22 November 2010

Rock, Scissors, Paper . . . Figure Eight

We at Hoosier Beer Geek tend to focus our coverage on central Indiana. But craft beer lovers in this state know well that the northwest corner of Indiana has exceptional breweries, including Three Floyds, Crown, Shoreline, and Backroad.

Valparaiso, my hometown, is home to the newest addition to northwest Indiana’s craft brewery roster: Figure Eight Brewing. Located just outside of downtown Valpo in a small strip mall, Figure Eight is owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Tom and Lynne Uban. Tom is Figure Eight’s brewmaster; he’s also a software engineer and consultant by trade who spent time working as a pinball machine programmer with Williams Electronic Games in Chicago. A homebrewer since the mid-80s, Tom’s inspiration to open a commercial brewery came in part when a friend of his opened a microdistillery in Colorado. And after visiting Backroad Brewery in nearby LaPorte to get a close-up view of how a commercial brewery works, Tom finally decided to open Figure Eight.

Figure Eight is a small but impressive operation. Tom brews on a seven-barrel system, and the brewery has a tasting room that seats about 16 to 20 people. He’s also a rock-climbing enthusiast; this passion serves as the main theme for the brewery. A rock-climbing course scales one wall near the brewery entrance, leading from the floor to a storage area on the balcony. A rock-climbing axe whimsically serves as the toilet paper holder in the restroom. And the names for Figure Eight’s beers are all related to rock climbing. For instance, Figure Eight’s flagship beer, Ro Shampo, is named for a rock-climbing route in Kentucky that somehow got tagged with a misinterpretation of the name for the rock-scissors-paper game (actually called Rochambeau). Graphic artist Greg Freres, who Tom worked with at Williams Electronics and who Tom hired to do the brewery’s graphics, used rock-scissors-paper as an inspiration for label and artwork design. Freres’ work generated Figure Eight’s unofficial mascots: the chimps that appear on some of the brewery’s merchandise.

I visited Figure Eight on a Saturday afternoon, bringing my mom along so I could get a non-beer geek’s perspective on Figure Eight’s beers. We arrived when the tasting room opened at 1 p.m. Soon thereafter, the tasting room was full of patrons. They lined up at the Dutch door which functions as the brewery’s serving station, keeping Lynne busy at the taps, where she doled out pints, growlers, and sampler flights.

After my mom and I settled in at a table (complete with complementary pretzels for palate cleansing), we ordered a sampler flight. Lynne quickly brought us our flight, which consisted of nine samples. The only beer missing from the flight was Figure Eight’s nut brown ale, Camp 4, which had recently run out. The rest are listed below in the order in which we tasted them:

First Ascent (4% ABV). Figure Eight describes this beer as a “Belgian Honey Lager.” Crisp, clean, and slightly lemony, First Ascent possesses the “clover nose” described in the brewery’s tasting notes. As a fan of good lagers, I enjoyed this beer very much. It proved to be a good beer with which to lead off.

Crash Test Blonde (6% ABV). This is a Belgian-style Blonde Ale brewed with candi sugar and noble hops. It’s a bit floral and grassy and is pleasantly sweet. This beer earned Mom’s seal of approval, primarily due to her sweet tooth. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree because I quite enjoyed Crash Test Blonde too.

Where Lizards Dare (4% ABV). This is Figure Eight’s IPA. It is very flavorful yet blessedly sessionable. Centennial and Cascade hops produce a flowery and piny nose backed by an almost bone-dry flavor. The beer is bitter, but not so bitter that it prevents a multiple-pint sitting. I’m pretty sure that Where Lizards Dare would make our man-in-search-of-good-session-beer Matt very happy. As Matt has noted, standout session beers are hard to come by. Where Lizards Dare was a standout, so I ordered a pint after we finished our flight.

Harvest Ale #1 (7% ABV). This is the brewery’s wet hopped ale (we’re talking Cascade hops). I’m accustomed to harvest ales coming in the pale ale or IPA style, but Harvest Ale #1 is an ESB. This was a pleasant surprise and served as a great example of Tom’s innovative deviation from brewing convention. The result is a copper-colored brew with a heavy brown sugar nose that leads to an unexpectedly dry, peppery finish in the taste.

Ro Shampo (7.5% ABV). Ro Shampo is an imperial red ale. As I noted above, it’s also Figure Eight’s flagship beer. This is unusual, at least when considered in light of beers from other Indiana breweries. While I haven’t sampled every Indiana beer, I can think of only one other in-state brewery that counts an imperial red among its regular beers: New Albanian, which offers an imperial red called Elector. Like Elector, Ro Shampo is a well-balanced beer that evokes notes of caramel and toffee. However, it’s a bit drier than Elector and also carries a whisky-like character. Given this flavor profile, it’s no surprise that Ro Shampo has become Figure Eight’s most popular beer.

Offwidth (8.3% ABV). We next tackled Figure Eight’s double pale ale, Offwidth. When have you ever run into a double pale ale? I know that Flying Dog does one, but I’m unaware of other brewers doing a DPA. Though most beer geeks might expect a DPA to be a hop bomb, Offwidth is a malt-forward beer. To be sure, the citrusy hops are there in the nose and flavor. But sweet malt wins out in the end.

Snake Pro (9% ABV). Snake Pro is the brewery's double IPA. In contrast to Offwidth, which is malt-forward, Snake Pro contains the intense malt/hops balance that one would expect from a DIPA. Bold, fruity, malty, and piny, Snake Pro fits well within the DIPA style.

Bourbon Aged Rye Knot (7.2% ABV). Another innovative beer, Bourbon Aged Rye Knot is a Baltic rye porter aged with vanilla beans in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. Because I’m not a bourbon drinker, I tend not to like barrel aged beers that are heavy on the bourbon side. Rye Knot is not that type of beer. I’ve had other beers aged in Buffalo Trace barrels (I’m looking at you, Sun King), and these barrels consistently produce a soft bourbon note in the beer, accompanied by a butterscotch character. Bourbon Aged Rye Knot had these flavors, but also featured the vanilla beans quite well. This was Mom’s favorite beer of the bunch. It won me over too.

Black Corridor (8.5% ABV). This beer is Figure Eight’s imperial stout. Many imperial stouts contain pronounced chocolate, coffee, vanilla, and/or brandy notes. In contrast, Black Corridor is quite mellow and drinkable for an imperial stout. The chocolate notes are there, but the dominant character from the beer is dark fruit. Because this beer goes down easily for a “big” beer, I imagine that it might be a bit sneaky if one is not careful.

In addition to being available at the tasting room, Figure Eight beers are currently featured on draft at a few local establishments, including Pikk’s Tavern in Valpo and Beer Geeks Pub in Highland. Figure Eight’s tasting room service also includes Sunday carryout. But while Figure Eight is a small operation, Tom and Lynne are not resting on their laurels because four Figure Eight beers will soon be available in bottles. “We did a small test run of bottling last week and plan to run 30 cases of 22 ounce Ro Shampo bottles this week,” said Tom. “We have the Ro labels in house, and First Ascent and Where Lizards Dare labels are at the printer. The Snake Pro labels are in the government approval process and then off to the printer as well. So, hopefully in the next three to four weeks we should be able to bottle the four styles.”

When I asked Tom whether Figure Eight would maintain only a local focus with their bottle distribution, he said that he hoped distribution could be more widespread. “Our distribution plans are to sell bombers (22 ounce bottles) in as many stores, bars, and restaurants in our local area . . . as we can. Once we have a feel for the demand and if we can keep up with it, we will expand as possible. The Lafayette area seems like a likely direction as does Indianapolis, assuming there is room for another brand there, what with the booming growth of new breweries.”

As a brewer, Tom Uban has a simple yet important philosophy. “My mission is to make great beer,” he said. “I want to continue to develop new brews that push the complexities and reward the palate. I love waking people up to the possibilities of craft beer.” With continued hard work by Tom and Lynne, many more Hoosiers will be rubbing the sleep out of their eyes to see some fantastic beer possibilities.

Figure Eight Brewing Company
1555 West Lincolnway, #105
Valparaiso, IN 46385

Regular tasting room hours:
Thursday & Friday, 5 to 8 p.m.
Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m.
Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Special Thanksgiving week hours:
Friday, 1 to 8 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

1 comment:

  1. I came a across Figure Eights by accident driving home from Valpo to Hobart. Now I am a Sunday regular for a refill of my Growler that can be carried out. I have tried most beers there and have not found one I do not like. Great little place and carryout on Sunday makes it even better.