By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
NEW BUFFALO — John Lustina and Jane Simon spent the last 21/2 years working toward opening the Beer Church Brewing Co.
With the brewpub making its debut in downtown New Buffalo last week, the two owners now seek a congregation to share their beer with.
Housed in a white church with wide windows, the brewpub is hard to miss at 24 S. Whittaker St. The church dates the 1830s and at one time was used as an armory by the Union during the Civil War.
“We set out to find the perfect Beer Church and were shocked to find the one at the crossroads of downtown New Buffalo was for sale, along with an adjacent lot that could furnish more parking,” Lustina said. “We wanted to make the church part of our brand in some way. I think people appreciate that.”
Raised in Indiana and transplanted to new Bufflao, the two business partners came up with the idea for the Beer Church after visiting an annual festival called Lagunitas Beer Circus. Lustina said they were looking for something unique of their own after that.
Once an offer was submitted and they closed on the Civil War-era First Methodist Church, Lustina and Simon found their head brewer.
Bridgman resident Nate Peck was originally consulting the owners of the proposed Beer Church, until they persuaded him to come on board in July.
Operating under the brewpub license, Beer Church will serve food as its beer is sold in-house – including beer to go in the form of 32-ounce cans called “crowlers.” Peck said crowlers are about half the size of the more common growlers.
“I just came in to consult, but shortly after I said ‘Hi,’ John said ‘I want to hire you,’” Peck said. “I like that it’s a brewpub because after working in a brewery for seven years, I did not want to do distribution anymore. I wanted to make sure we had the best beer possible and that it was under my control.”
With the owners’ love of craft beer and Peck’s knowledge of porters, the Beer Church’s foundation was set. Next came the church’s actual foundation.
With an original opening date of Memorial Day last year, the restoration of the church pushed things back. This included work on support beams and adding a more modern look to the inside. Even the floor, which is now bare, was covered in old red carpet.
However, the brewpub still holds its religious resemblance.
The church’s altar was retrofitted to house the tap, the pews are being used for some seating, stained glass remains on the original doors, and the lectern will be used to greet customers. The reuse of the church items has brought a mostly positive reaction from the community, Peck said.
“I’d say it’s been 99 percent positive,” Peck said. “Not everyone will like the beer or the atmosphere. But we had a couple come in on Ash Wednesday with the ash on their forehead and they were totally fine with it. It’s good to see that not everyone who attends church is offended by it or anything.”
The brewpub has a capacity of 33 people now. However, the Beer Church is expected to have enough indoor seating for more than 100 people after the temporary wall is taken out and the remainder of the taproom is renovated.
Outside, Peck said the Beer Church will have a “beer garden,” where customers can sit outside. Lustina said he looks forward to getting the outdoor area set up, along with the wood-fired pizza oven that will be in the back half of the brewpub.
There’s no timeline for when the remainder of the church will be completed, as Peck said they are focusing on bringing the remaining brewing equipment onsite.
A heavenly lineup
The first beer offered at the Beer Church includes Crooked Cross Creme Ale, Pontius Pilate IPA, Unreliable Narrator – a double IPA – and Midnight in a Perfect World.
Peck said Crooked Cross and Pontius Pilate will always be on tap. The head brewer said recipes don’t take him very long because he has a feel for what ingredients work best.
Lustina expressed his gratitude for what Peck has produced so far.
“I know the location is great and the building is historic, but I didn’t expect the beer to be this great, this soon,” he said. “It normally takes a new brewery some time before it tastes like this. Nate is an artist and he knows where this is going. We’re giving him the freedom to make whatever he wants.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 4, 2017)