Inside the former mess of a building that became the welcoming brewpub of New Oberpfalz, Founder and Head Brewer, Dan “Gus” Lehnerer discussed his vision and love of brewing.
Gus: I started homebrewing more than a decade ago but before that I drank crap at college like everyone else, and a buddy of mine went to the High Sierra Music Festival in northern [Quincy] California. I’d had an occasional Sierra Nevada but he came back with the love of it, and we’re running around a lot together so if you’re with Pete, you’re drinking Sierra Nevada pretty much.
I was probably 22 when I started drinking good stuff and moved back home. Three Floyds had just opened in Munster (In.) and my brother took me there one time, he taught at Munster H.S., so him and some of the younger teachers would go there for beers. I met them out a number of times. Floyds was a lot different then, it was a lot smaller.
I started homebrewing when I was 27-28, something like that, more out of boredom than anything. I loved beer and I loved to drink it, and a few friends of mine had been homebrewers, and to get tickets to some of the Chicago Beer Society events you had to be a member of the club. To get Night Of The Living Ales tickets, what was the other one…The CBS Picnic was one of them, there was like a rib and a picnic contest. I was in the homebrewers club to drink it and started brewing.
I was living in Chicago at the time and had I a little condo, and I brewed on my balcony, seven floors above Madison St., right by the United Center. On a windy day, stuff would blow off the balcony. If you overflow something or boil over, you’re dripping hot wort onto people walking on the sidewalk. Like, really safe! I had everyone’s interests in mind. It was probably only 110 (degrees) by the time it got down there. I brewed on my balcony for a long time.
The Chicago Beer Society had some great guys in it-Ray Daniels, who founded the Cicerone program. Randy Mosher, he started Five Rabbit and Forbidden Root, and helped a number of other guys. Dave Bleitner from Off Color was there. B.J. Pichman from Forbidden Root. Brian Turner who works at Revolution now.
So many brewers came out of that group of guys in that homebrewing club. I did that for a few years and like every homebrewer you have that idea like, “This is so much fun, it’s cool, it’s interesting…what would it be like to start a brewery?” I started looking into and it took me a long time to finally make a decision.
To some, a huge leap of faith may appear crazy, but to another, there was only unwavering resolve.
Gus: I was making a ton of money, traveling a lot, gone all the time. My wife and I just had our first child and I never had time to brew. I was in sales in consumer products; food and beverage companies. Smucker’s, Coca-Cola, and a few other smaller, lesser-known.
I had a child and was gone all the time and said, you know, I want to change my lifestyle and what I’m doing because I was never home. That sucks when you have kids, especially.
I cashed everything out, three different 401K plans. My wife and I, when she was pregnant with our second child we moved to Munster. I grew up in Lansing, Ill., like five miles away and we were down here, I was working and it sucked. So now instead of going from downtown to O’Hare, I was going from Munster to O’Hare. It’s never a picnic. Just everything about it, it was time for a switch.
I cashed everything out and bought this place. It was falling apart, painted three or four different colors…it was brutal. When I was looking for properties, the town (Griffith, In.) resurfaced all the sidewalks, put the brick inlay in, nice streetlights and all that stuff, and revitalized Broad St. Then when I bought this place, they said, “This is pretty good timing because we’re going to redo Main St. next year.” I bought it in September, 2014 and they were going to start in May.
Every week there’s someone new who comes in and tells me a story about something here. It was an antique store, grocery store, a liquor store, a restaurant, built in 1930 so it’s had a dozen different businesses.
But it was falling apart, a total gut. We ripped everything out. We took thirty 30-yard dumpsters of trash out of here, giant construction dumpsters. Four layers of walls, three ceilings, it was a mess. The basement took one dumpster. You know, it was extra stuff. Back in the day I imagine it was hard to find a good 2’ X 4’, so why not have a hundred of ‘em in your basement? I don’t know. We bought the place and redid it, took about eight months to do and we opened in January of ‘15.
For me there was never a doubt. I think everybody around me was really worried about what I was doing or why I was doing it. The first time my mother saw this place, she got in the car with my dad and cried, it was in such bad shape. And my dad says, “She was screaming at me, ‘We raised a lunatic!’” (Laughs!).
Like the Pied Piper, but without the flute and weird clothes, you hang around Gus long enough and you’ll want to come along with him for the ride.
Gus: That (opening night) was a nightmare. I’d never worked in a restaurant or a bar. I never owned a business. I never made anything for a living or sold anything that I made for a living. It was nuts.
He was here [nods to the bar]. Andrew (Oltmanns) was our first customer and now he pretty much runs the taproom. And then four of his buddies showed up, “Do you guys need help?” “Yeah, get back here and wash dishes.” (Laughs) He was back there washing glassware and about a month later he joined us full time.
We opened with three beers. I dumped one of our first beers because it was crap and it didn’t ferment to the degree that I needed it to. We needed the tank for other stuff and I dumped 15 barrels down the drain. But we opened with three and all three were good, they weren’t great, but they also weren’t messed up and unclean. And then we slowly got our feet under us.
Yeah that opening week was nuts. But we have gotten better with each successive brew (laughs) and now the last 6-8 months we’ve finally hit our stride. Scientifically, knowing what we’re doing with our yeast counts and our oxygenation, our sanitation has always been good but it’s dialing in the finer points. Getting the hop profiles to shine the right way in a good beer, that was a real challenge the first year.
I had never worked in a commercial brewery and Johnny (Vander Laan), who is the brewer with me, never worked in one either. He was a carpenter. He built this place. He put that post in, he built that bar, it was his brother’s carpentry company. He took a shine to brewing and he likes beer, and he’s a smart kid. One day he showed up in a hoody and jeans on a Wednesday, and I was like, “You guys slow down or something, how come you’re not working?” He said, “I’ve retired from carpentry. Do you need help around here?” I said, “Yeah I do!” That was a couple months before we opened.
There were obstacles every day and it’s like, what are going to let stop you? That’s the difference. And there were some things that should’ve stopped me or would’ve stopped somebody else. But I did it for the right reasons. I wanted to make beer for a living and I wanted to own my own business. I still want to make my own beer for a living, I don’t know if I want to own my own business anymore (laughs). There’s a lot to it.
Doing what you love, raising the bet on the challenge and hiring good people
Gus: I would never…how do you go through all this hell and then not get to do what you want to do (brewing). It’s crazy (laughs). I look at other guys and it’s like, “You’re just running that place? You don’t get to make anything? You’re not out there selling anything, you’re just like in there running it? What else are you doing?” ‘Cause I do that too and then I do a bunch of other stuff. How good is your life if you can get away with that.
January was awesome. And we were open for two weeks in January, and February was also awesome. Pokro Brewing right up Broad St. opened in February and Wildrose opened in March. I think it’s just the seasonality of it too where March is spring break time and people are doing other stuff. We saw a different business the third month we were open, our business dipped and I was like, “Whoa, that’s a wakeup call.”
We kind of re-doubled our efforts in brutal self-recrimination of what is it we’re doing? What are we doing well? And what do we need to get better at, and the quality of our beer was the top of the list there, so if that wasn’t a priority before that, it certainly became one.
Yeah but in March, everything really took a turn and it wasn’t a good turn, it made us look at ourselves a lot more critically. And we had rebuilt it from March. I guess April, May, June, things started to level off and get better and when I look at our business now [August, 2016] versus where we were last fall, it’s night and day. But it comes from…and hiring people helps. It was me, John [and an ex-employee] and Andrew. That was it for a long time.
We’ve brought on a chef (Jim Chaddock). We used to have chili (laughs) in a styrofoam bowl with a plastic spoon! Like, that was our menu. “Would you like the meat and cheese plate or the bowl of chili in styrofoam?”
But for us it was always about the beer, at least when we opened. I knew people would like something to eat when they came in to try the beer, so we did what we could there. But now we have a full menu, all the food’s great. It’s fresh! We use organic stuff whenever we can. He’s got skill, he’s got a master’s degree, I pay him way too much money, and he’s great.
Food has been a big plus for us. It creates…it just rounds out the experience, then people can hang out for more than 22 ounces of beer, or however much you get full of before you want something…but it’s been cool.
I don’t know if the cart is before the horse but every person that we bring on, we see our business improve. I don’t know if our business was improving so we needed more help, but something tells me that for every person that we bring in is good at what they do, and that makes everything better. And now there’s seven people and me.
Partnering with city leaders helps create a bond within the community and its residents.
Gus: That’s why I went with Griffith. I looked at other towns and Griffith was at a pivot point when I bought this place and the town was either going to get some re-investment in it and get some new life breathed into it, or it was going to fall apart.
Like I said, the town has re-done the streetscapes, the police force is great, the firefighters are great. Then the elected officials return phone calls within 24 hours. If I were to call a guy from Town Hall now, I would have an answer by noon tomorrow, and they’re really good about…because you’re navigating an administrative nightmare. Like what permits do I need, what do I have to fill out, who do I have to talk to to do this? The garbage can out front is full, what do I need? Like, who takes care of this stuff? They’re really good about all that. And they were supportive, they got it from the minute I walked in and said, “I want to put a brewery in Griffith, what do you guys think of that?” And initially of course they were like, “Yeah. Beer, great!”
There are a lot of railroads that run through town and the town received funding to help revitalize the town from these railroads. They had a facade improvement program, a building improvement program, and every dollar counts. And when you’re talking, “Here’s $10,000 to make your property better”, that’s make THE difference. “And oh, by the way, we’ll make it easy for you to get permits. Don’t do anything stupid, be a good business owner, be a good operator. But yeah, we’re here to help.” And they were.
You’re opening a new place and it’s a couple thousand dollars, that’s the difference between you having a sign or not having a sign. It adds up quick.
It’s a tidy town. I’ve noticed a lot of young families who come in here and check us out, they’re new to town. Oh where you from? “Oh we lived in Brookfield, Ill., or St. Louis”, or, “My husband had to relocate here for the mills.” A lot people are picking Griffith for the value, for the community. It’s a cool town.
Providing for employees is a mission for New Oberpfalz
Gus: The brewery has only four goals, the business has only four goals, and the first is: (1) Provide a living wage and (2) health insurance to everybody. Every full time employee, and I don’t have part-time employees. If I need you, I need you forty hours a week. If I need you twenty, I’ll do twenty. So everybody around here works forty hours a week or more. [Calls out again] “What were the other one’s Andrew?” (Laughs) (3) Yeah, to receive a gold at GABF (Great American Beer Festival) or WBC (World Beer Cup), and (4) get a 23-24 restaurant rating on Zagat [a rating service that scored up to 30 points, though it recently changed to 1-5 system].
And for me that means that we need to get the beer to the quality that wins those kind of awards and gets us the kind of attention that we want to get. And gets us the kind of volume moving out of this building that we want to get, and it opens the door for us to distribute more. We do it now, limited basis that we hand bottle 22 oz…I mean you saw the Prius pulling away. That’s the delivery wagon! (Laughs) Charlie’s running a handful of cases and kegs around northwest Indiana and once a month we’ll run down to Indy and deliver some beer to people, Kahn’s, Parti-Pak.
Family heritage leads to a brewing philosophy
Gus: My family came from the Oberpflalz (Germany) and I didn’t know what that was my whole life. When I was in high school and I had German class, I brought in the naturalization papers from the first Lehnerer over here in the 1800’s. There was a name of the town so the second time I went to Germany as an adult, I went to that town in the Oberpfalz.
It (New Oberpfalz) was catchy, I liked it. There were other names, nothing stood out and stuck. Nobody spells it correctly but once they do, they don’t forget it. Even if you don’t say it right, you don’t forget it.
I went to Germany before I was brewing and the beer was incredible, it was awesome. We were in Holland and Munich. The beer was great. You come here and you know, you’re getting Duvel that’s eleven months old or something like that. It’s totally different.
It’s why I started brewing and when I brewed, I would brew mostly Helles and Marzen, classic German styles. I wasn’t doing IPA’s. I was like the malt-focused homebrewers and all these homebrewers, “Oh this hop profile…” and all that stuff, well I was at a distinct disadvantage when I started this place. I knew how to mash and make great malty beer but I had no idea how to make an IPA…I kinda had an idea, but there’s a lot to it.
Yeah, a lot of our beers are inspired, about half the beers we brew are classic German styles. The rest are stouts, porters, IPA’s, but really German beers, German styles are our wheelhouse.
Neighbors and travelers, beer and people
Gus: It’s a social lubricant. Most people have a little bit of an edge, some people have a lot of an edge. The act of drinking a beer takes time and if you spend time you hope to get something out of it. And often when you’re hanging around people you get something out of being with them and being relaxed. Forgetting what’s going on on that street and spending time in here. It does bring people together for sure.
Everybody who lives in this neighborhood has told us that first month or the first time they came in, “I love the communal tables. It forces us to get together with people we don’t get to see.” Yeah, that’s the whole idea. Beer happens to be a component within that equation but it’s certainly not the most important, but the problem probably wouldn’t get solved without the beer. So it’s good for that.
There was one guy in from Kalamazoo, “Yeah I was at the Eccentric Cafe at Bell’s and somebody was singing your praises. I was down here for work.” Like every week it’s some kind of story. That someone came to me by means of other than the White Pages directory, Google of Facebook.
And like for a lot of people who come in here, especially on the weekends, they’re like beer tourists. “Oh yeah, we were heading up to Michigan but we heard of you guys and we wanted to stop by and have a beer.” And they’ll start talking about this brewery or that in Chicago, and somebody from Michigan will be here, “Oh you gotta go check that out.”
So it’s kind of cool that so many people who come in are truly interested in beer. There’s a good exchange of experiences and knowledge, advice about where to go and what to drink, where to stay while you’re in that town. It’s like an unraveling sweater when the conversation is going.
Visit New Oberpfalz Brewing Co. at 121 E. Main St., Griffith, In. Be sure to say hi to Gus, tell him your beer story and share a laugh.
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