INDIANAPOLIS — Tucked away in an exhibit hall behind the fried food and lemonade stands and across from the Coliseum, the new Indiana Beer and Wine Exhibition at the Indiana State Fair isn't much of a spectacle.
There are no raucous, stumbling drunks to cause a scene. And the ground is free of discarded beer cans and bottles.
Booze is flowing at the fair for the first time in 67 years, but officials and fair-goers say strict drink limits and other containment measures have kept the alcohol from spoiling the family-friendly atmosphere that the legislature had long sought to protect by banning alcohol sales.
But if the restrictions have deterred business, vendors say they haven't noticed. Through 11 days, the exhibition has drawn sizable crowds — 31,000 visitors so far, according to fair spokesman Andy Klotz. And, perhaps more importantly for the exhibit's future, he said state fair police haven't dealt with any alcohol-related incidents.
"Nobody's been getting over-alcoholed, which is good — that could screw everything up," said Dave Reynolds, a bartender at Three Pints in Plainfield, one of eight breweries featured last Saturday.
The exhibit is billed as a showcase of Indiana's local breweries and wineries. Customers are given wristbands with three detachable drink vouchers to spend as they please. At $5 each, a drink consists of a 12-ounce glass of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or four smaller samples of beer or wine for those who want to try a variety. Saturday's beer offerings included Bloomington Beer Co.'s Ruby Bloom, an amber with a smokey finish; Tow Yard's Horse Power, a double pale ale; and an oatmeal stout from Three Pints. What's on tap changes from day to day, as breweries and wineries take alternating turns in the spotlight.
But aficionados be warned: vendors say the exhibit is geared toward a casual audience. That means sweeter wines and more crowd-pleasing brews, instead of those crafted to more refined tastes.
"We're touching consumers that have probably never had craft beer in their life," said Mike DeWeese, director of distribution for Tow Yard Brewing in Indianapolis.
The event has drawn a diverse crowd. The Saturday afternoon throng ranged from 20-somethings to people in their 70s.
Terry Boone, 60, typically drinks Miller Lite and "cheap wine," she said, but gave the event a rave review — aside from the relative lack of seating.
"It's fun to be able to sample craft beers and find something to your tastes, especially when you're not real familiar with the Indiana offerings," the Noblesville woman said. Her favorite? Upland's wheat ale.
DeWeese said events like the fair will help the growing craft industry reach new audiences.
"Some of these people live in places that don't even have craft beer," he said. "They're going to go back and tell their bartender, hey, I want an IPA or X, Y, Z beer."
In that respect, the state's reluctance to serve beer may have been a blessing in disguise. A key to lifting the prohibition was a guarantee that the product would be all local — no Budweiser, Miller or Coors allowed.
"The problem is, if you put that out there, they wouldn't come out here to try the craft beers," said Scott DeWees, event manager at Huber's Orchard and Winery.
As for the exhibition portion, in its first year the event leaves something to be desired on the educational front. Some servers offer in-depth explanations of their offerings; others don't. And aside from a trough of hops in the entry and a teaser to a Prohibition exhibit at the Indiana Art Museum, there's little in the way of displays.
Most don't seem to mind.
"I think it's well set up. Good beer selection, not too crowded," said Sean McAdams, 30, of Chicago.
McAdams didn't know of the state's prolonged fight to get beer on the menu.
"I'm glad we came this year, then," he said.