Joliet resident Doug Walling, a bearded guy who will tell you straight off his two great passions in life are beer and baseball, often finds himself more than 30 miles from home, sipping different craft brews in the Calumet Region.
"It's a mecca for breweries," and a big-league destination for beer aficionados, he said.
He calls the area a beer mecca now, but the region's microbrew scene is set to double in size because of a sudsy wave of at least a dozen new craft brewers.
Over the years, Walling has often visited established breweries such as Three Floyds in Munster, Bulldog Brewing Co. in Whiting and Crown Brewing Co. in Crown Point. At his new favorite haunt, One Trick Pony Brewery in Lansing, he watches an assistant cellarman clad in rubber boots and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt perch on a ladder while pouring a bucket of dry hops into a towering silvery tank. He sips a dark stout tapped a few days earlier, and marvels at how it goes down smoother than Guinness and lacks the dry aftertaste.
The separation between the brewmaster in the back room and the end user in the taproom is little more than a few dozen feet and a bar lined with homemade horseshoe coasters, drained pint glasses and jars of pretzels. Walling can see the brewer sweat while making beers that he pours enthusiastic praise on.
"There's passion in it," he said. "I'd much rather give my hard-earned money to these guys than some out-of-state shareholders who don't care what I think."
One Trick Pony Brewing, which was named after an argument about how the nanobrewery was not just a one-trick pony that only brewed super-hoppy IPAs, opened in a small industrial park on Memorial Day last year. At least 11 other craft brewers have since started up or announced plans to open, more than doubling the amount of microbreweries in Northwest Indiana and Chicago's south suburbs. New brewers say they are slaking a growing thirst for higher-quality, locally made beer.
"People are learning what good beer tastes like, that beer is supposed to have flavor," said Dave Murphy, a One Trick co-owner whose suspenders have become so iconic to patrons that the nanobrewery sells identical copies in its taproom. "Americans are used to beer that you can't smell or taste. But beer is supposed to be flavorful."
A quest for 'something better'
Since 2012, the number of craft breweries in the Calumet Region has grown from seven to at least 19 that are either already filling growlers and snifters, or on tap to open soon. By next year, at least 16 brewers will be making ales, hefeweizens and other hand-crafted beers in Northwest Indiana alone.
Consider this: Griffith, which has fewer than 17,000 residents, had no microbreweries at the start of 2013. Next year, the town could have three different craft brewers, Clerk-Treasurer George Jerome said.
"It attracts people to the town, and helps keep younger people in the community," he said. "It's a good thing if you're an older resident who someday wants to sell your home."
The microbrewery industry has been booming nationally, growing by an average of more than 10 percent a year for the last half decade, according to the Brewers Association. Indiana and Illinois have been growing faster than the national average, said Bart Watson, the chief economist for the microbrewery advocacy group. The number of craft breweries in Indiana rose to 54 last year from 43 in 2011, while Illinois added 15 more breweries in 2012, bringing its total to 67. Plus, year-over-year production by volume surged by 27 percent in Indiana, and skyrocketed by more than 37 percent in Illinois.
Flossmoor Station Restaurant and Brewery is expanding to add a Hammond brewpub to meet the growing demand, partly so it can start bottling 12-ounce bottles and start distributing its beer to other Midwestern states, general manager Sandi Nelson said.
"It's grown every year since we've been open," she said. "People are looking for something unique, creative and artisanal."
The Calumet Region's local beer landscape had been pretty barren between the time when the Hammond Brewing Co. shuttered its doors back in 1918 and 1996, when Three Floyds, Flossmoor Station and LaPorte's Back Road Brewery all started crafting more daring and complex beers at around the same time. They brewed Scottish-style ales, American pale ales, Belgian tripels and the now-ubiquitous IPAs. The early pioneers exposed region residents to a wider variety of flavors and beer styles, piled up awards and evangelized for the art of craft brewing with every pint they poured. They also helped inspire a generation of homebrewers, who are now starting up the bumper crop of new breweries.
Take Joe Pokropinski, who has been homebrewing since his mom first bought him a small kit more than 13 years ago. He made trips to Three Floyds and Back Road Brewery, and cites them as influences.
After honing his craft for more than a decade, he and his wife Robyn are now opening Pokro Brewing on Broad Street in downtown Griffith, where he plans to pour Belgian-style beers, brown ales and pale ales in a former kickboxing dojo they are renovating to impart old-world ambiance.
Microbreweries that have launched so far this year include Hunter's Brewing in Chesterton and Ironwood Brewing in Valparaiso. The growing list of craft brewers slated to open soon includes 18th Street Brewing in Gary's Miller Beach neighborhood, Four Fathers Brewing in Valparaiso, Burn 'Em Brewing in Michigan City, Devil's Trumpet Brewing Co. in Hobart, Hammond Station Restaurant and Brewery in Hammond, Transient Artisanal Ales in Lansing, and New Oberpfalz Brewing Co. and Wildrose Brewing Co. in Griffith.
"It's great. It's starting to get to the point where you almost have a brewery in every town," said Chris Pearson, a brewer at Devil's Trumpet, which plans to open off U.S. 30 in Hobart next year.
Hobart's new microbrewery, which is named after a rare type of flower, took root after veterans of a local home-brewing club bumped into each other in a Home Depot and decided to go into business together. Pearson said they plan to brew a wide variety of styles, including Belgian-style session beers, saisons and lots of sours.
"The popularity of craft beer ties in with the whole slow-food movement," Pearson said. "People want more flavor in their food and more flavor in their beer, not what some corporate conglomerate tells them they need. It all ties in. Farmers markets are packed every weekend because people want to appreciate a better quality."
Almost all of the region's new breweries were founded by guys like Pearson: longtime home brewers who decided to turn pro.
Gypsy brewer Chris Betts, founder of Transient Artisan Ales, has been brewing hoppy continental saisons and other ales for the last five years. His love for brewing parallels his interest in cooking. He likens the craft to making a soup, where he can start at the end and work his way back.
Betts has been brewing trial batches with One Trick Pony's equipment, and plans to soon start distributing his beer there and at seven or eight restaurants and bars in the area. He hopes to brew a constantly changing rotation of beers, including many farmhouse ales, and eventually open a brewpub of his own.
"I'm looking to do new stuff all the time and experiment, not brew the same three beers constantly," he said. "If there's not interest in it, I can do new stuff. It's easier to turn on a dime when you're brewing four barrels and not 100 barrels – at worst, you might lose a couple barrels."
A lot of trial and error takes place at the fledgling breweries.
Steve Murray, a former brewer at Greenbush Brewing Co. in Sawyer, Mich., has spent all summer testing out different styles and giving away samples, including at the sold-out Valpo Brewfest this summer. He, his twin brother Blake and three friends from New Prairie High School in LaPorte plan to launch Burn 'Em Brewing in Michigan City. They have experimented with small batches with flavors such as white chocolate, blueberry and even smoked pork to get an idea of what future customers would want to drink. They plan to can their beer, sell it in 16-ounce four packs and launch a Kickstarter campaign sometime next year to raise funds to expand their production capacity.
"Our mainstays will be a coffee beer and a light wheat ale, but there are endless possibilities," he said. "We want to satisfy people's quest for something better. Everybody wants to be a connoisseur of something these days."
The unending variety that is possible is one reason why many local craft brewers scoff at the idea of the market becoming oversaturated with all the new options that could contend for limited real estate at local taps and on liquor store shelves. Not all area microbreweries have made it: Valparaiso's Aberdeen Brewing Co., Michigan City's Duneland Brewhouse, Hobart's Brickworks Brewing Co. and South Bend's Four Horsemen Brewing Co. all fizzed out. But brewers say the problem was not consumer demand because the craft brewing industry grew nationally 15 percent by volume and 17 percent in revenue last year, according to the Brewers Association.
Despite its increasing popularity, craft beer only accounts for about 10 percent of the total market. The two largest domestic beer producers — InBev and MillerCoors – control an estimated 77 percent of the market, according to the Brewers Association.
That leaves significant room for growth, said Drew Fox, a Chicago microbrewery veteran who is opening 18th Street Brewery a short stroll from the Miller South Shore Line train stop in Gary.
"It's almost going back before Prohibition to where there were breweries making fresh local beer in every community," he said. "It's still wide open, and craft breweries continue to grow. You hear nonsense about beer saturation, but that's definitely not true. Everyone has their unique styles of what beer they're going to brew, and craft breweries still only make a small portion of the beer that’s consumed. There's a long way to go."
Local brewers also see themselves less as competition than as allies. One Trick Pony even displays maps directing customers to other breweries.
"We just want people to drink good beer," Murphy said.