- Associated Press - Thursday, November 26, 2015

VALPARAISO, Ind. (AP) - Craft beer has been brewed in Northwest Indiana since at least 1996, but its popularity has exploded over the last few years.

Northwest Indiana once had a handful of craft breweries, but now has around 20, with more on tap to open. Locally brewed beers such as New Oberpfalz’s Tremble Baltic Porter, Crown Brewing’s Special Forces American IPA and 18th Street’s Hunter have seized more shelf space at liquor stores. Bars that once served only Budweiser, Miller Lite, Old Style, and maybe an import or two now have an array of local India pale ales and American pale ales.

The craft beer scene in Northwest Indiana has grown to the point that several beer buses and craft beer tours have hit the road.

The South Shore Brew Bus and the Illiana Brew Bus are chauffeuring craft beer enthusiasts on trips to three or four breweries; a third beer bus is working to come online soon.

The brew buses are listed on the new South Shore Brewery Trail app so out-of-towners can summon them for a journey through Northwest Indiana’s thriving craft beer scene. Valparaiso-based Epic Limo and All Around Limousine also offer craft beer tours, in addition to the traditional winery tours of Southwest Michigan that have been an option for years.

South Shore Brew Bus owner Chris Hill came up with the idea for his business after going on similar tours while at bachelor parties in Denver and Indianapolis.

“Nobody was doing it, but so many breweries were popping up,” he said. “There’s just a boom in craft beer.”

South Shore Brew Bus will ferry customers around to brewers such as St. John Malt Brothers Brewing, Windmill Brewing in Dyer, and Hunter’s Brewing in Chesterton for $35 to $60 per person, or for $450 to $700 for a customized private party. The brew bus, which offers public tours seven days a week, stops for about an hour at each brewery, which gives customers time to sample the different beers, go on tours and get brewers to answer any questions.

The brew bus goes out to Michigan once a month to visit Tapestry Brewing, Greenbush Brewery and Round Barn Winery, Distillery and Brewery in Southwest Michigan.

Hill tries to make tours unique by ending some tours with visits to Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, where visitors can gamble or dine at Jack Binion’s Steakhouse. South Shore can customize brewery tours to include different packages such as family-style dinners, seafood platters, cigars and occasionally concerts at The Venue.

“You’re allowed to drink on the bus,” he said. “You can buy growlers or bombers at the breweries, and we’ll put them on ice.”

For the past year, Epic Limo has rented out party buses for brew tours of up to 14 people to any craft breweries in Lake and Porter counties, owner Brian Sheely said. The pre-arranged tours, which cost $40 to $50 per person, are on hiatus in November and December, but will resume again in January.

Bachelor and bachelorette parties have been going on craft brewery tours about once a week.

“Women like craft beer, too,” Sheely said. “Some women are more into it than men.”

Epic Limo posts public tours on the Eventbrite website and provides private parties with detailed information to choose their stops, such as whether the brewery offers tours or has food.

“It’s starting to catch up to the wine tours in popularity,” Sheely said. “We’ll also let people mix wineries, mostly in Southwest Michigan, and craft breweries, depending on what they want.”

Local craft breweries benefit when a beer bus comes and drops off a dozen customers for an hour, said Joshua Seabrook, who owns All Around Limousine Service in Portage.

“I just like that all these local people are starting more of these businesses to make money for their families,” he said.

“There are so many varieties of beers and wine varietals locally, for every taste, and we can support local businesses. We can help the smaller ones grow by bringing them a bus full of people.”

A dozen people can rent out a limo for around seven hours for about $700, and fill the trunk with bombers or wine bottles.

“They’re not drinking and driving, and we get them back home safely,” he said. “It’s a small but growing niche within our business.”

The rise of beer tours and beer buses shows the craft beer scene has arrived in Northwest Indiana, St. John Malt Bros. President Jim Estry said.

“We think it is fantastic,” he said. “It’s time the rest of the Midwest finds out just how much great beer from phenomenal breweries is being produced right here in Northwest Indiana. We predict this is just the start.”

Estry, whose brewery recently expanded distribution to Indianapolis and other cities across Indiana, envisions great possibility for growth.

“It should not take too much longer before the need for such services drastically increases,” he said. “We look forward to working with them, and we’re quite confident they will rapidly prosper.”

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Source: The (Munster) Times, https://bit.ly/1PZuBrC

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Information from: The Times, https://www.thetimesonline.com

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