Indianapolis

Downtown Indianapolis is dominated by sports facilities – a Indiana State That Worksstadium, fieldhouse, and baseball field exist within a half mile of eachother.  Indiana also seems to embrace the midwestern spirit of Working Hard.  Also, who knows anything about Indianapolis?  On the basis of these variables, I expected to find little other than Coors or Bud Light for beer.  Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by the pubs of downtown.

As I walked through downtown, every fancy-ish restaurant was packed with people.  Businesspeople, people dressed up on dates, etc.  The restaurants were clearly swanky and not to my liking, so I assumed the brewpubs would be packed to the gills.  The brewpubs were the quietest places in all of downtown.  While this was good for me, it’s also a little sad- why are you people patronizing the swanky places and not the good beer places?!?

Loughmiller's Pub & EateryLoughmiller’s Pub and Eatery was a decently quiet Irish pub, although the sports had obviously invaded, as they have in many American Irish pubs.  The beer and food were both good, though, and rain poured outside while I refreshed myself en route to more beer greatness.

Taps and Dolls was virtually abandoned, and had a decent- if not stellar- beer lineup.  Tow Yard Brewing had two fellows at the bar and myself on a Saturday night.  It was weird.  The beer was too hop-centered for my taste, but the bartender was talkative and clearly interested in beer.

It’s difficult to say if I would recommend Indianapolis or not.  On the one hand, it was safe, Tow Yard Flighteasily walked, and had a decent selection of beer-focused establishments which were quiet.  On the other hand, it was eerily empty in those establishments and the beer was only passable- not exceptional.  Like Indiana itself, I support.

Two Steps to a Great Brewery

Beer comes in an incredibly wide variety.  While there are many types of wine and mead, the flavour spectrum of wine and mead is narrower than that of beer.  This is one reason we Alcohol Tourism Beer Varietyenjoy beer as much as we do- Susan can enjoy her sours and I can enjoy my wood-aged beers, sometimes at the same brewery.  This means we’ve been to hundreds of breweries, and we have identified a handful of variables which we feel makes for a ‘good’ one.  It’s difficult to know any of these ahead of time, so you can’t exactly plan your trip around them.  However, you can make notes for future trips and other travellers!

1) Variety

I cannot emphasize this enough.  Whenever we hit a brewery which is _all_ hop oriented, or _all_ sour, or even _all_ Belgian, it’s just not as pleasant.  Note above where we talk about the flavour range of beer?  Why limit that when you decide what beer to make?  The most successful breweries have something for everyone, regardless of season.  During the summer, for god’s sake, please at least have an amber or brown, if not a porter or stout, for those of us who like the malt side of things.

2) True to Style

We’re kinda beer geeks.  As such, we know about the BJCP beer styles– not enough to be certified judges ourselves (at least, probably not…) – but enough to know when an Irish Red is a little too malty or a little too flavourful, or when a porter hasAlcohol Tourism Beer Types a bit too much burnt character, or when they’ve gone off the res with citrusy hops in an English bitter.  If you label something an APA, make it to style.  If you want to put a unique spin on it, that is great- just make sure to note that in the description.  If you want to go completely unique, fine, but at least give a base style or flavour profile we can work from.  But, ideally, make the beer to style.
It’s a short list, because it’s not that hard.  We understand there’s all sorts of elements like financing and marketing and the actual brewing process- that’s all important and great.  As a consumer, though, we just want these two things.  And it is absolutely incredible how few breweries get these two right.  Copper Creek in Athens is one of the best along these two points, as is Green Man in Asheville.  Copper Creek has only four beers, but they’re always made perfectly to style, and there’s something for everyone: a light-bodied beer for those who want something simple, a hop-focused beer, a dark beer (porter or stout on nitrogen!), and a miscellaneous, like a Scottish or a Belgian of some kind.  Every brewer can take a note from these guys.  Check them out if you have a chance!

The Beer That Started It All

Susan and I had relatively little experience with alcohol when we met eachother.  She turned me on to making cocktails, since it was a way to show affection and that I was interested in her.  We both enjoyed wine of all kinds and Guinness, but didn’t enjoy many beers or spirits.  We certainly had no experience with cider or mead.

On our first trip to Oz, we did our Waterfalls and Wineries tour,Alcohol Tourism Cascade Building the start of Alcohol Tourism.  On that same trip, we tried all the local beer offerings and found one quite to our liking- Cascade.  Cascade was made locally in Hobart, from water coming from Mount Wellington.  It was a clear, light-ish lager, but with much more flavour and depth than one experiences in American light lager (Bud, Coors, etc.).  We drank a lot of Cascade on that trip.  When we visited the Cascade visitors center, they offered beer brewing kits.  They didn’t even sell Cascade off the island, much less overseas.  I thought, “Aha!  A way to enjoy awesome Cascade back home?!  Sold!”  I bought the beer making kit and brought it home.

The local brewing store, Blockader Homebrew, had all the equipment I needed ready to go.  The proprietor suggested I try another kit before the Cascade kit, just to get the process down a bit.  I took his suggestion and brewed my first batch, splattering bleach all over the kitchen in my process of sanitation.  The beer turned out pretty well, all told, so I fired up the Cascade.

This turned out less well.  I suspect that the can was quite old, and I’m sure shipping it hadn’t helped its temperament.  I dumped most of the batch as undrinkable, but by now I was hooked.  The process was fun.  I got to clean stuff.  I like cleaning.  For the next few years I did a lot of homebrewing and Susan and I did a lot of beer tasting.  Our evolving knowledge encouraged us to do our first real Alcohol Tour- a trip to Colorado where we hit dozens of brewpubs and tried more than 130 different beers!  Since then we’ve continued to expand our palate and explore more types of alcohol and visit more locales than ever before.

Alcohol Definitions

Let’s talk in detail about drinks that can get us ethanol.  Ultimately, they rely on conversion of sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide by yeast.  The differences are in the source of sugar, type of yeast, the process, and what’s added.

 

NE Trip Wine

Images of our collections from our NE trip.

Wine

Grapes serve as the source of sugar in wines, although you may see strawberry wine, peach wine, and similar fruits which can also provide the sugars.  The yeast is usually killed and then the wine filtered so that the product is stable over time.  The different types of wines (merlot, chardonnay, etc.), called varietals, are determined by the variety of grape used in their production.  Table wine is used to refer to wine that is blended and not necessarily from a single varietal.  Vermouth is a wine fortified with a spirit (like brandy) with various spices and botanicals added.  A wine maker is a vintner and a place that makes wine is a winery.

NE Trip BeerBeer

Grains such as barley (typically), wheat, and rye serve as the source of sugars.  The carbohydrates in these grains are too complex for the yeast to break down directly, so the grain must first be malted and mashed to produce fermentable sugars.  Not all of the sugar is metabolized, leaving the beer sweet.  Hops are added as a bittering agent to balance the beer.  Beer is either an ale or a lager, depending on the species of yeast used to metabolize the sugar and the temperature at which fermentation occurs.  The different types of beer (india pale ale, stout, Oktoberfest, etc.) are produced primarily by altering the type and amount of grain and type and amount of hops.  A beer maker is a brewer and a place that makes beer is a brewery.  A brewpub is a restaurant which makes their own beer.  A beer bar is a bar which focuses on having a large selection of craft beer on draft.

Cider

Apples provide the sugar for ciders.  It is handled similarly to wine.  Most ciders are blended from different types of apples.  Cider apples are often ones that cannot be sold directly to the public due to bruising, size, or other defect.  A cider maker is a cider maker and a place that makes cider is a cidery.

NE Trip MeadMead

Honey provides the sugar for mead.  Honey wine is sometimes used to describe mead.  Many meads have fruit or spices added to them, as the taste of simply fermented honey (called a show mead) is not to the liking of most Americans.  Meads that have fruit added are called melomels, meads with spice are called methegline, mead with a grain (like beer) are braggots, mead with cider are cysers, and mead with wine are pyments.  A mead maker is a maizer and a place that makes mead is a meadery.

NE Trip SpiritsSpirits

Alcohol drinks containing over ~18% ABV are difficult to attain by simple fermentation.  There’s only so many sugars the yeast can metabolize and only so much alcohol they can live in before they shut down.  For commercial spirits, the path to a higher ABV is distillation.  In distillation, the base alcohol source is heated, vaporizing the alcohol, which is then condensed and collected.  This minimizes the contribution of flavour from the base alcohol source.  Corn, grains, potatoes, rice, and many other sources of sugars have been used.  Ultimately, how the spirit is handled after distillation contributes the majority of flavor.  Covering all spirits is beyond the scope of this article, but generally vodka, gin, whiskey, brandy, and rum are the most commonly encountered craft spirits.  A spirit maker is a distiller and a place that makes spirits is a distillery.

All of these locations provide opportunities to explore your palate and create new experiences.  Different laws throughout the US and the world affect which of these you will encounter on an alcohol tour.  Knowing your options will expand your opportunities and improve your enjoyment!

Vertical Beer Tasting

Most people don’t realize you can cellar beer similar to how you cellar wine.  It undergoes similar chemical processes- notablyUinta Vintages oxidation.  The spice and hops in beer fades with time, and the flavours usually become more blended and complex.  Beers come out in vintages, just like wine, although they’re rarely labelled as such.  Although most mega beer companies (Bud, Miller, etc.) strive for consistency year after year, smaller operations may adjust their recipe based on their own evolution, availability of ingredients, etc.  These small changes can contribute to changes in batches and certainly changes in vintages.

We have been hoarding beer in the basement for five years.  High gravity beers age better than regular gravity beers, so they’re all over 8% ABV.  We tried to collect beers which come out consistently- Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch and Weyerbacher’s Fifteen were the most successful on this score.  A few we had only two years’ worth.  After collecting for five years, we decided to open them up with some beer-loving friends.

Vertical Beer ListWe had a total of fifteen different beers of at least two vintages, and a few with four vintages.  It turned out to be more alcohol than anticipated.  We didn’t meet our goal of finishing it all- only about a third was done in by us and our nine friends.  The conclusion for most was that the older beers were nice if you appreciate smooth flavour, and the newer beers were better if you wanted distinct flavour.
Hoarding beer is a great hobby, but ultimately too much for us to keep track of.  If you haven’t tried it, we’d strongly encourage you to collect for a vertical tasting of your own.  It was a singularly remarkable experience.

Faux Pas?

Imagine a wine bar, populated by the usual patrons.  Stan reviews the long list of pinot noir, cabernet franc, traminette, and tempranillo local wines.  He ultimately orders a glass of Almaden jug white Zinfandel. He enjoys it, but is it appropriate?

Rogue Alcohol TourismWe have been to many breweries and brewpubs which, somewhat inexplicably, offered mass-produced commercial beer.  The Rogue bar in San Francisco listed, “Bud Light, no joke.”  At Madison Brewing in Bennington, VT, we saw someone drinking a Sam Adams beer.  In contrast, Copper Creek in Athens offers only their beers, and, when asked for some mass-produced beer, explain that they offer only their own craft-brewed beer.

On one hand, this is similar to going to an Irish pub and ordering a taco.  The whole reason one goes to an Irish pub is for bangers and mash, fish and chips, or similar.  Why would you order a taco?  Go to a Mexican restaurant if that’s what you want.

On the other hand, I remember a quote from a brewpub owner at the Great American Beer Fest who said something like, I am in the brewpub business- which is to say, the restaurant business.  This suggests that brewpub owners are really selling food, with their beer as a draw as opposed to the focus.

So, craft brewers face a dilemma.  If they only offer Beer Sober Kids Alcohol Tourismtheir own beers, they risk turning off a large portion of customers who insist on mass produced beer.  If they offer mass-produced beer, they risk diluting the effect of their own efforts to spread delicious beer.  From the brewer’s perspective, we have no answers.  From the consumer’s perspective, we believe that customers should be there to consume the product that the brewer is producing.  So, drink the beer they make there!

Friendly Alcohol Establishment Owners

“So, where are you guys from?” asked by the brewer at Sunken City, a usual opening line.  “What brings you here?” often follows.  After we briefly explain alcohol tourism, the proprietor perks up.  “Do you guys have a blog?”

Sunken City Alcohol Tourism

Sunken City’s Beer Lineup

One of the best things about alcohol tourism is the opportunity to meet other people who are interested in what we’re interested in.  This is particularly true of the owner/brewer/vintner/etc. of the establishment.  We can talk beer or wine or mead all day long with another interested party.  One of the most interesting chats we had was with Roanoke Railhouse Brewing’s owner.

Most craft brewery owners and brewers come into the profession by way of brewing.  They did homebrewing, or did it professionally elsewhere before opening their own brewery, etc.  Railhouse Brewing’s owner was a marketing guy.  He told us the story of how he decided to open a brewery.  He was getting his tires changed and walked into the large back space of the tire company.  It had high ceilings, drains in the floor, commercial gas and electric, and he said this space needed a brewery.

His take on making beer is also unique.  He approaches it from the marketing end- what do people want to drink?  He shared an anecdote of when they did focus groups.  They gave everyone 8 beers, asked them to rate them 1-5, and also asked what their favourite domestic and imported beers are.  The focus group participants consistently claimed their favourite beers were ones like Dos Equis and Budweiser, but then rated those beers (when blinded to what beer they were drinking) consistently low.

Roanoke Railhouse Alcohol TourismAs a consequence, Railhouse makes some excellent beer.  Their IPA was one of the best we had on the trip- great malt backbone, a little fruitiness, and a mild bitterness which didn’t linger.  The owner shared that they aim to have a clean finish on all their beers.  Their stout, dunkel, and Belgian pale were all remarkably well crafted to the style as well as being extremely approachable and flavourful.  It is a combination that’s difficult to get, and Railway hit it on the head.

Next time you go to a winery or brewery, chat with the people there.  You never know what you’ll learn, or who you’ll meet.