On a quiet afternoon in late fall, with a perfect neo-soul playlist vibing beneath the cozy bar sounds, 18th Street Brewery felt like a sweet throwback to a time when such under-the-radar haunts were our warm, safe refuge. It was a good spot to process some nostalgic funk—properly tiny, for starters, with two wooden church pews providing some window seating in a room just deep enough to also fit a row of two-tops and the actual bar.White and gray mosaic tile pieces spell out “18th Street” over the tap handles. Even with its black upholstered barstools shoved off to the side in a pile (a safety precaution that kicked in about five weeks after it opened in February 2020 on Indy’s east side), the business still wears the comfortable patina of a tried-and-true neighborhood pub. Not surprisingly, there isn’t a square inch of floral wallpaper in sight.
18th Street is the fifth iteration of a Northwest Indiana brewery and distillery that also boasts a larger taproom and craft cocktail bar in Gary as well as a 32,000-square-foot facility in Hammond. The scaled-down Indy location serves as an all-ages taproom pairing food with beers and spirits made under the 18th Street umbrella, which explains why this bar on East 10th Street chose such a disorienting name. It shares the same eastbound corridor (bookended by the rambling mansions of Woodruff Place and the quirky bungalows of Irvington) with Beholder, Mayfair Taproom, Rabble Coffeehouse, and 10th Street Diner. And it occupies Love Handle’s original Indianapolis location.
Unlike those other culinary urban pioneers, the 18th Street brand came to town with a built-in fan base. Followers of regional craft beer already had a taste for the brewery’s hoppy, hazy flagship quaffs with names like Candi Crushable, Devil’s Cup, and Rise of the Angels. And 18th Street had a history of accolades from the likes of Men’s Journal and USA Today, which named the Hammond location the Best Brewpub in the United States in 2019. But in a world turned upside down by a pandemic—and specifically as I write this amid a second wave of COVID-19 cases and a new round of mandated closures—even the heavy hitters have to tread lightly in a fragile new ecosystem.
A sign at the door spells out the house rules regarding masks and social distancing. Each table is set with the coronavirus centerpiece: a small bottle of hand sanitizer and a QR code that customers scan with their phones to see the day’s menu. Servers are masked and gloved, moving around the room like prepped surgeons, and yet they still seem genuinely stoked to be here hyping the citrusy Cone Crusher IPA, the mind-blowing Rotten to the Core caramel-apple stout, the house mules and old fashioneds, and kitchen manager Libby Hasse’s brief menu of thoughtful food pairings.
An East Coast shrimp roll gets piled into a sage-buttered New England bun that’s exquisitely soft and squishy. Sizzled pancetta replaces the bacon in a lemon-herb aioli–dressed P.L.T., while a soothing bowl of garlic-cheese grits provides the base for some shredded ginger-soy pork belly and a soft-yolked fried egg. Admittedly, I paired it with another bowl brimming with dreamy, cheese-topped cowboy chili loaded with shredded turkey, corn, peppers, and black-eyed peas all cooked down in Orange Shaker Milkshake IPA. And the Naptown Crunch takes delicious liberties with the Taco Bell canon, replacing the ground beef with seasoned black beans, queso fresco, scrambled eggs, and chorizo sandwiched between crunchy corn tostadas and wrapped inside a soft flour tortilla before getting panini-pressed into a delicious polygon.
The food is simple but full of big flavors and spicy edges (as in the chunky, hot giardiniera that fires up the Circle City Croque). Every bite demands another sip of pale ale or American IPA. The good food/good beer formula has an excellent Indy track record at venues like Taxman and Twenty Tap. It works well here, too, in a menu that fluctuates daily and usually caps out at 10 items, including a kids’ grilled cheese. After just a handful of visits, I ran out of new dishes to try, and everything I ate was surprisingly delicious. Even the trucked-in Bavarian pretzels do the bar standard proud, served warm, salty, and properly chewy with housemade beer cheese and Düsseldorf mustard for dunking. Saturdays bring an all-day ramen-and-whiskey deal: a $13 pairing of miso-based soup stocked with kimchi, red cabbage, nori, egg, and pork with a 1-ounce chaser of 18th Street Distillery’s rye whiskey. “It was a huge hit the first time we did it,” says general manager Ty Patterson.
In fact, it drew the kind of crowds that might put a person on edge in the age of 50 percent capacities and 6-foot perimeters. It’s an awkward situation—a painful catch-22 at a time when bars and restaurants are gasping for breath and unsure of their futures. Here, they have been able to accommodate any overflow with online orders, curbside carryout, and picnic tables on a cute patio around back, under a bright “Eastside Patio Love” mural. Outdoor heaters were recently installed, and Patterson says they are looking into adding outdoor group pods for the winter months. “We fill up from the outside in, so clearly people want to eat outside,” he says.
That trend will need to evolve as the temperatures drop and businesses like this enter the next great unknown, minus a safe, universal vaccine … or a massive relief package that would allow them to temporarily close their doors without losing everything … or a time machine to drop us off somewhere on the other side of this mess with a cold beer and a really good soundtrack. “Right now,” Patterson says, “everyone’s just trying to adapt the best way they can.”