NEW BUFFALO — John Lustina, a lifelong Northwest Indiana resident, is not turning water into wine.
But the 1987 Andrean High School graduate, will be churning out homemade beer in a former church built when Abraham Lincoln was president.
Lustina and his partner, Jane Simon, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, hope their new venture, Beer Church, will serve its first cold one in a 35-seat tap room just before or right after the holidays.
"Sometime between Christmas and the New Year or sometime thereafter. It's looking pretty good for that," said Lustina, who grew up in Crown Point and now lives in Valparaiso.
It all began when they developed a business model for a brewpub a few years ago but didn't know where it should go, but while in New Buffalo they happened to discover the former Water's Edge United Methodist Church was for sale.
They were captivated by the atmosphere they believed could be created given the building is such a landmark at a highly visible downtown location, at U.S 12 and Whittaker Street, and they purchased it.
What followed is an ongoing remodeling down to the original pine wood floors being left exposed to add to the customer experience.
The 1861 structure was still in good shape, but required a lot of work to meet the standards of a commercial operation, said Lustina. Also appealing about the site is heavy foot traffic, especially during the summer tourist season.
"People walk a lot to and fro, and there's a lot of people that live downtown. It kind of brings the concept of a community pub," Lustina said.
Beer Church will start by brewing and serving four types of beer including a cream ale, Crooked Cross. The,n possibly in the spring, they'll add a hand tossed, Neapolitan pizza baked at 1,000 degrees in a wood-fired oven from Italy to the menu.
"It cooks a pizza in 90 seconds," Lustina said.
The pizza with scorched toppings like pork shoulder, short rib and Kobe beef, along with some smoked variations, is meant to be eaten with a knife and fork.
The restaurant portion of the business, once completed, will seat another 160 or so people, he said.
Tailgate parties for Notre Dame, Michigan and Chicago Bears football games also are planned. They're confident people will come from as far away as Chicago and South Bend for such a unique beer lover's experience.
"We want it to be a destination brewery," Simon said.
A New England-style imperial ale, an imperial stout and a double imperial ale with a slight mango flavor also will be on the beer menu.
Customers will be able to step up to the old church altar and order a beer then have the option of taking some home in a two-pint crowler, made of metal, canned just prior to walking out the doors.
When plans for the brewpub surfaced, there was some outrage in the community, but that's died down from realizing that such a historic building will not become a parking lot, Lustina said.
He also noted its use is not totally out of line because the first brewers were believed to be monks.
The church also was deconsecrated by the Rev. Brad Bartelmay, whose congregation is now in a brand new facility on Whittaker Street about a mile to the south.
"I think we've won them over, to tell you the truth," Lustina said.
The basement, with floor supports made from actual trees, will house four fermenters and eight holding tanks while the brewhouse will be kept under glass for people to view from the beer garden scheduled for the south side of the structure.
The setup will allow for producing various specialty batches depending on the season.
"We're trying to create a nice pop-art culture feel with what we're doing," Lustina said.