BY AMY LONG
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY VISIT LAFAYETTE – WEST LAFAYETTE
On a hot, dusty afternoon in late summer, Jason Behenna took a break from refinishing the floors of a 2,800- square-foot space tucked into a small strip mall next to the popular Lindo Mexico restaurant, at 405 Sagamore Parkway South in Lafayette, to talk about his new business.
On this particular day, the spartan space, with its construction clamor and drywall debris, was rather stark and uninviting. But it was also rife with possibility: a blank slate ready to be filled. The space has been vacant for the better part of a decade, but Jason and his wife, Heather Howard, envision a bustling brewpub where Behenna can brew his award-winning stout, among other beers, and a small kitchen will serve up vegetarian and vegan fare.
Behenna’s space could be a metaphor for the local craft brewing scene: at one time a rather lonely landscape, but recently coming into its own.
His brewpub, Escape Velocity Brewing Company, due to open in early 2020, will be the sixth craft brewery to open in Lafayette-West Lafayette, and the fourth since only 2017, following Brokerage Brewing Company in West Lafayette, Thieme & Wagner Brewing Company in downtown Lafayette, and Teays River Brewing & Public House, on Lafayette’s south side.
Bolstered by state legislation that has increasingly favored small breweries through the years, a swell of consumer support for locally owned and operated businesses, and the general public’s growing taste for a wide range of high-quality, full-flavored beers, the local boom mirrors a national trend.
According to the Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade group, the number of craft breweries in the U.S. (defined for association membership as small, independent operations producing less than six million barrels of beer annually) has nearly doubled in four years: 7,346 in 2018, up from 3,814 in 2014. (The legal definition is much narrower in Indiana, where the law caps small brewery production at 90,000 barrels per year.)
“You’ve just seen an explosion in the last 10 years of breweries opening up,” says Greg Emig, who opened Lafayette’s first brewpub, the Lafayette Brewing Company, more than two decades ago.
Without controlling corporate interest, independent brewers can experiment and innovate, using traditional ingredients to interpret historic styles of beer and adding nontraditional ingredients for originality and flair. Over time, “consumers became more interested and aware of the breadth and flavor of differing beer styles,” Emig explains.
“Chains are trending down,” observes Jeff Burnworth, who worked for Buffalo Wild Wings for 17 years before launching Teays River Brewing in 2018. “People want to see that their money is staying local and see people in their communities succeeding.”
A long time coming
But the recent surge of local microbreweries and brewpubs is not so much an explosion as a slow burn that sparked nearly 30 years ago.
After graduating from Purdue in 1986, Emig was an avid homebrewer through the early ’90s when he first conceived of the Lafayette Brewing Company as a craft brewery and restaurant – at a time when Indiana law prohibited beer production facilities to sell their product on-site.
Together with Jeff Mease, who would eventually open the Bloomington Brewing Company, Emig lobbied the state legislature for a bill that would grant retail permits to small breweries. The bill passed on the first go-round, Emig says. “People didn’t really know what the concept was, so there was no real opposition to it.”
On Sept. 17, 1993, LBC was granted Indiana’s first small-brewers retail permit. The brewpub opened that very day.
“That piece of legislation opened some doors,” says Emig, who notes that the microbrewery trend really flourished in Indiana through the 1990s, with about 20 brewpubs opening across the state.
“Our mission was really to educate people about the variety and quality of beer that was out there,” Emig says. While most of the country was drinking one or two styles of mass-produced American lager, “there were 50 styles of beer that people just had no idea about, and we wanted to introduce them.”
But, Emig says, the number of brewpubs actually slumped through the early 2000s, in part because the brewery trend took off before quality-control measures could catch up, leading to a market of not-so-great craft-brewed beer. Consumers lost interest, and brewpubs across Indiana, with a few notable exceptions, were forced to close.
“This shakeout left a solid core of breweries that understood the necessity of producing a quality product,” says Emig.
LBC was one of those core breweries. An anchor on Lafayette’s Main Street for more than 25 years now, the roomy interior includes a bar and an all-ages dining room with a full menu. Day to day, LBC offers up to 15 beers, all made in-house – from the easy-drinking Star City German-style lager to the Black Angus English-style stout with notes of chocolate and roasted coffee – and a range of specialty and seasonal beers.
But in part because of the “shakeout” that Emig describes, LBC was the only craft brewery in the Lafayette area for 15 years – from its start in 1993 until Chris Johnson opened People’s Brewery in 2009.
Johnson actually honed his craft under Emig’s direction. He started as a keg cleaner at the Lafayette Brewing Company and quickly worked his way up to LBC head brewer, a position he held for seven years.
“We noticed that there wasn’t much craft beer being produced that was being put out into the community,” says Johnson, who focused his business on brewing classic American ales and German lagers for distribution to area package stores and restaurants.
Within months of opening the brewery, Johnson also opened the People’s Tap Room in a small space at the front of his building, with seating for a handful of people – intended as a place where customers could try different beers and fill their growlers for carry-out.
By 2013, business was booming, and People’s underwent an expansion that doubled the facility’s space to 11,000 square feet and expanded the taproom, which now opens up to a patio, accommodates about 80 patrons inside and out, and hosts game nights, live music and local food trucks throughout the week.
Johnson notes that the latest craft brewery craze has taken off right under his nose. When he started working at the Lafayette Brewing Company in 2000, Indiana had only 12 microbreweries. Nine years later, when he launched People’s, it was the 27th brewery in the state. Today there are 170 microbreweries across Indiana.
A burgeoning scene
After graduating from Purdue in 1998, Brian Russell spent about a dozen years on the West Coast, where he attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, then worked as a chef and pub consultant around Portland, Oregon. When he returned to his hometown of West Lafayette in 2011, he says, he looked around for a place to grab a beer on a Saturday night, but was surprised that there weren’t a ton of options outside of the college-town watering holes close to the university.
A few years later, Russell discovered a column by James Fallows in The Atlantic magazine, detailing “Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed.” The first 10 or so signs were no-brainers. Successful cities, Russell read, focus less on divisive national politics and more on community issues; invest in public-private partnerships; and are located near large research universities. But number 11 on the list was unexpected: “Successful cities have craft breweries.”
“A town that has craft breweries also has a certain kind of entrepreneur,” Fallows wrote, “and a critical mass of mainly young customers.”
It was a lightbulb moment for Russell. “We thought there’s space in the market for a craft brewery in the bar scene in West Lafayette,” says Russell, who partnered with his wife, Laura, and his sister and brother-in-law, Stacy and Dustin Grove, to open Brokerage Brewing Company on Sagamore Parkway in West Lafayette in late 2017.
“We now joke that we are West Lafayette’s oldest brewery,” Russell laughs. “It’s funny and true at the same time.”
With 40 seats inside, the Brokerage taproom is already so popular – and crowded – that a multi-phase expansion is in the works that will double the size of the brewery, and then add a kitchen and an all-ages dining room sometime this summer, if all goes as planned.
Within months of Brokerage’s debut, other craft breweries also have established themselves.
Brian and David Thieme opened the Thieme & Wagner taproom on Lafayette’s Main Street in early 2017. David began brewing bock beer from an old family recipe the following year. The father-son owners are descendants of Frederick A. Thieme, who, with John Wagner, established a brewery at the corner of Fourth and Union streets in Lafayette in 1863. At the turn of the century, Thieme & Wagner was one of the largest and most successful breweries in the state, but it was forced to cease beer production with Prohibition in 1918.
Today, the 50-seat Thieme & Wagner taproom sits above the basement space where David brews six different beers, from an American lager to Thieme’s signature bock. The taproom also offers selections from other local and regional microbreweries, as well as a full bar and a light menu.
In early 2018, Jon Hodge and Burnworth, who had both worked for Buffalo Wild Wings for years, opened Teays River Brewing & Public House on South Ninth Street in Lafayette. Besides a brewery and a taproom, the establishment also comprises a full bar with wine on tap, a broad outdoor patio and an all-ages restaurant with an open kitchen.
“We wanted to be creative and unique and do things that weren’t really happening in Lafayette,” Burnworth says. “Lafayette is still a small town but we wanted to bring some of the cosmopolitan ways of a bigger city, but still keep it in a small-town atmosphere.”
And then there’s Escape Velocity, which enters the scene this year. If a new craft brewery in Lafayette is no longer groundbreaking news, the fact that this establishment is, according to its website, the only all-vegetarian restaurant in Lafayette and Indiana’s only all-vegetarian brewpub makes it pretty special.
The sum of its parts
Not one of the local brewery owners feels that the market is crowded. They don’t see the new businesses as competition. Rather, they welcome newcomers and embrace a kind of fellowship. And they say they have more than enough customers to go around.
“There’s still a great opportunity for more brewers in this city,” says Behenna, of Escape Velocity. “It’s nowhere near saturated for a city this size. It’s kind of like the Starbuck’s model. When are there too many Starbucks? When one of them opens and it’s not busy. It can be the same with brewers.”
Behenna also points out that each local brewery has its own neighborhood that it serves, and its own niche that it fills.
LBC offers family dining and a huge upstairs event space, and Teays takes pride in its innovative lunch and dinner menus.
Thieme & Wagner pays homage to old Lafayette with a historical brew, while Brokerage, at barely two years old, celebrates its standing as the most established westside brewery. Escape Velocity fills a void east of Sagamore Parkway as it embraces a space-age theme.
You can run into any package or liquor store from the north side of Chicago to the south side of Indianapolis and bring home a six-pack of People’s to stash in your fridge, or you can head to any one of the taprooms and meet the brewer face to face.
What ties these places together is a devotion to the community and a drive to be part of something bigger than what each individual brewery can be on its own.
The local brewers all seem to know each other, and they know what everyone else is working on – not because they compete, but because they collaborate. “There’s a camaraderie between small breweries that you don’t see in a lot of other industries,” LBC’s Emig says.
All of the local brewpubs and taprooms offer friendly gathering spaces where everyone is welcome. If they have space, they also feature live music and monthly game nights. Brokerage even puts on a Sunday evening “Beer and Hymns” casual worship event.
And while these happenings, of course, are intended for fun and fellowship – the business model for any bar or restaurant – they also are opportunities to educate customers about craft beer.
The local brewers understand that they are brand ambassadors. If one brewer can get one person interested in craft beers, then more brewers can get more people on board. “The more brewers the better,” Emig says. “The more awareness of what we do, the better it is for everybody.”
Over the summer, for example, Johnson, at People’s, teamed up with the Lafayette Aviators baseball team to present Thirsty Thursdays at Loeb Stadium. At People’s Patio along the first baseline, fans could buy beers not just from People’s Brewery, but from other local and regional breweries, as well, including LBC, Brokerage and Teays River.
“The craft industry is a little bit different when it comes to competition,” Johnson says. “It’s a friendly business.”
“Rising water raises all ships,” Behenna says. “We’re becoming a brewery destination for people to drive to Lafayette to try all the breweries. The more of us there are, the more of a community there is, and the more of a destination we can be.”