The subtle branding of Upland Brewing Company begins before you even hit the door of its new Carmel Tap House, a rustic showroom of corrugated metal and painstakingly mismatched barn wood that opened at the end of April. The place has that polished designer-granola look of its homeland, Bloomington. And as testament that you have arrived at the Urban Outfitters of local microbreweries, a few yards from the entrance stands a funky sculpted bike rack made of welded-together bicycle frames—a convenience for pedal-in diners off the nearby Monon Trail, but maybe just as much a totem for Upland’s rugged zest for the good things in life. Work hard. Play hard. Don’t bother with the kickstand.
Whether or not you buy into the marketing, Upland’s award-winning ales, lagers, and sour beers have been around since 1998—part of the original surge of high-quality Indiana craft brews to wash over the enlightened guzzling public. The franchise grew to include Bloomington Brewpub, Bloomington Brewery and Tasting Room, and Broad Ripple Tasting Room. The Carmel location, an 84-seater at the end of a crisp new strip of shops, feels decidedly more mature than any of its predecessors. The layout is open and high-ceilinged, the wall behind the bar a mosaic of knotty wood planks salvaged from a Southern Indiana barn and another made of glass partitions that slide over to create an indoor/outdoor space. Chunky solid-wood saddle stools, gorgeously crafted but massive enough to be nearly unscootable, rim the bar. Butcher-block tables and an orange–and–pea-soup color scheme give the room a laidback, outdoorsy feel, like this might be a nice place to relax with a pint of Komodo Dragon and some blue-corn nachos. Kick off your Toms and stay awhile.
The menu doesn’t veer far from the original brewpub’s plan to provide hearty sustenance, like chili with locally sourced buffalo simmered in Bad Elmer’s Porter, with a few funky curveballs thrown in—mainly as endearing nods to Upland’s vegan following. A spicy Southwest tofu salad is tossed with field greens and pumpkin seeds, and there are crispy tofu tacos as well as two sandwiches that use the wheat-gluten meat substitute seitan—a Philly-style hoagie and a spot-on breaded tenderloin.
But the kitchen truly excels in the meat department. One evening, a carnivorous diner instructed the server to bring out a half-pound Blue Flame burger cooked “as rare as you feel comfortable serving it.” The burger arrived gently seared on the outside, warm and red on the inside, a succulent Fischer Farms two-hander slathered with a bleu cheese–jalapeño spread and basically held together by a soft roll. Across the table, a medium-rare sirloin crusted in bleu-cheese butter hit all the robust flavor notes, appropriately charred at the fatty edges. Upland calls this its Farm to Table Steak and plates it with a mass of Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and thick, nutty asparagus cooked to the perfect snapping point.
Beer-braised salmon with a dollop of dill creme fraiche and a threesome of salmon soft tacos tasted fresh and wholesome enough. But who is going to bother with fish on a menu that also lists something called Three Lil Pigs? This hulking sandwich features the decadent trifecta of breaded pork tenderloin, Fischer Farms barbecued pulled pork, and strips of bacon—all stacked inside a bun with a slice of melting Gouda. One bite in, and we were hooked—the tender pulled meat against the crunch of tenderloin and the chewiness of bacon blended into something quite complex, if only in an Indiana State Fair sampler-platter kind of way.
Okay, so it’s not fine dining. The kind of mass production demanded of a restaurant with this much traffic (expect a 20-minute wait on Friday nights) is going to conflict with that sweet, made-from-scratch persona that Upland would like us to embrace. But because the company is something of a local hero, we can forgive the squirt bottles of Hellmann’s on the table. We will eat the gritty double-chocolate mousse,
just to be nice. And if we feel the need to further show our allegiance to the brand, we will purchase some of the Upland swag—from T-shirts to sweatbands—on our way out the door.
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the August 2013 issue.