I’m not kidding. Downtown New Albany is a craft beer destination

I place little stock in seemingly ubiquitous on-line reader polls, and I don’t personally encourage anyone to vote.

In like fashion, the New Albanian Brewing Company refrains from asking its customers and fans to cast dozens of ballots for the sake of the cause. Some of the time we are mentioned in such polls, at other times not, but as a perennial underdog from unappreciated New Albany, to win, place or show in the absence of chest thumping and similar varieties of narcissistic campaigning always provides sweet vindication, especially if the voting is being conducted by a Louisville-oriented publication.

That’s why this year’s LEO Weekly Readers’ Choice poll results are pleasing to me. After finishing first in 2012, Bank Street Brewhouse placed second in the Best Restaurant (Southern Indiana) balloting, trailing Feast BBQ, and finishing just ahead of The Exchange. What the three of us have in common is a location in New Albany, where such a trifecta would have been unthinkable a few short years ago.

As Metro Louisville slowly awakens to the notion of downtown New Albany as a varied, quality “food court” worthy of attention, what may not be as obvious is the pervasive extent to which craft beer reigns supreme in these newer dining establishments.

Take it from me; it didn’t happen overnight.

The late, lamented Bistro New Albany opened in 2006, and closed roughly a year and a half later. It occupied downstairs space in an otherwise shuttered former hotel on the corner of Bank and Market, where the bar and restaurant used to be.

In rooms once filled with Sunday lunchtime churchgoers, local grandees and hotel patrons, most of them sipping sweet tea and nibbling at Salisbury steak with standard-order mashed potatoes, the BNA’s David Clancy conjured a contemporary bistro menu. Perhaps it wasn’t as daring as similar spots in Louisville, but the concept was revolutionary for a downtown largely moribund, and the effect was electric.

Better yet, Chef Clancy kept ten good beers on tap, all of the time. Some were imports, and others regional. Usually there were a couple of drafts from NABC, at a time when our outside distribution was quite limited. When BNA started, “craft” beer was about as unknown in downtown New Albany as nylons in Leonid Brezhnev’s USSR, but in the bistro’s wake, modernity gradually began creeping into the vacuum. Some of the establishments have since gone (Connor’s Place, The Speakeasy), but the food and drink generation to follow has made my city’s historic business district a place to go for craft drafts.

These thoughts first occurred to me one day in September, when I decided to have a beer for lunch, which I do quite often, occasionally varying the routine by including an edible morsel or two. Granted, the beer’s (somewhat) free for me at Bank Street Brewhouse, but it’s nice to maintain a schedule of visitations in the neighborhood to greet fellow operators and sample their wares.

On that day, my choice of venues for a purely liquid lunch revealed a masochistic streak, because it is almost impossible to sit for any length of time at Feast BBQ’s bar and resist ordering food.

To walk into this historic, lovingly restored tavern is to be wrestled to the ground by the visceral aroma of smoky meat; to pick oneself up and proceed to the bar provides a pleasing vista of one hundred or more bourbons, as well as a dozen taps devoted exclusively to beers brewed in Indiana and Kentucky. My choice was a Workingman’s Pilsner by Fountain Square Brewing Company in Indianapolis, and it was cool, crisp and tasty.

Before Prohibition, Feast’s space was designed for watering people. Their horses were cared for in the adjoining building, known as Shrader Stables, where The Exchange restaurant quickly has become downtown New Albany’s crown jewel, both architecturally and in terms of delicious gastropub cuisine. The cocktail program is extensive, and the draft beer selection tilted toward nationally distributed American craft brands.

On my first visit to the stables some years back, it was a grim picture of roof cave-ins, mildew and all-purpose decay, but on a more recent occasion, I enjoyed a hoppy Daredevil IPA (Shelbyville, Indiana) and admired workhorse local developer Steve Resch’s stellar building renovation, which is an attraction in itself, and arguably second only to Patrick O’Shea’s on Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville. The sleek modern lines of the YMCA’s building across Main Street reflects the refashioned stables in its windows, and the juxtaposition of urbanism is striking.

A few blocks west of Exchange and Feast is JR’s Pub, housed in a comfy, utilitarian building astride Main Street (i.e., the route to Horseshoe Casino), with outdoor volleyball courts in back, plenty of sports on television, and a half-dozen NABC beers on tap – making it the brewery’s largest draft lineup outside our own two pubs. JR’s fried fish sandwich is second to none, and the blue plate specials provide solid midday value. The vibe is purely egalitarian, and it’s a clean, well-lighted place with Bud Light bottle babies and Beak’s Best pint lovers mingling together.

Perhaps the most pleasing outgrowth of downtown New Albany’s transformation is an expansion of international flair. Dragon King’s Daughter (corner of Bank and Elm) offers sushi and Japanese-Mexican fusion cuisine, and follows in the noble tradition of the late, lamented Maido by pouring a half-dozen American craft beers at all times.

Habana Blues (Cuban), La Bocca (Italian) and Louis le Francais (French) are clustered on one short block of Market, which also boasts Toast on Market for breakfast, house-roasted Quills Coffee, a cigar shop and smoking lounge called Billow, and DP Updogs, a corner hot dog stand. Both Habana Blues and La Bocca have short draft lists with multiple NABC taps and other crafts and imports, although opting for a Mojito at Habana Blues can be forgiven.

On the other hand, while stocking very little beer, Chef Louis’s little slice of France specializes mostly in good wine, pointing to the availability of quality vino in downtown New Albany. River City Winery is located on Pearl Street, makes excellent pizza, and sells only its own house wines, as produced by the owner in the basement when he’s not on duty as a city policeman. JR’s, mentioned earlier, shares common ownership with the Old 502 Winery in Louisville, and of course those wines are featured at JR’s.

But there’s even more good beer downtown: On draft at the New Albany location of Wick’s Pizza (State Street across from Schmitt Furniture), in bottles at Café 27 on Main, and both ways at Irish Exit, a few blocks east in the direction of Mansion Row. Lastly, permit me a tout for my own business: Bank Street Brewhouse obviously features NABC’s beers of proven merit, a dozen on draft at a time, with another (or sometimes two) on hand pull, as well as the full range of 22-ounce bomber bottles. We arrived in 2009, and it’s been one hell of a ride so far.

For many years, downtown New Albany was a food and drink wasteland. Now, surveying the preceding list, I’m guessing that within easy walking distance of each other, there are 75 or more “good beer” taps from breweries ranging from Hoosier stalwarts NABC, Flat12, Sun King and Three Floyds to national brands like Boulevard, Stone, Bell’s and Shipyard – and don’t forget Keg Liquors on Pearl, only a few doors down from perhaps the one business downtown that really has seen it all: Kaiser Tobacco, operating since before the American Civil War.

Since 1832, in fact.

There’s a turn of local phrase: We’re all here because we’re not all there. But there’s much more here than before. Come over and check it out. Catch me on a liquid lunch day, and I may even be offering tours.