GARY | Sinister, a Double India Pale Ale brewed with seven different types of hops, established 18th Street Brewery's reputation back when Drew Fox was still a gypsy brewer making the rounds around the Chicago beer scene.
His Miller Beach-based microbrewery just started brewing the acclaimed 9 percent ABV Double IPA that's infused with notes of mango and pineapple again for the first time in a year. Pent-up demand is so high that Fox expects the entire batch will sell out in two days, similar to how 18th Street's Grapefruit Dead collaboration with the hip Danish brewery Mikkeller sold out in a week.
Business has been booming at 18th Street Brewery, which has been so well-received that Rate Beer named it "Best New Brewery in Indiana" last year even though its brewpub was only open for 18 days at the tail end of 2013. The craft brewery, which has been running out of beer as fast as it can make it, is now pursuing a major expansion less than a year after it first opened in Gary. Fox is investing about $400,000 to double production capacity and install the first canning line at a Northwest Indiana craft brewery.
Popular 18th Street beers like Deal with the Devil will be available in cans that will be sold in six-packs – or four-packs of pint-sized cans for heavier, higher ABV beers – at retailers throughout Northwest Indiana this fall. 18th Street has inked a distribution deal for the Indianapolis market, where Fox had been driving kegs down himself, and has expanded to Denmark through a collaboration with the Copenhagen-based Mikkeller, a trendy brewery that's been written up in the New York Times.
Starlight Distributors will deliver more 18th Street beer to craft bars in the Indianapolis area, and the brewery is looking for a distributor to keep its products in the European market. Fox also is eyeing an eventual return to the Chicago market, and is particularly interested in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the south side, which he said remains underserved despite the explosion of craft brewing in the city.
Fox, whose business card identifies him as the "Nubian Overlord" of 18th Street, has not taken a salary so he could reinvest the brewery's profits into growth. A Nubian is a native or inhabitant of Nubia, an ancient region of Northeast Africa, and also can refer to anything relating to African-American culture or history. New tanks will increase production capacity to more than 1,000 barrels a year from the current 500 barrels.
"We made the smart decision in the beginning to make sure we were fiscally responsible with how we spend our money and manage payroll," Fox said. "Obviously, bottle sales help. Just by the regular consumer coming in every day to our tap, buying lunch or buying dinner -- that's been a huge factor in the expansion. Banks aren't lending money right now, so we made the decision to self-finance the operation."
Sales have been trending upward at a nice pace since the brewpub opened on Dec. 14. But the main motivation for expanding is that the craft brewery has been running out of beer and has had to pull some back from distribution to ensure the taps keep flowing at its brewpub, which has grown to about 15 employees.
"It's scary how fast it's grown," Fox said. "It started with us two of us, and it's just been a growing little monster. But it's good growth that means jobs in the city of Gary and in Northwest Indiana. We try to do our part."
Craft-beer thirst insatiable
Consumers' thirst for craft beer has been insatiable, and the industry has been expanding at a frenetic rate. Indiana now has more than 60 craft brewers who produced more than 120,000 gallons last year, resulting in a statewide economic impact of more than $600 million, according to the Brewers Association. Multiple craft breweries – such as Burn 'Em Brewing in Michigan City, Four Fathers in Valparaiso, Devil's Trumpet in Hobart, and Wildrose Brewing in Griffith – either have recently opened or plan to soon.
"Craft brewing is the hottest industry in Northwest Indiana right now," said Martin Oleksy, a spokesman for Wise Guys Discount Liquors, which has dedicated an entire 40-foot-long aisle to local craft brewers in its new Hobart superstore.
Visitors have poured into the Gary brewpub from as far away as Florida and Europe. About 37 to 38 percent of the customers hail from Chicago, and many roll in on the South Shore Line, since the Miller station is about a block away.
To keep up with demand, 18th Street is replacing its nine 7-barrel fermenters with nine 10-barrel fermenters over the next four months.
When a new canning system is installed in September, 18th Street will essentially be operating a small manufacturing facility in the back of its brewpub at 5725 Miller Ave. The brewery currently bottles some of its beer, selling 22-ounce bombers at liquor stores throughout the region.
But the overall bomber market has been soft for a while, while cans have been gaining in popularity among craft brewers since they preserve freshness for longer, Fox said. Bottling a single 7-barrel tank can take up to eight hours, and canning is much more efficient.
18th Street will still occasionally produce 22-ounce bottles, but they will be reserved for special releases such as the Hunger Coffee Double Milk Stout the brewery produces with the help of Grindhouse Cafe in Griffith.
"Russian Imperials, sour beers and big beers will stay in bottles," he said.
The first phase of expansion was the addition of the dining room and a food menu, the second phase is the added capacity and canning line, and third will be the roll-out of sour beers that will be labeled fancily like wine bottles instead of with the skulls and snakes 18th Street is known for. The brewery will start pursuing its sour project in collaboration with other craft brewers in 2015.
Over the long term, Fox hopes to expand to more Midwestern markets such as Louisville and Detroit. But for now, beer-lovers are making pilgrimages to the Miller Beach neighborhood to taste what all the hype is about.
"I was just in Louisville at the Holy Grale (restaurant), and a guy came up to me and asked me if I was Drew Fox," he said. "The word's getting out."