Community welcomes Vincennes Brewing Company
By Rama Sobhani
This moment can’t be a time of ease in Chris Coffey’s life. He, his daughter, Casey, and several of his business partners opened the doors on the Vincennes Brewing Company only about four months ago, as of the time of this writing. Along with all the uncertainty that comes with a new business, especially one in the food service sector, one of Coffey’s business partners passed away, just as things got rolling, two months after opening. But beer is a characteristically compelling force and almost six months later, the Vincennes Brewing Company stands as a long-clamored-for gathering place for people share a most ancient zeal — that for beer.
Beer lovers in Vincennes had long lamented the dearth of a place to gather. A place where craft beers were on tap and owners and servers had the same knowledge and love for beer as those drinking it. Fortunately, that changed when Coffey, his late partner, Dr. William “Kip” Bedwell, and his son, Charlie Bedwell, opened up a place that houses 18 taps of mostly local craft beers, planning eventually to have half that number filled with Coffey’s own beer, which will be brewed on site. They didn’t decide to call it a brewery based on whim.
The three business partners began to put together a plan and when the concept of the Vincennes Brewing Company materialized, Indiana’s first city would soon have its first brewery since the Hack and Simon Eagle brewery closed in 1933, just as Prohibition was ending.
Coffey is a longtime homebrewer having had plenty of time and experience to perfect his recipes and methods. When he and his family lived in Bloomington, he was a member of a homebrewer’s association, called the Hopjockeys. He’s also been involved with the Ohio Valley Homebrewers Association in Evansville. From the time his wife bought him his first homebrew kit as a gift, Coffey spent many hours researching, reading, watching videos on YouTube, about brewing beer. Becoming so engrossed in beer, Coffey’s interest turned into a tangible product, even though he failed on his first attempt.
“At some point, my wife purchased for me a small beer kit and I figured I’d give it a go,” he said. “I followed the instructions as best as I could and wound up with something awful. I swore I wouldn’t try that again and I’d just buy good beer. Fast forward a few years and I bought a kit to brew a larger batch and that turned out to be really good-tasting beer. From then, it’s been building on how to brew different styles and about 12 years later, now, we’re getting ready to brew our own (at the Vincennes Brewing Company).”
The more he brewed, the better the beer got and good feedback, along with seeing the successes of others around him, encouraged him to think grander. It was motivating, Coffey said, to see some of those who were in the homebrew clubs with him take their hobby to the professional level. One of his fellow brewers started Function Brewing, in Bloomington, and another started the Evansville Brewhouse. But in Vincennes, within a 50-mile radius, there were no original breweries, the environment seemed right and Coffey, along with his business partners, made the leap and opened up on Main Street in the space that used to house an antique shop.
The space needed extensive renovations before the new owners felt the ambience was right. Walls were knocked down, plaster was stripped from the ones left to expose the beautiful bricks underneath, the main bar countertop is an artistically-crafted piece of melted copper, sealed with resin. Coffey made the tables in the main section of the brewery himself out of heirloom oak that was owned by his late father and the upstairs has a spacious feel with brick and wood setting the visual tone. What little paint adorns the walls are the same shades of blue and white that evokes all things historical Vincennes. There’s a feeling of comfort, helped along by gregarious staff, that makes the Vincennes Brewing Company a place in which people will want to spend time and talk about the weather, family, or treason.
The upstairs and downstairs parts of the brewery were originally intended to serve two different crowds. While the downstairs was more for conversations among old and new friends, the upstairs was to be more of a sports bar. That was Dr. Bedwell’s desire, but he passed away before he could see it come to fruition. Coffey described Dr. Bedwell’s vision as the upstairs part of the brewery being like the bar Cheers, in the eponymous television show of the 1980s, with Dr. Bedwell playing the part of Sam Malone, the bawdy bartender character, known less for his ability to pour drinks than for his aptitude of pouring on the charm with women.
“With his passing, we’ve actually got a renewed spirit of how we want to carry on and in honor of him, we’ve named the upstairs bar Kip’s Place,” Coffey said. “He never was sure what to name it.”
Ten years ago, when Coffey first started flirting with the idea of brewing beer, the craft beer movement that’s reached almost bubble proportions in the U.S. was in its infancy. About 15 years ago, craft breweries started to multiply. The Samuel Adams brewery was the first to go mainstream but smaller breweries, like Rogue and Stone, were leading the way for the boom to come. The diversification of breweries and styles beer proliferated quickly since and now it seems there’s a new craft brewery starting up in every city every year. According to stats kept by the Brewers Association, a non-profit group that advocates for small-time brewers and breweries, from 2004 to 2016, the number of barrels of craft beer produced in the U.S. went from just over 5 million to just under 25 million. In Indiana, there are 127 craft breweries with that number having been reached after growing 150 percent from 2011 to 2016. Our state ranks 15th in the nation for the number of craft breweries per capita and 24th for the number of barrels of craft beer produced every year — almost 226,000.
It’s as if American beer drinkers suddenly realized there was something missing from what they had been sold by bikini-clad models and surfing bull terrier dogs: flavor.
“When I started enjoying beer, there weren’t a lot of craft beers out there, so we started enjoying imports, things we weren’t getting in the U.S.” Coffey said.
“Then, Sam Adams came out…Sierra Nevada, Anchor, brands that started the thrust toward craft beer. They were the catalyst for smaller beers to get started with something more flavorful, more diverse. Until then we were dealing with one beer style, a lager that’s light and somewhat flavorless.”
That being said, the staff of the Vincennes Brewing Company do make an effort to accommodate those whose tastes aren’t in line with stronger flavors. Coffey always tries to have a few beers on tap that are more similar to the American-style lager that’s been the mainstay of beer drinkers here for decades. Patrons who are looking to expand their beer horizons can get a flight of four beers in small glasses to see if there’s one in particular they like more.
“A lot of people enjoy doing a flight of things they think they’re going to like and a few they don’t think they will. It’s an opportunity to expand their palette,” said Casey Coffey, who manages the serving staff and coordinates food choices on the limited, but expanding, menu.
“As someone who serves beer, it’s fun to try to give them something they like, along with something I want to see if they’ll like, to sneak one in,” said bartender, Tim Coots, about offering suggestions to patrons on what beers to get in a flight.
The reception the Vincennes Brewing Company has gotten from local residents is impressive and encouraging to see. In the run-up to the opening, future patrons were getting antsy, having waited too long for a place to enjoy good beer without a dive bar atmosphere. It was almost a coup to the often less-than-civilized culture of local bars. In a way, the proprietors were a bit surprised at it, too, and when opening night came and the Vincennes Brewing Company was filled wall to wall, collective sighs of relief were breathed all around.
“Our community was not expected to be craft beer connoisseurs, but we’ve had a wonderful combination of people who were already introduced to craft beers and … who have been introduced to it,” Chris Coffey said. “For the next six months to a year, all we’re interested in is brewing high-quality, fresh, local beer … we just want people to enjoy our beer and the history of Vincennes. “