Welcome to NUVO's 2014 Beer Issue, our grand overview of all brews Hoosier. As you dig into the links herein, you'll read about the process of Indiana craft brewing from fermentation to tap, the history of ales and lagers in Indiana and NUVO's first Great Indiana Beer Bracket, an online contest that'll see 64 breweries vying for your vote.
Perhaps you're wondering why we're rolling this out in late September. After all, a Beer Bracket might've been a nice play on March Madness, right?
So why now?
In October of 1810, Prince Ludwig of Bavaria — who'd become King Ludwig I 15 years later — married Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The runup to the event, a six-day festival of beer and amusements, became known as Oktoberfest. This year's German version got underway this past weekend when the Mayor of Munich tapped 2014's first keg of lager as his city welcomed roughly six million visitors from across the globe. Women in dirndls and gents in lederhosen chug massive steins of malty, amber Marzen (March beer) that's been cellared — "lagered" through the summer.
Oktoberfest has expanded to a 16-day festival that always begins in September. The earlier start ensures warmer weather outside the tents and often includes a celebration of German Unity Day: October 3, the date of reunification in 1990. The locals simply call the festival "Die Wiesen ... because of its location, Theresienwiese, which was named after Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen," according to Oktoberfest.de.
And, naturally, the Great Mash Tun that is the USA has embraced Oktoberfest, too. (Americans appropriating a drinking holiday? That's a stunner.) Central Indiana's got a number of 'Fests, and given the heritage of many Hoosier settlers, it only makes sense. When immigrants from Germany, Belgium and other nations landed in the new world, they immediately began making beer. It was a traditional drink, and God only knew what was in the water supply in this strange land.
Although Indiana's European immigrants brought with them centuries of brewing tradition and skill, much of their generational knowledge faded. First Prohibition put a dent in manufacturing and then business consolidation gave us the fizzy, pale pilsners that proliferated in the U.S. between World War II and today. But as the craft beer scene gained a foothold on the West Coast and spread across the country, a great many beer drinkers yearned for bigger flavors — and local flavors, too. Despite a few national players, craft beer is often a truly local beverage, drunk in the region where it's brewed.
An expression of this move toward locals-only products can be tasted Thursday night at Flat 12 Bierwerks. The beer they'll tap will be made with Indiana yeast (courtesy of IU's "yeast scientist" Matthew Bochman, an Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry), Indiana malt (Jeff Evard's "Herr Station Malt") and hops from Three Hammers Farms in Knightstown.
Ryan Hammer's hops farm is a tremendous example of how the craft beer boom is inspiring entrepreneurs beyond the men and women manning the fermentation vats. Three years ago, Hammer started with 40 plants that yielded just enough fresh "cones" to flavor a few barrels. Now with 400 plants spread over a quarter acre — with plans and enough support from local brewers to soon expand to 10 acres in total — Hammer sells his crop to major players like Sun King, Indiana City and Flat 12.
"I've got five varieties," says Hammer. "CTZ, Nugget, Cascade, Chinook and Centennial. Hops have 150 different kinds of oils, so each one gives you a different flavor profile — the plants with higher alpha acids give you more of that hop bitterness." The Cascade hops are familiar to drinkers who first sampled Sierra Nevada when that groundbreaking California brew invaded the heartland, while Nugget and CTZ hops are more bruising to the palate and Chinooks are piney and earthy.
Craft beer fans can be notorious for their love of big hop flavor. The American version of a British invention — the "India Pale Ale" or "IPA" — is a hophead's delight. Hops were used in higher-than-usual quantities to help preserve the drink as it was shipped from the Empire's HQ to His or Her Majesty's servicemen in tropical outposts where drinking a stout seemed a bit off-putting in the heat. The style caught on in the US, and soon craft brewers were bittering up their ales in what seemed to be a race to see who could load their product with the most IBUs (International Bitterness Units). While the technical ceiling for IBUs is 100, some claim their beer can achieve a number well past the century mark.
Although Indiana's climate isn't absolutely perfect — you'll find better hop-growing conditions in the Pacific Northwest — the global "belt" for hop growth lies between the 30th and 50th parallels, according to Hammer. "Hops like a lot of sunlight — heat's good, so's water, but the plants don't like it when they get too wet." The polar vortex of 2013-2014 delayed Hammer's spring growing season as the Indiana earth was simply just too cold.
A handful of other Indiana growers are getting into the business, too. Hammer reels off a few names: Sugar Creek, Hopnoxious — even a few farmers in Michigan are taking a crack at hop growing, too even though the production window's tighter.
Hammer's got another thing in common with a lot of microbrewers besides their mutual affection for good beer — this is primarily a labor of love, not profit. It's simply not possible for a startup hops grower to make a quick buck.
"I'm right on schedule," he laughs. "After three years, we're finally breaking even."