This article was first published on CODO Design’s new blog. We suggest you surf over there to see even more of the fantastic imagery below. Big ole thanks to Isaac Arthur, Cody Fague and CODO Design for letting us reproduce.
Imagine you’re going out to drink this weekend with a couple of friends. It’s not going to be a big production: there’s nobody to impress here. You just want to catch up, have a nice time and unwind for a bit. You’re now picturing the ideal bar to visit. What kind of a place do you see?
You have the archetypal bar (with roots back in the old country, we suppose): dark wood, worn-in stools, the warm glow of low-wattage lightbulbs recalling beeswax candles and oil lamps of yore. Maybe there’s a vaguely European slant; maybe there’s a dinner special named with a bawdy double entendre. Maybe Ted Danson is leaning rakishly against a dated brass fixture, L.A. Gear sweatshirt provocatively askew. Whatever the trappings: this is the place that comes to mind when casual social drinking is in order.
The advent of craft beer has affected a sea change in the bar/pub aesthetic. And it’s all gotten fussier, hasn’t it? We’ve gotta have our reclaimed wood. We’ve gotta have our Edison bulbs popping out everywhere like little steampunk gophers. And just uh, build something out of old shipping pallets because the Blue Collar look is au currant, I guess. At this point, someone is going to have to say the word “hipster,” accompanied with a self-indulgent guffaw, because hey, why wouldn’t they? Hipsters. Haha, oh man.
Point is, for the sake of this argument, there’s a defined, ubiquitous look to the spaces that we visit when we want to drink craft beer. You might call it baggage, but this baggage means that craft beer consumers arrive pre-loaded with a set of expectations regarding their drinking habits, and by extension, the places where they plan to do their drinking. For the sake of people who are passionate about this industry, there’s a tremendous opportunity in understanding, dissecting and responding to customer expectations with an increasingly nit-picky resolution. More on that ahead.
There’s a lot of talk about a “Craft Beer Bubble,” a.k.a.., the notion that the craft beer industry will become so overcrowded with competition that breweries will inevitably fail by virtue of sheer market saturation. But all this talk of a bubble makes a crucial mistake in viewing craft beer as a commodity… like crude oil or tonnage of raw steel or Edison bulbs. This reductive viewpoint doesn’t leave us with much room to articulate what is actually happening as new breweries pop up all over the country. Right under our noses, breweries are developing into highly individualized lifestyle centers that defy the overly simple thinking of commodity economics. Presenting craft beer as a commodity is a short-sell. By reinforcing this idea, we don’t allow ourselves to invest much thought into the elements that make a craft brewery — the granular stuff, the details, the component pieces, the nit-picky stuff, the culture. And incidentally, these are the things that matter the most to many beer drinkers who often have dozens of places they can visit for a good beer within minutes of their home.
To put it another way: we’ve taken the idea of how a brewery (and by extension a craft beer bar) is supposed to look — reclaimed wood; a dim, rustic atmosphere; beards and flannel everywhere — and packaged it, inseparably, with craft beer itself. We’ve stereotyped these ideas to the point that they’ve become an easy target for competitive lampooning. We assume that they’re essential; that they’re just another checkbox on the list of How To Pass As Craft Beer. And we’ve done this under the auspice that craft beer is a commodity. But craft beer isn’t a commodity (not yet, anyway). And these ideas are not essential to a brewery’s success. Culturally, we’re guilty of an unfortunate oversimplification, albeit an oversimplification that heralds an incredible opportunity. If we know how we’re expected to look, then we know how to defy that expectation. By extension, we know exactly how to stand out. And amid the burgeoning craft beer marketplace, knowing how to stand out is pretty damn important.
In the case of Big Lug Canteen, and often without even realizing the magnitude of the task at hand, we wound up wrangling with some pretty high-level questions. Such as:
- How can another craft brewery stand out in an energetic, fiercely competitive market? and
- How might you delight a customer by playfully defying their expectations?
Or to put it more plainly: What if we didn’t encrust every inch of the tasting room with black pipe, dark wood and too-cool-for-school glowering Edison bulbs?
Enter Eddie Sahm and Scott Ellis. Eddie hails from the Sahm restaurant empire, a multi-generational old-time Indianapolis holdover with about a dozen locations and counting. Scott is an accomplished brewer with past gigs at The Ram in downtown Indy, Oaken Barrel in Greenwood, and Thr3e Wisemen in Broad Ripple.
We first met these guys in March 2014. It was cold out, and we gathered in one of those dim, archetypal taverns to discuss their idea for a new brewpub. A brewpub that would stand out in a sea of idealized, hyper-masculine wooden beer dungeons. A brewpub slated to open in Nora, Ind. — one of Indianapolis’ older suburban communities.
The idea was to create a two-story production brewery (10 bbl system) overlooking a restaurant that features ever-so-slightly-elevated-yet-not-intimidating bar food. The beer itself would be supremely balanced, leaning toward milder and more approachable British styles. The place would be called “Hoss Canteen” in honor of Eddie’s grandpa — “Hoss” was his nickname. Hoss was a respected man in the Central Indiana community, a family man and, in staying true to the Sahm name, was one hell of a character. “Canteen” is a word Eddie and Scott cottoned to immediately as a refreshing way to categorize a watering hole sitting just off of the popular Monon biking and jogging trail. They appreciate the novelty of the word “Canteen,” which is rarely used as a qualifier outside of Mexican restaurant concepts (think “Cantina”).