Okay, here’s the deal: I love Chicago. I love history. I love beer. And all in that order. I love them so much that I have made a career of pulling all three together. I’ve always said that if I could live in Chicago during a specific time period, I would choose the late 1870s. We were a thriving beer town with nothing but hope for both beer makers and beer consumers. A thirsty and creative city full of promise. A population that pulled together to build community for a greater sudsy good. Greatness was our destiny - our only destiny.
And suddenly it’s 2014 and, in beer terms, history repeats itself. If you are a Chicago booster, history fan, and beer advocate, then this is the time to be in this great urban center. Here’s a glimpse into some of our newer craft breweries.
Ale Syndicate (2601 W. Diversey)
If I were to start a brewery, it would be Ale Syndicate. These guys make beer I want to drink every day. On top of that, these guys are complete and total Chicago history geeks.
Native Chicagoans, Sam and Jesse Evans, one day found themselves in Northern California working for the man. Wanting to do more, they established Lucky Hand Brewing Company in Oakland, California and then they realized one important thing: they missed Chicago. Of course they did. So the brothers sold their company, came back home, and founded the New Chicago Beer Company. Wanting to integrate their mission of brewing as a collective and brewing “real beer for real Chicagoans,” they changed their name to Ale Syndicate.
After some time of contract brewing they acquired their own space and equipment thanks to a successful indiegogo campaign. Over the past year they’ve refurbished their 6,000 square foot historic rail line depot space into a full working brewery. The 20BBL brewhouse is also a part of the Green Exchange Campus, a group of eco-friendly minded businesses that work together for the greater good.
Arcade Brewery (2601 W. Diversey)
When I was a kid I'd hop on the 36 Broadway bus and hopped off at Diversey Avenue. Armed with a few bucks that would soon convert into magical fun tokens, I could barely contain the excitement I felt each time I walked into Times Square Arcade. I never imagined my love for video games would - or could - combine with my passion for beer. Dreams really do come true, and it’s called Arcade Brewery.
Pittsburgh transplant, Chris Tourer, arrived in Chicago to attend the Studio Arts MFA program at UIC. His community-minded projects, some of which were on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, soon led Chris to think about beer. How could his love of home brewing translate to art and community? In 2010 he created a project called Public Brewery, an initiative where folks would join Chris in his home for a night of creativity and beer making. Genius.
As Chris and his punk rock bandmate, Lance Curran were on the verge of recording their next album, they were stymied by a flooded basement. So instead of making music they chose to embrace their nerdy love of video games and comic books and turn it into beer. In 2011, Arcade Brewery was born.
After befriending Sam and Jesse Evans of Ale Syndicate, the foursome began their venture into communal brewing or alternate-proprietorship brewing. The two breweries are housed at the same location and share equipment and rotate use. Each company has their own license and appropriate paperwork so when that particular brewery is making beer, they technically own the brewery. To date, this is Chicago’s only alternating-proprietorship brewery and, due to the high costs associated with starting up a brewery, this is a business model that will undoubtedly be a more common approach to beer making.
Arcade Brewery is the little guy with big intentions. With only two fermenters they’ve created Grapefruit IPA and Mega Milk Stout. William Wallace Wrestle Fest Scotch Ale was a crowd-source made beer. By inviting the public to submit beer name ideas and label designs, Chris and Lance continue to make sure their approach to beer is always rooted in community. This is their new take on Chris’s Public Brew idea. Graveyard Shift Coffee Pale Ale is the next Public Brew coming your way. This also happens to be a collaboration with Dark Matter Coffee.
You’ll also want to check out their latest concoction, Armbar Amber Wheat Ale, a drinkable 8% ABV beer. Wanting to offer a strong and positive representation of women, they asked Jill Thompson, the most award winning female comic book artist of all time, to design their label. Both the label and Jill are badass. And the beer? Just ask the woman on the design: it’s crushable.
Coming up: Bronze Lion American Pale Ale. Chris and Lance wanted to thank their design company, Delicious Design League for all their hard work and efforts. And what better way to say gracias than with beer? So they asked their graphic pals to come in and brew some beer and make a label for themselves to help promote their company and overall good. Here we go back to that community mission. I got a quick preview of that label and I betcha you can count on an Art Institute Lion to make a cameo. They were, after all, named the best museum in the world. Go Chicago!
Mad Mouse Brewery (724 W. Maxwell St.)
Evanston, IL was once a hub of the 19th Century Temperance movement. Fast forward 150 years and Frances Willard would be rolling over in her grave to find that her town has become a breeding ground for beer advocates in the Chicago area. Some of those advocates were friends Gavin Gillan, Rob Strom and Phillip Zelewsky who met when they were employees of an Evanston BBQ joint. As home brewers they made efforts to bring good beer to the place and, in the late 1990s, they did just that by being the first to pour Firestone Walker.
After Merle’s closed, the three went off in different directions but eventually regrouped at Prairie Moon. It was here that they continued to try and push the beer envelope. When Prairie Moon opened in 2002 they were one of the first to offer new, unqiue and local beers - like 3 Floyd's. Rob, Gavin and Phil pushed forward with their belief that beer education was key to getting their customers to shift from macro to micro. They had conversations with customers and began suggesting beers like North Coast Brewing’s Scrimshaw as a gateway beer to take people from Coors Light to craft. It worked.
That love of beer got Phil to form Evanston Home Brew Club with other home brewers and helped him hone his skills. After opening bars in Evanston and Michigan, they finally opened Moxee Restaurant and Mad Mouse Brewing just five months ago. Their approach to beer is simple: let's make beer we like to drink. And they hope the surrounding UIC community likes it too.
With 24 tap handles, Moxee is a beer emporium that houses Mad Mouse Brewing and sits on historic Maxwell Street. Head over to try Rathmandu, an American Pale Ale, that’s true to the style and manageable at 5% ABV. Schnicklefritz (a German term of endearment meaning “little trouble maker”) is an Americanized Kolsch and comes in at 5.2% ABV. After a few hours of eating some gumbo and downing a few Mad Mouse brews you just might find yourself making a bit of trouble.
Motor Row Brewing (2337 S. Michigan Ave.)
Hit the brakes. That was my thought the whole time I was having a chat with brewery founder and owner Frank Lassandrello. Frank put the pedal to the metal as he talked and shared and talked and shared about the day he got into beer up until the day we found ourselves standing in the beautiful space that would be his brewery. I couldn’t write fast enough. This guy is intense. And for that reason, I can’t wait to drink his beer.
Thanks to Long Trail Ale Brewing Company, Frank developed a love for craft beer while at Green Mountain College in Vermont. But there was a problem. He wasn’t 21 years of age so acquiring beer was often a challenge. The ever resourceful Frank began making the stuff himself. After college he decided to pick up the phone and ask his neighbor, John Hall (founder of Goose Island) for a job. Recognizing he wasn’t qualified for a position in the brewhouse, John still offered the kid a break and provided Frank with the chance to clean kegs, scrub floors, pour beer at special events, and help out in shipping and receiving.
Hard work paid off because he finally got into that coveted brew house where he was mentored by Wil Turner (now with Revolution Brewing) who taught him about brewing, ethics and hard work. After more time, Frank found himself at the Fulton Street facility where he learned about sensory analysis and soon became a lab rat obsessed with yeast and quality control. One thing I have learned about my chats with Chicago beer industry folks: all roads not only lead but start with Goose Island and all are always grateful for that experience. Frank is no exception.
After five years, Frank moved on to be the Quality Control Manager at Lakefront Brewing in Milwaukee where he commuted from Chicago every day. That commute got to be too much and that’s when he was inspired to open up his own place. Wanting to create something that resonated with Chicago, he founded Broad Shoulders Brewing. When he acquired the building on South Michigan Avenue, he wanted to honor the local history and rebranded to Motor Row Brewing.
The space. This is a 5,400 square foot, three-floor historic honey. It is a LEED certified structure that is also a landmark building that once housed the Phoenix Auto Workshop. Have a Model A or Model T sedan you want to convert into a pick-up? Go see them. The company thrived well into the 1970s until it was no longer and, like many buildings on Motor Row, it remained vacant. Beer to the rescue.
Frank spent eight months gutting the place and working on designs with DME Brewing Supplies to customize his equipment. His experience taught him what works and what doesn’t work so he designed every single piece of equipment and designed it to work with the space. DME thought he was a bit nuts but ultimately believed in what he was doing because it had never really been done before. And for that reason they honored him as being the 500th brewery they constructed.
Gear up, Chicago. Motor Row will be ready to rev up your beer engines come December.
Vice District Brewing (1454 S. Michigan Ave.)
Beer. It’s a good time. But I’m not gonna to lie - beer at Vice District is a great time. And that’s mostly because of owners Quintin Cole and Curtis Tarver. I met them because I walked through the door of their brewery. They were friendly, funny and willing to talk. Just like most beer people.
But let’s begin with the obvious. Curtis and Quin are African-American. Please hold your disbelief - it’s true. Last fall, NPR published a piece on people of color - or lack thereof - in the beer industry. Our very own Andres Araya of 5 Rabbit Cerveceria was included in the piece. Beer is a cross cultural phenomenon and in an ethnically rich city like Chicago, beer appeals to the masses.
In a world where craft beer is dominated by Caucasian men, it's incredibly refreshing to see the continued growth of ethnic and gender diversity in the beer community. But in the grand scheme of things, this isn't an issue for people that just want to make beer. Curtis and Quin just want to make good beer and be a gathering place for people that like to drink it. It’s because they’re beer dudes. And they have facial hair too. Yep, beer dudes.Thank football for the origins of the brewery. The two home brewers, affiliated with CHAOS Brew Club, started making beer in December 2012 for a February 2013 Super Bowl party. The duo brewed about seven styles of beer hoping to make a beer that would appeal to a varied audience. When most of them were hits they decided to try and make a go of starting their own brewery.
The pair always had a vision of opening something south of Madison Street but were really attracted to the South Loop and Hyde Park. They found a property in the South Loop and when Curtis came up with the name of Vice District - an homage to Chicago’s First Ward also known as The Levee, the city’s most notorious vice district - they started some banter. Quintin hated the idea. “People are going to call us VD!” Next thing you knew they started having a bit of fun texting each other with different slogans for the brewery ... ”I just got VD in the South Loop” or “Give your friends VD for the holidays.” They had so much fun joking with it that Quintin finally gave in and agreed to the name. Habitual, their Black IPA, was originally going to be called VD In Your Mouth. Like I said, these guys are a good time.
At its core, Vice District is a place for the people. The guys really wanted a space that was communal but also an environment that is true to who they are. It was no different to their approach to home brewing - let’s be us, make beer and make beer that the masses want to drink. I wanted to try their most popular beer, Pleasure Trip, but it was gone. Popular indeed. But then the history feelers came out when I saw Everleigh, an ESB at 6%. By the way, what new brewery has an ESB? These guys do.