Terre Haute Brewing Co. leaves many
thirsting for more
By Mark Bennett
As he explained the revival of Champagne Velvet,
Mike Rowe summed up the process in scientific terms.
"Beer is microbiology," said Rowe, the man who brought
the Terre Haute brew "with the million-dollar flavor"
back to life.
Thus in 2000, when brewmaster Ted Herrera and assistant Tim Robson
completed the first batches of Champagne Velvet made since the
original Terre Haute Brewing Co. closed in 1958, the microbiological
work was not yet done. It had to be tasted.
"We called it research," Rowe recalled of their early
Rowe's first Champagne Velvet sip was of its bock version. "I
remember thinking it was very good," he said.
Now, some might say Rowe could be considered a bit biased. After
all, it was this 52-year-old Terre Haute native who came up with
the beer's long-lost original recipe, spent years tracking down
and purchasing the Champagne Velvet trademark, and turned those
discoveries into a microbrewery - known once again as the Terre
Haute Brewing Co. at Ninth and Swan streets - that is now capable
of producing 2,500 cases a month. But Rowe's favorable assessment
is backed by people attending beer festivals recently at Indianapolis'
Broad Ripple district and Evansville. His assistant, Nick Smith,
handles the company's Champagne Velvet booth at those events.
"He just comes away all excited because of the positive
feedback," Rowe said.
So they also are excited about future possibilities.
By the time the Terre Haute Street Fair runs Sept. 23-25, Rowe
plans to have the Champagne Velvet's pilsner brew available there
Terre Haute Brewing's current production level of 600 gallons
a month already includes both draft and some bottled beer. But
its bottled version could jump from the company's present average
of a couple hundred cases packaged a month.
"We know that we have the demand with some significant retailers,"
Rowe said, mentioning the good reviews at beer shows. "We've
been received pretty well, and that tells us we can sell our
The 14,000-square-foot brewhouse employs three full-time workers
and five part-timers. "A far cry from 950," Rowe said.
That was the peak work force at the old Terre Haute Brewing Co.,
when it was cranking out 46.5 million gallons of Champagne Velvet
a year. It became the seventh-largest brewery in the United States.
The beermaker, originally established in 1837, was down to 300
workers when it shut down in 1958.
Then in 1990, Rowe and his wife, Teri, bought the site of the
original brewery - the E. Bleemel Flour and Feed building at
904 Poplar St. - intending to turn it into apartments. As they
renovated the once-condemned building, the Rowes discovered relics
from Terre Haute's rich brewing history. The biggest discovery,
though, came when a guy cleaning out his basement found an old
book with a hand-written beer recipe tucked inside. He offered
the information to Rowe.
"He said, 'Here's a book. It's got something about beer
in it. Will you give me 20 bucks?'" Rowe recalled, chuckling.
"At the time, I felt like that was too much."
Turns out, it was the original Champagne Velvet recipe, written
down by Walter Braun, an assistant brewmaster in the early 1900s.
It contained all the details, except for one ingredient - hops,
which is a bittering agent in beer. From that - "We've made
some assumptions" about the hops, Rowe said - he and his
21st-century brew team re-created the old beers, using also barley,
yeast, water and, uniquely, corn flakes. (Coors and Budweiser
recipes use rice.) All versions of Champagne Velvet - pilsner,
amber and bock - are lagers, which means they're brewed at a
temperature of 52 degrees, compared to ales, which are made at
68 to 70 degrees, Rowe explained.
The recipe discovery triggered years of research and planning
to bring Champagne Velvet back to the tap. Last fall, Rowe sold
a museum in the Bleemel building and the Tap Room, where "CV"
was served to the owners of the M. Moggers Restaurant. It gave
Rowe and his brew staff more time to focus on their product.
Once a major force in the beer industry, the renewed Champagne
Velvet is now part of a booming, niche market for microbrews.
"We, like all the other microbreweries in Indiana and throughout
the country, are providing an alternative to those mass-produced
beers," said Smith. "And I like some of those mass-marketed
beers myself, and there's nothing wrong with that - you like
what you like. What I would suggest to people is to just try
Mark Bennett can be reached at email@example.com
or (812) 231-4377.
|On tap: Mike Rowe draws a glass of Champagne
Velvet beer from the tap of the Terre Haute Brewing Co.
ON TAP: CHAMPAGNE
Owner: Mike Rowe, 52, of Terre Haute.
Location: 401-403 S. Ninth St., in a former Terre Haute
Brewing Co. building dating back to 1890.
History: Brewing company is one of fewer than 20 "heritage
breweries" in the nation, which includes those that originally
began operations before Prohibition. Terre Haute's began in 1837,
closed in 1958 and restarted in 2000, making it the second-oldest
active brewery in America. At one point, the facility employed
950 people and was the seventh-largest in the United States.
Firsts: The Terre Haute Brewing Co. began using freshness
dates in 1940, became the first national brewery to feature black
models in its advertising in 1952, and introduced twist-off caps
on its cone-shaped cans in 1935.
Flavors: Pilsner (golden beer), amber (with lightly roasted
barley) and bock (made with caramel and chocolate barley malt
for a stronger flavor and darker color; it also has a higher
7.5-percent alcohol content).
Tastings: Every Thursday at the brewery from 4 to 7 p.m.
Champagne Velvet is also available at other locations around
Terre Haute and the Midwest, and that list is available on the
Terre Haute Brewing Co. Web site.