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Twisted K-8, a neighborhood craft brewery that opened in downtown LaPorte in 2013, closed this fall, joining a small graveyard of defunct Region breweries like Valparaiso's Aberdeen Brewing Co., Michigan City's Duneland Brewhouse, and Hobart's Brickworks Brewing Co. 

The LaPorte craft brewery garnered some positive reviews, but online commentators were often less than enthusiastic, saying it had a small selection, average beers and more of an interest "in putting out a product for the local community instead of taking over the world."

But despite the inevitable weeding out that occurs in any maturing industry, craft brewing continues to grow rapidly in the Calumet Region.

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New craft beer bars like Region Ale in Schererville, Twincade in Griffith and Doc's Smokehouse and Craft Bar in Dyer opened in 2016, devoting many of their taps to locally brewed beers. New craft beer festivals like Michigan City's Brewfest and the Homewood Hop Fest cropped up. Three Floyds, one of the biggest influences on Northwest Indiana's craft beer scene, celebrated its 20th anniversary amid a massive expansion that will include a distillery that will produce a Dark Lord Whiskey and other craft spirits.

And while the pace of brewery openings in Northwest Indiana fell off after seven new ones got up and running in 2015, more craft breweries continued to pop up in the Region this year.

Hammond's Byway Brewing, Michigan City's Zorn Brew Works Co. and Crete's Evil Horse Brewing all launched in 2016, and Off Square Brewing broke ground on a new 10,000-square-foot brewery in Crown Point. Zorn revived a historic brewery a Bavarian immigrant opened in Michigan City nearly a century ago in 1918.

"2016 was a year of construction and restoration for us at Zorn Brew Works Co., and we are thankful to have opened our tap room on Thanksgiving," owner John Van Prooyen said.

"In just a few weeks of being open, our feedback has been very positive, and we look forward to continuing the journey in 2017 by expanding our beer selection, menu and our constant efforts to restore the original 1800s-era brewery buildings that are a key part of Michigan City's history."

Local artisans gaining ground

The explosive growth of the industry has made it easy for consumers to find new places to visit within a small radius, said Tom Uban, owner of Figure Eight Brewing in Valparaiso. 

"Since we opened, our small town of Valparaiso has welcomed two additional breweries, a cidery and a meadery, which puts us well above the average number of craft locations per capita," he said.

"I like to think this means that more and more of the general population are turning to beer with flavor made and owned by local artisans versus mass-produced flavored water owned by international multi-conglomerates." 

Figure Eight marked its seventh year in downtown Valparaiso. The craft brewery continued to come out with new beers, such as its Deadpoint IPA, Raspberry Helles Munich style Lager, Frankenjura Black Bavarian Lager and Dinna Fash Raspberry Saison.

"Don't get me wrong, the struggle is real," Uban said.

"Each day is filled with challenges, and running a small business means wearing every hat in the business from dishwasher to maintenance to brewer. Still, the community of craft brewery people are awesome and in the few minutes of down time we may be lucky to find, we often visit other nearby breweries to do 'market research.'" 

The Calumet Region now is home to 26 craft breweries, several of which expanded in 2016 by ramping up production, inking distribution deals and starting to sell their beer across the state. They also added more seating in their brewpubs and hired professional chefs to improve food quality.

St. John Malt Brothers for instance expanded distribution to Strack & Van Til, Shoreline Brewery in Michigan City planned to double its seating and boost production by 50 percent, and Floosmoor Station in Illinois added a smokehouse and an outdoor beer garden. 18th Street Brewery became the first craft brewery in Northwest Indiana to open a second brewpub when it moved production to a much larger former furniture store warehouse in downtown Hammond.

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"2016 was a huge year for us," 18th Street Creative Director Joey Potts said.

"In February we opened our new production facility in Hammond. This space now holds all of our brewing and packaging equipment, as well as our ever-expanding barrel program, taproom and kitchen — along with an event space that can be used for weddings and private parties."

18th Street won a medal at the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers for its Barrel Aged Hunter Double Milk Stout. It also collaborated with breweries around the world, including Farm Brewing of Copenhagen, Mikkeller of Denmark, Brewski of Sweden, WayBeer of Brazil, Freigeist Bierkultur of Germany, The Kernel Brewery in London and Cigar City Brewing of Tampa.

18th Street beers like Foreman American Porter and Black Exodus Oatmeal Stout returned to bars and liquor stores in Chicago. 18th Street also ramped up production like many Northwest Indiana craft breweries. 

Solving problems, investing in growth

Hammond's other craft brewery, Byway Brewing, recently signed a deal with Indiana Beverage to distribute its flagship ChiPA and other beers across the northern third of the state. Byway, which has a massive 20-barrel system and national ambitions, won best in state at the Indiana Brewer’s Cup Competition in Indianapolis last summer. It's now selling its beer across the Region, in places like Party Liquors, Burgerhaus in Valparaiso, Craft House in Chesterton and Anchor Inn in Hammond.

Byway also is self-distributing four-packs of 16-ounce cans in markets like Indianapolis and Lafayette.

"We wanted to be very deliberate with our beer, our beer creation and our beer recipes," owner David Toth said.

"We didn't want to rush into the market. We want it nailed down. It's a new system, and it took a little experimentation with the brewing system and where we'd source the yeast, hops and all the ingredients if we wanted to distribute on a wider basis."

Windmill Brewing in Dyer got its canning operation up during 2015, its first full year in business. It's now selling canned beer at its taproom with plans to distribute throughout the Tri-town area.

"We just recently released our 40 Hulking Giants imperial milk stout in cans featuring our first-ever artwork that we commissioned," owner Justin Verburg said. "We're looking forward to 2017 and continuing to build relationships with all of our friends in the area brewing industry." 

Pokro Brewing in Griffith invested in a larger brewing system and tanks to keep up with demand and hosted its first beer fest, Poktoberfest, as a fundraiser for local police and firefighters. Wildrose Brewing, also in Griffith, started up a kitchen, hosted five art shows and weekly concerts, and ordered a 15-barrel system so it can distribute more kegs to local bars and restaurants.

New Oberpfalz Brewing in Griffith invested in new analytical equipment and bought more kegs so it could distribute more widely. Owner Dan "Gus" Lehnerer said he increased staff by 30 percent.

"2016 was an interesting year for us.  If I could sum it up in one word, it would be 'reinvestment,'" he said.

"Thanks to purchasing very expensive kitchen equipment, we brought our taproom food menu from Styrofoam bowls of chili and microwaved nachos to gourmet grass-fed beef burgers, avant-garde pizzas and delicious seasonal specials like escargot and steak sandwiches."

Over the past year, New Oberpfalz also contracted for "the best hops that money can buy" and began sourcing "the best brewing ingredients from around the world." The brewery releases its first six-pack 12-ounce bottles this week after working on the project for a year.

"We never once took our foot off of the accelerator the entire year," Lehnerer said. "We worked incredibly long hours and solved an incalculable number of problems."  

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.