David Anspaugh himself could have directed the scene on this frigid Hoosier evening. Car headlights cut through eddies of falling snow, past country fields and little houses, to a modest brick school building with a parking lot at sardine capacity. Folks skitter in from the cold, stomp their boots at the door, and thaw their cheeks against the warmth of a packed gymnasium, ancient, vaulted, and wall-to-wall with the whoops and cheers of good people caught up in an edge-of-the-seat game of … Tuesday Night Trivia.
Whitestown High School’s basketball floor hasn’t echoed with this much action since the 1960s, when consolidation shut it down. The building, with its distinctive porthole-like windows, sat there on the edge of town for years and years, either empty or underused as a beauty school or warehouse. Generations later, a group of home-brewing drinking buddies would buy it from the city for $1, give it a loving restoration that didn’t polish over its historic patina, and open Moontown Brewing Company.
It gets its name from Moontown Road, a once-secluded strip of Boone County where kids (including one of the brewery’s owners) used to hang out, goofing off and drinking beer in the cornfields. New construction has infringed upon that little piece of Mellencamp’s America, a fitting metaphor for the brewery’s “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” business model. In the current restaurant climate, where location is everything and chef-owned ventures target trending neighborhoods like heat-seeking missiles, it’s taking an outside shot. Or is it? Moontown is exactly the kind of place you want to discover after launching into the unknown—or at least somewhere beyond 116th Street.
The small-town brewery concept is nothing new to craft-beer pathfinders, of course, Taxman Brewing Co. having nailed the rural Indiana novelty in Bargersville (then in Fortville). But Moontown is on to something even more enterprising, having scooped up a 10,000-square-foot jewel in a deceptively sleepy town that, in reality, has been hailed as the state’s fastest-growing burg, in terms of population. During its first year in business, the brewery kept pace with the town’s trajectory. It hustled. It didn’t get caught watching the paint dry.
Head brewer Cody Peczkowski, one of Moontown’s seven owners, presides over the stainless-steel tanks and shiny fermenters at the performance kitchen–like core of the building. He is currently on his 48th, 465-gallon batch of Moontown beers, ranging from the citrusy, malty Hippie Royalty pale ale, to a smooth chocolate porter called Into the Void, to the dark and complex Rocket to the Moon, a solid Imperial Stout full of bittersweet richness. All of the beers here are good; some of them are dangerously good. “We use a lot of our old home-brewing recipes that evolved over the years. Into the Void was one of my first home recipes,” says Peczkowski. A technical stickler, he started brewing in college and honed his beer-making skills during the years he worked at two Phoenix-area locations of German-brewpub pioneer Gordon Biersch. A Purdue grad with a degree in health and fitness, he has also led weekend yoga classes on site. “We want this to be an event space, too,” he says. Moontown has hosted Dance Fit classes, live music, and even Whitestown High School reunions.
A new head chef came onboard in December, bringing some culinary cred to Moontown’s original beer-and-barbecue approach. Ian Tirmenstein, a restaurant veteran with experience at Black Market, Farm Bloomington, and Restaurant Tallent, returned from a two-year stint in Denver to spiff up the smoker-centric menu. Most spectacularly, he introduced a six-inch oyster po’ boy that begins with big, fresh, pre-shucked bivalves in their brine that he smokes just until they achieve a nice mushroom color. Then he dunks them in buttermilk and Cajun-seasoned flour and cornmeal before dropping them into the fryer. Crisp on the outside but still creamy inside, they are smothered in caper-laden remoulade and arranged within a French roll. Every weekend, Tirmenstein tries to get his hands on a fresh, sustainable whole fish that he lays over the embers. He once brined some walleye for four hours, applied a Cajun rub to dry the skin (“so that the smoke would render it”), and served it with a spicy, pickly chow-chow.
On weekends, a $40 smoked-meat platter shows the restaurant’s full range of caveman-style proteins, including a quartered chicken with the proper rosy flesh, juicy full-fat brisket burnished to a meaty crackle in spots, a pile of sausage slices, a pair of ribs slow-cooked until the pork pulls off with just a tug, and a pinch of pulled pork. It’s all perfectly good. None of it is going to put Texas out of business, but it matters less that the fowl is a little too dense, that the pig spent too much time in the warmer before hitting the plate, or that all of the DIY sauces contain too much kitchen spice to be taken seriously. What seems more important to the throngs of people clustered in the trophy-lined vestibule for the 45-minute wait on a Friday night—the locals, the Whitestown High School old-timers who lent Moontown some of their ancient yearbooks and team pictures to put on display, and even the fair-weather fans—is that we are all rooting for the hometown team here. And who doesn’t love an underdog?Tirmenstein added the 303 Smoked Pork Green Chile Nachos to the menu, a recipe he and his girlfriend perfected in Denver, which explains why he named the dish after his old Colorado area code. The food does have a certain tailgate-party motif that shows up in succulent smoked-and-fried chicken wings that you can order lashed with Nashville hot sauce, or sodden Beer Cheese Fries studded with bacon lardons, or brisket chili topped with crème fraîche. Tirmenstein inherited a triple-stacked burger that is already so beloved, dripping with juice and American cheese, that he is not going to mess with it. But he will whip up some game-changing cumin-rubbed smoked cauliflower—simply swiped with olive oil and some heady seasoning, then cooked until tender and sweet—among the options at Moontown’s Trivia Night taco bar.