11 March 2009

KOTBR #67 - Reader Submitted Locations - Ralph's Great Divide and Dorman Street Saloon

On February 25th we put up a post entitled "Looking for Reader Suggestions", and came up with a list of nine worthy locations for review. The first suggestion, submitted by reader IndyIndie (otherwise known as Andy):
Well, I don't know if you have ever been there but the Dorman Street Saloon (901 Dorman St, Indianapolis (317) 237-9008‎ / smoking permitted) (or whatever moniker it is going by now) is a pleasant little dive tucked into the Cottage Home neighborhood (just east of 65/70 between 10th and Michigan). It doesn't have any taps or a real kitchen but it does have a pretty tasty little list of imports and microbrews along with a standing promise from the barkeep Andy that "If you don't see something you like just tell me and we can order it as long as you promise to comeback and drink it at some point." The place has one pool table, real darts, and a good old school jukebox that plays CDs. Given my own proclivity for dive bars and the few blocks I have to walk to get there from my house, I love this place.
That sounded good enough for us, so we contacted Andy to join us and put Dorman Street on the list. We also threw in Ralph's Great Divide (743 E New York St, Indianapolis‎ - (317) 637-2192‎ / smoking permitted) since it's nearby and worthy of attention. And we also invited out Cari, the "Kahn's Beer Princess Queen" (and her husband) to sit in and see what we're about.

From Merriam-Webster's Dictionary

Main entry: class·ic
Pronunciation: \ˈkla-sik\
Function: adjective
Etymology: French or Latin; French classique, from Latin classicus, of the highest class of Roman citizens, of the first rank, from classis.
Date: Circa 1604
a: serving as a standard of excellence; of recognized value (classic literary works).
b: traditional, enduring (classic designs).
c: historically memorable (a classic battle).

Ralph's Great Divide. The Dorman Street Saloon. Many would call these establishments "dives." I prefer to think of them as classics. Indeed, both bars would easily fit the definitions listed above. They are both of recognized value, beloved by devoted patrons who swear by their atmosphere and offerings. They are certainly traditional, though Dorman Street does have an unconventional, bohemian air to it, as evidenced by the hipster-influenced jukebox. And, they're definitely enduring and historically memorable--Ralph's has been around at least since Prohibition was repealed, and word has it that John Dillinger liked to drink at Dorman Street.

It might not be surprising, then, that the beers we reviewed on our trip to Ralph's and Dorman Street could be considered classics, though for different reasons. At Ralph's, we drank Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which I consider the standard against which all American Pale Ales are measured. Citrusy, floral, bready, with a hint of sweetness, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a go to beer for me during warm weather months or when I'm at a macro-heavy bar with few craft beer selections. We're close enough to spring, so cracking open one of these beers was a welcome change from the heavy dark beers we beer geeks tend to prefer when it's cold outside. 4.00 mugs.

At Dorman Street, we reviewed Rogue Brutal Bitter, which is classic in my mind because it's brewed in the style of the UK's prototype ale, the Extra Special Bitter. I didn't like this beer upon the first couple sips, as the nose promised a hop wallop that wasn't actually there. But after several more sips, this beer grew on me, as a heavy malt and biscuit profile blossomed with each taste. At 6.5% ABV, it's not quite what you'd call a session beer, but it kind of tastes like one. 3.50 mugs.

The menu at Ralph's Great Divide states that Ralph is a "man of words. Words of Wisdom. Words of Humor - peppered with imaginative mixtures of King's English and profanities". You could almost see Ralph hanging out on a bar stool, joking with the bartenders and passing his bits of wisdom and vulgar jokes on to the other regulars as well as unsuspecting customers. Ralph is a staple in the bar, a legend. His picture hangs in the bar and his stories passed on for many years.

A beer with that kind of status may not get that way by being the biggest or the most expensive. It may not always be on the forefront of a beer-drinkers mind, but when reminded, it is met with appreciation and fondness. That is certainly the case for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It's light, fruity nose leads to a full-bodied hoppiness that pleasantly lingers on the tongue for a few moments after finishing a sip.

This celebrated beer’s been thought of, talked about, and enjoyed for nearly thirty years. If Chico, California were a bar, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale would be its Ralph, perhaps without the lewd jokes. 3.2 mugs.

I love dive bars.

Let me repeat that: I LOVE DIVE BARS! For all of downtown Indy's convention-friendly sparkliness, we actually have a pretty good compliment of them. Some have been around for decades (or more). Some have been handed down through the generations. And some are partially shined-up (but not too much) old hang-outs given a new lease on life.

Our evening started at Ralph's Great Divide, a nice, comfortable, cheap & tasty food kind of place. I've had food there before (HOT POT AUG) but our guest of honor said that they made some mean deserts, so I chose to go that way. I have to agree: my loaded brownie was plenty loaded and very tasty.

Like the bars of the evening, we chose an old standby of mine to review, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. On tap, in the bottle, this beer never dissapoints. For some reason I actually wrote notes for this beer, but there's no need to pull them out. Biscuity, citrusy, piney, grassy, and above all balanced, this beer is a classic and one that I'll often look for when the beer list isn't overflowing. I give it 3.6 mugs.

For our second stop of the night, we ended up at the multi-named Dorman St. Saloon / The Hog / May's Lounge / 9th Street Tavern / Mahogany Bar. What they officially call it, I don't know, but I'm sticking with what their web URL says and what my friends always used to call it: Dorman Street. This bar definitely falls under the "shined-up" category, as the new owners have added a couple new windows and a wonderful new entrance to this great old neighborhood bar. Thankfully they didn't change it too much -- once on the inside I realized that they hadn't actually changed too much of the interior and they retained the wonderful old bar at the center of everything. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to stick around for the review beer of the night, but I think everybody else has you covered on that one.

One of these days, I'm getting our crew out to Lockerbie Pub, my all-time favorite dive bar.

Our evening began with a delicious meal at Ralph's Great Divide and my cheeseburger (add bacon with a side of pickled beets) lived up to the hype of the food. The burger was great with pickles, onion, tomato, american cheese and lettuce all on whole wheat bread. As someone who eats 99% whole wheat bread I was so happy that it came as I would order it normally. I would highly recommend the cheeseburger, and the bacon was crispy and thick (something quite rare for dive bar bacon).

Alas this isn't hoosier burger geek (and I could wax poetic for a very long time about that burger), so let's get down to the beer. At Ralph's we round tabled the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in bottles and I was pleasantly surprised. For one the beers are served in can cozies, "to keep the beer cold and your hand warm." If you ask for a glass, you get a small glass much like a tasting glass for your brew. Sierra Nevada Pale pours slightly darker golden color with a syrupy hop nose. I also smelled a little bit of NIFS in my first sip, but that could be the smoking bar area helping that along. The flavor is a nice light hop flavor, slightly spicy and extremely balanced. I give it a 3.5 mug score as it's an enjoyable and light summery ale.

From there we headed down the road to the Dorman St. Saloon. I was pleasantly surprised at this bar after my first exposure to this hidden delight was from an Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission hearing. After much discussion we decided on the Rogue Brutal Bitter and were once again rewarded with mini-glasses from which we were supposed to quaff our delicious brew. It was copper in color with a pilowy white head and a biscuity nose that contained just a hint of hops. The flavor was bready and balanced with malt and hop flavors shining through. It has quite the balanced flavor, much like english ESB's. I give it a solid 3.7 mug score.

Dive bars are great. Especially dive bars that have a decent selection of beer. Well, let me rephrase that, dive bars that have more than light beer in bottles. Ralph's had probably ~15 varieties, and while you won't find Founders here, you will probably be able to find something you'll like. We decided to go with the famous forefather of the American Pale Ale; Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I'm pretty picky with hoppy beers but I feel like this one just gets it right. A slightly spicy nose of cinnamon, citrus and honey somehow brings to mind flower fields. This beer strikes a great balance between the classic American flavor of cascade hops, tangerines, and a honey wheat bread. This is the American Pale Ale, and I give it 3.8 mugs.

I would be remiss to not draw attention to the amazing slice of coconut cream pie I had at Ralph's. Well mixed toasted coconut and a heavy cream were heaven on earth. If you don't come for the beer, come for the pie.

Dorman Street is a bar that makes me jealous. Jealous because I don't have a bar like this in my neighborhood. Lots of brewana on the walls, cheap tables, a pool table, darts and a bar packed with neighbors. The ubiquitous bar you can drop in and chat with people you know any night of the week. These are on every corner of a larger city, and we need more of them. What was even better was the impressive beer list. The list on their website doesn't do them justice. On top of their imports and macro beers, they had probably 20 craft beer options. After much debate (Mike is a jerk and doesn't like Rogue), we ended up with a group session of Rogue Brutal Bitter. Brutal is a bit of a misnomer, as this is more appropriately an ESB. The aroma was light with hints of spruce, orange, brown sugar and sweet cream. The mouthfeel was pleasantly soft and smooth with flavors of brown sugar, orange, cream (hey this is beginning to sound redundant) and a nice hint of hops. This was a really good example of an ESB, a style that I love. Not too hoppy, not to sweet and super easy to drink. 3.9 mugs.

As a footnote, I would like to mention that I really appreciated the under-sized glasses at each of these bars. It's a lot easier to enjoy a 12oz bottle when you don't pour it into a 16oz glass. It's also an enjoyable experience to have to pour the bottle a second time to empty it. Or maybe that's just me.

Without repeating everything that the other Knights of the Beer Roundtable have already said, let me state that I love neighborhood (aka dive) bars and that I would love to pick up the Dorman Street and place it in my neighborhood. Around the corner from my house. You know, within stumbling distance.

One thing the others have not addressed yet in their reviews is the noise at Ralph’s and Dorman Street. At the corporate bars, you have two million tv’s showing sports of all sorts, including the Sri Lanka Cricket Championship, with top 40 music playing over the speakers courtesy of Sirius or XM.

While both of the evenings bars had TV’s, you could easily count them on one hand. Even if you are a high school shop teacher. Nobody was really paying attention to them. They were just…there.

And no deafening top 40 music. At Ralph’s you were deafened by the silence. I don’t think they had any music playing at all. I remember a couple of times when there was a pause in the conversation that I really wished there was some crappy music playing to fill the void. I’d be happy with anything.

Or so I thought. Dorman Street proved me wrong. They have a jukebox, which is great. Though somebody in the bar was feeling very melancholy that evening, because I think somebody ordered up every David Gray song available. How many David Gray songs do you need in a jukebox? After the third song, I was ready to slit my wrists. My traveling companions jumped into action, putting in dozens of musical selections.

The beer menu at Dorman Street is impressive. So impressive that we couldn’t decide which beer to review. Thirsty, I went to the bar and ordered the Brutal Bitter. Apparently I’m a trendsetter, because several others followed suit.

This was not my first encounter with Rogue’s Brutal Bitter. But to be honest, I couldn’t remember what the beer was like the first time I had it. With a name like Brutal Bitter, you’d expect the beer to be a complete knock-out. So maybe the brutality beat the beer memory right out of my brain.

Don’t let the name fool you: this beer is not brutal. Yes, it has bitterness to it. But not so much to turn off those who are not hop heads. As others have said, this is in the lines of a classic ESB. It is enjoyable to drink. It is heavy on hops, but it is also heavy on malts. A beer that you would expect to find at an English Pub.

Its name, unfortunately, causes you to expect something more. Hop heads may order it based on the name, only to find it doesn’t live up to its name. Maltier minds may steer clear, missing out on a beer that, I think, could be enjoyed by all. So just call it Rogue ESB instead of its given name; you shouldn’t have any confusion or disappointment this way.

Just don't name it after David Gray. Because nobody would want to order that sh*t.


Sierra Nevada Pale Ale:
$4.50/12oz. at Ralph's Great Divide
Andy (our guest): 3.25 Mugs | Jason: 3.75 Mugs | Jim: 4.0 Mugs | Rod: 3.8 Mugs | Jess: 3.5 Mugs | Gina: 3.2 Mugs | Mike: 2.95 Mugs | Chris: 3.6 Mugs | Brian (Chris' Brother): 3.0 Mugs
KOTBR SCORE: 3.45 Mugs

Rogue Brutal Bitter:
$4.25/12oz. at Dorman Street Saloon
Mike: 2.95 Mugs | Jess: 3.7 Mugs | Jim: 3.5 Mugs | Rodney: 3.9 Mugs | Jason: 3.5 Mugs
KOTBR Score: 3.51 Mugs


  1. We went to Ralph's one day for lunch. It really seemed like a great little place. Walking distance to my office as well.

  2. Be very jealous. I live well within "stumbling" distance of Dorman. Thanks for reviewing the best bar in town.