Brewing up something better
Isaac Lorton | Thursday, January 22, 2015
Tucked into the side of The State Theater, South Bend Brew Werks is unassuming and dwarfed by the large theater sign. Once inside, a completely different identity comes together. Combined in a small area is a clash between rustic and modern, harkening back to South Bend’s working-class identity, while looking toward the future growth of South Bend. The L-shaped bar is polished pine wood reclaimed from an old bowling alley lane, the barstools are all made from wood pallets, the tap handles are varying-sized chunks of wood with the South Bend Brew Werks’ cog logo carved into the handle, hand-crafted ceramic mugs hang from the back wall behind the bar, blackboard chalk menus are framed by pallets.
“It’s hard to find a place that is more South Bend,” Drew Elegante, Maestro of Brew Werks, said. “Almost everything in here is repurposed from some historical part of South Bend, or we have local artists, or locally sourced food items, or locally crafted beers that we make here.”
Local modern art work decorates the walls, surrounded by more wooden-pallet frames. All art is for sale: 50 percent goes to the artist, while 50 percent goes to a local charity organization. The air vents are visible hanging from the ceiling, while the floor is polished and a Dr. Seuss-esque mural of brewing equipment is painted on the cement. Reds, grays and blacks grace the walls, giving the small room a modern, yet comfortable feel.
There are 65 unique ceramic mugs behind the bar.
“We have the original Founders Mug Club, which were the people who during the crowdfunding campaign donated to the mug club,” Drew said. “So those were the people who essentially invested with us from the beginning, so they will always hold a special place in our heart. We sold out that mug club and we limited it because we wanted to have a close relationship with those people.”
Next to the stone mugs are handled-glass mugs, designating the second-tier mug club.
“A lot of people were almost angry that they couldn’t get in the [Founders] Mug Club, so we created a second mug club,” Drew said. “It’s still a larger pour … they get a T-shirt and 25-percent-off merchandise. Our mugs are an annual renewal, but when you renew it you get another T-shirt and an additional mug club refill.”
Above the stone and glass mugs sits a golden chalice. Drew said this is the ultimate reward given out by South Bend Brew Werks, and of course it involves good deeds in South Bend.
“The third tier is the golden chalice,” Drew said. “That’s something you can’t buy, but have to earn. We wanted to be able to celebrate people — maybe undersung heroes — who were doing great things for the community and this was our way of saying thanks and say here is a mug, come and drink. So the first one we did Mayor Pete [Buttigieg] because he was just coming back from Afghanistan and doing a ribbon cutting. I wouldn’t say Mayor Pete is an undersung anything, but for us it was a great marketing opportunity to get the idea and concept out. It’s just another opportunity to talk about really good things going on in South Bend.”
The beer color spectrum sat before me in liquid form. Ten miniature glasses, collectively known as a flight (the flights at Brew Werks are served on old curving desktops, the ones that look like a curved pizza peel, with holes cut out where one would write), were lined up in front of me: the 9 Aye, Mr. Elegante, Juniper IPA, IPA #002, Colonel Eddy, Cascading Wheat, Nut Brown, Midwest Session, Pale Ale #001 and Rye Stout. All were uniquely colored — ranging from the golden blonde color of the Cascading Wheat to the warm glow of the Nut Brown to the thick chocolate ink of the Mr. Elegante. It was all of the beers Brew Werks made — for now. There are five house beers (9 Aye, 1865 Amber, Cascading Wheat, Colonel Eddy and Mr. Elegante), which are always on tap, while the five remaining are on rotation and are whatever the master brewer Jason comes up with in the basement.
I tasted each of the ten beers. The black IPA, “9 Aye” was the best beer I tasted. There were hints of tangerine with touches of spice, and the beer was surprisingly light for being a dark beer. The Nut Brown tasted like savory-liquid Nutella, while the Juniper was subtle with the juniper flavoring, which made for a nice, interesting tasting IPA. The Colonel Eddy would be a good beer to finish a meal with, as the oatmeal stout tasted of chocolate and coffee. Mr. Elegante was the most interesting beer I have tasted in a while, with a smoky and bacon-y flavor. Mr. Elegante was the brainchild of Drew’s tastebuds and the original brewers’ beer savvy.
“My favorites are darker beers,” Drew said. “You can see Mr. Elegante on the menu. It’s a smoked porter, it has a little bit of bacon flavor in it from the malt. It’s probably our most distinctive beer. It’s something that you will not find anywhere else. A lot of people come in and try it; some people love it, some people hate it. There are very few people in between.”
The other five beers on the menu were less impressive. IPA #002 seemed weak and not fully formed, while the Cascading Wheat lacked the crispness and zing wheat beers usually have. The stout/IPA combo Midwest Session failed to bring the two together successfully and the Pale Ale #001, although an APA, tasted too similar to IPA #002. The Rye Stout was smooth but lacked flavor. Overall, the uniquely-flavored beers stood out and the others were unassuming in the background.
South Bend Brew Werks is more than beer, though. Charitable giving is a large part of Brew Werks’ identity in the form of a “beer-for-good” program.
“The beer-for-good program with the donations is something I think is out of the ordinary here,” Drew said. “I’ve heard talk about the Downtown Dining Alliance, which is all of the downtown restaurants and bars, doing something similar at each location, which I think would be extraordinary because then it does become part of the South Bend culture: ‘When you go to South Bend you always give back.’”
Depending on the size glass a patron buys, he or she will receive a colored bottle cap designated 10 cents, 25 cents or 50 cents. It is then up to the customer to decide which of the three community organizations he or she will donate to. On the central pillar there are three green-glass mason jars waiting for the uniquely colored bottle caps. Behind each glass are pamphlets for each respective organization: Neighborhood Resource Center, La Casa de Amistad and The Music Village. I donated three of my 10-cent bottle caps to both NRC and La Casa de Amistad and four to The Music Village.
Through everything Brew Werks does, the aim is always “Building a stronger community, one brew at a time,” as its motto says.
“I think the way craft breweries impact identity is by creating really good memories for people of a city and a region, or by promoting the brand of that city,” Drew said. “It’s one of the ways in which to market and brand your city and right now craft beer is super popular. So it’s a really good way to get people to come and visit. It contributes to the identity and it’s a part of carving out more space for South Bend to be South Bend.”