Q&A: Erin Kem of Scarlet Lane Brewing Company

A Muncie native who helped create the weekly seasonal menus at Mass Ave’s legendary R Bistro, Erin Kem is now part of the woman-driven management team behind the culinary offerings at Scarlet Lane Brewing Company’s South Broad Ripple Tap House and Scarlet Lane Gastropub (formerly Cannon Ball Brewing) in the Kennedy-King neighborhood. When she’s not dreaming up tasty pairings with the brewery’s latest releases, she’s often reflecting on her long career and the future of women in food in the local restaurant scene.

You divide your time now between Scarlet Lane Gastropub and the brewery’s South Broad Ripple Tap House. What’s it like creating the menu at two spots instead of just one?
One of the biggest challenges is just keeping up with the inventory without being at each location every day. I’m constantly reminding the staff to keep up with the orders so we don’t run out of ingredients we need. But it’s so great to have two creative outlets, whether it’s hearty international fare or Asian street food. They both really represent my culinary interests, and I definitely never get tired of the menus.

The core of your culinary approach has been seasonal ingredients. How are you able to maintain that and keep current with the beers at Scarlet Lane?
We get really excited to change the menu to reflect the seasons at the Gastropub especially. After we closed for the pandemic last year, we didn’t open until July, so the summer produce season was already in full swing. And that pushed back our fall menu a bit as well, which we continued later into the season. At both taprooms, it’s been fun to do special events such as a Halloween brunch we did in the fall. We were featuring our Slasher roasted pumpkin seed ale, and it was fun coming up with autumn flavors that went with that. The brewery is definitely experimenting more with culinary flavors now that I’m on staff, such as a harvest spice seltzer, and that has been a great creative collaboration for me.

What’s it like for you to work in a woman-owned business?
It’s really awesome camaraderie. We’ve all worked in male-dominated kitchens and businesses before, so we know what it’s like not to get the kinds of advantages that men often get in this business. Here, however, the support from our male staff is absolutely noticeable. They respect us, and they want nothing more than to promote us to the larger culinary and brewing scene. And people recognize us for the unique angle we offer. What impresses me most is that Eilise [CEO and Head Brewer Eilise Lane] has years of education that prepared her for being a brewer. She didn’t just take a hobby and turn it into a profession. In a world of bearded beer guys, it’s still a rarity for a woman to be a head brewer.

You worked for 12 years at Regina Mehallick’s groundbreaking R Bistro on Mass Ave, another place with a strong woman at the top. What was the biggest lesson you took from that experience?
I’d say adaptability was a huge aspect of working in Regina’s kitchen. We really learned to work with what we had that week rather that packing our pantry. We were constantly thinking ahead. Maybe by Saturday night we’d be out of a featured ingredient, so we’d go with Plan B. It taught me to think on my feet. I think that that has definitely helped me to persevere during the pandemic, which has absolutely been the most trying time for restaurants. Before we shut down in April, we immediately went to carryout only and did some innovative features such as Tiger King pizzas and an “Ozark and Chill” feature with full meals to snack on while you were watching the show. Thinking creatively has been the way to survive as people are eating much more at home.

How do you think things have changed in general for women in the food industry over the time you’ve been working?
I have been impressed that a lot of women have persevered in a really challenging business. Some younger women chefs have had it a bit easier now that there are many more female mentors. But it’s definitely a more even playing field, and women get more of the praise that they deserve. That gives us more staying power. We also now have Indy Women in Food, which is supporting so many other kinds of culinary businesses run by women. I’m amazed at how many women food professionals there are in this city, many of them cornering a niche such as nutrition or a single dish. I love Stephanie Daily’s “Send a Friend Lasagna,” which is just a great concept of being able to order and have a lasagna delivered to a friend or family member.

Scarlet Lane Brewing Company’s taprooms are hardly the kind of masculine, sports-loving atmospheres of many other breweries. How is that reflected in the clientele? What other things set Scarlet Lane apart?
We do get more of a regular clientele of women, many of whom come just for the food even if they don’t like beer. They feel good about supporting a woman chef and a business owned by a woman. Many of the regulars at the Gastropub miss having me cook behind the bar, where I could talk with them while they ate. Helping our clientele to think more sensibly about the beers they drink with their food is also something we do more of than at some other places. I like to recommend brown ales for versatile pairings with most foods, but IPAs are just great with spicy food—and even chocolate, which some find surprising. I think the hops work sort of like the tannins in wine to clean the palate. But one of the challenges is that, unlike with wine, you just can’t really dictate the style of beer that a person likes. If they don’t like a stout, you shouldn’t force them to try it with their food.

Do you ever get tired of beer?
Oh, sure. Like last night, I drank a glass of a great red wine, and it was so refreshing. It’s just not as filling as beer. I love beer, and we have a wide variety good for just about any taste. But I’m generally good for a couple of pints. We’re definitely proud of our beers at Scarlet Lane, but we understand it’s often good to mix up what you drink so things don’t get too heavy.