GRIFFITH | Dan Lehnerer, the owner of the forthcoming New Oberpfalz Brewing, was living on the seventh floor of a 1,000-square-foot West Loop condo when he first started homebrewing, so he set up his equipment outside on the balcony over the bustle of the city.
"It was a blast," said Lehnerer, a Lansing native who now lives in Munster. "I made some really good stuff and some really bad stuff."
Lehnerer wanted feedback, so he went to a Chicago Beer Society First Thursday homebrewers' gathering at Goose Island. The first people to ever try his brew were beer writer Randy Mosher, beer sommelier certification pioneer Ray Daniels, Off Color Brewing co-owner Dave Bleitner and Goose Island brewer Brian Turner.
At the time, he had no idea who they were. They gave the beginning brewer constructive criticism and good tips that he immediately applied.
"It was a little bit more intimate then," he said. "Now when the homebrew club gathers, it's like the trading pit at the New York Stock Exchange."
The popularity of homebrewing and craft beer has been skyrocketing in the Calumet Region, which has added more than a dozen microbreweries over the past two years. New Oberpfalz Brewing will be one of the at least 20 craft breweries operating in Northwest Indiana and Chicago's South Suburbs.
When renovations are complete, New Oberpfalz will occupy about 3,000 square feet of space in two buildings at 121 E. Main St. in downtown Griffith that used to house a resale shop, an antique store and a florist. Lehnerer plans to brew up to 1,000 barrels a year of Bavaria-inspired beers, and sell them at a 50-seat taproom.
New Oberpfalz also will be distributed to a few taps at local restaurants and bars, and hand-bottle 22-ounce bombers.
"With a capacity of 1,000 barrels a year, we can't be everywhere," he said.
The brewery will be about three blocks from the Erie Lackawanna Trail, and one-fifth of a mile away from the trailhead on Broad Street. Lehnerer hopes it will be a destination for cyclists, after having seen people bicycle from the Rogers Park neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago to Three Floyds in Munster.
"We're within striking distance of the trail," he said. "I always though how could it could be to have an Indiana beer trail where cyclists would visit different breweries."
Griffith could become a destination for craft beer aficionados since Pokro Brewing Co. and Wildrose Brewing also will be right down the street, Lehnerer said. He thinks the town of about 17,000 is becoming a hub for craft breweries largely because its heritage as an industrial town has left of lot of vacant buildings between 2,000 and 10,000 square feet. They used to be machine shops or part suppliers, and are now the ideal size for small breweries.
The town is also centrally located.
"I loved the location, and loved the huge railroad crossroads," he said. "To me, Griffith is the bullseye of Northwest Indiana."
New Oberpfalz will offer visitors a small selection of food, which possibly would include authentic Bavarian pretzels. Taps should include smoked malt Rachbiers, Hefeweizen wheat beers and dark larger Schwarzbiers.
Lehnerer draws inspiration from his German heritage. The brewery owes its name to the Oberpfalz section of Bavaria, which he visited on his honeymoon to see where his ancestors hailed from.
"It's remote," he said. "It's still as rural as it was 150 years ago. But we get to enjoy the German-style and visited 30 breweries in the 10 days we were over there. I'd recommend it to anyone."
No target date is set for the opening, which will be sometime this year.