Usually when a new brewery opens up, I learn about it from other brewers, friends who visit the brewery or by reading about it in beer news somewhere. However, recently I learned about a new northwest Indiana brewery in a completely different way. New Oberpfalz Brewing owner Dan Lehnerer, known as Gus to his friends, contacted me. He was looking for some unique, hand-thrown mugs as gifts for his mug club members, or the Legion, as they are referred to at his brewery. Through my pottery business, I make mugs for a few different breweries and through this agreement, I have learned to know Gus and his brewery located in Griffith, Ind.
The German-style beer hall opened its doors in December of last year after the huge process of demolition and remodeling. It took about a year, and with help from many friends and family, they filled 30 30-yard dumpsters in the process. Breweries are popping up all over the state, including two others within blocks of New Oberpfalz, most of which brew popular, hop-forward ales. In contrast, Gus has created his niche by focusing on lagers such as rauchbiers, altbiers, kolschs and other German styles.
Many beer drinkers may associate lagers with the big corporate brewers, but a growing number of craft breweries are brewing great, flavorful lagers. There are several differences between lagers and ales, the main one being the style of yeast used in brewing. Ale yeasts are top fermenting and work best at temperatures around 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. In contrast, lager yeasts are bottom fermenting and work most effectively between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Lagers also take more time to ferment. Ales generally can finish in just a few days, whereas lagers can take up to two weeks and sometimes longer. Lager literally means “to store” in German, and historically, lagers were stored in caves to complete conditioning through the hot summer and then taken out to enjoy in the fall. Lastly and most notable to the drinker, lagers are very clear, and it is almost impossible to hide even the slightest off flavor. Most lagers are malt-driven, but they can come in as many different styles as ales. A crisp, tasty lager is a well-brewed beer, and that is exactly what New Oberpfalz is doing.
Hours: 3 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; noon to 10 p.m. Saturdays; noon to 6 p.m. Sundays
Like many brewers, Gus homebrewed for several years and was active in several area homebrew clubs. When some of his buddies got more serious, they headed to brewing schools such as Siebel Institute in Chicago. Just from looking through their textbooks, Gus was able to gain lots more knowledge that better prepared him for his jump into professional brewing.
When he left the corporate world behind, Gus found a location for his brewery about 10 miles from his childhood home and close to where he now lives in Munster. Griffith has a population of about 17,000, and the brewery is located right downtown on Main Street. Seating is provided along long benches to encourage conversation and on the out door patio. With the close proximity to the Erie Lackawanna Trail, there are plenty of bike racks to attract beercyclists.
Gus brews on a seven-barrel system, with the hopes of brewing about 200 to 400 barrels of beer this year. Most of what he brews will be consumed right on site, with about 10 percent going into local distribution. He has about 8 to 10 draft customers, and packaged beer began showing up in local bottle shops when they started bottling around April. John Vanderlaan was helping out with some of the carpentry and remodeling and has stayed on to help in the brewhouse. Both John and Gus brew, and they make up about half of the staff at the small brewery.
Hell is German for “light,” and Helles is German for “bright,” both which refer to the German Helles lager style. However, light in this case refers to only the color and not the flavor. New Oberpfalz Helles lager (5 percent ABV) is a golden straw color, with a good body and a nice, crisp, clean, malty flavor. I am so glad to see this under-enjoyed beer get some love from a local brewery.
I also enjoyed a Tremble Baltic Porter (9 percent ABV), which was the first New Oberpfalz beer to be bottled. This is a big, rich beer with dark fruit and caramel flavors up front with a nice smokiness on the finish. If you like smoked porters (similar to Alaskan Smoked Porter, which is available in Michigan) then you will truly enjoy this beer. It is a true Baltic porter with lager yeast, and it took a full month to make this delicious beer. Also available in 22-ounce bombers are Toad Storm imperial IPA (8.3 percent ABV) and Styrian Celeia from the Whirl Pale Ale Series.
While on my visit, Gus checked on his new Fest Bier Amber that will become one of the mainstays at the brewery. Technically he can’t call it a Märzen because a genuine Märzen takes three months to condition. There are 12 taps at the brewery, and on the day of my visit, nine of them were pouring beer. Gus hopes to have a rotation of four flagships, four seasonals and four experimental small batch beers.
New Oberpfalz is open Wednesday through Sunday, offering beer on tap, beer to go in growlers and a rotating food menu featuring local meats and cheeses. BBQ pork is provided by Bombers, located in nearby Munster.