Champagne Velvet
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 testing sessions.

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 in bottles.

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 beer."

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 it."

Mark Bennett can be reached at or (812) 231-4377.


 Tribune-Star/Bob Poynter

On tap: Mike Rowe draws a glass of Champagne Velvet beer from the tap of the Terre Haute Brewing Co.



: 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.