Wandering Indiana

A review of
Indiana, One Pint at a Time, by Douglas Wissing.

Just my luck. I spent my college days in Indiana just as the state's brewing industry entered its final death spiral. The local brand, Drewry's, marked my 21st birthday by turning off the taps for good. How times have changed. Today, Indiana breweries turn out beer styles my classmates and I never imagined existing, let alone tasting.

Indiana isn't known for being beer-friendly (until last year, you couldn't even order one on Election Day), but its brewing industry has quite a story to tell. And it's well told by Douglas Wissing in his book
Indiana, One Pint at a Time. Wissing, an award-winning foreign correspondent, describes his book as "Indiana history seen through the bottom of a beer glass, a little distorted but easily recognizable."

Nearly two centuries ago, a band of German utopians formed a community in New Harmony. The settlers, led by a charismatic preacher, were the state's first brewers of consequence. Even though they thought the end of the word was at hand, they didn't abandon all earthly pleasures. Beer was one of them.

The Harmonists were German; their beer lineup included a wheat, a porter, and something resembling a Belgian dubbel. They left the state, but the slack was soon taken up by waves of immigrants. Indiana lay within the "German triangle," a region bounded by Cincinnati (a jumping-off point for many Indiana-bound brewers), St. Louis, and Milwaukee. Their descendants dominated the state's brewing industry until Prohibition. Thanks to their influence, beer dethroned whiskey as the beer of choice; and a culture of beer gardens,
biersteuben, and gemütlichkeit took hold.

However, Indiana had a strong temperance movement. Lawmakers first banned liquor in the 1850s. Although the state's highest court struck the ban down, the drys never stopped fighting. In 1895, the legislature banned food, music, partitions, and booths in licensed establishments--a preview of coming attractions. The state eagerly ratified the Eighteenth Amendment and, in 1925, passed the Wright Bone Dry Law. One of the most repressive acts in state history, it offered generous bounties for prosecuting Prohibition violators.

Thanks to lingering anti-alcohol sentiment, Indiana was slow to join the craft beer movement; brewpubs didn't get the legislative green light until 1993. Since then, though, the state's brewing community has made up for lost time. By the time Wissing hit the road, there were 31 breweries, more than at any time since the start of Prohibition.

This is where the guidebook portion of
Indiana: One Pint at a Time comes in. Wissing has profiled each of the state's breweries, providing fast facts–such as the equipment found there--along with a narrative about the brewery and the people who made it happen. The guidebook also lists the state's leading beer bars, such as Indianapolis' Rathskeller, which opened in 1894 and still specializes in German beer.

Wissing points out that Indiana's craft brewers have already made an impact. Three Floyds, a class operation in its own right, has become famous for Dark Lord Day, arguably the nation's number-one release party. There's even an emerging Hoosier beer style: bourbon barrel-aged ale. At the 2008 Great American Beer Festival, Indiana breweries swept the board in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Beer category. Why not? Bourbon country is right across the river, and the distillers' used barrels have to go somewhere.

No book about beer is complete without trivia, and Wissing serves up plenty. Even though I graduated from Notre Dame, I never learned that Knute Rockne once coached two professional football teams sponsored by South Bend-based Muessel Brewing Company. Or that Tony Hulman, the man who raised the Indianapolis 500 to sports-icon status, invested part of his vast fortune in a brewery that went broke. And one more interesting factoid: Dr. Michael Floyd, one of the principals in the Three Floyds Brewing Company, once performed a kidney transplant on Phillippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, proving once again that beer people come from all walks of life.

Having written a similar book about breweries in my home state, I'd like to offer one suggestion for a second edition. Please tell us more about the breweries and the people behind them. They're the stars of the show and, almost without exception, have a compelling story to tell. Aside from that, Wissing deserves a solid thumbs-up. If you live in the Great Lakes region and travel for beer, add
Indiana: One Pint at a Time to your collection. (It accompanied me on a recent trip west, and it fit inside the glove compartment.) And if you're a fan of local brewing history, pick up a copy. Wissing does a thorough job of bringing long-gone but once-famous breweries back to life.