. at the time (Marty Haughyan) saw potential in me and convinced me to hang in there.

I did, and with time I got better. I was promoted to cocktailer and eventually bartender, and finally reached the point where no situation was too intimidating for me to handle. For me it was the ultimate case study in fake it ‘til you make it, and it toughened me in ways nothing else I’d experienced had.

The greatest side effect of my time at Rock Bottom was my growing love affair with craft beer. I would give up money-making Saturdays to volunteer at brew festivals with Jerry [Sutherlin] where my only compensation was a quick break from pouring samples to venture out and experience all of the different styles of beer for myself. After knowing pretty much my whole life that I wanted to be self-employed in some capacity, something clicked in my mind and I knew that this was the industry to which I wanted to apply that ambition.

What began as jokes between Jerry and me about ditching the corporate structure and starting our own company, eventually grew into Round Town, and I couldn’t be more confident in my life’s purpose at this time.

I realized one day that as members of the service industry, we become characters in people’s lives. Just like I have bars that I go to on days that I know certain people will be working, I have been lucky enough to play that role for some of the salt-of-the-earth patrons in this town. We also help define what Indianapolis means to the thousands of out-of-towners coming in and out for various events and conventions. We become a permanent part of the experience they had and will remember long after they leave. In many ways we become the face of this town to outsiders, and places like Rock Bottom instill in us the Hoosier Hospitality attitude that we can’t help but exude.

Personally, any time I leave town I get the same warm and fuzzy feeling when I come back home and the cityscape grows larger into my view as I approach it. For me, places like Rock Bottom represent the arms with which the city welcomes me back when I return. It’s been three years since I parted ways with being employed there, and I still consider many people there to be family.

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My childhood experiences helped shape me to a point, but the years I spent at Rock Bottom hardened the concrete of who I became, and had by far the most impact on the path my life has taken. Life is full of variables and Rock Bottom Downtown Indy is one of the few constants in which I can take comfort. No matter how many uncontrollables rotate in and out of my life, I can count on being able to walk in that door to multiple greetings from multiple friends that I’ve gained there throughout the years, employees and patrons alike.

It is a unique spot in a unique city that accommodates an incredibly diverse array of people. I am confident that it will continue to do its part to educate the world about craft beer and also to produce great beers, great brewers, and quality people in general. I started at Rock Bottom, now I’m here at Round Town Brewery.

Cheers to the Rock!"

Rock Bottom Downtown 20th Anniversary Events:
June 9: 5-7 p.m. Saison Tapping, “one of Brewer Nate Scruggs’ specialty beers”
June 15: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Chef Ty’s 4-course dinner paired with Brewer Nate’s beers. Reserve at: 317-681-8180
June 16: 5-7 p.m. Tapping Anniversary Lager —Mexican Style Lager
June 17: 5-8 p.m. 20th Anniversary Celebration —Good Times & Great Beers

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About The Author

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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