11 January 2013

Beer Diary - Jim | The Test of the Small Town

If you've lived in an urban center for long enough, you'll find that many of the big city's residents hail from suburbs and small towns. These places might be close to the city, or they might be far away. Some who grew up in these places are reluctant to talk about them, especially if the hometown in question is in the Midwest (or as coastal residents disparagingly refer to it, "flyover country"). Indeed, hatred of one's place of origin is nearly a national pastime. Books, movies, and albums have been written on the subject.

I too used to dislike my hometown. Sure, the town is the county seat, so it's more than just a few buildings at an intersection with a stoplight. It is also home to a small liberal arts college, so it isn't devoid of all culture. And its downtown area did not die the cruel, slow death that the downtown areas of other small Midwestern towns did in the '70's and '80's. Indeed, for a town of its size, my hometown probably has one of the liveliest downtowns in the state.

But when I was growing up there, there was little to do for a restless kid like me. The in-crowd cruised the local mall and went to cheap beer parties on weekends. Geeks like me stayed in and played Dungeons & Dragons, Gamma World, and Car Wars. I thought that the people who stayed in my hometown after high school or who came back after college were comfortable--too comfortable. I didn't want to be one of them. I wanted desperately to pass The Test of the Small Town and move on to someplace vibrant. Someplace larger. Someplace less homogeneous.

So 20 years ago, I left in search of urban life. My search eventually led me to Indianapolis. Admittedly, the city back then wasn't what I was hoping for when I landed there. I'd originally wanted to move to Chicago and often second-guessed my decision to move to Indy during the first five or six years that I lived there. But in many ways, Indianapolis has morphed into a fantastic place in which to live; it finally has much of the culture and vibrancy that I was seeking 20 years ago. I can truly say that I now love the city.

But after I left for Indy, my visits to my hometown were infrequent. I'd go back once a year, sometimes twice a year. To be sure, when I was there, I saw some change. A new store went up here. A new restaurant went up there. But I'd wonder again why anyone of my generation would choose to remain there. Snobby, elitist, childish--whatever you wish to call my attitude, it showed that I looked down on those who stayed behind.

Yet later visits showed me that there's a lot to like about my hometown. It has good schools. It's a great place to raise a family. It has some excellent restaurants and bars. It even has a great brewery. And my hometown has a comfortable familiarity; my family is still there, and good people live there. In short, I've come to realize that the people who decided to stay there were neither stupid nor "too comfortable"; they were wise.

A fair number of craft beer aficionados are like the urban snobs who look down on their hometowns. They're forever in search of the next "big" beer. They often ignore the simpler beers--the pilsners, the English pale ales, the brown ales, the traditional English IPAs, the bitters--the beers that have become the small towns of the craft beer world. I'm thinking of beers like Figure 8's Where Lizards Dare IPA  or Broad Ripple Brewpub's Lawnmower Pale Ale. Beers like Lafayette Brewing's Tippecanoe Common Ale and New Albanian's Community Dark Mild Ale. Beers like People's Pilsner and Fountain Square Brewing Company's Workingman's Pilsner. These are still craft beers to be sure. But for some, they're just not exciting enough.

However, just like a big-city dweller can grow tired of the noise, the crowded sidewalks, the rudeness of people, and the strips of concrete that have overrun nature, so too can the big-beer-seeker grow tired of the quest for the hefty barrel-aged beers, the palate-blowing sour ales, and the exclusive ales brewed by a handful of Belgian monks in a remote monastery. Sometimes, simplicity is desirable. After awhile, perhaps the best thing to do is pull a Thoreau and immerse yourself in the craft beer version of Walden.

In the end, passing the test of the small town is not seeing how quickly you can flee it; it's realistically appreciating the good things that the town has to offer.


  1. Well put, Jim. Great post. Though Muncie doesn't really have a "brewery" (Wolves Head has made a couple batches, but is absent more than it is present on the Heorots' lines), I feel the same about my hometown...though maybe I was never quite as in a hurry to get out or reluctant to return, I understand the sentiment to be sure. Good stuff.

  2. Great read! Alas, I am that elitist that you speak of, always looking for that next big beer. However, I tend to think of it as adventurous. I like to try new things and there's nothing like walking into a liquor store and picking up a couple of bombers of stuff I have never had before. Of course, I always return to my favorites, but the adventurer in me will never die. Thanks for the great post!

  3. I've recently experienced the same feeling as you have. I tend to chase "big" beers, but the homegrown locals and traditional styles have recently intrigued me. I just recently realized that I've never had a traditional English bitter, or a beer hand-pulled like in Britain. It is my personal goal in the near future to appreciate the more common and traditional styles more and chase less. Great read!