1930s: The Craft is Gone
Where was the market for beer in Indianapolis in 1934 after the repeal of Prohibition? Households no longer thirsted for fresh, local deliveries to their doorsteps. Even though most of the breweries had developed relationships with owners of taverns and private clubs and breweries outrightly owned taverns as sales outlets, this marketing and sales pattern was no longer a valid option in 1934. The widespread closure of saloons left few withstanding the onslaught. The concept of a neighborhood saloon as a gathering place was a thing of the past.
The soda fountain had become more in fashion as a family place as well as a date destination. Yet there was some venture activity for the neighborhood saloon, now more appropriately defined as a “bar” or a “tavern” sans the original National Road requisite for lodging rooms if alcoholic beverages were served. Eighty years after Repeal, amazingly, a dozen original neighborhood saloons that re-opened or opened after Repeal transformed themselves into viable “watering holes” with many currently offering locally brewed craft beer.
One of these post-Repeal bars is the Slippery Noodle, which was mentioned earlier as the oldest continuously functioning bar in the city. During Prohibition the place was known as Beck’s Restaurant and still illegally served booze in the basement. But, it is just one of many still-operational Repeal bars in the city. These include the Butler Inn, The Dorman Street Saloon, The Rathskeller, Workingman’s Friend Tavern, The Tick Tock Lounge, The Chatterbox Jazz Club, The Red Key Tavern and Indianapolis’ oldest family-owned tavern, The Golden Ace Inn.
But even with these taverns and bars and with private clubs serving beer, business was not thriving for the Mid-West Brewing Company, who had opened in the old Citizens Brewing plant (Capital City) in 1933. The big brewing companies had launched advertising campaigns to make themselves the beer of choice within specific populations. What could Midwest Brewing Co. do to make an impact within Indianapolis? Despite many attempts to rebrand and make a name for themselves, eventually the company faded away, leaving the market to well-known national brands like Coors, Miller, Pabst, Schlitz and Budweiser.
It would take a half-century for a different momentum to emerge.
1970s: Homebrewing at the forefront
Mid-1900s Indianapolis settled into a routine of suburban living to the detriment of inner city neighborhoods and Downtown as centers of cultural engagement. People went from work to home via cars pulled into garages. And if you wanted beer it pretty much was a six-pack of something fetchingly advertised and placed temptingly in windows of liquor stores.
Forty-six years after a clerical error that omitted homebrewing with the Repeal of Prohibition, reprieve came in 1979 with federal legalization of brewing at home. Indiana homebrewers actively revived the taste for flavorful beer particularly around Purdue University and Indiana University.
It is generally agreed Indiana’s modern craft beer era owes a huge debt of gratitude to West Lafayette librarian and bon vivant Bill Friday who, along with, as homebrewer a trio of “local fellows,” Richard Fudge, Ed Bronson and Joe Rogers, created the far-ranging Tippecanoe Homebrewers Circle.
Though less enigmatic, the close-knit founders of the Saint Gambrinus Benevolent Society in Bloomington planted seeds for future growth.
Bill Friday traversed the state with his gospel of flavor over bland as the local voice for newly emerging international modern age beer connoisseur Michael Jackson, whose 1975 tome, The World Guide to Beer, provided a universal vocabulary for consistent quality. Indianapolis homebrewing gained a major boost in 1984 when winemaker Joan Easley met Charlie Papazian, who had just published his now benchmark The Joy of Homebrewing.
“I got all excited by meeting him and reading his book, and I started making beer myself,” Easley told me during one of our chats for her oral history published in True Brew.
Along with selling Easley brands of wine, the shop at 205 N. College Ave. sold kits for home winemaking. It was a natural move into home-brew kits.
“I started making homebrew and bottling some of those. When people would come in [for wine kits], I’d say, ‘Here’s the [beer] recipes, and this is what it tastes like.’ And I’d make up a kit, and they’d go home with it. In the early days I’d brew a batch almost every week from some recipes Charlie had in his book so I could get people to try them and buy the kits I put together. … Back then there weren’t many homebrewers [in Indianapolis]. John Hill was one of the first ones, and Paul Edwards.”
And that’s the segue to the 1989 formation of the “loose-knit group to meet at each other’s homes to compare [homebrewing] processes and generally help each other.”
Now Foam Blowers of Indiana is the largest of the state’s 14 homebrew clubs, with a somewhat retiring Paul Edwards recognized as the founding force by those who know the quieter side of Indiana’s modern craft beer industry and the essential building up of a clientele ready and able to support a professional brewery and pub serving beer and food made and served on-site.
John Hill acted on his love of well-made Yorkshire beer from his birthplace to gain hands-on training from homebrewer Jamie Emmerson, who had bridged into professional brewing in Oregon. Following his own years of visiting emergent craft breweries eastward and westward and enrollment with the Siebel Institute in Chicago, John Hill, along with his equally quality beer-loving and business-savvy wife Nancy, became the first change-maker with the oft-repeated mantra: “It’s about the people, the conversation, the camaraderie — not just drinking beer.”
Public service, civic engagement, philanthropy and fellowship within the industry became the business model.
1990s: Change-makers blaze trails
Broad Ripple Brewpub opened in 1990 immediately south of the then-newly built Monon Trail curving from 10th Street in Downtown Indianapolis northward to Hamilton County.
While breweries opened statewide, Indianapolis remained content with BRBP until the awakening of Downtown Indianapolis opened the invigoration of brewing along Washington Street — a.k.a. the National Road. When Alcatraz opened in 1995 and Rock Bottom in 1996, collegiality was solidified with the Brewpub and Oaken Barrel, which opened in Greenwood in 1994. These handful of Indianapolis breweries led our city into a new era of beer drinking.
When former BRBP brewer Ted Miller returned in 2005 from his worldwide brewing stints to open Brugge Brasserie as Belgian-focused cuisine and beer with his wife Shannon and the support of loyal friends, the scoffing was mitigated only by the loyalty of homebrewers. Paul Edwards led the pack to the new place just west of the Monon Trail. The trail was blazed for enlarging our palate.
A very young Dave Colt learned to brew at Circle V, way ahead its time as an upscale brewpub at Castleton Square Mall in 1996. Clayton Robinson cut his brewing teeth at Oaken Barrel. They brewed together at The RAM and plotted a new direction just as the Indianapolis Cultural Trail was being planned as a connecting link between Indianapolis’ six cultural districts. Sun King Brewery opened in 2009 at 135 N. College Ave., across the street from Easley Winery. As Indianapolis’ first modern-era craft production brewery, Sun King Brewing is credited with leading Indianapolis back into its original heritage as a citadel of production breweries.
In 2014 Central State, according to their website, was created as “a 100 percent Brett brewery in order to find the edges of a new frontier in craft brewing.”
Eschewing a building of their own, founders Josh Hambright, Chris Bly and Jake Koeneman brew on-site at Black Acre Brewery for distribution region- and state-wide and in a snug tap room, The Koelschip at 25th and Delaware.
Central State has taken the helm as Indianapolis’ newest change-maker by leading the market into the sense that great beer doesn’t require brewers to have their own building. They also are leading the movement towards utilizing unconventional yeast strains to brew interesting styles of beer that are pushing Indy’s palate into a new realm.
Greater Indianapolis — including the counties of Marion, Hamilton, Boone, Hendricks, Morgan, Johnson, Shelby and Hancock — now is home to over 50 craft brewers and brewpubs from nano to significant production. While building a neighborhood presence is foremost, being a “destination” is a desire.
Being in concert with ever-changing demographics is as important now as it was 1834 when Wernweg and Young recognized the viability of a brewery where people were working and living and were ready to support the commercial establishments catering to fellowship with beer and food. Much like our humble beginnings as a city, the climate of today's craft scene is one of community.
With a slew of craft beer events every month, the community grows, strangers become friends and, in turn, continually visit local breweries new and time-tested.