Less than a mile from the glittering waters and sandy beaches of Lake Michigan is a white church with a steeple and a unique congregation.
It might seem a bit sacrilegious, but at the new Beer Church brewery in New Buffalo it is easy to taste how beer can be a religious experience.
Since March, Beer Church, the first brewery in New Buffalo, has opened its doors and welcomed those with a thirst for craft beer.
The church’s resurrection began when co-owners John Lustina and Jane Simon began the nearly three-year project of renovating the more than 156-year-old church, which was originally built in the 1861.
“It has been a wonderful reception,” John said. “People really dig the whole vibe you get in here. It would have been so much easier to knock the building down. We would have been open two years ago, but then you would not have this vibe.”
While Jane is a Notre Dame law professor on sabbatical, John has spent several years in the digital marketing agency, which often called for traveling. The couple would often travel together for these trips, and their travels inspired a love for quality beer.
Wherever they visited, the couple would be sure to try out a local brewery, from craft beers in Colorado to the coast of California. The couple also frequented beer festivals, like the 2014 Chicago Lagunitas Brewing Beer Circus. It was at this particular festival when the couple said they first devised a name for their future business. Like “Beer Circus,” the couple said they wanted to come up with an interesting word pairing using “beer.” They finally decided on Beer Church — a name that they trademarked.
While neither Lustina or Simon consider themselves brewers, the pair know their beer well, so they know talent when they taste it in a beer. It is why they reached out to Nate Peck, the former head brewer at Tapistry Brewing Company in Bridgman.
Lustina said Peck wanted to infuse creativity and small batch beer brewing and was eager to get on board. Since then, the owners credit Peck for making “boutique, small batch” beer a big draw to Beer Church.
One of the most popular sells has been the Pontius Pilot IPA, a “juicy” beer with a described citrus crispness that does not have the bitter bite of the traditional IPA. The beer is named after the infamous Pontius Pilate, who is accused of trying and crucifying Jesus. There is also the Crooked Cross Cream Ale, which Lustina describes as the brewery’s “liquid gold.” The brewery most recently added a “Mandrain Me” beer to their tap list, which boasts of mandrain orange and melon note flavors.
The brewery currently has five beers on tap and one cider called, Painted Turtle Blueberry Cider, made from Michigan blueberries. Several seasonal beers will also be available throughout the year.
“We want unique great tasting things,” Lustina said. “We are not trying to shave down a pint to be as profitable as possible.”
Beer is currently made by Peck in Grand Rapids, but the plan is to have brewing done in house. The owners are just waiting on the custom made tanks to arrive for this process to begin.
The owners are also planning on offering wood fired pizza in the near future and expanding their seating from 33 seats to roughly 200, including outdoor seating in the soon-to-be beer garden, which is expected to open in early June in the building’s adjacent lot.
The church’s ambiance is also embedded in its history, which customers get a sense of the moment they ascend the church’s steps and pass through the columns and through the doors, which bear stained glass windows of crosses embossed in flames.
Lining the tap room, a few of the wooden pews are utilized for seating, in addition to modern looking chairs. The original 1945 altar was also put to use and is stationed under the beer taps.
As the formerly oldest religious establishment, the Simon and Lustina said they wanted to preserve some of these qualities that paid homage to the church’s history. In addition to serving as a church, Lustina said through research they discovered that the building had also been a storage place for munitions during the Civil War.
A congregation, formerly from the Water’s Edge United Methodist had been using the church when the couple bought the building, but they were already planning on moving to a new establishment. The new church is located closer to a highway.
Despite the effort it took to accomplish the rennovations, Simon and Lustina said the building practically sold itself.
“We just fell in love with the building,” Simon said.
Opening up shop in New Buffalo also allowed the couple to have a business at the nexus of the tourism and local travel area.
“New Buffalo is a magnet for northwest Indiana people,” Simon said. “It is the first beach town you really come to. When the weather gets nice people want to get in the car and go to Redamak’s or Stray Dog.”
Looking to the future, Lustina and Simon said they can already see their “congregation” growing.