Yeah, I was rather surprised too. I had visited the city once as a freshman swimmer at the DePauw University Swimming tournament in late 1991. We didn’t get to see much of anything but the inside of the Natatorium and the ridiculous purple curtains at the Knights Inn we were booked at for the duration.
It was a memorable trip as I recall. It was my first collegiate swim tournament, and as such, was pretty fun. It was my first visit to Indiana, and as such, what I saw at the time felt flat and boring. It was also the trip where I started dating a girl who went on to inspire several good break-up songs after she dumped me unceremoniously a scant seven weeks later. In an airport. I still hate Florida.
As such, I had honestly been in no hurry to head back to “The Crossroads of America.” That said, the wife had a work thing, and the in-laws agreed to take the kids to art camp up in Jersey, and we found a cheap flight, and bada-bing: I’m on my way to Indianapolis.
The wife was going to work the weekdays, so I knew I would have to entertain myself, which, truth be told, is rarely a problem. I’m pretty easily entertained. I planned to spend copious amounts of time in the gym and pool, and thought I might even bring out the novel and work on the draft of the new sections. I even toyed with dusting off a few other projects and then letting myself get lost in the writing of them again, in hopes that they took off.
But I changed my mind. Last year when we did a similar she works/I play trip to San Francisco, I brought an older project to work on. After a few hours I wasn’t into it and found myself wanting to taste the flavor of the city. So, in planning my trip, I started to think about taking a new approach to this space. I’d never really explored Indianapolis before, so, why not find a way to make that into something interesting? Why not indeed? What’s happening in Indianapolis that I can write about? Peyton Manning is gone. There are no races at the Speedway that weekend. There are no 5k races for me to trod through. What else is new and hot there that I have some kind of background in?
And lo, and behold, like a blast of foam, the answer appeared: Why not write about beer?
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t been drinking a lot of beer lately. Regular readers of this space will know that I’ve recently gotten myself into shape and lost eighty pounds or so, and beer has been one of the items I’ve limited in that effort. But, I learned that the Indianapolis craft beer scene (don’t call them “Micro”) has exploded over the last decade, led by a variety of craft brewers including Rock Bottom Brewery, The Ram, Sun King Brewing, Flat 12, Upland Brewery, Triton, Three Floyds, and others. There seems to be a genuine craft beer scene that was very interesting to investigate. Beyond that, Indianapolis turned out to be an interesting city with an intriguing past that turned my trip into a very unexpected pleasure.
Not that I didn’t plan to have fun. I just didn’t realize how much the people I met and the city itself would play a role in it. I have written copious amounts about the people with whom I’ve interacted over the years of this column, and beyond. It’s just not usually positive. I’ll say this as we start though: people in Indianapolis are nice. Genuinely nice, and in my limited interaction with them, they showed a great deal of aloha.
That said, this will not be a column solely about beer, though I will admit I had somewhat planned on doing just a straight review of the beers I tasted, over thirty of them in the end. Instead of that, I hope this will be real look inside my own trip, which was admittedly taken with beer in mind. And I did certainly learn a lot about the craft beers of Indianapolis--Had fun doing it too. But my hope is that this column will reach a bit higher than just how the beer tasted.
That said, cheers. Let’s get to it.
We arrived on Monday after dropping the kids at her parents. It’s always odd for me to be more than a few hours without them as it so rarely happens, but once we fall into the understanding that her parents are taking good care of them, we tend to really try to enjoy ourselves.
My initial reaction to Indy was that it reminded me of Cleveland but without the abandoned Flats. We walked through the city a bit before settling in at The Rathskeller, which is now a German-style restaurant in the Historic Athenaeum Building, which I learned was designed by the grandfather of one of my literary heroes, Kurt Vonnegut. The building was designed as a German community center back in the 1800’s, and while it remains a gorgeous building, I imagine it had a very different feel and purpose in its time. We had dinner there, and the food and drink were tremendous. I highly recommend the sausage appetizer. Might be enough for your whole meal. If you order a big beer, mean it. They do it up right.
You can learn more about them at www.rathskeller.com – also, if you’re a Vonnegut fan like me, there’s a bust of him in the private room across from the men’s room. I took a picture.
I am rather ashamed that I had forgotten the history Vonnegut had with this city. He was born there and his family had deep roots in the city. Kurt has always been one of my “go-to” authors when I needed inspiration to both write and think differently. As I had forced myself into a writers break last Fall, I was avoiding Kurt too it seems, and I was pleasantly surprised to find “Uncle Kurt,” as I used to call him as a teacher, all over the city. A bust here, a three story mural there-it was refreshing and visiting the memorial library at the end of the week was a real treat. It’s a small space, but I found it energizing. You can learn more about them here: http://www.vonnegutlibrary.org/
But my renewal of faith in writing through Kurt notwithstanding, I was really impressed with the city of Indianapolis at large. The Canal area is beautiful and the city clearly has made an effort to be at its best, which I’m certain hosting a recent Super Bowl will do to most cities. In general I found the city to be clean and breezy (as compared to Virginia in the summer especially) and open and friendly. Every person I dealt with went out of their way to ask me if I was having a good day, and if there was anything I needed.
On Tuesday, while the wife worked, I walked from the Downtown area all the way to Broad Ripple Village, which amounted to about 7 miles or so in the end. I didn’t quite realize it would be that long, but figured that if I were about the go off the reservation with my craft beer research, the least I could do was earn it diet-wise. So, after walking along the canal, I walked east onto College Avenue and headed north. What I saw along the way was a very interesting sampling of the city. There is a lot of space in this city and I mean that in a good way. Every building is not directly next to its neighbor, nor is there a penchant for building things as high as possible and smushing everything into wherever there is any open space, like in New York, which I visited recently. Building on top of building it always felt like in NYC, even when I was a kid. Seemed like a game of living Tetris the last few times I’ve been in Manhattan, and having been there last month, I found the openness of Indianapolis refreshing. I realize that’s not an uncommon mid-western architectural ideal, and in that respect it reminded me of Honolulu a bit, if only due to the air flow.
I was also impressed with the buildings. There seems to be a real mandate on the city to preserve buildings that exist, even when they have lost their original purpose. I saw old churches that had been converted into apartments or a community center. I even saw an older house that was for sale onto which someone had plastered a sign, “Remodel it-Don’t demolish it!” I really appreciated that as an aficionado of older real estate, as evidenced by our love of the older homes at the Jersey shore, which we’ve discussed here before. Progress is wonderful, but there is value in retaining a sense of what existed before as a community developed along the way to today. I got a real sense of that as I walked through the city. It struck me very much as a city with pride and with an eye on the future, without abandoning its past as a result.
So, after my Sherpa-like trek through Northern Indianapolis, I finally arrived at Broad Ripple Village. And it was a treat. It reminded me the Village in NYC crossed with New Hope in Pennsylvania, but on a smaller town scale. It was hip, but not hipster. I walked the length of it before deciding to settle in for my first bar stop at the Union Jack Pub. You can find them at: http://www.unionjackpub-broadripple.com/
I sat at the Bar and talked with Amy, who was kind as to let me plug in my dying cell phone at one of the bar outlets. Very cool. I asked her about the local craft beers available and her first recommendation was the Sun King “Firefly,” which is a Belgian style Wit beer. This is not a style of beer I typically go nuts for, but I trusted Amy’s suggestion, and I was not disappointed. I had it in draft form, which is my preferred drinking style, and was deeply impressed with the color right from the start. It was a rich orange, far darker than a Blue Moon style thing, which I was expecting. A substantial head, thick like a Boddington’s. On first taste it was smooth and refreshing, especially as I had just walked all day to get there. A very fresh and mellow taste. It was citrusy towards the bottom, but it didn’t taste like a wine cooler or a fruity beer. It was clearly a well-crafted beer with a hint of Orange peel and clove, which reminded me of my Grandmother’s Cranberry relish. It was a really, really good start to my research and put me on notice that Sun King Brewery was going to be a player in my study of the local craft beers. I had no idea how much that would play out during the week, but on first taste, I was impressed.
After the Sun King Firefly, I sampled Sun King’s “Wee Mac Scottish Ale,” on draft, which was honestly just ok for me. Mellow, and certainly well made, but not something I would drink regularly.
I then moved into a few beers made by Upland Brewery, which is from Bloomington, Indiana. I sampled their “Pale Ale,” and “Bad Elmer Porter.” They were only available in bottles, though they had some very nice labels. The Pale Ale had a great smell which reminded me of Kona’s Waliua Wheat-very fresh and fragrant, but the taste was poor. Very bitter and a bit watery for me. I tried the Porter and again, their artwork is very cool, but this came off syrupy and a bit skunky. I didn’t care for it.
With that, I moved back to Sun King and tried their “Sunlight Cream Ale.” Served in a pub can, Amy said it is among their most popular items. The can is cool. The art is really well done. The beer had a very nice color and creamy thick head on pour into a glass. It looked great before I tried it. On first taste, I liked it, but I wasn’t sure why. It was not quite the taste I was expecting but I liked it anyway. The can says it’s Sun King’s “Most Approachable Beer,” and I was initially unsure what that meant. It was pleasant but not overwhelming and was easy to drink. My initial thought was that people who don’t normally drink beer might enjoy this, and perhaps that is what they were going for. It struck me as a great poolside or beach beer.
So, at this point I had enjoyed a few Sun Kings and a Rueben sandwich, and tasted a few disappointing bottles from Upland and the wife was done at work and heading my way. I had also learned from Amy that Sun King was very popular in the community as they are right in the city and that people seem to like the fact that they are so local.
So the wife arrives and we walk about the Village a bit more and decide to continue my research at the Broad Ripple Tavern. You can learn more about them here: http://www.broadrippletavern.com/
We sat down and met Hallie, our server and Larry, the General Manager. Having tried a few Sun Kings and Uplands, I was interested in trying something different by way of comparison, and Hallie recommended trying Flat 12’s “Walkabout Pale Ale,” as it is among their more popular beers. On draft it was amazingly fragrant. The wife thought it smelled like a Kona Wailua Wheat too. We were very excited about it until we tasted it. It had a very strong aftertaste and was bitter in a way that was not expected from a pale ale. It was far superior to the Upland Pale Ale, but it came off kind of syrupy for me, for an Ale.
We branched out further and tried Triton Brewing Company’s “Magnificent Amber” in bottle. It had a color that reminded me of a Newcastle. Hallie suggested we pour it into a glass, and I think that was a good call as I found it to be kind of an “accessible” beer like the Sun King Cream Ale had been. A safe beer-not a bad one, but more a beer that was just kind of there. Hallie made the point that some of the local places were attempting to make beer that was accessible to people that were not really into craft beer. I completely understood what she meant as this was not a bad beer, not at all. It was simply one that I don’t think I needed to try again. Again, just my palate at stake here.
We then tried a can of the Sun King “Osiris.” Again, the art on the can was wicked cool. On pour into the glass it gave a nice thick head and an alright color. This one was a bit too hoppy for me and perhaps more bitter than I like, but again, the quality of the actual liquid still showed a superiority to the a few of the others sampled. Also tried an Upland Wheat Ale bottle. It was watery and I have nothing else to say about it.
Hallie and Larry took excellent care of us at the Broad Ripple Tavern. They both indicated that Sun King had gone out of their way to get connected to the community and recommended that I stop by their brewery.
Over the next day I tried a Flat 12 Amber and a 312 Urban Wheat Ale at The Elbow Room in Midtown. Everything there was fine yet unremarkable. In the meantime we saw a movie or two and I largely took a few hours off until I arrived at the Rock Bottom Brewery on Washington Street. They are a larger chain and this is the location I visited: http://rockbottom.com/indianapolis-downtown
Jamie set me up with an initial draft sampler that included their Kolsch, IPA, Red Ale, and the ESB. The Kolsch was a very light and refreshing beer-fragrant and smooth. No noticeable aftertaste. A very nice beginning. The IPA, which Jamie says is among their most popular, is very good. I’m not the world’s biggest IPA fan, but this was really a nice surprise. Not overly hoppy or watery as the Upland and Flat 12’s were. Flavorful but no lingering aftertaste. Definitely a well-made beer. The Red was just ok for me-very attractive color. The ESB was well crafted. Fragrance-wise it reminded me of a porter but obviously didn’t taste like one. Made me hungry for a baked scrod or a blackened catfish. I ordered a Rueben instead. While I awaited the Rueben I started on my next draft sampler including the Summer Honey Ale, Belgian White, Hefeweizen, Stout, and Belgian IPA. The Summer Honey Ale was very refreshing-reminded me of Sam Adams Summer Ale, but I enjoyed this one a lot more. Smoother and not as overly citrusy like Sam. Great poolside beer on a hot day with only a slight, but not unpleasant, aftertaste. Jamie tells me they sell a ton of this one. The Belgian White looked and tasted like a Blue Moon to me, which is not my favorite. A bit yeasty for me. The Hefeweizen was ok, but the real winner of the day for me was the Stout. Holy cow this is one of the best beers I have EVER had. Jamie said it’s a Milk Stout, and although it looked like a Guinness, it could not have tasted less like one. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of Guinness, but this Rock Bottom Stout was simply amazing. Almost a lilting flavor where one might have expected bitterness. It reminded me of the first time I ever tried coffee and I loaded it up with sugar and milk in order to make it palatable after a lifetime of never drinking the stuff. It was flavorful in a way that completely surprised me and not overly filling like I can find some Stouts to be. There’s a bitter sweetness to it that made me sad to see the bottom of the glass. I would later order a few big-kid size glasses of this after I had sampled everything. Thinking back on it now I’m still impressed and seriously stoked that there’s a Rock Bottom in Northern Virginia, and seriously disappointed that they don’t seem to have it listed on their available beers there. I may have to call and check on that.
I was still reeling from the Stout when I tried the Belgian IPA. It was fine but didn’t have much of a shot after the liquid joy that the Stout had brought. The Rueben was excellent-thinly sliced corned beef but not overly gloopy dressing and so forth. Jamie and Ken, my new friend at the bar told me to check out Shapiro’s Deli for the best Rueben in Indianapolis. While I didn’t get the chance to do that, I trust their judgment and would recommend checking them out: www.shapiros.com
At that point, though I was having a delightful time chatting with Jamie and Ken and the other guy whose name I didn’t get, it was time then to make the walk down Washington Street to College Avenue and check out the Sun King Brewery and their tasting room. I was really excited for this visit as at this point, Sun King’s Firefly beer was in a slight lead for “Best Beer of the Week,” though the Rock Bottom Stout was making it interesting. I had not had a bad Sun King Beer yet, and everywhere I went, people seemed to be very into the vibe they put out. Almost every bar I passed seemed to have a sign or a comment on their specials board that they had Sun King inside. As I made my way across town in the blistering heat, I definitely worked up a thirst. As I crossed College Avenue I was excited, almost to the point that I missed the “Tasting Room Closed for Renovations” sign.
I started hearing the “Sad Brady Bunch Music” in my head. I saw a tent with a few interns sitting at a table where they were offering disappointed customers a gift credit towards a free growler when they re-opened the next week, which wouldn’t do much for me leaving town the next day, but I walked over anyway, hoping I could learn something. The interns were nice, and then I met Judi, who had just stepped out of the brewery to save my day, and this column.
Sun King’s website describes Judi’s role at the Brewery as: “Merchandise Manager / Bouncer / House Mom / Sanitary Engineer / Someone you don't want to mess with...” They should add public relations to that description as she did more to sell me on what Sun King is trying to do in Indianapolis in five minutes than all the marketing in the world could do. She went out of her way to give your truly, an admittedly small-timer in the blogosphere, incredible access and openness to their product and facility. I spoke with her and Shane, the guy behind their extremely cool artwork, for about fifteen minutes or so before I figured I’d taken up enough of their time. As I turned to leave, she calls me back to meet her husband, Omar, who had just completed a meeting. Omar is the President and Co-owner of the company. After chatting outside for a few minutes, he welcomed me into the facility where we talked in his office before I was given a private tour and the chance to meet one of the brewers and several of the staff.
I learned a great deal about Sun King: in the three years they’ve been operating, they have made it their mission to “become THE beer of Indianapolis.” Dave and Clay, their brewers spent years brewing locally for the Rock Bottom, The Ram, and the now closed Circle V. While the Rock Bottom and The Ram both brew locally, they are much larger chains, leaving Sun King as, according to Omar the first locally based brewery in the city since the Indianapolis Brewing Company closed in 1947. When I asked if they modeled their business plan after any other craft breweries such as Samuel Adams and Yuengling, Omar replied, “No models per se. We’ve taken pieces of each and mostly did our own thing. The boys (Brewers Dave and Clay) knew what they were doing.” He’s very pleased with the good relationship that they’ve developed with the city, and shared with me that their tasting room hours (Thursday 4-7pm, Friday 12-7pm, Saturday 1-5pm) often serve between 600-900 visitors. They’ve experienced steady growth and are expanding into some new buildings and look to introduce a line of Bourbon in the fall. As we finished our tour, I asked Omar what their longer-range objectives were, beyond becoming Indianapolis’s beer. He smiled as he replied, “Become Indiana’s beer.” While there are some local political issues that currently limit the number of barrels they can bring to market, I have little doubt that their attitude, approach, and genuinely fine products will make that a reachable goal.
I thanked Omar and Judi for their time, which I really appreciated. As I have mentioned, and as readers of this space already know, this is a small and irregularly-published column. The level of access and respect they afforded me was incredibly generous. When I mentioned that to them, Omar laughed and said, “You’re who we’re trying to reach. If we can’t take care of you, we shouldn’t be in this business.” I really enjoyed meeting the crew at Sun King. Especially as I missed a visit to the tasting room, I know what my first order of business will be next time the wife has to travel to work in Indy.
Later that evening I had the opportunity to sample another Upland, this one a “Rad Red Amber Ale,” a Pale Ale from Blind Tiger Brewery, and a Triton “Rail Splitter IPA.” I was not a fan of any of them.
Our last day in the city we made time to stop by The Ram, which had been recommended to us by a number of people, including the guy who checked us out of our room at the Hilton. I wasn’t certain we would have time, but after seeing “Ted” at the Regal Cinema; we discovered there was time before we boarded the shuttle to the airport. What better way to end our trip then with a few more samples? Feel free to check them out here: http://www.theram.com/indiana/indianapolis.html
We tried the draft sampler again, as I really didn’t think I had six full beers in me in the limited time span. Plus, I am still a recovering fat guy… The sampler included the “Total Disorder” Porter, Buttface Amber, Big Red IPA, 71 Pale Ale, Hefeweizen, and Big Horn Blonde. I later tried the Barefoot Wit Belgian White Ale. The winners here, for me, were the Porter and surprisingly, the Big Red IPA. The Porter had a very smooth milky finish and a hint of coffee undertones, great color and fragrance. An excellent beer that reminded me of the Stout from Rock Bottom Brewery. The Big Red IPA was really fragrant and smooth. Had a slight bitterness in the aftertaste that was not unpleasant and inspired me to take another sip. Probably a good quality in a beer. The “Buttface Amber” was pretty good too. We weren’t there long enough for me to talk to our server much, but overall the experience was a good one and I’d go there again. I regret I didn’t get to try the other beers they had on tap, but, there’s always next time.
In the end, I think my beer of the week goes to the first one that I sampled up in Broad Ripple, Sun King’s Firefly. A very close second goes to the Rock Bottom Stout, and honorable mention to the Total Disorder Porter from the Ram.
And with that, we said Aloha to Indianapolis. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the city, as I’m not traditionally a city kinda guy. I appreciated how people I interacted with genuinely seemed interested in how my day was going, and were friendly. It’s not something I see as often living here in Northern Virginia. At least half the time I’m at a restaurant, a store, or otherwise engaging in commerce, I feel as though I’ve imposed on someone for simply existing. I got the exact opposite feeling in Indy. Case in point, early in the trip, knowing we’ve got three kids back East expecting gifts from our trip, we stopped by the Mass Ave Toy store (http://www.massavetoys.com/ ). We were enthusiastically greeted as we came in. I go into a lot of toy stores by the way-not all of them greet you at all much less enthusiastically. After perusing for a while, Anna came over to help us and once she learned that we were looking for items for a child with Asperger’s, she excitedly shared with us several items that she’d recently learned about at a “Therapeutic Toy Conference.” She didn’t say, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that” or otherwise seem uncomfortable about what we had shared, rather she couldn’t wait to show us a whole bunch of stuff that she thought the kid would like. And she was right. We bought a ton of stuff. Great customer service-who knew it still existed? And she was just another example of how the people of Indianapolis really seemed to care about the experience we were having in their city. There’s a pride there that was palpable and understandable. To date there have been only two cities that I would ever have considered living in: Dublin and Philadelphia. Now, I won’t go so far as to say I’m adding Indianapolis to the list, but I won’t say I wouldn’t think about it.
My next column will likely cover Denver in similar fashion, so please comment or email me with suggestions of things to see and experience when, next month, Kugs says Aloha to the Mile High City!