Tuesday, July 8, 2014

May I see your ID?

Over the 4th of July weekend I was in Michigan and visited a few breweries with a friend: Jolly Pumpkin, Blue Tractor, and The Wolverine State. While the middle of the 3 was memorable because it had some of the worst beer I've had in a long time, Jolly Pumpkin (JP) and The Wolverine State (TWS) were memorable because they had good beer and something that many breweries in Indy lack: an identity.

Jolly Pumpkin and it's fans know that JP is about funky beers; TWS is on the other end of the spectrum, as they're all about lagers. They had a dozen plus styles on tap all stemming from a lager base and many of them were quite good.

This got me thinking- do any Indianapolis based breweries have a true identity that is based on their beer? Sure many breweries have established themselves quite well with their branding and marketing, but do we have anything like a JP or TWS? Not really. Brugge with their Belgian style beers and Upland with their sour program (but that's in Bloomington) come closest.
Usually it takes time to establish a beer identity, but some breweries don't waste any time. There are a lot of newer breweries across the country that are hanging their hat on one particular style group: Jester King, Crooked Stave, Almanac, The Rare Barrel, and Jack's Abby to name a few. To be fair this would be a difficult model to do in a craft beer environment such as Indianapolis, especially for newer breweries. Why? Because Indianapolis is still in elementary school when it comes to craft beer education and appreciation. A single-style brewery might be too much of a niche idea for this town at the moment.
So instead breweries hedge their bets and cater to more people by offering several styles in their initial or house lineup. The problem? It's hard to set yourself apart when there's a lot of overlap between breweries' offerings, especially when they're picked from the same narrow list of IPA, amber, brown, porter, wheat, lager/pilsner, stout, and pale ale. At least some baby breweries are adding saisons, double IPAs, and ryes to their starting mix to shake it up.
I'm not necessarily knocking this model, as many of the most well known and highly rated breweries started this way, but as the craft beer environment gets more crowded (and we're not there yet), it's going to be even more important to set yourself apart.
There has to be a compromise. Why not have a house lineup that spans the gamut to keep the masses happy, but then explore 1-2 or styles in depth and knock out a few of these? Many breweries do this, and do this well, giving them some identity. Unfortunately I'm hard pressed to give a satisfying answer when someone asks "who in town brews good [insert beer style] or a lot of [insert beer style]?" I could certainly suggest a lot of great local examples of a style, but not necessarily a brewery as a whole that's the master of that domain.
Fortunately it does appears that at least a few local brewereries are picking up on this model. Sun King has some IPA choices with the Fistful of Hops Series, and some other nice tap offerings time to time. Bier Brewery has their stable of IPAs as well, but I still wouldn't call either an IPA brewery... for now. The crew at Scarlett Lane are big fans of stouts and plan on churning out some interesting variations. Andrew and co. at Mashcraft have already started down that road with their "Into the Deep" stout series that debuted last week with "The Deep" oatmeal stout; blackberry, coffee, and pepper variants are coming soon.
Ultimately it would be nice to have a "go to" brewery depending on your favorite style. For example it would be nice if I could walk into a brewery and be able to select from 2-3 IPAs and take home the one that suits my mood. Count this more as a wish than a critique, but it would be nice to see some identities emerge from all the foam.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for your contribution Unknown. Breweries like Taxman with their Belgian-style beers and Union with their cask-conditioned and english-style offerings are certainly developing an identity. Hopefully they'll continue on this path successfully and other breweries will take notice.