State of Indianapolis Beer: Race in to try the Circle City’s best breweries

Indianapolis is home to over 50 of the state's 170 breweries and brewpubs, like MashCraft Brewing // Photo courtesy of MashCraft Brewing

Indianapolis is home to over 50 of the state’s 170 breweries and brewpubs, like MashCraft Brewing // Photo courtesy of MashCraft Brewing

If there’s one thing Indianapolis likes to brag about—besides basketball and the Indy 500—it’s Hoosier hospitality. But the Circle City has created a new point of pride in its vibrant craft beer scene, which has grown exponentially over the last decade.

Indianapolis boasts about 50 of the state’s 170 breweries and brewpubs, and visitors can expect the standard amenities, such as pub trivia, board games, weekend yoga classes and pet-friendly spaces, according to Tristan Schmid, communications director for the Brewers of Indiana Guild. What makes the Indianapolis beer scene unique is the staff and patrons who strive to make conversation and make everyone feel at home, Schmid says.

“You’ll often find owners and brewers in our breweries’ tasting rooms and they’re almost always mingling and happy to talk with customers,” he says. “More and more tasting rooms are becoming family-friendly, so all ages can enjoy the communal spaces that breweries offer.”

Trends in Indianapolis resemble those going on nationally: Sours have grown more popular over the past few years and the hazy IPA craze is beginning to edge out fruited IPAs. Being close to Kentucky, bourbon barrel–aged stouts and porters are always popular, Schmid says.

However, most brewers focus on crafting high-quality core beers, according to Andrew Castner, co-owner of Mashcraft Brewing Company. “Thirty or 40 years ago, someone would walk in and say, ‘I’ll take a light,’ and they didn’t really care what light beer it was. Now it’s ‘I’ll try the IPA,’” he says.

With roughly a quarter of the breweries opening in the last five years, it’s difficult to anticipate how the scene will change, but it’s easy to see where it began.

Beginning with Brewpubs

The exterior of Broad Ripple Brewpub // Photo courtesy Broad Ripple Brewpub

The exterior of Broad Ripple Brewpub // Photo courtesy Broad Ripple Brewpub

In 1990, John Hill opened Broad Ripple Brewpub, Indiana’s longest-running craft beer makers and one of the first brewpubs in the Midwest. The brewpub also had a very real ripple effect for Indianapolis’ craft beer scene. “The number of brewers that started at [John Hill’s] brewery, then went on to start their own, then helped others who started their own, is astounding,” Schmid says.

Hill says he simply wanted to recreate the flavors he remembered drinking as a young man in 1960s England. Broad Ripple’s current head brewer, Jonathon Mullens, continues in this vein, making a lineup of heavy-bodied beers with extra malt, all imported from England, and lower carbonation. Rounding out the tap list are an ESB, the Red Bird Mild, Nice Weiss Hefeweizen, as well as a house IPA and lighter, “very quaffable” Lawn Mower Pale Ale.

Hill says his other goal was to create a gathering place for everyone, hence the brewpub’s blend of pub fare and numerous vegan and vegetarian options. “The whole idea of me building this brewpub was [so that] when I got to this age, I could just go sit out there with my friends and drink beer,” Hill says. “And that’s exactly what I do.”

There has never been a better time to be a craft beer drinker in Indianapolis, Hill says, despite the fact he faces steeper competition than in 1990. “From my standpoint as a beer drinker, I think it’s just wonderful that we’ve got so many diverse beers and owners,” he says.

In the decade or so after Hill opened his brewpub, a handful of others followed. Restaurant and brewery chains RAM Restaurant and Brewery and Rock Bottom opened in downtown Indy, while Oaken Barrel Brewing Company, which serves a Razz Wheat and Gnaw Bone Pale Ale as flagships, opened in the south suburb of Greenwood. But even so, the craft beer scene hadn’t yet exploded in Indianapolis.

Here Comes the Sun

Sun King Brewing Company's taproom // Photo courtesy Sun King Brewing Company

Sun King Brewery’s taproom // Photo courtesy Sun King Brewery

If Broad Ripple Brewpub ignited Indianapolis’s craft beer scene, then Sun King Brewery threw gasoline on the fire. The production brewery opened east of downtown in 2009 as the brainchild of Clay Robinson and Dave Colt, both of whom had worked at area brewpubs. Originally, they’d planned to follow suit and open another brewpub, but then they changed their minds.

“We realized that Indianapolis had a handful of really good brewpubs, but that Indianapolis, as a city with a 2 million [person] metro, had no one that was making beer and distributing it specifically for bars and restaurants,” Robinson says. “So we thought it was a huge opportunity—and by huge, we thought maybe by our fifth year we would be producing 5,000 barrels of beer per year. By our fifth year, we were producing 20,000 barrels of beer.”

Sun King has offered Wee Mac Scottish Ale and Osiris Pale Ale as flagships from the start. But Robinson says its most ubiquitous beer, Sunlight Cream Ale, designed to be an easy-drinking beer “that you could drink in the hot Indiana sun when it’s 95 degrees and 95 percent humidity,” started as a summer seasonal. Sunlight’s fans demanded it stay on year-round, Robinson says, and it now comprises nearly 40 percent of the brewery’s sales.

Sun King also likes to experiment. At last year’s Great American Beer Festival competition, the brewery’s Cherry Busey sour claimed a bronze medal while its Magpie Muckle, a Scottish-style wee heavy aged in mead barrels, won silver.

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Beyond the taproom, Sun King introduced Indy to the idea that craft beer could (and should) come in cans. “We had friends who were at breweries, such as Oskar Blues and Surly, who were canning and seeing great success from cans,” Robinson says. “We saw cans as the right package for beer for all the reasons that people preach the can gospel: It keeps light out, it seals perfectly, it keeps flavor in, and you can take it anywhere you want to go outside.”

Unlike in 2009, the brewery no longer consists of a few plastic picnic tables and fewer taps, but visitors are still “greeted by friendly folks who are happy you’re here,” Robinson says.

“Hoosier hospitality often extends beyond the purveyors of an establishment and can be experienced through locals who gather in our taprooms and have a tendency to greet people kindly or strike up a conversation,” he says. “It’s just who we are and how we do it here in Indiana.”

More Rounds in the Circle City

Metazoa Brewing Company's taproom // Photo courtesy Metazoa Brewing Company

Metazoa Brewing Company’s taproom // Photo courtesy Metazoa Brewing Company

Within a half-mile radius of Sun King alone are four other breweries: Flat12 Bierwerks, a great experimenter with flavors like Cucumber Kölsch; Indiana City Brewing Company, which is known for its Shadowboxer oatmeal stout; St. Joseph Brewery & Public House, serving food and beers in a renovated cathedral; and fast-growing newcomer Metazoa Brewing Company.

Metazoa opened in 2016 with goals to craft interesting beers and help animals. Along with donating five percent of its profits to animal sanctuaries, Metazoa hosts events for animal charities, displays artwork painted by chimpanzees at a Florida sanctuary, and allows customers to bring their pets, whether dogs or cats or rabbits. It also partners with like-minded companies to craft beers like their flagship Kitten Slumber Party: a chocolate milk stout with six pounds per barrel of Endangered Species Chocolate, an Indianapolis-based company that donates much of their profits to conservation efforts.

At first, Metazoa only sold pints and filled growler, but hired brewmaster John Hall (no relation to Goose Island’s founder John Hall) away from Chicago when they decided to start distributing to local restaurants and bars. Hall brought 20 years of production brewing experience with him, including at such notable breweries as Goose Island and 5 Rabbits Cervecería.

Hall’s mission was to increase the number of barrels Metazoa produced while making only minor tweaks to the existing recipes. Their beers were already solid, he says, an opinion backed by awards: Klipspringer saison and Breton Blonde claimed silver medals at GABF 2017, and at the 2018 World Beer Cup Klipspringer earned the gold while Wee Bit Left Scotch ale took bronze. He also calls out the popularity of Sun King’s Sunlight cream ale has an influence on Metazoa, as well as the larger Indianapolis beer scene as a whole, noting that in his 20 years of brewing in Chicago, he’d never brewed a cream ale. “If I was going to brew something Pilsner-esque in Chicago, I’d probably brew a Pilsner. But when I came down here, I was told cream ale was a very popular style,” he says.

Small breweries like Metazoa flourish because of the city’s youthfulness, according to Hall. “It’s a younger culture that’s open to craft,” he says, adding that breweries have had an effect on some of the city’s crime-stricken neighborhoods. “It’s changed neighborhoods here. People come in and they go, ‘You wouldn’t have stood here 10 years ago; it was dangerous.’ But I came down here, and it’s nice.”

Indy’s I-465 loop now overflows with breweries. There’s Bier Brewery & Tap Room and Thr3e Wise Men north of downtown. Fountain Square Brewing Company and recent GABF medalist Chilly Water Brewing Company occupy the area’s hip arts district. And then there’s Daredevil Brewing Company, which serves a fiercely hoppy Rip Cord Double IPA at its taproom near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

To some, this growth shows a vibrant community. To others, it shows it’s a good time to expand beyond city limits.

Rockin’ the Suburbs

Mashcraft Brewing's tap // Photo courtesy Mashcraft Brewing Company

MashCraft Brewing taps // Photo courtesy MashCraft Brewing Company

Although the ’burbs might seem like the sleepier parts of Naptown, craft enthusiasts have proven there’s plenty of demand for quality beer here, too.

When MashCraft Brewing Company opened in 2014, owner Andrew Castner’s concern wasn’t about bringing enough customers through the doors of his Greenwood taproom. He worried about taking business from Oaken Barrel brewpub. MashCraft opened five miles from Oaken Barrel, Castner says, to give enough space for the brewpub that originally sparked his passion for making beer when he worked there as a server.

“I was a mild beer drinker but was curious about how the process worked,” he says. “So I went to the head brewer and said, ‘I’m not trying to make this a career, but could you give me a few hours a week and work my butt off and teach me something cool?’”

After working his way up at Oaken Barrel, Castner became head brewer at RAM Restaurant and Brewery, where he focused on quality and balanced flavors. “Everything from a Berliner weisse to a Russian imperial stout, you can still get balance between three or four elements, and that’s what leads to a pleasurable drinking experience,” he says.

MashCraft’s top options include an IPA, an Oktoberfest, and Last Light, a blood orange IPA that sells well year-round. “With the tart citrus, the nice hop character that’s got a little bit of orange as well, and then the balance between dryness, bitterness, and resin in the finish, it just makes for an overall dynamic pint of beer,” Castner says.

In 2016, MashCraft opened a brewpub in Indianapolis that exclusively makes sours, and it bought a brewery in the north suburb of Fishers in January 2018. Sun King also added a taproom in Fishers, and opened a distillery in nearby Carmel on July 2. Upland Brewing Company—based in Bloomington, Indiana, and famous as the beer of choice on “Parks and Rec”—has taprooms in Carmel and Broad Ripple. Triton Brewing, which bronze-medalled at GABF 2017 for its Fieldhouse Wheat, is located in the eastside Lawrence neighborhood; in the west suburbs are even more breweries and brewpubs.

Beyond quality beer, what keeps craft drinkers coming back is friendly, attentive service, Castner says, and the Hoosier hospitality of fellow patrons amplifies that. Once visitors experience Indy’s breweries, they’ll be sure to return soon—and thirsty.