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