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By Joseph S. Pete
Beer tourists soon will start pouring off buses and into local craft breweries in Crown Point, Gary and Michigan City.

The Chicago Brew Bus is planning to make stops in Northwest Indiana when it expands to offer beer-tasting trips to other cities, including Grand Rapids and Indianapolis. Local purveyors of craft brew such as Drew Fox, who has been working all year to launch 18th Street Brewery in Gary, also hope to draw out-of-towners looking to try something new.

Locally crafted beer already has proven to be a big draw in Northwest Indiana. Thousands descend on Three Floyds for its annual Dark Lord Day, when the Munster brewery releases its a highly acclaimed Russian imperial stout, and the celebrated microbrewery's Munster brewpub also attracts visitors throughout the year.

By next year, the Calumet Region will have at least 19 craft breweries most with taprooms. Dave Murphy, co-owner of One Trick Pony in Lansing, believes the more craft brewers there are, the more visitors they can collectively pull in. His nanobrewery goes so far as to advertise for other beer makers in its taproom, lining its wall with their growlers and displaying two different maps of Illinois that plot where other microbreweries are.

"It's like antique stores," Murphy said. "An antique store is just an antique store you might stop by. But if there are a bunch of antique stores in one area, you might drive 50 miles and make a weekend of it."

The number of breweries in the Calumet region has soared from seven at the beginning of 2012 to at least 19, which presumably would be enough to support a beer bus, or a tour of microbreweries in which beer lovers pay a flat fee for a bus ride, a meal and a pint at a handful of breweries. They also can choose to buy more beer at each stop, and consume it on the bus or take it home in a growler.

Homebrewing associations and aficionados have chartered buses to visit different breweries in the region before. But the first beer buses to come to Northwest Indiana on a regular basis will mainly just be passing through.

Kevin Salvi founded Chicago Brew Bus in 2011 after having a eureka moment while riding public transportation to Revolution Brewing in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. The idea has since spread around the country, and he has been a consultant for start-up brew bus operators in Ohio, Virginia and elsewhere.

Salvi has noticed his main customers are out-of-town tourists who want to visit different microbreweries but do not know their way around the city. He wants to offer craft beer tours for Chicago-area residents, and so he plans to send a chartered bus every Saturday to visit breweries in Milwaukee, Champaign-Urbana, Grand Rapids and Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis bus will stop at Crown Brewing in Crown Point on the way back to Chicago, and the Grand Rapids bus will stop at Shoreline Brewery in Michigan City and 18th Street Brewery in Gary.

Fox is eager to host busloads of beer aficionados, and hopes they will also arrive via the South Shore Line from Chicago. He located his taproom near the train because he hopes to give more people a reason to visit Gary's Miller Beach neighborhood.

"We want to showcase this beautiful beach community," he said. "We're just a mile and a half from the beach."

He aims to create a unique craft brewery that will feature smaller, drinkable beers, barrel-aged beers and sours. The taproom eventually may offer some food items.

The impact on the neighborhood could be big if people flock to 18th Street the way they have to Three Floyds and Sun King in Indianapolis, he said.

"A lot of breweries are cutting edge when it comes to economic and social development," he said. "A great brewery can be a huge part of every community the way a great restaurant can be."

Fox said he always makes a point of visiting microbreweries first whenever he travels to a new place.

"There's a local movement with fresh organic food that continued on with beer," he said. "People want to enjoy themselves in their community, and also see what other communities have to offer locally."