21 September 2011

In Search of the Top Class Beer Bar

If there's a reoccurring complaint amongst Indianapolis' better beer fans, it might be that the city still lacks the top class beer bar that many other cities have. In Chicago, drinkers choose from The Hop Leaf and The Map Room. In St. Louis, International Tap House's (ITAP) two locations give locals 40 taps handles and nearly 500 bottles to choose from. In New Albany, Rich O's Public House boasts an expansive selection, in addition to regular events which highlight the variety and creativity of better beer. Muncie's Heorot provides plenty of options, with unmatched prices and a legendary cellar.

Perhaps our best options for selection in Indianapolis - Chumley's and Shallo's - each leave something to desire. Chumley's often features a lineup no one else can touch - but despite regular rotation, the focus never seems to be on the beer; more so the college crowd that fills the smokey room1 on most evenings. The Shallo's tap list and bottle selection might be the best in the city, but perhaps between an audience that's still drinking plenty of macros and the restaurant's family friendly status, beer doesn't seem to be the headliner2.

Others have taken a shot at it; Scotty's Brewhouse has a nice selection, but food is still the focus. MacNiven's has long had an interesting and diverse selection, but the bar allows smoking. The recently opened Twenty Tap has many the right touches, but the selection doesn't go deep enough to rank it amongst those beer bars that many consider the gold standard. There are many more who've made great strides - but nevertheless, Indianapolis continues to miss the mark.

But who sets that mark? What is it that makes a beer bar truly memorable? It's not just a tap list. It's a feeling that the bar's primary focus is on beer - not food (though that's always a nice touch), not in extraneous customer entertainment (I'm not sure televisions even belong in such a place), not even a well-rounded lineup (those are getting easier to find). Places like San Francisco's Toronado make the list because beer is the only thing you'll find inside. Closer to home, Louisville Beer Store (while not exactly a bar) gives off a similar vibe - a non-nonsense dedication to beer, from bottle and tap selection to glassware.

One thing that might be overlooked: staff. A top class beer bar has a staff that not only knows the beer on tap, but also can direct you to alternatives should your first selection be unavailable. If I approach the bar looking for something from Lost Abbey, I don't expect to be offered an alternative selection from Abita, even if both make an Abbey Ale (and that's no slight to Abita's Abbey, which I haven't had). It's about reading people as much as beer labels. It's not an easy skill to acquire - you have to not only know beer styles, but where labels fall in the hierarchy of beer geek appreciation.

What we really want is a bar that appreciates beer in the same way we do. From the geeky stockpiling of rarer selections, to the dedication to cellaring that beer in a cool dark space, to showing a willingness to sit on and care for the right kind of beer for later sales, to special relationships with breweries that lead to special releases. The top class beer bar not only displays a high level of geekery, it revels in it.

If Indianapolis doesn't have that bar now, one thing is for sure - it won't happen overnight. The pieces and possibility may be in place, but putting them together requires more than just money - it also requires a bit of magic. Here's hoping there's a magician already in our midst, just waiting to unleash his plan.

We can dream, anyway.

1 An opinion: Allowing smoking in your beer bar means you're not putting enough focus on the beer. We can all agree that nose is a huge part of the beer drinking experience, and the guy or gal smoking that cigarette next to us isn't helping.

2 I'd argue that perhaps Shallo's location hurts its reputation as much as anything - people just aren't going to head to the southside for beer


  1. Is the Beer Sellar still a smokepit? It has a great draft lineup, but the smoke makes everything taste like drinking lung cancer.

    I whole-heartedly agree on the importance of knowledgeable staff in a great beer bar!

  2. I believe Beer Sellar now has a sort of non-smoking area (I live on the south side so I don't get up there much), but as you probably know, anyplace that had smoking for such a long time is always going to smell like it still has smoking.

  3. Would love to see something like the Brick store pub in Decatur, GA here in Indy. Although, I'm not sure if Indy can support a conversation bar with no TVs.

  4. @Anonymous I think Indy absolutely can support a bar like that. To My knowledge, Ball and Biscuit and Black Market have zero TVs while Twenty Tap and MacNiven's have one or two. All seem to be well received.

  5. @Jake Never been to Ball and Biscuit or Black Market, will hvae to check them out. I really enjoy Twenty Tap and MacNiven's.

  6. Libertine doesn't have TVs either. The TV-less bar is starting to gain ground in Indy and I hope the city supports it. We just need more beer focused TV-less bars. Broad Ripple Brewpub, Twenty Tap and MacNivens are all certainly close enough to be considered advocates of that approach.

    I'm under the impression that it might be more difficult to find investors if you are targeting one specific demographic. A bar that has a bunch of taps, cocktails, a huge wine list, cheap gourmet food, TVs with every game on, a hair salon, a pool table, darts, a swimming pool, live music, sumo suits and a Cirque du Soleil show sounds like it has a much better chance for success than a bar that focuses on craft beer with no macro taps.

  7. Binkleys goes totally under the radar (which is nice). Recent visit offered Breakfast Stout, 1 year aged keg of New Holland Black Tulip, SN Southern Harvest, etc. Good bar tender to boot.

  8. I always forget about Binkley's. Too Shiny for the Beer Geek's pale skin though.

    @Rod - Do you have any idea on startup costs for the style of bar? I honestly don't.

  9. I was far from impressed with Chumleys selection . Rolling Rock and Heinken are far was a selection that it used to be. Also a good five taps lines were out and the menu was way outdated. More attention should be focused on the North side with Beer Sellar and Ale Emporium.

  10. i think the mix in indy is pretty good. plenty of options to fit every taste. i think Scottys Brewhouse hits the mark. nice beer selection. good food. TVs. kid friendly during the day - probably at night toobut not really a kid place after 8.00 pm. non-smoking.
    a challenge to a true beer bar is where would you put it? someone siad they don't really go to the northeast side - i can confirm that i don't really have a desire to hit the southside or far westside either.
    doubtful that indy is ready for a true beer bar as i understand it in the post

  11. Gentlemen (assuming?),
    Tavern on South is a nice mix. It does have TV's but they do have a nice mix of taps and knowledgable staff.

    Food's good too.

  12. Interesting post. I personally would prefer a range of options to a mega beer bar. I like the change of scenery and I would have to say that this last year or two have definitely increased the options to beer fans in Indy. Hope we see more micro brews open over the next couple years.

    I love that 20 Taps focuses mostly on regional beer too. emmm beer.

  13. Mike: I think Beer Sellar is still entirely smoking. Ale Emporium has a non-smoking section, though.

    Ball and Biscuit, Black Market, Libertine - all awesome. I find it hard not to order a stronger libation than beer though when I am there though.

    Loving all of the conversation on this topic!

  14. 20Tap has a huge tv at the end of the dining room. Sure, in the days of Scotty's with 3 flatscreens for every damn seat that doesn't seem like much, but when you have a space not much bigger than my living room with a 60" tv in it, it's far from unnoticeable.

  15. Black Swan is nice, but suffers from not being in Indy.

    Agree that no bar in Indy gets high marks across the board.

  16. Shallo's does have a fantastic selection, but it typically isn't the first place I think of heading to for a beer. I agree that the location doesn't help it any. But it's not just about being on the south side of town. The Oaken Barrel has a pretty good following down here. Being tucked away in an obscure strip mall away from IN-31, actually makes it kind of hard to find. I sometimes forget that it's even there. They must be getting a good deal on the rent....

  17. Is there some law or rule that if you serve beer you have to serve food? For some reason I thought there was a HBG post a year or three back that talked about some rules that made it difficult to impossible.

    One of the biggest let downs for me came to the forefront last week when I was in Seattle: No Pacific NW beers in Indiana. We are missing out on like 20-25% of the great craft beer produced in the US.

    Check out this video from Taphouse in Seattle. 160 beers on tap. They let me go back in the keg room and it was glorious.

  18. Excise says "Permit premises where alcoholic beverages are consumed by the "drink" are required to have food service available, at all times, for at least 25 persons. Minimum food service required consists of hot soups, hot sandwiches, coffee, milk, and soft drinks."

    Is that being enforced? Take a look around for the soup, coffee, and milk next time you're out at your favorite bar.

    The rule is pretty black and white, but I've heard from brewery operators that when asked what they need to do to meet minimum requirements, they're often first asked "well what are you serving?" - so the whole process seems a little convoluted. Go figure.

  19. Those 160 taps are nice as long as the the product is moving. I'd be afraid to go that big here for fear that you'd be sitting on a lot of old beer.