Chris Johnson, co-owner and Brewmaster at People’s Brewing Co., Lafayette, In., recently discussed his brewing journey with me for Behind The Beer.
In 1997, Chris left his small farming community in LaGrange County, near Angola, to attend Purdue University, just like many members of his family. However, his interest in architecture and computer graphics began to fade.
Chris: I took a semester off to reassess and find something that I was more interested in doing. I found Lafayette Brewing Company pretty early. My brother is six years older than me and he was pretty much a regular at LBC so that’s kind of how I got started into better beer. I found them pretty early in my college career. I really liked what they were doing.
I had some friends who were doing some homebrewing and that’s how I got into brewing in the first place. I had the semester off and these guys were working bars at night and brewing beer during the day, so I got involved with them.
At the time I was living in a five-bedroom apartment with five guys and I convinced one of the guys to move into one of the bigger bedrooms with another dude so I could use that room as a brewing room. We put a window air conditioner in and covered the walls with army blankets, and we could crash that room down to 35-36 degrees. Probably wasn’t very good for the apartment but we used that for our primary fermentation. Yeah, I was brewing a lot of homebrew at that time but then once I got the job and starting brewing at LBC, I didn’t do nearly as much homebrewing.
That group I was brewing with, one guy was the brewer at LBC (Doug Ellenberger) when I started, he owns a brewery in White Salmon, Washington. One of the guys is the head vintner at Willamette Valley Vineyards in Oregon and another one of the guys worked at the Carbondale brewery in southern Illinois for years until it closed. That little group of us, I think out of the 5-6 guys, 4 or 5 of them are still in the industry now. It just happened to be a couple of people who were really into what we were doing, so yeah there’s at least three or four of us, still brewing or making wine. It was a good group of guys to run into and get involved with.
From amateur to professional brewer
Greg Emig’s (owner/founder, Lafayette Brewing Co.) dad opened a brewery in Aberdeen by Valparaiso called Aberdeen Brewing Co. and they were looking for a brewer so I went up and interviewed, and basically got the job with Greg’s dad. Greg called me a few days later and said I know you interviewed with my dad, I want to talk to you about it.
I ended up working here at Lafayette Brewing Company as the keg cleaner and assistant brewer for a couple of years and then was their head brewer for a couple of years. I got to where there wasn’t going to be a lot of growth left and I wasn’t going to become an owner or move up beyond head brewer. So I left there in 2008 and then we started People’s late in 2009.
It was probably 2005-06, when I started to realize there wasn’t going to be anywhere to continue to grow there the way I wanted to. When we started thinking about doing our own thing, my wife and I traveled around the state and looked at different locations where we thought we might do a brewpub or some sort of brewery.
We kept settling back on Lafayette as doing a distribution or production brewery because LBC had a great thing going down there at the pub, but we didn’t have any other representation around town for local beer. When I left LBC we really hit it hard and start to plan the brewery. I had two young kids at the time so I kind of stayed at home, worked some part time jobs and then worked on the brewery plan for about a year. And then we got it up and going.
He (Greg) knew how much I was…the passion I had for it so I’m pretty confident he knew I wasn’t just going to become a stay at home dad.
When we started producing beer we didn’t even have taproom space, just selling beer to local bars. And then it was about six months later we opened the taproom. When we had some health inspections and things like that they said we were only a freezer and a microwave away from being able to sell a pint. So we went ahead and did that.
The first beer was sold in December, 2009, then the taproom opened in 2010 with two subsequent remodels in 2012 and 2015-all occurring curiously on May 1st.
When we did this last renovation, we shut down for five days and tore the bar out the night after we closed. Then (Dunkle Custom Build) came in the next day and started implementing this. It was kind of like a reality show, we got five days to reopen the bar. We repainted everything and cleaned everything and redid everything, so it was quite the task. We had to move the draft system from that side of the building and re-route it through to this side, so it was a pretty intense week.
I did the original bar back when we had the old bar over here, but it was pretty obvious I did it. I’m not a carpenter (chuckle) but it worked and did the trick for a while…This really stepped it up.
Two friends, two breweries, one inspiration
We started traveling up to Madison, WI, well Greg was already traveling up there, with that German culture up there and getting into some of the bars. The German lagers just kind of opened up my world to what those were all about, and I just fell in love with it, the different characters out of those beers. So that was something that I really wanted to do when I started our brewery was to get into that.
We came up with the idea of “Beer For The People”, that was kind of getting the beer out. We started with the idea of doing German lagers and at that time, craft breweries were… especially in the state of Indiana, there were not a lot of lagers going on. But we do our series of German lagers throughout the year and we always have our “Ol’ Tavern” on, and our pilsner will be back on soon. We do our Germanfest lager and Procrastinator, which is a German lager, and our altbier which isn’t a lager but a German beer, so we wanted to broaden that spectrum out. Do lagers and different things so that we try to have something for everybody, which I know, most breweries are doing now. We couldn’t come up with a better name than People’s for “Beer For The People”.
My best friend Doug Ellenberger, his brewery in Washington state is Everybody’s Brewing Co., and we started at the same time. He wouldn’t tell me the name of his brewery and so I didn’t tell him ours. And one day, my wife and I were out in Oregon where he was living at the time, and we did the flip the paper over thing and I thought he was kidding with me! I thought he had heard my name and he was throwing it out there but yeah…we pretty much had the same idea.
Indiana craft beer
We’d (Greg and Doug) go down to “summerfest” (Indiana Microbrewers Festival) and there’d be twelve breweries in one tent and distributors in another tent out in the outfield by the ball diamond there. We knew all those guys like Ted Miller (Brugge/Outliers Brewing), Kevin Matalucci (Twenty Tap) and John Hill (Broad Ripple Brewpub). I mean it was very tight-knit. Nick Floyd was around there, and Chuck (Krcilek) up at Back Road, but there weren’t very many of us. We all knew each other very well.
It was a great time to be involved in Indiana beer when it was an old crew and a small crew, and we were constantly working with each other trying to figure out how to make things better. So it was a great time to be the young guy at the start of the scene.
Now we’re a newer brewery but a lot of times we kind of fall into the older brewery because of my time at Lafayette and the guys that I was around for a long time. They don’t think of us as a newer brewery like some of the others. I would imagine Clay (Robinson) and Dave (Colt) at Sun King probably feel the same way in the scene, the exploding scene. They probably feel like old timers.
When we started I worked a lot with Ted, knowing he had done a lot of consulting not only in Indiana, but in Thailand and different places. I worked a lot with Nick Floyd. The last year I was in Madison with Greg, I ran into Nick Floyd and he says, “When are you opening your brewery?” I said, “I may need some help”, and he gave me his cell phone. He helped me out a lot.
One of the things Nick did was, we were looking for 10 barrel brewhouses and Nick says, “You gotta go bigger, you’re going to wish you did.” We ended up with a 20 barrel, three vessel, but we’re all 40 barrel tanks. But yeah, that was probably the biggest thing I got from Nick was don’t go that small. We started with 4,000 square feet and in three years we started scrambling for more space, and we added 6,000 to the brewery. So that was really good advice. Pretty much everybody we talked to said if you need anything let us know.
We try to help each other out as much as we possibly can. It’s a weird industry like that, it’s awesome. Very unusual from that standpoint. Now we’re seeing that with hop growers and these guys that want to do malting, they’re all helping each other trying to get there. It’s cool to see on a different level in a different industry, sort of tied in but different.
The group from the Broad Ripple lineage is who I’m closest to and I stop in their breweries when I’m close…not that I don’t everywhere else but that’s who I’m closest to.
Expansion is inevitable…oh, those small communities
We’ve looked at some opportunities that have come up on the northside of Indy and in some of the places in between. We often get people that say, “Hey I got a great building, maybe you’ll want to take a look at it and see if it might work for you.”
All over the place a lot of small towns are sort of coming back up and we’re seeing breweries pop up in small towns. We want to continue to grow as an Indiana brewery, build out from our Lafayette brewery roots.
We’re seeing a lot more acceptance everywhere. Like I was talking about small towns and things, I mean, you see these breweries like Scarlet Lane popping up in little towns north of Indy. I feel like this couldn’t have worked ten years ago.
I started brewing commercially in 2000 and we still run into people in town who say, “Oh, there’s a craft brewery in Lafayette?”…Well we’ve had one for 25 years! So there’s still room for people to find out about it I guess, but it’s really changed a lot since I started.
Like any new business, obstacles stand in the way
Convincing people that a brewery was a good idea, believe it or not was an obstacle. It seemed there were breweries opening up weekly. We met with banks and investors and at that time you’d hear a lot of, “Well, it seems like there’s breweries everywhere”, and there were like 15 or 20 maybe, and is there really room for more? I mean when we met with bankers it was like, “So what is craft beer?”
But it seems funny to say, convincing people that you could be successful with a brewery.
500 years ago, Germany’s “Reinheitsgebot” dictated that beer was to be brewed with malt, hops, water and later yeast. However, a fifth and perhaps most important ingredient might have been overlooked-People.
It doesn’t matter where you walked in from, everybody’s here around beer and into the beer, because of the beer. That was kind of our whole idea with People’s, and “Beer For The People”, was sort of bring people together with a good, social product. So I think that’s a big part of it.
We wanted a space where people could come and have a sense of
community in a social gathering. We wanted people to gather around the beer. If you look at our logo, the idea was people gathered around beer at a table or however you want to look at it. To be a community-oriented brewery and bring people together around the product.
When we first started, we had a mayor from one of the towns around here, sitting in a suit across the table from a guy with a Grateful Dead shirt, and it was like, “That’s exactly what we’re about!”
Chris jokingly calls his next unnamed project “The Lambic.” People’s will put brandy barrels to use, then source locally grown strawberries and raspberries for following releases.
People’s Brewing Co. is located at 2006 N. 9th St., Lafayette, In.
You can find me on twitter @indybeersleuth