• Rick Burkhardt

Hangin' Tough - Why Rita Deserves Her Own Beer

You’ve seen her around, I know you have. And if you didn’t know who she was, you probably wondered what someone who looks like your cute little grandmother is doing at a beer festival.

Rita Kohn (pronounced “Kahn”) is the matriarch of Indiana beer and is as much of a legend as “Lord” John Hill – founder of Indiana’s first craft brewery, Broad Ripple Brewpub – and this is why a beer has been brewed in her honor. Scarlet Lane Brewing and BRBP have teamed up to brew an oatmeal pale ale with passion fruit and lemon named “Hangin’ Tough”, and in a minute I’m going to tell you, or, mostly others will, why Rita deserves this beer. First some background.

Most beer fans know Rita Kohn from her popular “Beer Buzz” column in NUVO magazine that she has authored for about twenty years. [No one really knows because Rita predates everyone there]. Rita writes about people and beer like she’s clothing a child, with warmth and care, and I suspect that for her, beer is like one of the many art forms that she adores. She also has written two beer books, most notably, “True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana”, and has written extensively about Native Americans, ballet, opera, jazz, theatre [over twenty-five plays], and in her spare time she reviews books.

A former Indiana University professor, Rita also was honored as a “Sagamore Of The Wabash” by Indiana Governor Joe Kernan in 2004. This short bio only scratches the surface of what this kind lady has done.

Based on a previous agreement, kinda, in allowing me to write about her, I met with Rita several times at “Brewpub” and even at her home. But, somehow the conversation subtly shifted away from her and onto others. Easily duped, I finally recognized that her slower pace and use of a cane only belies her elusiveness.

Rita recently declined on that story but relented when we agreed it wasn’t to be just about beer. Hopefully that story will be told. But she does not know about this one. Better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Easily duped, I finally recognized that her slower pace and use of a cane only belies her elusiveness.

Since Rita has written extensively on how much others mean to Indiana beer, it’s time to hear what others have to say about her importance to the Indiana beer community:

Eilise Lane, Owner/Head Brewer, Scarlet Lane Brewing, and co-collaborator of Hangin’ Tough.

“Rita was incredibly welcoming when we were coming into the beer community and she always had great feedback. Whether or not she liked the beer, she could always give us notes on it. And she also gave us notes on marketing and she will hassle Nick [Servies, co-founder] every single time, ‘You know I need every single press release first.’ We know that. (Laughs).

Having a woman that’s been around in the industry this long and knows so much about beer, presentation, communication. She’s just an incredible inspiration for a lot of people and everybody always wants to do something for her. I know that our community embraces her because we see her as our original and true beer writer that’s always been there.

She’s just so…she’s so neat! She gets out of the hospital and straightaway goes to a beer festival [Winterfest] because she wants to check on everybody, and make sure they’re okay. She thinks of everybody first. She is such a delight, I feel like everybody gets happy when she walks into a room. She has a way of bringing people together. She’s so cool.”

Greg Emig, President/Brewmaster, Lafayette Brewing Co., and early brewer for John Hill at BRBP.

“[She has meant] just a ton. Obviously as brewers we know the story behind beer but the difference that Rita’s made is that she has sort of a platform to go out there and talk about it. And not just through NUVO but I know she works with librarians and high school teachers, she sort of got the word out about what beer has meant through history, and to Indiana and settling the state.

Her ability to sort of be an outsider, not a brewery industry person, and yet still be able to go out and talk to people and sing the virtues of beer have been tremendous.

When we were trying to get Sunday sales for brewers back in 2010, her testimony at the committee hearing was priceless. People look at her and you’ve got this frail, little old lady and she went up there and spoke very eloquently about beer and its history, and its ties to the community, and what sort of makes this craft beer revolution special. It was just a great selling point. How do you turn somebody like that down?”

Dave Colt, Owner/Brewer, Sun King Brewing, and former brewer at Circle V and The Ram.

“Rita was personally an early champion of the beers I was making at The Ram but more so, she was a champion for craft-made things, and beer specifically because you know, she comes from a Germanic background. Her mom was a homebrewer so it’s in her DNA.

The fact that she cared so much about a fledgling industry and wrote about it with passion and conviction. I mean, here we are with over 100 breweries in the state and back then, shoot, twenty-five, less even? Getting the word out was so important…[she was] an early champion and still champions beer today.

She’s a fascinating lady. She’s a classically trained ballerina. Theatre and all the implications whether musical, dance or plays, she’s a playwright as well. And director. So between that and beer, it’s a full plate for sure!”

Anita Johnson, Owner [“HMFIC”], Great Fermentations beer and wine supply store.

“Well…she’s a gem. And she has been an unrepentant supporter and promoter of craft beer. And I have never seen anybody that has so much stamina, you just see her everywhere.

The neat part is she listens to what is going on and then she brings it back to the insights into the culture, which is a really cool thing. She is into ballet, she writes plays, the woman is amazing. She is very tolerant of people who disagree with her and she tries to educate. When I said she listens to people and learns, and then tries to teach. She is so soft-handed.

She has a way of bringing people together too, just with books and her roundtables. I just love that woman. She deserves a beer…she deserves an imperial beer! [Laughs!]”

Andrew Castner, Owner/Head Brewer, Mashcraft Brewing Co., and former brewer at Oaken Barrel and The Ram.

“Having not been around for a lot of her writings, I think I would struggle to quantify it. I think the impact of a person like her with her skill level to focus on what was a very tiny industry and give it a broad appeal, whether it was initially print or then get turned into an online presence, she gave a fledgling industry credibility.

I think that credibility was huge as we were growing, not to mention the connections. One of the huge aspects about what she brought was the connections that she created by knowing a person from the industry previously, being in a conversation with them and creating a connection with the next generation.

That’s one of the interesting aspects of being what I am, which is basically the middle child, where you had initially your Kevin Matalucci’s, your Ted Miller’s, your Dave Colt’s, Jerry Sutherlin and Greg Emig, was the first generation. And then you have a second generation that rolled in after that, myself and Mark Havens, and a few others that popped up five, six, seven, years ago.

And now you’ve got a whole new generation, and in between those, we interact at beer festivals but another one of those ways for me meeting the older guard was for Rita to know them, and Rita to know me. So the same regard was Anita Johnson, knowing her, then her knowing them. Those kind of connections are very, very valuable for someone getting into the business.”

Casey Parmalee, Marketing Director, Round Town Brewery, and former co-worker with Rita at NUVO.

“I worked with Rita for about two years, I think I started in the fall of 2014, and immediately my boss was, ‘You need to go get a beer with Rita.’ I was like, ‘Ok.’ I called her up and right away it was like, ‘Let’s go to Brewpub.’

And of course, Rita has a plan for literally everything so she took me to Brewpub because she wanted to explain the craft beer history to me here in Indianapolis, which I thought was pretty special!

I knew a lot of the Indianapolis brands but as far as knowing who the brewer was, who the owner was, how they all started, when they all started, why they all stared, it was still pretty hazy to me especially being kind of a newcomer to town. So she sat me down and a nice two-plus-hour lunch [laughs], and had a wonderful discussion with Rita. I love that she loves to show it off. This is where craft beer started really [in Indiana]. Thank you John Hill, but I mean bigger thank you to Rita for keeping that momentum going.

I’ve had the pleasure of walking around with Rita for a handful of the festivals these past two years, and it’s like each booth you’re gonna talk to one or two brewers, and she’s going to ask them about their children, and how’s your wife, and what happened with your husband, and how’s little Oliver doing, is he teething yet? She just knows. Oh God!

And then on the path from one booth to another which is usually not very far away, you’re going to get stopped by at least one other person. I mean it’s insane the amount of time that woman puts in. She’s insane. That woman! (Laughs!).”

Jonathon Mullens, Head Brewer, Broad Ripple Brewpub (Rita’s favorite meeting place), co-collaborator of Hangin’ Tough.

“I think she helps embody the camaraderie and spirit of craft beer in Indiana by providing us with the stories of craft beer, as she speaks with each and every one of us. She gives us the knowledge of the past while allowing us to seek the future. Really a true icon of the craft beer scene.

And the fact that she goes out and still tries beer the best that she can. As much as she’s been through, especially recently, she was at Winterfest.

I think that’s the big part, she’s a big voice for everybody and not just one person or whatever. She talks about everybody and what they’re doing and why they’re getting together. She tells the story the way it should be told. So I think that’s really why she’s the grandmother of all grandmothers for the beer culture in Indiana, if not really the world, if you think about it.”

[About eighteen months ago, I happened to be with Rita at Brewpub when she presented Jonathon with wrapped gifts for his newborn child. The gifts were children’s books; books that she had written.]

Not only is she maybe the most decent person you’ve ever met, Rita also is armed with a crack-shot sense of humor that she sometimes devilishly displays. Once while waiting in line for a Flat 12 beer event, she told me a young woman politely asked if perhaps she was in the wrong line. Rita responded, “Oh, you mean this isn’t the line for the strippers?!”

Savoring life one slow sip at a time, Rita is an Indiana treasure of humanity and civility that we all should be mining from abundantly, and it’s why a beer has finally been brewed in her honor. But knowing her sense of “it’s not about me”, she may be uneasy, though delighted, at the same time.

I am thrilled for Rita and that she considers me a true friend, I am deeply honored. We all are.

“Best Cheers” Rita!


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