This column was provided by CODO Design, a branding firm based in Indianapolis. They’ve worked with breweries across the United States and around the world, on naming, positioning, branding and rebranding, responsive web design, and package design. If you’d like to discuss your brewery’s branding, shoot Isaac an email: [email protected]ododesign.com
We landed our first project in the brewing industry back in 2010. What began as a trickle of small identity design and packaging projects soon gave way to larger, more challenging branding projects. And in 2014, we were approached by Eddie Sahm to discuss branding for a new brewpub concept, Big Lug Canteen, that would go on to become one of the most popular breweries in Indianapolis.
Eddie and his business partner and head brewer, Scott Ellis, wanted to build a brewpub in Nora, an overlooked Indianapolis suburb. And they wanted to make it a vibrant, colorful and bright space to stand apart from what we had all collectively deemed the ‘Hyper Masculine Wooden Beer Dungeons’ of the day. These brewpubs, and their pervasive aesthetic were at full peak in 2014, and Eddie wanted to create a space that would be more welcoming to new craft beer drinkers and all the folks in Nora. Dispense with the gatekeeping. Make great beer and food. Provide outstanding service and have fun.
We were enthralled with this idea from the moment he reached out. Back then, before we became fully-enmeshed in this industry, we were beer fans and home brewers. We spent all of our money and spare time at local breweries (this was way before children and multiple employees came into the picture, mind you) and we believed in what Eddie and Scott wanted to build. We wanted it to exist as much as they did.
Reviewing our own portfolio and company development, Big Lug stands out as one of the most important projects of our career. Not only were we able to work closely with their team, take them through our entire branding process and create some of the most authentic work we’ve ever developed. But the branding that we developed (and that we still continue to create to this day) has earned us untold number of projects over the years as breweries around the world see it, call us, and exclaim, “Hey, I want that!”
In 2018, Eddie and Scott opened a Bavarian-meets-Indiana concept called Liter House. And shortly thereafter, they launched its sister concept, a German beer garden x Texas BBQ smokehouse, called Half Liter. The Liter House concept included a 20-bbl production brewhouse that allowed them to start canning their beer. And like Big Lug’s foundational branding before it, the packaging we were able to create has already been instrumental in helping CODO grow.
I’m spending a lot of time, too much maybe, talking about how our work with Big Lug has benefited our business. But I believe that this is an important, if not overlooked, metric for how successful design work is. As a rule, we’ve avoided award shows and competitions over the years. Instead, we’ve always been focused on the idea that if we can create successful work for a client, other companies will take note and hire us. This philosophy has been a major driver of our small business, and the work we’ve created with Eddie and Scott over the last five years continues to bolster this position.
We’re still working with them to this day, and, knowing what’s on the horizon, thought we should pause briefly to catch up with Eddie and see what he’s learned over the last few years. Read this carefully, there’s a lot of understated wisdom and hard-earned lessons you can apply to your own business.
CODO: Kicking off, please introduce yourself and Big Lug.
Eddie Sahm: Name’s Eddie Sahm. My family has been in restaurants since 1986 when my father opened up his first one. I went to Purdue University and studied Food Nutrition and Restaurant Management. After that I bought my first restaurant, Sahm’s Place, in Indianapolis and ran that for 6 years before opening up Big Lug Canteen.
Big Lug was really just an offshoot of my opinion on where beer was going and the type of place I always wanted to see around Indy. Something original, letting the community and a passionate staff breathe some life into a space that had, prior to our arrival, grown old, crusty and slow.
Scott and myself met around 2013 and became buddies. He was assistant brewing at Bier Brewery and I was helping do pint night food for Bier Brewery down the street from my house. We had similar feelings about where the beer biz in Indy was going and both saw a future in which we could not only contribute to scene, but help mold a life that seemed enjoyable and prosperous. Overall it was modest. We weren’t trying to change the world. Our beer views and drinking preferences were modest as well. We enjoyed beer and the atmosphere it USUALLY provided.
Scott came out of the gate making more English-leaning (not crazy bitter, but quaffable) beers. Have you stayed this course or shifted over the last few years?
We are still in that same boat. We both believe these styles not only are delicious, but something that will always be conducive to a brewpub environment where people aren’t looking to drink the hippest thing or hoppiest thing, but looking for something balanced, attenuated, and tasty with food.
Now with that being said, we do listen to our customers’ demands and market trends, and like most breweries have really ramped up our IPA selections. We rotate a lot of styles through and always give our regulars something hoppy to look forward too. Mixed in with these are a lot of styles. Brewpubs are great for this reason, you get the consistency of regulars who enjoy a beer and a meal, and also the customers looking to try something new.
You recently opened Liter House and are currently launching Half Liter — have these new concepts informed the beer and food you make at Big Lug Canteen?
In the simplest answer possible yes, but I like to think Scott and I are both the type of people to not settle and keep growing. We both love what we do, but as we grow as people and start families, buy homes, sign with a distributor, open new places, succeed and fail, we change. People who ignore this eventually work in a place they grow to dislike. If you create an environment that embraces change and the ability to adapt to who you are becoming then you will have a place the you enjoy to be around for years to come.
What’s your grand vision for Big Lug Hospitality?
Keep creating opportunities for people who love the industry and work hard. If all goes well I have one more brewpub concept. There were always three. One more to go.
What’re some of the fun opportunities and challenges that come with operating both a small brewpub and larger production brewery (and a bevy of other concepts)?
It’s fun to be sought out by a lot of great organizations who are throwing events and improving our city. It’s humbling to be considered but also great to meet these people and not only help them but grow as a person and business through it.
The biggest challenge is learning to lose some control and still feeling like you’re in control. I used to take a project, see over every aspect, and really own what I was doing, good or bad. Now I have to learn to see the abilities in others, what they bring to the table, and how a project could be better with them involved and not just myself.
How important is story to the Indiana beer consumer?
I change my opinion on this every so often. I think it’s easy to be cynical in my position as new places open up and consumer demands change so often. In the end, I believe the story matters, and more importantly a true story matters.
With social media, news outlets, and advertising playing such a crucial role in our crowded Indy market, it’s hard to tell whose story is believable. Everyone preaches make good product and quality over quantity, but no one preaches be honest with your customers and act and post like you act and post every day.
I remember the whole locker room talk with our current semi-elected president. People acting like locker room talk was some normal thing. I disagree. I think there are assholes who are good at acting like they’re not assholes. This is like our current climate in the hospitality industry. There are companies who are inherently trying to do good, we are trying to make sure that stays at the forefront of our story.
What role has branding played in growing your presence throughout Indianapolis?
It has played a huge role. Specifically, at the beginning, where finding your footing can be hard, we had the advantage of a well thought out and beautiful look to get people interested in the product. Over time I think our product and service has caught up to the brand and we really have a fun, vibrant product that we sought out from the beginning.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned as you’ve opened and grown Big Lug?
If you want to be a part of your neighborhood there are a whole lot of people ready to let you in. Becoming a part of Nora has been one of the most rewarding parts of our venture and we look forward to growing with them.
What is the biggest mistake you’ve made so far? Or asked another way, is there anything you’d go back and do differently now that you’ve got some time in the market under your belt?
We opened up 21+. It was a big mistake. In hindsight, our market research was pretty subpar. We knew a brewery was lacking, but we didn’t do the grassroots research needed to really find out what the neighborhood would respond too.
I would have been family friendly from day one. We turned off people from the beginning who probably still think we are a 21+ bar. Once you get a first chance, the second one gets further and further away and more and more expensive to recapture.
I never worried about this until my wife and I had our daughter. Now, I love when a brewery is family friendly. Not just in TTB parlance, but in menu offerings and amenities. So, thank you for that.
Do you have any advice, branding or otherwise, for people who are considering opening a brewery?
Do you love it? Are you good at it? How do you know you’re good at it? Would people come back for your product event if other similar products were right next door?
I’m all about camaraderie, but business is business, don’t open it up if it’s a hobby. It’s a trade, not a hobby. It will eat you alive and make you hate something you loved once it gets away from you.
Any book, podcast or website recommendations for people in the brewery and restaurant world?
I am a weekly listener to Good Beer Hunting. Garrett Oliver’s book Brewmaster’s Table is an absolute must read, even if just to get in the mind of Garrett — someone who has mastered something and still looks to learn every day. Danny Meyers’ Setting the Table is also brilliant.
The Sahm family is a pillar in the Indy hospitality community. What’re the most important business and life lessons you’ve learned from your dad as you’ve begun building out your own set of concepts?
Thanks. I’d like to think Ed has done so much for Indy and educating customers to a more homemade and local product since 1987, but clearly I am bias. I’ve learned a lot from Ed. More than anything he has always been honest. I try really hard to make sure I am transparent in my management style. I get mad, I get goofy, I act like an idiot, sure, but I make sure my staff and managers know where I stand with them and the restaurant at all times. I’m too busy to have it any other way.
World class beer, food, customer experience or world class branding, which is more important for long term success moving forward?
I have always stood by the fact that if you are not making great food and beer then why are you in the business?
For us to introduce our concept to new people we have to keep an eye towards our branding and being the fun, good natured place people enjoy. We have a truly unique product, we try to make it completely immersive, and immersive is always going to be a love hate relationship. We know there are people who would love what we do, finding them is the next step.
How is Maude doing?
She’s still a pig. I strongly recommend leaving the raising of pigs to farmers. I love her so much and glad I did what I did — it’s like the president pardoning a turkey. I’ll continue to eat pork that’s raised in good conditions, but I owed it to one pig to let them off the hook. Maybe that’s too dark? I don’t know, but Maude’s healthy, so she’s got that going for her, which is nice.
Hug her for me. She’s a good pig.
If you’d like to learn more about branding your craft brewery, check out CODO Design’s Craft Beer Branding Guide. This practical, step-by-step guide will help you navigate the entire branding process from naming and positioning, branding or rebranding, developing your responsive website and package design.