Suds in the (Second) City: Crafting the Future of Beer in Chicago

by Kerry Jepsen and the StarChefs editorial band of drinkers
Megan Swann
June 2015


Dave Bleitner and John Laffler
Off Color Brewing | Chicago, IL
@bleitdm @jalaffler @OffcolorBrewing

Scott Coffman, Kate Brankin, Mike Schallau, and Will Johnston
Pipeworks Brewing Co. | Chicago, IL

Jay Eychaner and Chris Tourre
Arcade Brewery | Chicago, IL

Jared Rouben
Moody Tongue Brewery | Chicago, IL
@jbrew312 @MoodyTongue

Tom Korder
Penrose Brewing Company | Geneva, IL
@tomkorder @PenroseBrewing

Claudia Jendron
Temperance Beer Co. | Evanston, IL
@cjenrun @TemperanceBeer

Chicago’s beer scene is exploding like a shaken Schlitz, or better yet a bottle of Goose that’s been left overnight in the freezer. Since the beginning of 2014, on average, a new brewery has opened in Chicago’s city limits every two and a half weeks, bringing the grand total somewhere near 66. That’s not counting suburbia.

And the onslaught of options for local, high-quality, distinctive beers doesn’t seem to be ebbing. It’s a pace that’s difficult to keep up with, even for the brewing community. “I’ve been in beer for 10 years in Chicago. There used to be 30 to 50 of us. I knew everyone. I knew their wife and dog,” says Rising Star Brewer John Laffler, one of two head brewers at Off Color. “Now, there are so many people. There are breweries I’ve never heard of.”

Poor Chicago.

“Why is Chicago a great city for beer? Open minds, broad shouldered people with grit, and shitty weather,” says Brewer Kate Brankin of Pipeworks Brewing Company. It’s a modest, if incomplete, truth about Chicago, a city that’s also home to the Siebel Institute of Technology, the oldest brew school in the country. There’s also inexpensive urban real estate, and a modern history of craft brewing that began in 1988 with the founding of Goose Island. Three Floyds and Two Brother’s followed, cementing foundation and first generation of brewers from which the current scene is bursting.

A second wave of brewers emerged in 2008, coinciding with the Great Recession, a shift in spending habits, and a growing national thirst for craft beer. From 2007 to 2012, craft beer spending doubled in America, from $5.7 billion to $12 billion, according to market researcher Mintel. A viable business model thus established, a third wave took root in 2012, and this group—about 20 breweries strong—of young, ambitious, expressive, untamed brewers marked the beginning of the current wild Midwest in craft beers.

So, here we are, sitting and drinking, in the ever-expanding tap room that is the fourth generation of Chicago craft brewers. They’re emerging from posts at established breweries, from the Siebel Institute, from Chicago’s robust home home brewing scene, art school, business school. “It’s a mixed market of trained brewers and home brewers, and it’s possible for both to succeed,” says Brankin, who started as a home brewer.

These brewers can tap into crowdfunding to open without investors. There are alternating proprietorships (aka shared brew spaces), like the one run by Ale Syndicate, which offset opening costs. New brewers are the beneficiaries of Illinois’ 2013 Liquor Control Act that prohibits out-of-state distributors from owning any part of an Illinois distribution company. Small breweries can self-distribute up to 7,500 barrels. “It really opened up the market and gave the smaller breweries a chance,” says Jay Eychaner, head brewer at Arcade.  

“It’s the golden age,” says Jared Rouben, a Goose Island alum and head brewer at culinary-focused Moody Tongue Brewery. “Beer has evolved, but so have palates.” Rouben sees what’s happening now and, in the future, as something collaborative, challenging, and exciting. “We’re building a language. One that’s relatable. People don’t just want a good beer. They want to know what’s behind it.”

The 28 (and counting) breweries that have emerged over the last 17 months have a distinct perspective; the idea of brand and embodying a niche within the market are driving forces in the fourth wave. “If you’re passionate about beer and art or music or what have you, there’s nothing stopping them from coexisting. This way, we’re not just offering beer, but ideas beyond beer and a bridge to bring both together.” Hyper localization and specialization are the order of the day. “It’s back to a pre-Prohibition construct, when you were able to walk down the street and get your beer from the local brewer,” says Tom Korder of Penrose Brewing Company.

As for the good stuff, the actual beer being produced by fourth wave brewers, it’s is all over the map. Big, boozy IPAs are still the biggest sellers, especially in the bomber format, but that’s slowly changing. “The market has seen it’s days of ‘quality based on quantity’ in relation to the brutally, nearly unpalatable hoppy beers as of late,” says Randy Mosher, internationally known beer guru and senior instructor at Siebel. “I consider that a fundamental flaw.” Laffler and fellow Brewer Dave Bleitner simply don’t make IPAs. Claudia Jendron, head brewer at Temperance Beer Co., wins awards for her classic-leaning, just hopped English-style ales. Rouben excels in infusing his beers (e.g., black truffle pilsner) with culinary nuance. Brankin and co. at Pipeworks make beers that mirror amaros and cocktails.

These are wildly delicious, not to mention, profitable suds. Pipeworks is in the midst of a massive expansion. Off Color is installing more tanks. Moody Tongue will brew 3,500 barrels this year, but has a space that will accommodate thousands more. Smaller players like Spiteful clear their inventory every week and are working on slow expansion. “Chicago’s slogan is ‘Make no small plan.’ and it’s essentially the mantra behind the breweries of today,” says Mosher.

Chicago’s taps runneth over and the city is far from saturated. “The Chicago market will continue to grow, no doubt about that,” says John Hannafan, education director of the Siebel Institute. “We are way behind for breweries and brew pubs for the population density that we have here in Chicago.” Ladies and gentlemen, there’s your rallying cry. Come set up your mash tuns. There are empty tankards to fill in Chicago.