Wooden Bear Brewing Company opened in 2014 along with 20 other breweries statewide. NUVO ran a general notice of Wooden Bear opening.
Oct. 14, 2016 we finally got to visit on-site. It was momentous as one of the Indiana Bicentennial Torch stops along the Historic National Road from Greenfield to Indianapolis for the conclusion of the Torch Relay.
We arrived at The Wooden Bear as Nolan “Skip” Kuker ordered a celebratory IPA. He had just completed his segment of carrying the torch into Hancock County and, with the rest of us, was awaiting the link of carriers making bringing the Torch to Greenfield’s new Bicentennial Plaza. Wooden Bear was the informally designated gathering spot on the way to “speechmaking,” according to a resident helping us get situated.
We also learned “Skip” Kucker is the person to talk to about Greenfield’s first-ever brewery making its home in the historic 1895 Gant Opera House, right next door to Greenfield’s first fire house. “And be sure to see the vintage fire equipment on display in the 4-H Building at the Hancock County Fair Grounds. That’s where the torch ends up on its way to Indianapolis,” we were told.
We introduced ourselves to “Skip” Kuker and asked him about his role in getting Wooden Bear to Greenfield.
“As [Hancock County’s] Economic Development Director, I was asked to talk with them [Jason Swift, Dan Noel, Kurt Sundling and Brent Sundquist] and introduce them to our community and our desire to have craft beer in Greenfield,” Kuker told us. “Plus I am a craft beer lover.
“They saw that our growing community was wanting this option and we were excited to have them decide to join our great Greenfield downtown.”
Underscoring the obvious, since the family friendly dining area and the bar area were filled, Kuker let us know, “The Wooden Bear has been welcomed to our community. They have brought new traffic to an underserved area which has now received grants for the “living alley” and there is new growth of other businesses in the area. The great thing about Wooden Bear is the number of taps, around 16 to 18, that they brew so you have a great fresh experience.”
Kuker made a pitch as well for other reasons to visit Greenfield, a short drive east of Indianapolis along U.S. Route 40 or I-70 or a combination of both.
“Our downtown is a fun walk that you can visit, with wonderful restaurants — Carnegie's, Griggsby's Station, Lincoln Square Pancake House, Soupherb — plus shopping at unique shops all within a quick stroll of “The Bear.” The downtown Art Gallery, Chocolate Shop and various antique shops line U.S. 40 the Historic National Highway. Visit the Pennsy Trail for miles of walking enjoyment that goes right through downtown.”
Best known is The James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum
at 250 W. Main St. Greenfield celebrates James Whitcomb Riley’s birth with an annual Riley Festival in mid-October. During the latter part of his life Riley lived in the Lockerbie Square section of Indianapolis.
To learn more about Wooden Bear, which
according to BreweryDB.com has a “laid-back atmosphere where friends can gather and families can enjoy time together in beautiful downtown Greenfield,” we caught up with Brent Sundquist, who takes on the spokesperson role. Here’s the Wooden Bear story via email, with input from all four owners:
NUVO: What’s the Wooden Bear story?
Collective email from Brent Sundquist:
The Wooden Bear is owned by four IT professionals who happen to share a passion for brewing and drinking great beer.
Jason Swift and Dan Noah were best friends and fraternity brothers back at Franklin College. About 10 years ago, Dan's wife bought him a home brewing kit, and Dan and Jason began spending their weekends brewing beer in their southside Indianapolis garages as their wives served as faithful taste testers.
The two thought opening a brewery was just a pipe dream, until Jason's co-worker, fellow tech expert Kurt Sundling, fueled the fire for launching their own business. Another colleague, Brent Sandquist, was brought into the mix with his own expertise in home brewing, and a partnership was born.
Why Greenfield? Basically, we looked at a map of greater Indianapolis and looked for the spot that was most underserved. We were charmed by Greenfield's historic downtown and thus began the hunt for the perfect location to begin brewing beer.
The current Wooden Bear digs were far from warm and cozy at first sight three years ago. The building had sat vacant for quite a while, and was most recently an auto body shop with spray painted numbers on the crumbling brick walls marking the auto bays. Local investors (Jeff and Linda Congdon), however, saw the potential and started the negotiations to create a brewery together. We've been thrilled with what they created — a warm, inviting atmosphere reminiscent of an old German brewhaus, showcasing the building's original wood beam ceiling.
As with any business venture, selecting a name is perhaps the most fun and most daunting challenge. A number of unique names were bantered about, but the Wooden Bear won the most votes among the owners and their wives. We actually first threw that name into the hat after seeing an old, weathered, six-foot-tall wooden bear carving at a different retail site we eventually ruled out. The name stuck, and we've since accumulated a number of wooden bear carvings to create the lodgey, cozy ambiance in our taproom.
The four owners started as home brewers, so we found a system that matched what we knew. Ray [Kamstra] down at Indiana City had taken a similar path as us. We ended up going with a similar system to his, [purchased] from PsychoBrew, out of Michigan. When we first started, the owners were doing all the brewing. We all had full-time jobs (and still do) so we would start after work and get done around 1-2 a.m., and then repeat it the next day. We put in a lot of long hours to get it going.
We got introduced to our first brewer, Corbin Elliott. He helped us learn the ropes of the industry and moved our beer forward. Corbin also introduced us to our current head brewer, Anthony Vivaldi. They had worked together at Bier, and we all know Bier makes a great product, so we were happy to have that experience join our team. Jared Hamilton, our assistant brewer, came to us from Fountain Square Brewing Co., where he was learning the ropes of the industry. He had worked with another brewer of ours, Jay Boyd. When Jay left to go start his own brewery in Chattanooga, TN (OddStory Brewing), he introduced us to Jared.
NUVO: Your wait staff on duty on 10/14/16 impressed me with their friendliness, knowledge about the beers and commitment to great service — who are they; what has been your training model?
Our waitstaff is actually a mix between our wives and employees. Many of them came in liking what we were doing in the community and felt they’d enjoy working with us. We encourage all of our staff to taste all the beers and tell us what they like and don’t like about the beers. We use that to improve the product. They’ve all come a long way with their understanding of the beer. We love our servers, and we think they do a great job.
NUVO: How does Wooden Bear connect with Greenfield/Hancock County civic, arts/culture, historic and philanthropic projects — is there a connection with James Whitcomb Riley?
Wooden Bear is proud to be a supportive community partner. We field weekly requests to support some local cause or another and we love being a part of a tight-knit, small-scale historic neighborhood. Our customers — especially our regulars — feel like family. Last year we received an award from Greenfield Historic Landmarks for taking the leap to spark the renovation of our historic building — the former Gant Opera House, built in 1898.
We've provided beer for events at the Hancock County Arts Gallery, just around the corner from us, and recently partnered with the local hospital to schedule their Flat 50 bike race on the same day as our anniversary party, better known as WoodFest.
We've hosted a number of philanthropic events, from silent auctions to Wine & Canvas events for charity. We also love opening up our garage door and playing a role in the annual North Street Fitness Festival, hosted by Greenfield Main Street, which brings folks right to our doorstep.
NUVO: The Wooden Bear's 8 Rules rule reminds me of Indianapolis' Red Key Tavern's set of rules — what's the general reaction?
The posted "Bear Rules" tend to make customers smile. We hope the tongue-in-cheek list promotes our laid-back attitude to good service.
If you need something, raise a hand and flag us down, or just saunter up to the bar.
If you need help pulling tables together, just ask and we're happy to help. We're all friends at the Bear.
If things get busy, be patient with us and we promise to give you the enjoyable, laid-back night out you deserve. One particular rule, "Be Nice," helps promote the type of warm, friendly atmosphere we strive to provide.
— NUVO: What is special about Wooden Bear brews and food [homemade ice cream!] for Indianapolis residents to drive east along the National Road?
The Bear's food menu is as delicious as our beers. Hot pressed sandwiches, soups and fresh salads accompany a list of appetizers like jalapeno hummus made with our Hoppy Bear IPA, or chips and beer cheese made from our house-favorite Witbier, Growl at the Moon. And be sure to indulge in some homemade chocolate ice cream made with our Big Paw Porter.
For some reason, we've drawn a ton of talent from the local pizza community. Our long-time manager, Courtney, hails from Greek's Pizzeria in Anderson. Another manager, Corey, and cook, Brock, previously worked together at the local Pizza King. One of our full-time servers, Jenny, previously worked as a manager at Pizza Hut.
Our servers run the gamut from 20-something single guys to young moms looking for a fun way to spend a little time away from home. All four of the owners' wives enjoy working as part-time servers, and many staff members see their time at the Bear as a fun way to balance out a full-time career outside of the service industry.
All of our beers are hand-crafted with a lot of love, a little hops and the hope of making fellow craft beer lovers smile. House beers with bear-related and city/county historic referenced names include a medium-bodied, sweetish, fruity Witbier; approachable Cream Ale; bolder IPA; biscuity/chocolatey nut brown; malt/hops balanced Porter; malty/peppery American Pale Ale; easy drinking Irish Red. A roster of specialty and seasonal beers rotate.