An old garage located off a major highway might seem like an unlikely place to start a craft brewery, but Brad Hawkins saw opportunity in Needmore’s garage. You could say he saw untapped potential.
By 2011, Hawkins, owner of his own construction company, was well into the craft brewing hobby and pretty good at it. Lawrence County had nothing in the way of craft brews, and Hawkins was eager to introduce people to new flavors and styles.
After scouting places in Bedford, he settled on the old Cotton Evans garage on Trogden Lane in Needmore. It had the character he was looking for and plenty of parking space. He and co-founder Darby Jordan set about renovating the station into a brewery, incorporating many car parts and pieces into the decor.
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Salt Creek Brewery opened in 2012 with eight varieties of craft beer. To make the leap from homebrewer to commercial craft brewer, Hawkins worked with professional brewers and knew he had a good product, but it would take some time for locals to appreciate what was brewing in the old car garage.
“The locals weren’t educated about craft beer and didn’t know what it was,” Hawkins said of those early years. “Our audience was always outside of Lawrence County until people got educated. We had more people visit us from outside our community than inside … people from Ohio and Illinois came to the opening.”
Over time, the business would grow to become exactly what Hawkins envisioned—introducing others to the unique flavors and styles of craft beer and serving customers who can appreciate what goes into making a lager, stout, blonde, porter, wheat, cream beer and IPA.
But running a brewery and bar is hard work, and after a decade in the business, Hawkins made the decision to launch Salt Creek Brewery. He said it’s been a great experience with some fantastic memories, but he’s ready for a change of pace. He said long hours and the challenge of finding reliable staff were factors in the decision.
He said he has been approached by prospective buyers and hopes to be out of business by Sept. 30.
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He and Jordan are meticulous about their product and hold themselves to high standards. Depending on the variety, brewing beer is at least a three-week process, with some styles taking four to eight weeks.
“Anyone can make craft beer in a college or tourist town, and people don’t necessarily have to come well. Our slogan was ‘Where we are, the beer must be good.'”
While craft beers were front and center at the brewery, Hawkins added a weekly trivia night and live music to attract a range of customers. La Cala Cocina serves fresh Mexican dishes.
“I never wanted to just have a bar where you just serve people who drink beer until 2 in the morning. When we started, beer was always the reason we wanted people to come,” he said.
As the brewery, the first of its kind in Lawrence County, gained a following with Damn Blond Ale, porter and the popular Switchback Sally IPA, Hawkins looked into product distribution. The Brown County Inn was among the first to carry his drinks; Next up is Paoli Peaks, 33 Brick Street in French Lick, as well as the French Lick Resort. Pappa’s in Bedford has been offering SCB varieties for the past five years.
Another customer favorite – Bradweiser – is made just for fun.
“We made Bradweiser beer as a joke because we had people coming in and saying, ‘What do you have that tastes like Budweiser,'” he recalls. “We decided it was one and done and it was one of our best sellers.”
Hawkins also released Brad Ultra for a limited time to show that the brewery could produce an ultra-light beer worthy of the brand.
When Salt Creek Brewery opened a little more than 10 years ago, Hawkins said the business was about the 32nd brewery in the state. “There are about a couple hundred in Indiana now,” he said.
In a business that is crowded, Hawkins takes great satisfaction in knowing that Salt Creek Brewery stands out.
“A lot of people who make it a point to travel to craft breweries keep a journal of where they’ve been. We had a guy who had visited 200 craft breweries and we were in his top five, I heard that’s pretty cool.”
According to the Indiana Brewers Guild, Indiana has more than 170 craft breweries and has nearly 8,000 full-time employeese in Indiana’s craft brewing industry. The economic impact of breweries like Salt Creek Brewery, according to the Brewers of Indiana Guild, is more than $1 billion.
Hawkins said he enjoys being a part of the community, making donations to local schools and building the Salt Creek Brewery racing and cycling teams.
He also credits much of the brewery’s success to co-founder Darby Jordan.
“She was my right hand in everything,” he said.
Hawkins said he and Jordan have worked to reduce their involvement over the past year and have prepared employees to take on more responsibilities.
“A lot of people have worked in a restaurant, but not many have worked in a brewery, so it’s a small percentage of people who have a lot of knowledge about craft brewing,” he said. “Sales are good, business is good, we’re just physically and mentally drained.”
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The amount of work that goes into starting a business, from investing in equipment, licensing, branding and label design, is almost impossible to quantify. None of this diminishes the satisfaction Hawkins felt in making his dream come true.
“How many people can say they did the first thing in their county. Before Salt Creek Brewery, there had never been a brewery in Lawrence County,” he said. “You live your life to do something.”