Lunchtime inside the brewpub at Shoreline Brewing Co., I found out, quickly becomes crowded. It’s where I learned that perhaps the Grateful Dead led Sam Strupeck on a path from being “just” a restaurant guy to owning his own brewery/brewpub.
Sam Strupeck: I started in the restaurant industry washing dishes, then I learned how to cook and at 21 I went to bartending. I learned how to bartend, started managing and from there I got a job at Aberdeen Brewing Company, which was in Valparaiso [In.]. They closed down in 2004 I think, the year before I opened this place.
I mean, I like beer. That always helps! So I got into the craft beer as a young man, a little bit earlier than probably most people even knew what was going on. Sierra Nevada…Grateful Dead shows really is where I learned about those beers ‘cause there were guys bringing it up from the west coast to the midwest concerts. Just couldn’t get them here. So Sierra Nevada, Red Tail Ale from Mendicino [Ca.], saw all these craft beers that you wouldn’t see around here show up at the Grateful Dead shows. So that kind of got me interested.
The owner [of Aberdeen, Skip Bozak] and his son did it for a few months on their own and then just noticed I had an interest in beer. I was very well schooled with beer flavors and then  offered me a position in there, and I just ran with it. From there I just read a lot of books and brewed a lot of beers, and learned the hard way. Trial and error.
So I did two years there and then they decided to close down the brewery and do a martini bar, and I left when that happened. Then I started working on this place.
The food and the beer pairings were really where we were going with it, you know. Good craft food deserves some good craft beer, right, to go with it? That’s what we concentrated on and nobody was doing that ten years ago. Nobody was worried about the food. They were all about the beer at that point and we wanted to make it a whole experience rather than just the beer.
I was born in Nebraska and I’ve lived all over the country, and went to school in Bloomington [Indiana University]. Did quite a few years on and off down there. Working, going to school…working, going to school. I decided on Michigan City based on the lakefront. I wanted to be on that traffic pattern of the summer lakefront. Aberdeen was in Valparaiso and in the summers, we had a rough go of it because everybody from Valparaiso goes to the lake in the summer, you know, when it’s ninety degrees out. So I really wanted to be in that traffic pattern.
The right building presents itself and the bar only adds to its history and mystique
Michigan City lends itself to a brewery as far as I was concerned with the big old buildings down here by the lake. And it’s really hard to find those in Indiana, at least around here. So that was part of it.
I bought this building in January of ‘05, and we opened the doors on August 27th, same year. You had full windows on the south side of the building, you had light coming in from the peak up top. No electricity. If you look at the building up front, you see where the entrance or exit for the horse carriages to come through to pick up lumber, you know, nice and large.
It was kind of an open space in here so it was adding walls more than anything. There was a little demo, we switched some walls around up front especially, turned some staircases around, which was interesting (laughs!)..
It has that beach feel, you know, like the cabin feel around here, so that’s what we were going for, with the slot scar siding.
The bar is from a speakeasy, came out of a house from the south side of Chicago. An old antiques dealer buddy of mine found it for me. We had to cut it down the middle to get it out of the basement of the house. I’m sure the house was built around it. That piece of mahogany on top is South American mahogany, which is extremely rare these days. Hated to cut it in half; you can see that line right there on the angle.
As a brewer, restaurant experience is huge if you want to open a brewpub
You know, the restaurant business is a tough industry and a brewpub is still a restaurant, so that kitchen can eat you up cost-wise, labor-wise, loss-wise. Protein going out the back door…steaks, fish, can’t have that *stuff. You’re dealing with such small margins when it comes to food it could really eat it up.
I saw the potential there ten years ago especially with the lakefront. New Buffalo [Michigan] down the road here wasn’t doing so well in the early 80’s but it came back fierce in the 90’s and I saw the same thing happen for Michigan City. And it is now, it’s taken ten years with us being here.
Not only can a brewery help revive a town, being a destination place might also save a town
You know, a brewpub coming into a blighted downtown area has been proven to help bring back main street. Brewpubs got people to start coming back to the downtown and all of a sudden you see an antique store open up down the street, or an ice cream shop, or whatever it might be. And you really get that momentum going, and uh, boy, MIchigan City is popping right now! It’s amazing what’s happening in this town. And a lot of it’s outsiders moving in.
Our mayor is fairly new, he’s on his second term right now and he brought in a great city planner and I’ve worked very closely with him on a few projects and sat on a few steering committees with him.
Ten years ago when we came in, the city could care less about us. At one point we were even slated be torn down to reroute the south shore through this property. They wanted to bring the south shore closer to the lakefront, and this was the prime property for them to put the station and everything.
You put your heart and soul in a place. I worked 100 hours a week for five years straight to get to where I was at that point. Suddenly, I got a phone call from a local businessman and he said, “Sam, you need to go to the city council meeting tomorrow, they’re going to announce this endeavor.” And I did, and this nice little local grass roots movement, it wasn’t just me and him, it was the whole town was disappointed in their pick.
I met with the [new] mayor 2-3 days after that city council meeting, and basically said, “This is what I do. This is how many people we bring to the area.” I explained to him how many different plates were out in my parking lot on a Saturday afternoon, whether they were from Oregon or New York, California or Hawaii. I’ve seen Alaska, Maine, you know from all over. It’s not just Indiana or Illinois people. A lot of Ohio and Michigan, so if you want to be a tourist area, I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot by getting rid of us.
And I explained to him, “If you basically run me out of here, I’m not threatening you, but I am not re-building in town. I will go somewhere else. And I’ll probably be out west somewhere, in Oregon or wherever. I chose to live here, I chose this area, I chose Michigan City to build my business. It’s got everything to do with being by that lake, so now you’re going to tell me you don’t want me by the lake? I’m outta here!”
He was very receptive. Stayed in contact with me, assured me shortly after that was not going to happen no matter what I read in the newspapers, and he was very true to his word. I have worked with him closely ever since and he’s been great. It was a load off my shoulders.
A brewing philosophy, we’re just going to be patient.
All of our beers take about 30-40, 50 days, some of our lagers take a little longer. And I’m about putting some age on our beers where a lot guys these days are putting their beer out in like…ten days? You know? We’re at least thirty, if not longer. That allows your beer to brighten up, get all that yeast out of there because that yeast in suspension will give you a little bit of an off-flavor that you’re not looking for. So without filtering that allows us to really clear up our beers nicely, and start getting to that peak flavor.
Most beers don’t even peak in flavor until 3-6 months into it. You know, Budweiser will have you think the freshest beer possible is the best and that’s not necessarily true. Unless you’re dealing with an IPA, a real hop forward beer. Most malty beers really like to have…they won’t peak in flavor until like 3-4 months in. And they won’t even deteriorate until nine or ten, and I’m talking maybe you can see some deterioration. And then you get into the really big beers that have high tannins in them, and a good year or two might be appropriate.
Those 12% imperial stouts and stuff like that, you get into our bourbon barrel age and we don’t even put them out, they’re two years old by the time they’re released. They get six months in stainless one way or another whether it’s the fermenter or the keg, and just to let the tannins mellow out in the beer itself, then they go a full year in our barrels generally for those big beers like that. They get out of the barrel and into the keg for six more months to let them chill out a bit, and then we bottle them. So they’re two years old by the time we release them. That’s a lot of work.
Receiving worldwide attention and favorite beers to brew
So we’re really English-style beer ya know. I got into the porters big when I was younger, I still love porters. English ales in general are a great underrated beer, especially these days. When I think of a beer and I taste that beer, that’s what I think of . Very true to style, very classic flavors, not super hoppy, not super malty, very nicely balanced beer. Use some Noble hops, that kind of earthy hops, not the citrusy hops that we’re using these days with the American IPA’s and stuff like that. Even some of the German hops that are coming out are very citrusy, I love those hops. I’m emphatic about these new hops they’re bringing out, they excite me but yeah, when I think of beer, I think of that style.
Our Scottish ale [Beltaine] is one of the most award-winning Scottish ales in the country, if not the world for that matter. It put us on the map as far as awards go, very true to style. Very easy-drinking. We get a lot of people that say they don’t like dark beers and we get them to try that one and they love it.
Super roasty, mellow, carmely flavors, low hop profile, which I think a lot of people associate dark beers with bitterness. Or at least they used to. I think that’s changed over the last 5-6 years.
The first year we won at the World Beer Cup in ‘06, we’d been open…eight months? So by the time we sent it in we’d been open only four months? Because you send in a beer and it takes a while, they collect it all. And it was in Seattle that year, so we shipped our beer to Denver because that’s where you ship it, and then I flew out to Seattle. I was talking to some friends towards the back of the room because they have all these beers. They try to save a couple of beers from all the entries and there were these THOUSANDS of beers I’ve never gotten to try.
While the ceremony was going on you could go out and try some different beers, and I was like a kid in a candy factory trying all these beers I’ve never even seen before. I literally had my back towards the stage talking to a couple of buddies who had been in the industry forever, and they said, “Hey, you just won something!” And I was like, “Shhuurrrr I did…”. “No, your logo’s up on the stage, up on the screen.” And I said, “No way!” I turn around and see my logo up there, didn’t even know what we won for because we had entered quite a few beers, you know.
That was the first one, we repeated again the next year for our silver. And then we won a bronze for our “Bennys” pale ale. We call it an American pale ale here but in reading the description we won it the Australasian Pale Ale category, believe it or not. And I don’t have much more to say about that. Apparently my interpretation of an American pale ale tastes more like an Australasian Pale Ale!
Oh, we did win a gold at the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers (FOBAB) up in Chicago, in November. And that contest, just the event itself is pretty special. It’s the oldest barrel aged beer contest around, 26 years or something. That one was actually aged in a wine barrel, a pinot noir barrel from California. So we get barrels from the wine we carry here and age the raspberries, what we call the imperial raspberries. It’s a big, strong almost barleywine beer made with a ton of raspberries, well not a ton literally…but a lot of raspberries.
Indiana had some great breweries early on with Three Floyds and all that. Upland was a great brewery early on, and I think it’s created a quality beer to live up to some of these standards that started off early. So we have a ton of quality beer now in Indiana.
The camaraderie in general in the brewing industry has been phenomenal since I came in, and maybe it’s not quite as good as it used to be with it being thinned out a little bit more breweries. I don’t know every brewer because there is one that opened up tomorrow that I don’t know, and there was one that opened up yesterday that I don’t know. But there is still much more of a camaraderie based in helping each other out there than there is in most other industries and I think that’s a great thing to work in. I think that’s what has attracted a lot of people to the industry.
So yeah, the camaraderie among the brewers has always been good. Chris Johnson and I have known each other a long time, and I’ve known all those guys a long time. Greg [Emig] at Lafayette [Brewing], he’s our president of the guild now. Ted [Miller] down at Brugge [Brewing], the guys from Upland, we’ve known each other a long time. We’ve been doing this for fifteen years, some of us longer. But you know, it’s good!
The craft beer movement and unbreakable chain
So it’s an immense movement, the socialism that craft breweries has brought on is a lot more than that. You’ve gotten this farm-to-fork movement; came from craft breweries if you ask me. Because all of a sudden we had grains that we didn’t want to throw in the garbage so we started talking to farmers to pick up our grains and say hey, now you have a restaurant that has a relationship with a farmer.
Rather than buying your beef or vegetables from whoever it was, and now maybe you’re getting some special steaks from your farmer, or some pig, or vegetables for that matter. We used to get a lot of organic vegetables from the farmer that we traded grains with.
As far as craft breweries go it’s pretty amazing to me, wherever I go, on vacation, doing whatever, I always look up where is the local brewpub. And I enjoy going to them because you can sit at the bar and nobody looks at you all weird like you walked into a locals bar, looking you up and down. You don’t see that in craft breweries too often.
Interesting, educated, open-minded people tend to congregate at craft breweries. You don’t get the assholes you get at other bars, typically. So, it’s nice to go in and have a pint and the food generally is pretty good at a craft brewery, so it’s almost like a quality thing. You find a craft brewery and you’re going to find something you like, including the conversation. You’re generally going to have one of the better conversations you’ll have in your life.
Be sure to visit Shoreline Brewing Co. at the 21st annual Indiana Microbrewers Festival on Saturday, July 30th.
Shoreline Brewing Co. is located at 208 Wabash St., Michigan City, In.