Zorn Brew Works – They’ve Got Plans and They Know How to Make Them Work

Zorn Brew Works – They’ve Got Plans and They Know How to Make Them Work

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

The Barrelhouse opened a few weeks ago as an event space at the original Zorn Brewing Company grounds in Michigan City. I went up for the ribbon cutting on the Thursday the 10th of September so I could see how this addition fits into today’s Zorn Brew Works complex and the Zorn plans. What I learned is that this is a burgeoning empire, run by people with both ideas and the courage to implement them.

In the barrelhouse venture Zorn is really a vendor; their liquor license and restaurant permit really make the event space run smoothly for drinks and catering. And this is where the interesting business model of Zorn become apparent. Yes, they are a brewpub, and a great one, but many of the projects they have undertaken or are planning are really tangential to beer. That they involve beer there is no doubt, but the vision of Zorn Brew Works’ owner John Van Prooyen and the Zorn team is really to find ways that beer can help them develop very disparate revenue streams. To explain, let’s start at the beginning.

The new Barrelhouse event building at Zorn Brew Works. image credit; Walter

John Van Prooyen in Chicago. John’s background is as a hotelier and real estate guy, but craft beer has been his love for decades. He was working in Chicago by day, and searching out the meager craft beer options at night; this was the middle 90s after all. The Map Room was open by then, serving beers from around the world and what craft they could find. It was places like this that let Van Prooyen get his Three Floyds Brewing fix without driving to Munster (which he did often).

As craft beer grew, so did John’s interest in beer and brewing. A meeting in Chicago with some real estate developers gave Van Prooyen information on a pre-Prohibition brewing building in Michigan City that was gorgeous but in need of a lot of love. The history, the building, and the city environment (John says it really is most like a resort town), convinced him that a brewery could work in that location. And Zorn Brew Works was born.

The Brewery Lodge in Michigan City. image credit: The Brewery Lodge

The brewpub is located in the livery of the original brewery, where the horses that drew the beer wagons were housed. John likes redoing old buildings to give them new life, but he acknowledges that giving an old building a new function is difficult in terms of design, regulations, and construction. In November of 2016 the brewpub was ready to open, and the beers, food, and music have been flowing ever since.

Brewery Lodge. Much like Floyd County Brewing in New Albany, Zorn has used the profits from the original venture to reinvest in the business. Floyd County expanded first with a deck, then a beer garden, then The Grain Haus, and most recently with The Enchanted Forest music venue, and Zorn has followed a similar path, just not at the same location and not all connected to the original theme and model.

On 40 acres just 4.5 miles from the brewpub is the first expansion for Zorn, the Brewery Lodge. Twelve unique guest rooms in the 1930 main house are joined by a quaint beer and wine lounge & restaurant. Hiding out back on the property is a restored “barn bar” attached to a 5,000 sq. ft. patio. It’s great for a weekend getaway, private events, or communing with nature on the three miles of trails around the woods and ponds. The project was a natural for Van Prooyen with his background in hotels. Yet, it’s not the most direct kind of expansion for a brewery. They have another place to sell their beer, but the lodge is so much more than that – it’s a way to produce revenue even if the brewery isn’t.

The new beer garden at Zorn. image credit: Walter

The Beer Garden. Finished earlier this year, Zorn greatly expanded their outdoor seating in time for the pandemic by completing a 17,000 sq. ft. outdoor space connected to the original brewpub. It’s a great space with tables, a privacy wall and room for lots of patrons as well as live music, the beer garden is a good edition to the intimate brewpub.

The Barrelhouse. The Barrelhouse a gorgeous old brick building that was indeed the barrelhouse and cooperage for the original Zorn Brewing Company from 1871 to 1938. The brick interior is set off by the wood floors and the soft lighting, perfect for small or large indoor events. This is a joint project of John and Rob Harte of UpperCross Development Group, helped out by a couple of city grants. One grant helped them to redo the façade, as how buildings look is important to selling the city, and the other grant helped with housing, since they are putting a few apartments above the event space. It’s another addition from Zorn for Michigan City. But again, it exists on it’s own, it doesn’t rely on the brewery.

The Future. The biggest takeaway from my discussion with John was his repeated use of the phrase, “I’ve got plans.” Before one venture is completed, he’s talking about what comes next. I got the lowdown on three projects in various stages of planning and execution.

The brewhouse of the old Zorn Brewing Company is going to get a makeover soon. John’s got plans. image credit: Walter

The first project concerns the last large building of the original Zorn complex, the brewhouse where Zorn was first brewed. The possibilities are endless for this beautiful space; it has a courtyard, high brick walls, and a separate back building connected by covered walkways two and three stories off the ground.

John is looking at this as a multi-use complex, housing a hotel and an indoor music venue. Both these amenities are needed in Michigan City. John is right in saying that this really is a resort town, with the Dunes, the lake, and two casinos nearby. More hotel space and entertainment space is needed – and he’s a real estate and hotel guy, so it’s no surprise he recognized it.

Second, the Brewery Lodge is in line for an expansion. Look for a much bigger kitchen, an outdoor event venue, and more guest rooms in the form of cabins and tree houses to best use the 40 wooded acres.

Finally, a canning line has been purchased already by Zorn, and is ready to be installed and fired up as soon as the Barrelhouse is running smoothly. Wow, a plan that focuses on the beer! Van Prooyen has an agreement in place with a 30+ outlet grocery chain that will be stocking Zorn beer, as well as moving into other restaurants and bars. It’s a coup to find available shelf space in a world where many more breweries have turned to packaging beer, but John has it worked out.

So what comes after these three latest projects – I can’t imagine – a sour program, an on site festival, a bigger brewhouse? But when I asked John, he just smiled and said, “I’ve got plans.”

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