From a rye ale brewed with bacon to dozens of stout variations and everything in between. if it was funky, Steve sampled it at the 2015 Winterfest.Take a bow, Brewers of Indiana Guild – your Winterfest was everything a beer festival is supposed to be.
Varied brewers, lots of space to move around, experimental offerings, multiple and easily accessible food stands and restrooms, actual brewers working behind the stands to answer questions – it’s simple, really. And yet time and again, festivals get it wrong.
Take last year’s Winterfest, for example. Long lines to get in and an elbow-to-elbow atmosphere once inside made for less-than-ideal conditions.
People complained. Me included. And the Brewers of Indiana Guild listened.
They more than doubled the size – from 65,000 square feet to 135,000 square feet – without doubling the ticket sales from roughly 5,000. Then they used that extra space to spread out 101 breweries – including 69 from Indiana – through two connected buildings at the Indiana State Fairgrounds (with a cask station in the middle). That, coupled with a new advance express check-in system at HopCat brew pub, made a world of difference for everyone.
Yet even with more than 500 beers pouring from those breweries for 4 hours, it’s impossible to visit every one. And when places like Founders are pouring rarities like Canadian Breakfast Stout, you should be prepared to wait in line. Long, long lines. But that’s not in any way the fault of the organizers, that’s driven by the passion fans have for particular beers. It was no surprise to see crowd favorites like Three Floyds, Upland and even Lagunitas with some of the longest lines seen at a fest, but it was refreshing to see craft beer fans supporting places like 18th Street Brewery. Last year, it was easy to walk right up to the Gary brewery’s booth for a sample, but this year – just one year after opening their doors – the line stretched 30-40 deep all day.
So that left me to wander and sample some of those even newer than 18th Street or those not distributing to the northwest corner of the state. And that led to discovering new and impressive breweries, as well as those who use a festival to have a little experimental fun.
Take, for instance, Flat 12 Bierwerks. The Indianapolis brewer had 17 taps flowing, 13 of which had a unique spin. With their Pogue’s Run Porter, they used 7 different yeast strains to come up with distinct flavors. And their crisp golden ale Hinchtown Hammer Down was infused five different ways, from black cherry to cranberry and pomegranate. Their willingness to take chances made it a fun and adventurous stop for anyone.
And speaking of creative, it was tough to top ZwanzigZ Brewing. The Columbus, Ind. pizzeria expanded to include a brewery 3 years ago and owners Kurt and Lisa Zwanzig brought in Mike Rybinski, formerly of Walter Payton’s Roundhouse in Aurora, to lead those brewing efforts. The Siebel Institute grad has won three golds in the World Beer Cup and that experience showed in their Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate ale, which smelled and tasted just like you’d imagine. And their Nullius In Verba, maybe an American Strong Ale, maybe a blend of a lot of things, I’m still not quite sure, but I liked it a lot. Spicy, fruity, sweet, funk, just a whole lot of goodness going on. And there was a wait all day to get a taste of their ghost pepper ale – which brought all of the kick you might expect. All I know is that if the pizza is remotely close to the quality of the beer, ZwanzigZ is worth a road trip south.
Also pouring impressive stuff was 4-month-old Wooden Bear out of Greenfield. They delivered a trio of Russian Imperial Stouts – one brewed with coffee, another with chili pepper and a killer combo of chocolate, cinnamon and vanilla –that is sure to have me visiting their 3,000 square foot tap room inside the 120-year-old Gant Opera House.
The three-year-old Bulldog Brewery in Whiting – a chip shot away from the Chicago city limits – impressed with a double chocolate oatmeal stout aged for two months in Journeyman Distillery barrels, making me regret not visiting them more often when stopping by my in-laws down the street.
Another new Northwest Indiana brewer, Michigan City’s Burn ‘Em Brewing, continues to turn heads with unique offerings, this time with an awesomely sweet raspberry vanilla porter on cask, while LaPorte’s Back Road Brewing turned out a unique red rye – brewed with 10-1/2 pounds of bacon – which was surprisingly smooth, with little smoky taste.
Oaken Barrel poured a phenomenal 2009 barleywine aged in port barrels. And I couldn’t have been happier to see Triton Brewing bring back its Hatchblower Pepper IPA – a beer I was introduced to at last year’s fest and have yearned for since.
I came back twice for Bloomington Brewing Company’s winter ale – a blend of cinnamon, vanilla and orange aged in whiskey barrels that was one of my favorites of the day. The brand-new Danny Boy Beer Works in Carmel drew raves for its Rock-n-Rolla Double IPA and its scotch ale infused with James-aged French oak chips, as did Chapman’s Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout (RIOS).
And while Lexington, Kentucky’s Country Boy Brewing is known for their minimally processed beers that use local fruits, vegetables and hops, they came up north and delivered an awesome pair of barrel-aged beers that were good enough that my planned February trip to the Bourbon Trail will be extended a few miles just to stop by their brewpub.
And who’d have thought a homebrewer’s club – Indianapolis-based Midwestern Order of Ninkasi (MONK) would turn out such an awesome Belgian quad at 10.9% ABV? But that’s one of the amazingly cool, unexpected finds at this fest.
I never made it to Daredevil, much as I wanted, nor Bare Hands and their ridiculous assortment of stouts (raspberry, peanut butter, then PB&J among them) nor Iechyd Da or Evil Czech, both of which I keep hearing great things about.
But that’s what happens at a beer festival – you wait in line or you don’t, you wander and find undiscovered gems, miss some and discover others. And doing it all without feeling crowded or overwhelmed is the best part of all.
The non-profit Guild is pouring its revenues from the Fest into its legislative, promotional and educational efforts, with a percentage of proceeds going to Joy’s House, an adult daycare facility in Indianapolis.
Well done, Brewers Guild of Indiana, well done. Though it’s a longer drive south, I’ve already got April’s Bloomington Craft Beer Festival marked on the calendar.