Tapping into small town community

June 18th, 2018

By Andrew Wartenbe | Input Fort Wayne

Micah Soltz is a believer.

He believes in good beer, in quality over quantity, in chasing improvements instead of chasing trends, and he absolutely believes in the motto of Chapman’s Brewing: Beer First.

“Whatever money we’re putting into something has to be more important than making more beer, or we don’t do it,” Soltz says.

But more than anything, he believes in northeast Indiana, and he believes residents should simply look around themselves to discover the great products, services, and experiences available right here.

Chapman’s Brewing owned by Scott Fergusson is one of northeast Indiana’s assets that residents can enjoy at many locations around the region.

It started with a production facility and taproom in Angola in 2012 and has since expanded to taprooms in Columbia City, Wabash, and Downtown Fort Wayne inside Fortezza Coffee.

This summer, Chapman’s is growing once again with a taproom slated for the Village at Coventry in Southwest Fort Wayne.

Beyond beer, the vision for the company is unifying the region as a whole, and filling a critical void in smaller communities around Fort Wayne by providing them with close-knit, family-friendly, local pubs right where they are.  

“That’s part of the reason why we’ve expanded out to places like Columbia City and Wabash, which are not necessarily the largest communities,” Soltz says. “We really have an affinity for these small towns and the culture they have, so we try to help them to revitalize, and we go against the grain by giving them something that they don’t have.”

Like many craft breweries, Chapman’s began with Scott Fergusson’s home brewing hobby with his father and friends. That hobby turned into an idea, and that idea turned into a business.

However, compare Chapman’s to other craft breweries, and you’ll find that many of the comparisons end there.

When it entered northeast Indiana’s craft brewing scene in 2012, it brewed at its production center in Angola, and took its first step into the market through distribution alone, with no physical retail locations.

The founders eventually found that opening taprooms was not only the next logical means for their consumers to experience their products, but also fit the broader vision of intensifying the connection to those consumers and bringing communities back together.

Soltz says the basis for selecting the sites of Chapman’s taprooms is steeped in the idea of “home,” as its founder and employees have established deep roots in the communities they now reside in, prior to any thought as to whether or not they would be ripe for a tap room opening.

But the premise for each site selection is about much more than just comfort and familiarity.

In Soltz’s words, Chapman’s vision for its taprooms is to be a nexus, or hub for communities, especially in small towns.

“A hundred years ago, every modest-sized town in Indiana had its own brewery,” Chapman’s website says. “Local meant local beer, made by and enjoyed with people you knew.”

Chapman’s is working to make that the case once again.

They make their taprooms family friendly because they don’t want members of small communities to feel like they have to drive to Fort Wayne just to avoid a smoke-filled tavern. That’s precisely what has pulled small communities apart.

Instead, Chapman’s is encouraging residents in small towns to hang out in their own neighborhood, partnering with local vendors who source locally to serve food, and thus, bringing communities back to the very types of local meeting places, products, and services they frequented years ago.

“It’s a resurgence of the community meeting place,” Soltz says.

And he believes northeast Indiana might be just the place for this concept to take root.

Soltz heads up Sales and Operations for Chapman’s Brewing. But at Chapmans, job titles mean very little. Everybody does a little bit of everything, and hubris takes a backseat to getting things done and putting beer first.

This all-hands-on-deck approach is a common factor in success stories across northeast Indiana, and it goes hand-in-hand with the region’s humble, blue-collar background that has, historically, set it apart.

“One thing you can never hold against the people here is that they’re very hardworking,” Soltz says. “We’ve cultivated that at Chapman’s.”

Stop into a Chapman’s taproom on a given Friday night, and you might just find founder, Scott Fergusson, or Head Brewer, Jerod Agler, pouring pints and talking shop with the locals.

In fact, this is a meaningful part of the feedback process for Chapman’s, Soltz says. Like chemists, Chapman’s brewers test and analyze feedback to brew better beers.

This attention to detail is a common denominator that’s driving craft beer sales across the nation.

The growth in craft brewing in the U.S. has been explosive the last 20-25 years by nearly every metric. According to the Brewers Association for Small and Independent Craft Brewers, the number of craft breweries has gone from 8 in 1980, to 537 in 1994, to over 6,000 in 2018.

These breweries represent a rebellion, of sorts, against the commoditization of beer that the AnheuserBuschs and MillerCoors of the world have, consciously or subconsciously, championed.

In northeast Indiana there are no fewer than 11 craft breweries currently operational with no signs of slowing down in brewer ambitions or consumer appetites.  Two more, 2Toms in Fort Wayne and Auburn Brewing Company in Auburn, are scheduled to open in 2018.

Breweries like Chapman’s are here to say that you deserve better beer, and you deserve to be able to enjoy it served freshly from the tap in your community—not by having to travel to the city or going to the convenience store to buy a can of beer that was brewed weeks or months ago.

But even within the growing trend of craft brewing, the idea of communities gathering at a local pub has lost momentum over the latter half of the last century.

Northeast Indiana’s connectivity and family-oriented mindset might make it just the market to bring the industry back to its roots, Soltz says.

But being a smaller, humble region in the U.S. has its disadvantages, too.

The danger in northeast Indiana’s humility is that, as a region, it can sometimes cause residents to assume that big cities and big ideas are better, faster, and stronger than what’s here.

Soltz believes that is not the case.

“It’s about looking inward—how we, as a community, can help erase the insecurity there is in terms of things that are being made here that are worthwhile,” Soltz says. “Northeast Indiana tends to look to Indianapolis, northwest Indiana looks to Chicago, and South Bend looks to Michigan. It’s more about turning that inward and getting Fort Wayne and our area to actually look and say, ‘There’s a lot of great stuff here.’”

Southwest Fort Wayne Grand Opening

Chapman's is opening a new Fort Wayne taproom in the former Salud! Tapas N Tequila space at 5735 Falls Dr., sharing the building with Salsa Grille. Its grand opening will be Friday, June 29, starting at 11 a.m.