Indiana is a long way to go for a beer—especially with the proliferation of craft breweries in Chicago. But sometimes, as the old saying goes, it’s about the journey rather than the destination (OK, if the destination involves beer and food, it’s about that too).
The thousands of cyclists who make the trek to Three Floyds Brewing Co. in Munster every year are definitely onto something: the bike ride to northwest Indiana is lovely, and the addition of new bike paths over the last few years has made it much easier to get there than it used to be. So has the South Shore Line’s decision to allow bikes on some train runs. But most Chicagoans don’t seem to realize that there’s more to the area than Three Floyds, where the beer is undeniably top-notch but the wait for a table can stretch to two hours or more on weekends. Northwest Indiana (known as “the Region” or sometimes “Da Region”) is now home to more than 20 breweries, and some are even closer than Three Floyds.
So how far do you have to bike to get to them? From downtown it’s about 20 to 30 miles one way, depending on where you’re headed. Thanks to some new bike paths, you can now get all the way to Hammond almost entirely on paved trails. From the south end of the Lakefront Trail you take South Shore Drive to South Lake Shore Drive (which both have bike lanes), go left on Ewing, then through Calumet Park. That takes you to the beginning of the Burnham Greenway, a rails-to-trails conversion that goes to Eggers Grove, where you can connect to a trail around Wolf Lake.
Just a mile east of the lake is Bulldog Brewery in Whiting, a picturesque town that during one of my visits last summer was playing oldies through speakers mounted to buildings along the main drag. Maybe it was the music, but the experience was oddly surreal, as if we’d time-traveled back to a small town in the 1960s. There’s nothing surreal, though, about the brewpub, a friendly, homey spot with a small beer garden and an extensive menu of sandwiches, burgers, flatbreads, and entrees like fish-and-chips. The beers are similarly classic styles like lager, IPA, and brown ale.
About four miles south of Wolf Lake on the Marquette Greenway (a bike path that runs parallel to Sheffield Avenue) and then Johnson, a relatively quiet street, you’ll hit 18th Street Brewery‘s Hammond brewpub. It’s one of my favorite destinations, partly because the Hammond train station is just a ten-minute ride away, but also because of the excellent beer and food and the spacious patio. Beers from 18th Street are in such high demand that they’re often hard to come by in Chicago, so going to the source is your best bet. The food menu isn’t very extensive, but on my half-dozen visits I’ve never been disappointed by anything I’ve eaten there, and service is extremely friendly.
The Erie Lackawanna Trail, a half block west of 18th Street, continues ten miles southwest to Griffith, Indiana, a small town with three brewpubs in less than a half-mile radius (all opened in early 2015). On a recent visit we started with pierogis and half pints at Pokro Brewing Company, which specializes in Belgian, English, and Polish beers. They’re all available in seven-ounce pours (OK, technically one ounce less than a half pint), which is useful when you’re planning to hit all the breweries in town. It’s a big place, but it’s divided up into smaller rooms (each with its own stash of board games) and still manages to feel cozy. The comforting Polish food helps as well; the menu is limited, but when you serve good pierogis you don’t need much else (they’re half price on Sundays).
Just a couple blocks south of Pokro is New Oberpfalz Brewing, which focuses on German styles of beer. The food is American, mostly: we had an excellent cheeseburger (also available with a vegan Beyond Burger patty) with a side of Thai-roasted cauliflower and chile-garlic peanut sauce. You can get four-ounce tasters of any beer, but there’s something very satisfying about a half-liter tankard; I’d recommend the schwarzbier, which is slightly lower in alcohol than most of the other beers (and also very good). Heading east on Main Street will take you to Wildrose Brewing Company, located in an old pole barn where the space under a large awning functions as a spacious patio with picnic tables. It’s classic bar food—cheese curds, giant pretzels, and sandwiches—and while the beer menu is heavy on pale ales, there are a few malty options as well. On a hot day the Stewheatcolada, a wheat ale with pineapple and coconut, was refreshing and not too sweet.
Riding back northwest on the Erie Lackawanna Trail, if you’re feeling parched after about five miles, you’re in luck: Byway Brewing Company is just off the trail in the southeast corner of Hammond. It’s larger than most of the other brewpubs in both size and scope, with soaring ceilings and a patio that seats nearly 100, plus a menu that features not just sandwiches and flatbreads but a half-dozen entrees and a list of small plates that run the gamut from garlic-Parmesan fries to octopus with olives, mint, blood orange, and wildflower honey. There are a dozen beers on tap, including an impressive four barrel-aged options; we liked the hazy, double dry-hopped CHI.P.A. so much that we bought a four-pack of the IPA to take with us.
If you don’t want to bike all the way back to Chicago, taking the South Shore Line home is your best option from here: the East Chicago station is less than four miles away. There are a couple short stretches on fairly busy roads, which you can avoid by going to the Hammond station instead, but it’s about twice as far away. Make sure you pay close attention to the schedule, though, since the special bike cars that the railway added in 2016 are only attached to some trains (it’s always the last car on westbound trains, the first car on eastbound ones—useful information if you don’t want to end up running to the other end of the platform with your bike when the train arrives). Once you do get on the train, it’s pretty easy: the cars are equipped with racks that hold your bike in place, with seats on one side so you can keep an eye on it. If you picked up beer at Byway or anywhere else, this is a good time to crack one open—you’ll have about 45 minutes until you get to Millennium Station. v