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Thursday, June 20, 2024
The Observer

Scene in South Bend: Crooked Ewe Brewery and Ale House


Crooked Ewe’s logo — the face of a Scottish blackface sheep, with bright red eyes and menacing horns — has provoked more than a few questions from customers, executive chef Alain Helfrich says.

Usually, the question falls along the lines of, “Don’t only male sheep have horns?”

As it turns out, in this particular species, both male and female sheep have horns. When Alain Helfrich, Sam Meehan and Andy Walton opened Crooked Ewe in June of 2015, they decided to incorporate the “striking” features of the blackface ewe into their design concept, Helfrich says.

The name of the restaurant also carries a not-so-subtle message. “We thought it was kinda clever. Like, how do you want to leave a brewery when you’ve had a good time? You might want to be leaving walking a little crooked,” Helfrich says.

When opening Crooked Ewe in South Bend, the founders hoped to stand out. “We’re very different from most rest in town. But I knew from this town, and from people who were my age … they didn’t want to go to a place where you have to put on a suit to get good food,” Helfrich says. All three were excited at the prospect of starting a new venture in South Bend — Meehan is the majority shareholder of Fiddler’s Hearth in downtown South Bend, and Walton is a South Bend native.

In the Crooked Ewe’s building, the bar and over-21 seating area is on the ground level and the family seating is just a short trip up the stairs. Both spaces are open, with plenty of seating and views of the St. Joseph River. The decor is industrial: exposed beams and pipes, wooden tables made from reclaimed lumber and a gray color scheme. But the space still manages to feel airy, in part, because of the large windows, which let natural light in on the second floor.

Andy Walton, who manages brewing at Crooked Ewe, developed much of the beer menu as a home brewer. Types of beer served regularly include the Wendigo American stout, Vital IPA, Peggy Lee Brown porter and “Norac! The Rippin Beast,” an imperial stout brewed with coffee and cascara from Zen Cafe, coffee and cinnamon.

When asked about his favorite beer, Walton says, “I love the whole menu, so it’s hard to choose. I probably drink What’s My Name? [an amber ale], and Peggy Lee [a brown porter] the most ... but I change it up quite a bit.”

For the first two years, this focus on beer meant that the whole brew pub was only for ages 21 and up. It was not until last August that Crooked Ewe opened a long-awaited family dining section on its second floor.

Helfrich, who designs the restaurant’s eclectic menu, says the menu is informed by his background in philosophy. “My background was always art and philosophy, and those things have carried over into the food industry,” he says. “Blending spices is very similar to blending paints, and things like that.” Specifically, Helfrich has adopted a “pragmatist” approach to food, “kinda taking the best of both worlds and meeting in the middle somewhere.”

The best of the whole world, rather. Food on the menu ranges from poke — which features house cured salmon — to pulled pork tacos, cutting across a variety of different global cultures. “Beer and alcohol were partaken of with food from every different culture on Earth,” Helfrich says. Opening up a beer pub and only serving “deep-fried American bar food” did not interest him. “I felt like I needed to give beer an elevated stance, and come at it from a more global and historical perspective.”

With his recipes, which he spends months perfecting, Helfrich aims to present old favorites in a new context. “I’ve always felt like, I can’t replace what your grandmother does,” he says. He can’t imitate your favorite dishes, but he can change it — “to make it completely unique.”

For instance, the sirloin has a Violet Sky chocolate and Zen Cafe coffee crust, and the “honey fried” plate combines basil and lemon fried chicken with chili de arbol creamed spinach and orange blossom honey.

Fire and fermentation were the two main concepts” with Crooked Ewe, Helfrich explains. Walton ferments the beer and the chefs use fire in the restaurant’s smoker to give their meats an added dimension of flavor. Smoked meats on the menu include brisket, pork shoulder and pastrami.

With Crooked Ewe’s menu, Helfrich and the other founders saw an opportunity to capitalize on a neglected market. “There are very few options for vegans in this town, and there are even fewer options, in my opinion, for gluten-free options,” Helfrich says.

The menu’s “vurger,” the vegan burger, uses sticky rice, thai edamame and avocado to recreate the American classic. In the vegan taco recipe, pulled jackfruit is substituted for pulled pork.

In Crooked Ewe’s beer, Walton uses “the enzyme for beer clarity” while brewing the beer. “A neat by-product” of the process, he says, “is that it also reduces gluten. While gluten reduction wasn’t really my goal, I love it when people tell me they can drink beer again. Making people happy is always cool.”

Part of the reason the Crooked Ewe is able to cook so many gluten-free options is because they maintain separate facilities for their gluten-free menu. “If you start with a room with no contamination, you just keep doing your job … you’re already good to go,” Helfrich says.

“The final challenge is to make sure that being gluten free, that you can’t tell the difference,” he adds.

One recurring complaint from customers that crops up frequently is that the menu is vague, or full of unfamiliar ingredients with little explanation. Helfrich says that the menu is intentionally vague, for two reasons: first, as an “educational tool,” as a means to introduce his customers to new foods and ingredients. Second, Helfrich says, is “for the benefit of my servers.”

I require a lot from [the waitstaff] in terms of memorization, and in terms of knowing the restaurant,” Helfrich says. The menu, he says, encourages customers to engage and have a conversation with their waiters, and “break down a construct of a societal norm” wherein customers are dismissive or even downright rude to the person waiting their table.

That being said, “we get a lot of [flack] for [the menu]. It bums me out sometimes,” he says. “We created Crooked Ewe for the people who wanted a very specific experience. But you can’t make everybody happy.”

Yet the moment when a customer “gives a bit of control away and listens to what the server says,” often makes the few negative reviews worth it. At the end of the day, the menu “sparks the conversation and gives the table better service,” Helfrich says.

“We also strive to always use the best ingredients available, and make delicious, interesting beer,” Walton says. “But mostly, we like to just have fun.”

Crooked Ewe is open noon to 10 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays and noon to 11 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. The restaurant and brewpub is located at 1047 Lincoln Way East in South Bend.