Nick Davidson is not a robot, but he branded his brewery with one as a mascot. “As a kid, I was obsessed with robots,” he says. “It didn’t have anything to do with The Wizard of Oz.” As his fledgling brewery came to fruition, ideas fermented in Davidson’s mind as to what to label his brews: “’Robot’ didn’t sound very good. Tin Man sounded good, like a retro robot I had as a kid.” His friend Matt Wagner helped him design the logo, and the rest is history. Davidson opened Tin Man Brewing Co. (1430 W. Franklin St., Evansville, 812-618-3227) the day after Thanksgiving—Black Friday 2012—and his robot mascot has been seeing red ever since. Irish red, that is. On the heels of his successful turn at Indy's Winterfest in late January, we caught up with the entrepreneur who has brought craft beer back to Evansville.
Jonathan Scott: Craft breweries are huge in Indy. What was the catalyst for opening this in Evansville?
Nick Davidson: Number one, I’m from here—and I actually lived in Indianapolis for about seven years. I owned a place called The Music Mill. After we closed that down, I moved back down here. I have been a home brewer for some time. When I moved from Indianapolis, you couldn’t find craft beer anywhere down here.
JS: You say you’re only the third craft brewery in the nation to use mash filter. Why is that better?
ND: We’re the third, actually maybe the fourth. [Note: Full Sail Brewing Company in Oregon, New Belgium Brewing in Colorado, and Alaskan Brewing Company are the others.] The big guys have used them for a while, but breweries that are craft-beer-size, it’s not something they could get ahold of. It helps us conserve water and energy but also lets us use less grain. They’re predicting a grain shortage in the next five years. Anything we can do to conserve is good as well. The process in scaling up your recipes is different as well. It’s something we figure out as we go. There aren’t a lot of people out there you can go to for help. The mash filter replaces a piece of equipment that’s been in traditional brewing … forever. It’s different as to how it works. Usually your grain becomes a filter bed, so all your solids stay in the vessel and your wort [sugar water that is boiled and fermented to make beer] comes out. That grain becomes a screen, with a false bottom that holds it there. With the mash filter, you push all of the grain and wort, and it squeezes out the wort, which later becomes beer. This big grain falls out as a big cake.
JS: Can you tell me more about the nitrogen that’s injected into one of your brews?
ND: In our taproom, we can put nitrogen in all of them. We’re third in the world—the other two are in Germany—to use bag-in-a-box brewing. We de-carbonate the beer so that it’s flat in the container. The flat beer runs through a carbonator, and that injects the CO2 into the beer. You can put any gas you want into it. Nitrogen is a gas that’s used. Guinness, when you get it on tap, makes a thinner beer fuller in the mouth, with smaller bubbles. The reason you’d do that is it simulates more of a cask-beer style.
JS: Where do you get your hops?
ND: We get them in Oregon. They’re Willamette Valley hops. It’s a family farm. We went out there this last summer and visited the farm and met the guys who are growing it. They’re super-nice guys. They were one of the many farms contracted by Anheuser-Busch, and when Anheuser was bought out, they got into the craft side of beer.
JS: What’s your top-selling brew?
ND: Right now, by far, the Rivet, our Irish red. [Note: Made with caramel malts, typical for most Tin Man brews.] We kind of always figured that would be the case. It’s a good starter. It’s not too hoppy. It’s well balanced, a good one to get.
JS: What was the location of Tin Man before it became this restaurant-bar-brewery? Your website says the building was constructed in 1869, home to a boarding house with a first-floor tavern.
ND: That was one of the original things we could find that it was, in the late 1800s, I believe. I’ve talked to quite a few older guys who sit at the bar. I talked to a guy who said his grandpa owned part of it at one time, and that it was a liquor store. It was a furniture store at one point. It’s been a swap meet a couple times. It’s been all kinds of different stuff over the years. It was vacant for years before we moved in. The guy who had it before was trying to turn it into a restaurant and some condos.
JS: Is that repurposed wood on the tabletops?
ND: All of the tables downstairs are made out of the original floor. It was in such bad shape that the floor was slanted, and we had to pull that old floor up and replace it. We pulled that up and turned it into the tables.
JS: Plans and aspirations for what’s next—flavors, expansions, and so on?
ND: The first five beers we designed to be session beers and very drinkable. We wanted to give the public something they could drink more than one or two of. That’s our first series. We have our second series—the precious series, hoppier double IPAs and Imperial Russian stouts. That's the next one we want to introduce. Our short-term goals are definitely getting the cans out and getting our draft out.
JS: Are your thoughts already turning toward Indy and beyond?
ND: Definitely. We’re going to start in Evansville and work our way out. We want to get our ducks in a row and self-distribute as long as we can. In Indiana, it’s easy for us. If we go outside the state, there are a lot more hoops to jump through. We’ll probably stay in Indiana to begin with.
Nick Davidson photo courtesy Jordan Barclay Photography.