The resurrection of Ding’s Beer Blog is going to be characterized by (at least at first) a focus on the local beer scene. That means Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana are in the crosshairs. I’m starting with a conversation with Tom Carpenter of 2Toms Brewing. Tom and I sat down at the brewery/taproom with a couple of beers a few days ago, to talk about contemporary brewing in Fort Wayne and how 2Toms fits into that landscape.
2Toms (and by extension Tom himself), was a natural place for me to start my own journey of re-connecting with the blog. A lot has happened in beer since 2015, and from my external perspective not much of it has been good. It has seemed to me like the craft beer world has moved further and further away from tradition with the advent of fruited sours, pastry stouts and hard seltzers, and 2Toms has certainly been a brewery that has embraced a lot of the things that I’m pretty unhappy about. Tom has been producing a lot of beer that is frankly an anathema to me, so why not get straight to the heart of the matter and kick off with some butting of heads? Of course, it didn’t really turn out that way at all, but that was part of my thought process before jumping back into ‘the scene’ and asking to speak with Tom.
We started by chatting about the origins of 2Toms. It’s been a quick, if not meteoric rise. It could be argued that 2Toms’ influence in the local scene has been disproportionate when compared to the time that the brewery has been in existence. Tom’s adventure is an incredibly young one, relatively speaking. His first home-brew batch was started in June of 2015, almost six years to the day of our conversation. The ascendance from that first batch to where we are now has been quick – very quick. The exponential trajectory started within a few batches of that first one, when Tom almost immediately started experimenting with oak chips in an attempt to simulate oak-aged characteristics. It became pretty clear pretty quickly in my meeting with him, that Tom is guided by a passion for getting stuff done, and this is reflected in the everything about 2Toms.
What’s also apparent about Tom is that he’s driven, competitive, and successful. Of course, this is in stark contrast to his beloved Cubs, but maybe that’s the juxtaposition that he feeds off! His MBA and corporate background means that he has a keen understanding of marketing and business, and that’s where our conversation about the contemporary beer scene began. Tom talked about what it means to be a successful brewery in a town like Fort Wayne in 2021, and how although it has to be built upon a solid foundation of what he thinks is good beer, it really goes way beyond that. The industrial feel of the spacious taproom in the Wells corridor to the north of the city, is deliberately designed to sidestep a typical bar scene. The idea is to attract a large cross-section of folk, ranging from the twenty-something crowd all the way up to those in their seventies. Tom believes that the millennial crowd, and those on the younger end of the larger spectrum, are almost always seeking something new, and that’s part of what drives and guides his prolific production (at the time of publishing Untappd lists 170 beers for 2Toms).
The fact that 2Toms had a very successful COVID period also reflects Tom’s business acumen. As others scrambled, he pivoted in 2020 to produce (and can) beers that he perceived people would be excited by, and would be willing to come out to obtain in the midst of a lock-down pandemic. It’s hard to find a better example of such beers than his Cereal Killer release of October 2020. Given the beers disappeared in a matter of minutes after release online, he clearly has a nose for assessing the wants of the craft beer drinking public of Fort Wayne. A 3/4 pack can release of beers that were inspired by, and even contained, breakfast cereal, were snapped up in record time. I say 3/4 pack, since one of the cans in the ‘4 pack’ was a can of marshmallow bits that were supposed to be added to the beer on pouring. Tom prefaced his comments about the Cereal Killer beers by being eager to point out that part of the brewing process was that the cereal only “touched” (his word) the beer in order to impart an aroma that would stir nostalgia for the drinker. Tom later clarified that “touched” means that the beer sits on the cereal for about 18-20 hours, and only a small amount of it actually enters the beer. Nevertheless, I must admit that at this point I tried to steer the conversation away form this particular subject, since my utter horror at such a ‘beer’ would mean that I was only about six nanoseconds away from offending Tom with my thoughts on such things – especially the 4th can!
To be fair, beers like the Cereal Killers were part of the reason that I wanted to speak to Tom in the first place. Other reasons include NEIPAs, Fruited Sours, and Pastry Stouts (even hard seltzers). All types of beer (I won’t call most of them styles), that I have very little time for, but that as a successful, contemporary, American brewer, Tom has produced rather a lot of. I’m forever curious, willing to learn and to be educated, so Tom seemed like a good place to start. These contemporary, American beers are things that, as a solid, dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, I am almost entirely not at all interested in, and would seldom (if ever) drink. When Tom and I moved on to that part of the conversation he conceded that the sometimes seemingly ubiquitous use of monikers for beers as “sours” for example, is based in the struggle that brewers/he have/has with labeling and describing beers for an American beer drinking public (about 30% of 2Toms customers are from outside of Fort Wayne) that is still a pretty nascent one in terms of its knowledge. How can you pull people into a particular beer without confusing them? What good are strict style parameters to people that know next to nothing about beer? What about the mess that other breweries are are making of describing their products which cause confusion and contradiction? How can we educate people without turning beer into an academic exercise and boring the pants off them? It’s a conundrum, and by definition, not easy to solve.
Many (perhaps even most*) of the beers that Tom makes are never going to be my cup of tea, and might never be things that I am going drink, recommend, or gravitate toward, however, all of them have an underlying philosophy. Tom and I did agree that there’s little point in trying to run a commercially successfully brewery in any small and relatively young beer market, and to start making distinctions between Kettle Sours and Lambics, Gueuzes and Berliner Weisses, or even to brew ten styles that I would be interested in. I must admit though, it’s still hard for me to meet brewers that know about brewing (as Tom clearly does), but are still able to release marshmallow bits with beers called, “Boo Berries, a Berliner with Blueberry, Marshmallow and Boo Berry Cereal”. I.just.don’t.get.it. At all. Of course, one can quite reasonably throw that back in my face and say several things; he’s the one with the successful brewery, not me; he’s the one with skin in the game, not me; why don’t I go and open my own brewery, brewing traditional styles that would make me happy? All points that I recognize, and that have at least some merit. As a fifty-something, white, English bloke, with a love all styles traditional, I’m not his demo – I know that, and it’s fine, but slushies, marshmallow ‘beers’, and style bending to nth degree are just things that I don’t understand. Some of these are products that I would characterizes as beverages, not as beer.
*there were two beers on the menu when I visited that I certainly am interested in, a 13% Wheat Wine and a similar ABV English Barleywine, that each seemed pretty traditional in their approach.
At the end of the day 2Toms wants to brew things that Tom describes as being clean, and that one can drink 16oz of. Meaning that they should never be too sweet, or too sour, or in fact ‘too anything’. That would turn them into what Tom calls “festival beers”. He characterizes such beers as something that you might love 2oz of, but by the time the 3rd or 4th oz is consumed, the beer becomes too cloying or too sour or just ‘too much’. Like most brewers I’ve known in the last 30 odd years, he’s looking for beers that he wants to drink, and that he is proud of. I can get behind that, even if I’m not about to be drawn in by most of things on offer from him.
Like me, Tom is reluctant to predict where beer is going in the future, but he did offer a few hints as to what might lie ahead for him and 2Toms. He says that although the brewery has a wide cross-section of core supporters, ranging from 21-70+ years of age, there’s also a transient set of customers that pass through less frequently. As such he remains keen to develop 2Toms as a destination/beer tourism venue, with the proximity to I-69 seen as a great advantage. He’d also like to expand the brand further afield, and making mead is a current interest of his. He thinks that there’s plenty of room in the Fort Wayne market for several more breweries yet, and given Tom’s business savvy, who’s to say that he’s not right about that? We’ll have to see where all of this takes us, 2Toms, and Tom, but whatever happens it’s unlikely to be dull. There’s a lot going on at 2Toms, whether you care for Rice Krispies in your beer or not.
My experience of the US craft beer scene is limited and rather old – one bar in Denver in 1998, basically. But even in that one bar I was struck by something that also comes through in this interview: a total lack of deference towards, or inhibition by, the history and culture(s) of beer. The idea that the best barleywines might be made by people who’d been brewing them for 20+ years – in fact the idea that there was any association between merit in a beer and having been brewed for a long time – seemed not to have crossed anyone’s mind: you like Kölsch? imperial porter? abbey tripels? Great, try ours!. This mentality is much more familiar to me now, 10+ years into Britain’s own craft beer revolution, but I still find it a bit odd; it seems the very antithesis of the word ‘craft’ in its usual meaning, apart from anything else. I understand brewers wanting to try different things, but I find it hard to understand why someone who’s cut their teeth on IPAs would think they’d be good at brewing (e.g.) barleywine. Good luck to them if they are, I guess.
You make a great point Phil. “Craft” would suggest some deference to the oldest artisans, but of course, that’s not exactly the American way, period.