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Winter Warmer 2019 helps Fort Wayne make their case for being a craft beer destination

February 6th, 2019

By Mark Lasbury | Indiana On Tap

Is there really a craft beer capital of Indiana? The small town of Griffith has three breweries for a population of about 16,000 (Wildrose, Pokro, and New Oberpfalz), so they would win hands down if we went by breweries per capita. The greater Indianapolis area has the largest density of breweries, with more than 60 within 25 miles of the Circle. In addition, more of the big festivals are held in Indianapolis (which is not to say there aren’t large festivals elsewhere).

The Region has a good number of breweries, and they benefit from being so close to Chicago; much more than New Albany/Jeffersonville benefit from people crossing the river from Kentucky. Finally, we’ve written (here) about the claim that Muncie might have, based on the established craft venues they have (The Heorot, for one), as well as the several breweries and taprooms that have opened in the last three-four years.

However, we have a new contender for the title – Fort Wayne. The case for them is very strong, based on more than just a good number of breweries, but we can start there. Fort Wayne has nine breweries right now, including the venerable Mad Anthony Brewing which opened in 1998. The others open right now include Summit City Brewerks, BirdBoy, LaOtto, Trubble, Junk Ditch, Hop River, Gnometown, and most recently 2Toms. This doesn’t even count the breweries that were in Fort Wayne toward the beginning of the craft beer craze, but have since closed – including Falcon, Warbird, and Old School Brauhaus, and Oyster Brewing (the operation that existed in the now-closed Oyster Bar North).

Adding to their claim, Fort Wayne has several breweries coming soon: Dot & Line, Fortlandia (hoping to be open by end of March, but never hold anyone to a date), Caleb France’s and Brendon Maxwell’s endeavor at The Landing based on an article from Sept. 2018, and perhaps even Old Fort (less likely). There’s even a history of pre- and post-prohibition brewing in Fort Wayne, which is honored an held in high regard more here than in other places. Old breweries included Centlivre, Berghoff, Old Crown, and Hoff-Brau.

Beyond breweries old and new, Fort Wayne has more evidence to warrant taking them seriously as a craft beer town. There are several taprooms in which to have a good beer, even if they are not brewed on site. These would include Chapman’s (two locations), a second BirdBoy location (Solbird), and a Scotty’s serving some Three Wise Men beer, and you can even get cider from the Fort (Kekionga and Ambrosia) or some city made spirits (Three Rivers Distilling).

You want more beer stuff out of this town? How about festivals -a couple of big ones (Brewed in the Fort and Brew Haven), and several middle sized fests (Rock ‘n Brew, Veg ‘n Brew, Deer Creek Pub Annual Craft Beer Festival, JA Wine & Beer Fest, etc.) take place each year. These provide social outlets for loving craft beer, but then so do things like the Northern Indiana Beer Trail, The Pour Misfits, and the Three Rivers Chapter of the Brewery Collectibles Club of America (BCCA).

I held the last bit of evidence working for Fort Wayne as a craft beer heaven in order to talk about the day Walter and I had on Saturday (Jan. 26th). We didn’t head straight to a brewery or taproom, but ended up at an Irish pub. It’s true, Fort Wayne has craft venues that aren’t associated directly with a brewery, places like Ted’s Beer Hall at Ted’s Market on the north side, Trion Tavern on the east side, and then there is the destination Walter headed for – JK O’Donnell’s Irish Ale House (121 W. Wayne St.). Here in the late part of January, we were looking forward to the 6th Annual Winter Warmer.

JK’s, as it’s known to the locals, was opened in 2007 right downtown. The Irish flags and colors are displayed prominently. Based on the legendary town of Castlebar, Ireland which was the site of a rout of the English forces during the ill-fated Irish Rebellion of 1798, JK’s is a true Irish pub; no pasties, but they have shepherd’s pie, scotch eggs, and fish & chips – so Walter is happy as can be to belly up to the bar there.

A local in whom I have great trust told me that JK’s is where many in Fort Wayne gained their love for craft beer. The place has a warmth to it that isn’t matched by many other places and that you can’t help but be drawn into a friendly conversation. He told me, “I can’t count the number of people that I have met there over the years that I developed a friendship with, whether they were an employee or another patron.” With twenty taps (ten fairly regular and ten always rotating), JK’s has always been a spot to get a good bit of craft.

In 2016, long time employees Leah Kenna and Cari Bean took over the ownership of JK’s and did some updating of the menu and re-emphasized their commitment to craft beer in general and Indiana craft beer in particular. The pub has several rooms, including Belleek Hall, which is both family-friendly and capable of hosting large meetings in need of AV equipment. But it’s not big enough to house the Winter Warmer.

Out front of the pub was the tent where the Winter Warmer was held. The street was blocked off, and people piled into the tent, keeping everyone warm on even this very cold day. What’s a Winter Warmer, you ask? Well, that can go a couple of different directions. It can be a festival-type event that uses big beers to keep everyone warm through the brisk part of the year. But with respect to beer styles, a winter warmer is a vague term that often refers to a beer with added spices to mimic a holiday kind of drink. Winter warmers are often higher in alcohol and usually maltier to help pack on the winter calories. Believe it or not, people used to lose weight in the winter because the harvest was gone and it takes a lot of energy to try and keep warm.

A winter warmer festival, then, brings together higher alcohol and maltier beers as the basis of a cold weather event. Big flavors, big ABVs, and big barrel presence was what we expected, and it’s what we got. JK O’Donnell’s Winter Warmer didn’t disappoint in terms of participating breweries or the choices they made to offer. I have posted the general beer list below this article so you can either reminisce about what you liked best or wince at seeing what you missed. I know of many an UnTappd list that got filled up just based on this festival.

More than a couple breweries brought off the board offerings, like Schlafly’s Double Bean Blonde (cocoa and coffee) that is a rare find in these here parts, and the super secret code to get something special from Adam Lepper at the Founders booth. Alas, I was not quick enough. Walter and I looked the list over and consolidated our tickets to balance the afternoon out between tastes and larger pours. That’s another way that this festival differs from others. Each admittance came with a mug and 25 drink tickets. A generous taste could be had for a single ticket, but larger pours, right up to a full 10 ounces were procured by handing over anywhere from two to five tickets, depending on the perceived desirability of the beer. And more tickets could always be purchased at the front tent flap if you ran out.

Luckily, we planned well and made the most of the afternoon without having to move beyond our initial allotment of tickets. Truthfully, given the bulk of these beers, I don’t imagine many attendees went looking for more tickets. Favorites for Walter included the Vanilla Breakfast Magpie mead from New Day, the 22nd iteration of the Jewbilation from Shmaltz (a very complex beer), and the Imperial Neapolitan Stout from Saugatuck. I had a different list of favorites, including Xocoveza Charred from Stone, the Delusion from Greenbush, and the Gran Muckle (a cinnamon infused wee heavy) from Sun King.

The crowd seemed to thoroughly enjoy the afternoon, with lots of discussion between the booths and the patrons and only one broken mug based on the reaction from the patrons. Walter and I took our leave feeling completely impressed with the organization, offerings, and location of the Winter Warmer. I’m embarrassed to say this was our first visit, but feel confident it won’t be our last.

The rest of the day was used to reintroduce Walter to the 2Toms taproom on the north side of Fort Wayne. Her first visit had been fairly short and she didn’t get to see Jordan, so we made a point to grab a few beers there before we left town. I even made sure to avoid the tart cherry Simplify at the Winter Warmer because I knew I could get it at the taproom later – waste not want not with those festival tickets.

You’ve been given the information, now you make your decision. Is Fort Wayne a craft beer mecca for Indiana? I tell you what… hold off on making your mind up while you do some more research. Travel to Fort Wayne and partake of what they have to offer in terms of craft beer. Get a room because it’s going to take more than one afternoon and evening, and be sure to take notes so you can reflect seriously and inform your neighbors later. I think you’ll end up wanting to return several times to build a stronger impression.