Jerry Sutherlin, as brewmaster of the soon-to-open (he's gunning for sometime in 2016) Round Town Brewery at 950 S. White River Pkwy, will be brewing within a mile of the site of Indianapolis' very first brewery. That early operation, Wernweg & Young, was established in 1834 at Maryland and West Streets in the heyday of constructing The National Road from Cumberland, Md., to Vandalia, Ill., crossing Indiana from Richmond to Terre Haute.
And Sutherlin will be rounding out a 22-year career in the craft brewing industry. He's done it all, from waiting on tables to bartending, distribution, performing duties as a cellarman, apprentice, assistant brewer, head brewer, brewmaster — and initially a naysayer regarding a brewery in a seemingly out-of-the-way spot.
His characteristically understated humor surfaces when he recounts his trajectory from being a student constantly changing majors, "not knowing what I was going to do," while scoffing at the opening of a brewpub in Greenwood, his hometown.
"I was the first to say, 'They are not going to make it.' Was that around 1994? Well, a year later when I got tired of working at corporate restaurants I went on board with Oaken Barrel serving, and then bar tending, and then I really got into the beer part."
Oaken Barrel was supplying beer to neighboring restaurants and bars. Sutherlin made the deliveries with the OB van.
"So naturally I had to clean those kegs and fill those kegs, then I had to clean those tanks that I filled those kegs from."
Sutherlin's point is that the traditional Guild system that's been in place for many hundreds of years is never-changing, and anyone who thinks you walk into a brewery and magically brew has another thing coming. You work your way up the ranks so you understand everything from grunt work to enjoying a pint of your own making.
By the time he "backed his way into the brew house and started brewing" he had a solid appreciation for the business side of successfully working with customers and making sure the tenets of cleanliness and freshness were strictly adhered to. Knowing the uniqueness of the product at a time when craft beer was just hitting the Indiana market and being able to lead customers into appreciating the qualities of each style became Sutherlin's forte.
"More important than anything it's sampling the product and appreciating it and wanting to know more."
For the past ten years, Sutherlin has been out at the tables at Rock Bottom downtown, visiting with patrons, talking with them about the regular roster of beers on the menu and unique aspects of seasonal and specialty brews, and when he's brewing, he's in plain sight in the snug see-through brewery. Having been a server he knows the importance of an informed wait staff to lead customers through every beer on the board, with suggestions for meal pairing.
Sutherlin comes into this tradition once removed from John Hill's reason for opening Broad Ripple Brewpub in 1990 as the kind of place he'd like to frequent to drink the beer he most prefers. Oaken Barrel founder Kwang Casey spent a lot of time at BRBP and carried John Hill's concept to Greenwood. Sutherlin says that's what he absorbed from day one at Oaken Barrel where he worked under OB's founding brewer Brook Belli, followed by Ken Price, and alongside Tanya Cornett, whose stellar brewing career at Bend Brewing earned Best Brewer award at the 2008 World Beer Cup.
"If you're smart, that's where you learn, working with different people. And there's the circle that goes around. After Oaken Barrel I had a small stint at The RAM. I worked with Dave Colt for five or six months — was that 2004 or 2005? — when the RAM was opening another restaurant in Fishers."
Having had experience at tearing down the production brewery and putting in a new brewery at Oaken Barrel, Sutherlin could help The RAM enlarge its brewery.
"I helped put the equipment in and was getting ready for the Fishers restaurant to open when I got the Rock Bottom job."
That was 2006. Omar Castrellon was brewing at Alcatraz, which had opened in 1995, a year before Rock Bottom, and Dave Colt was at the RAM, which had opened in 2001. The three created a close-knit friendship that shaped the way of doing business for successive breweries and brewpubs that have opened. Brewers can be spotted visiting each other, conversing about the merits (and demerits) of each others' brews and sharing any ingredients they need at a moment's notice — along with better ways to produce and market beer.
When Alcatraz closed in 2011 and Castrellon moved to Thr3e Wise Men in Broad Ripple and Dave Colt moved to College Ave. as co-founder with Clayton Robinson of Sun King, Sutherlin became the sole heir to the "old timers" downtown brewery scene. He bonded with the succession of RAM brewers, kept in touch with Colt and Castrellon and became a mentor for a new generation of brewers.
On any given evening you'll find a new set of brewers at the Rock Bottom downtown bar, chatting with each other over a range of topics.
"In our craft brewing community we're unique in that we all support each other. People are kind of surprised by that."
When Liz Laughlin came on as brewmaster at Rock Bottom College Park in 2006 (RBCP opened in 2005) Sutherlin and Laughlin worked together for the best overall patron experience, offering beers their core customers preferred and brewing beyond that core to introduce different styles to enlarge their range and grow their consumers' palates. Sutherlin and Laughlin would set a year's schedule, sometimes doing the same style simultaneously but most time not.
"Working with other people makes you a better brewer, " and that's what Sutherlin cherishes as he recounts the people he has worked with. "Clay Robinson brewed here at Rock Bottom and then went to The RAM, and when Clay took off, Jon Simmons, my assistant, took Clay's position, and when Dave and Clay started Sun King Jon took over for Dave, and Adrian Ball who started brewing with Omar at Alcatraz and then was my assistant went to The RAM to help Jon, and then Adrian went to Sun King, Jon left, Andrew Castner came up from Oaken Barrel and ..."
Sutherlin became the downtown anchor as a succession followed Castner, who opened MashCraft in 2014. Chris Knott and Scott Ellis came and moved on to their own domains at FLIX and Big Lug, respectively; Nathan Scruggs came then went to Rock Bottom College Park when Liz Laughlin left, and now Scruggs is taking over for Sutherlin at Rock Bottom downtown while Shawn Byrnes and Andrew Cox are head and assistant brewers at The RAM. Fishers native Jason Cook is coming to RB College Park from RB Chicago where he trained under Ian Wilson, who preceded Liz Laughlin at RBCP.
A tight circle into which space is made to welcome others describes the Indiana craft brewing scene, observes Sutherlin.
Some fifty fellow brewers and Rock Bottom regulars were at RB downtown on Dec. 9 for a surprise farewell party for Jerry Sutherlin. It was amazing and special.
"It's a blank canvas," said Sutherlin about giving up a tenured spot for a brand new brewery. "I'm starting from zero."
Over a 20-year career as a brewer Sutherlin has acquired a stock of awards and accolades, experiences and friendships. Sutherlin admits it's scary leaving the familiar and going off like an original Hoosier pioneer to an unfamiliar place to start all over.
"This company [Rock Bottom] gives you a lot of freedom," Sutherlin told me when we talked in 2009 for the True Brew book. "That's kind of the fun part."
The fun part is what Sutherlin intends to keep as he builds a new production brewery with owner Max Shenck on the southwest fringe of downtown Indianapolis, on the west bank of White River, with a commanding view to the west, east and north, and with I-70 just to the south. It's a location ripe for building out on White River Parkway just north of Kentucky Ave.
Opening: Round Town Brewing
When: Opening sometime in 2016
Where: Bitwell Event Center, 950 S. White River Pkwy.