AURORA, Ind. -- If you head out west toward Indianapolis, you'll be heading straight for a small town with a brewery that punches way above its weight.
The Great Crescent Brewery is proof that making great beer takes time, patience, a mind for ingredients and a brewing team that will be just like family.
In brewmaster Dan Valas' case, he has circumvented that last part: His brew team is his family and that cohesiveness shines in every batch of beer they make.
Valas said he got the idea to start a brewery in the mid-1990s. At the time he was homebrewing and working at DHL as a aircraft maintenance manager. His job took him all over North America and Europe; in many cases right to where great beer was being made.
“I spent a lot of time traveling around, seeing a lot of things and, of course, drank a lot of beer,” Dan Valas said. “I learned a lot about what brewing could be and what brewing could be for me.”
He spent a lot of time in Brussels, Belgium and Cologne, Germany. His time spent away from the aircraft hangars was spent learning about European brewing methods and styles.
Valas said when it looked like DHL was headed for troubled skies, he decided to open up a small brewery in November 2008. He opened the brewery on Second Street in Aurora along with his wife, Lani, and his son. They now have one more employee that works for them full-time.
It wasn't until January 2010 they bought a larger space that they moved operations to on Importing Street in March of that year.
The new building was built in 1843, originally part of a distillery, serving as a warehouse. In the late 1800s it came to be the Indianapolis Chair Factory and that business lasted until the 1960s. After that it housed the Aurora Plumbing and Electrical Supply store before the Valas’ bought it.
Valas said they originally overlooked the building because it appeared to be almost too much to take on. It was boarded up at the time and looked to be in varying states of disrepair.
Finally, while looking for a bigger space, they were able to find the local owners and learned that they wanted to offload the site. Once they got inside, they saw it would be a perfect place to move the brewery to.
Great Crescent is in a rather unique situation when it comes to its location. Aurora is close to Cincinnati but also not too far away from Indianapolis either. Indianapolis already has a reputation for quality breweries and as the Queen City rises once more, Great Crescent is situated to bridge the gap between the two.
Valas said one of the goals of the new building was to keep the brewery downtown and close to the river. They also wanted to stay in Aurora because it’s their home and they love the community.
There’s another connection, too: Great Crescent has a tie to Aurora’s brewing past. The original Crescent Brewing Company was located close to the river in Aurora and some of their lagering caves are still in existence. The family that owned the brewery also owned the distillery warehouse that Great Crescent is now housed in. Valas said the brewery was known as the “Great” Crescent Brewery in its heyday because it exported beer all over the world.
Its history aside, the family is proud to bring brewing back to Aurora and hopes more cities restart local breweries as well.
“Our guiding principles are to be fresh, local and whole food,” Valas said. “We do a twist on some of the beers -- the coconut porter, the bourbon barrel stout and cherry -- but mainly we just try to brew good, solid beers to style.”
Valas said he knows that many brewers today like to create “big beers” with high ABVs or lots of hops, but he prefers to make beer that is approachable and sessionable.
“I like to drink beer, and I like to drink beer a lot; and you can’t sit down and drink three or four to those (high alcohol beers) because it’s just too much. So we try to brew beer that people can enjoy three or four of and not have to get an ambulance home and yet still be true to full flavor,” said Valas.
When Valas returned from his European trips while working for DHL, he would make a special cherry ale and even have Dutch cherries flown in to make the same cherry ale that is made in Belgium.
He said the cherry ale was one of their early successes and has continued to be quite popular, but the cherry crop was ruined last year and the brew was scrapped.
The bourbon barrel stout is also a Valas favorite. They source the bourbon barrels out of a cooperage in Louisville, Ky. that works with Maker’s Mark and Four Roses. The Valas’ find out when the barrels are emptied and go down the next day so they get the barrel fresh, which is important for aging beer properly. Once filled with beer, it takes a few weeks for it to reach the right flavor.
The family decided to can their beer because they wanted to get into a beer vessel that people could easily carry home. Great Crescent had always been selling pre-packaged growlers -- they’ve never filled the growlers out of the tap at the bar -- and they found
people weren’t a fan of the growlers. The main reason for that being that it was “too much beer” and people wouldn’t be able to drink it all in one session, causing the beer to go flat.
Instead of refilling growlers at the tap room, Great Crescent now sells four-packs of cans, which equates to the same amount as a growler. Valas said they’ve seen much better success with the cans.
“We (had) a lot of discussion about cans versus bottling -- including ‘bomber’ bottles, 12-ounce. We did a lot of research about what’s the best package. You know, you get down to the bottom line, and it’s about what is the most eco-friendly, what is the most accepted package in all venues and what keeps the freshest -- and it’s cans,” Valas said.
The brewmaster said the decision was clinched when his son spoke and said, “It’s an easy decision. Which one is best for the beer?”
Lani Valas said that one time when they ran into resistance from a prospective client who was against cans, they poured the beer out of the cans where he couldn’t see and the client couldn’t tell it wasn’t out of a tap. Since then the brewery has won a lot of converts to cans via their blind taste tests.
The family said the local response to the brewery has been very endearing and supportive.
“A lot of people like they fact that they have a local brewery in town -- they’re proud of that,” Lani Valas said.
Dan Valas said people realize that it’s a big draw to the town in a variety of ways: as both a tap room and a wholesaler. He thinks it’s “pretty cool” that the brewery is part of an entire economic chain in that they buy and sell goods with other businesses there in Aurora. The family tries to buy most of its raw goods in Indiana or in the Greater Cincinnati area.
Great Crescent currently self-distributes in Indiana but has to work with a distributor in Ohio and Kentucky. The family said they currently distribute to all the counties surrounding Cincinnati and up to the Dayton-Wilmington area and as east as Brown and Preble counties in Ohio. Across the Ohio River, they distribute to all the counties in Northern Kentucky. They also distribute in Louisville, northern Indiana and in Illinois.
While that might sound like great path to profitability, the Valas’ say their immediate goals are to become profitable and stable. They would also like to reach solid footing in the region and eventually expand operations in the building they are housed in with the goal of producing about 5,000 barrels per year.
Eventually, there are plans to expand the food options at the tap room and possibly create a restaurant to be part of the brewery. The family would also like to expand from a 10-barrel brewhouse to a 30-barrel brewhouse. They hope that the canning line will get them closer to realizing those dreams.
The Valas’ said they ran into a problem early on that many new breweries face. That is, they almost expanded too fast. During their 2012 business year, Dan Valas said they expanded production by almost 400 percent; this year he’s aiming for a more sustainable 45 to 50 percent.
“To temper that in reality, we weren’t exactly capable of brewing a lot of beer. So when we say we had a 400 percent increase, it meant coming from 150 to 200 barrels per to year expanding to 20 times of our brewing capacity,” Valas said.
That expansion hasn’t gone unnoticed by Great Crescent’s friends to the east. Dan Valas said they know many of the brewers in Cincinnati and consider themselves as part of that community.
It’s that idea of community that the Valas’ would love to see expand as craft beer continues its renaissance in both the Tri-State and across America.
“There should be a brewery in every town,” Lani Valas said. “Just like it used to be.”
Regionally, the family said they are in a great position. Beer consumption has always been a staple in Cincinnati, but in Indiana it has “no where to go but up.” Dan Valas said craft beer is a very small market in Indiana and while that discourages some, he feels it’s a great time to start brewing.
While he loves that beer is becoming so popular again, Dan Valas does have a concern about the explosive growth of the market.
“I think the message that sometimes gets lost is focusing on fresh, local beer,” Dan Valas said. “I don’t think you need to be bringing beer in from the West Coast or the East Coast or wherever you think beer is made better. I think beer is made really great in Indiana. I think it’s made really great in Ohio and Kentucky.”
The family said that something people have to remember is that when consumers buy beer that comes from hundreds of miles away and not from a local brewer, you have no guarantee on how fresh that beer will be.
“I’ve had plenty of bad beers that have come from far away because they’ve been sitting on docks for who knows how long,” Dan Valas said. “It just isn’t the same. I don’t think people get that just yet and they should. But as they get more and more breweries locally, maybe they’ll edge those guys out. That’s my hope.