I am writing this in a pub in Knaresborough drinking some of the finest cask ale in Yorkshire, if not all of the UK. It is a proper experience with a proper pint – one that everyone should partake in once in their life, in my humble opinion. To appreciate the experience as much as I do, it has taken years to come to the point of understanding the craft and understanding the history and traditions that go into each and every pint. This is my story behind my quest to bring proper English ale to Chicago.
I grew up in a home where alcohol was a dirty word and my only exposure was from a 20 year old bottle of whisky occasionally taken out of the cabinet when the cough syrup ran dry. I was a good boy for most of my childhood, not the result of strict and overbearing parents; rather, loved by parents who wanted nothing but the best for me, in turn, turning me into a child who did not want to let my parents down. And so, it wasn’t until I turned 21 that I tried beer...after shunning it for the entirety of my high school and college experience…subconsciously judging my peers who let it rule their lives. I eventually found as much, if not more, fault in myself, and my abstinence from alcohol, as I did in everyone else…the whole look at the log in your own eye before pointing out the speck of sawdust in another person’s eye. And so, my tight grip on the control of my self-righteousness gradually loosened and my perspective on alcohol dramatically changed. No longer did I view it as an empty drink that held no worthy value; instead, I saw in it as an art and a science that provided people enjoyment and was a vehicle for community and a unifier of humanity throughout history. And so I delved into the world of craft beer, with a slightly more responsible and thought out approach than most people begin with.
After a few years of being satisfied simply in appreciating someone else’s craft in a pint glass, the inevitable happened as I ventured into homebrewing. My experience with brewing began eight years ago with a basic stove top beginners kit. I was living in Columbus, Ohio at the time. My roommate had the keen idea one rainy Saturday of going to the local homebrew store and investing in some basic brewing equipment. He proposed the idea to me to go in 50/50 on the purchase. It didn’t take too much convincing. Our first batch was a Hefeweizen. Far from the target Paulaner flavor, it was drinkable…lots of banana and bubblegum flavor, but we were too naïve to know any difference. I quickly became obsessed and steadily added more and more equipment allowing me to experiment with progressively more complex brewing methods and gradually hone in my brewing prowess. My equipment went through bouts of hibernation as my focus was diverted to other hobbies or interests, but somehow I always came back to the brewing kit with more intrigue of trying to brew a perfect beer. Always falling short of perfect, but always learning along the way.
I then moved to Chicago and found an apartment to rent with a guy who was also a homebrewer and more of beer fanatic than me. Our apartment was filled with brewing equipment…an entire room dedicated to beer storage, half our fridge filled with beer, yeast samples, and various bottles of homebrew, a kegerator in our living room, glassware to suit every type of beer, CO2 tanks, numerous corny kegs, and on and on. Having lived in Chicago for quite a while, he took me under his wings to show me the best bars for craft beer, to connect me with the local homebrew club, to network with local brewers, and most of all, to expand my knowledge of brewing and beer quality.
At the same time, I found a fellow, like minded homebrewer at the church that I started to attend in Chicago. After only going to the church for a few weeks, we had already started talking about starting a brewery, and, after several months we started putting together a brewing system that would be the envy of many a homebrewer. The pastor had agreed to let us house the brewery in his garage – a large one car garage with plenty of room to squeeze our brewing system alongside his Toyota Sienna. We constructed a control panel with PID controllers for automatic temperature control. We converted kegs to a hot liquor tun with a HERMS, a mash tun, and a boil kettle. We had pumps for transferring from kettle to kettle, refrigerators for fermentation temperature control, a heated chamber for fermentation during colder months, a kegerator with three taps, a freezer for hop storage, water filtration, bulk grain, bulk hops, a dozen corny kegs, The scale of our brewing grew quickly. We began a regimen of brewing 10 gallon batches every week. Since both of us had full time jobs, the majority of our work had to be completed on the weekends, alternating brews every Saturday, using evenings after work to check fermentation, to bottle beers, to fill growlers for people. We set up a subscription service for people to have growlers filled on a weekly basis. We started serving at parties, special events, and company happy hours. Our church began to have weekly barbeques during the summer outside of the garage and we strived to have at least two taps ready every week. Brewing quickly took over my life – my mind often distracted by what needed to be done at the brewery, my schedule revolving around brew days. I had found my passion.
This regimen has more or less continued for three years. That is a bit of a misleading statement, considering we are only able to brew 5 to 6 months out of the year, due to the rather harsh weather in Chicago and the uninsulated condition of the garage. But for the months when it has been humanly tolerable to brew, we have been brewing…for the past three years.
Our focus has evolved, our beers have changed, our dreams have been refined, our passion has endured. Our passion from day one has been English ales – their subtle complexity, their smooth mouthfeel, their incredible balance of toasty, biscuity malt, definitive yeast character, and earthy, grassy, citrusy, floral hops. It has been a bumpy road trying to convince ourselves that English ales can be successful in Chicago, but our experience and our assessment of the craft beer market in Chicago has time and time again reinforced our conviction in English ales. There’s denying that English ales are much less fashionable than an American IPA or Saison or Sour beer, but what’s the point of fashion when you just get lost in the crowd. When the experienced craft beer market in Chicago eventually comes to its senses, there is nothing better that can offer a welcome respite from the over the top, overbearing, hop drenched beers that currently dominate the market than an easy drinking, smooth English ale…something authentic and honest and simple and modest…something served in 20 oz. instead of a 9 oz. goblet…something able to be drank repeatedly rather than one and done. We believe in the styles of beer that we brew and we believe that they deserve more credit and more exposure than they get in the States. We are not going to win everyone over, but we continue to be true to what we believe in.
Back to my story…off my soapbox…by most people’s standards, the last three years have been an incredibly comfortable life in Chicago – and to be honest, a dream and many prayers come true. I had a great job in an engineering consulting firm, I had a hobby I loved, I had a great group of friends, I was living in a city that I adored, and I had met the most amazing girl that understood me and my passion and fully supported it. So after being blessed with so much after working so hard to get to that point in my life, it was an incredibly difficult decision, when the time came, to give it all up. Following our third summer of brewing, after having arranged an internship opportunity at a Roosters Brewing Co. in the UK, I decided to temporarily give it all up to become serious about pushing our brewery to the next level.
I am not one to impulsively jump into things. I tend to take things slowly and to think through things thoroughly. This has probably been a little frustrating for my business partner, and it has also probably caused some people to lose interest in what we are doing. But, one thing that I value is authenticity and genuineness, and a person cannot be guided by authenticity without allowing the test of time filter out the meaningless from the worthwhile. Unfortunately, fickleness and trendiness is all too common in craft beer. A precedent has been set among new breweries in the States that proves it does not take much prior experience to be successful. Of course, it takes a lot of time and hard work to develop a brewery that can consistently produce quality beer, but it seems like most of the time it is enough in today’s market to get by simply by being a new brewery with some cool branding. However, it is not my intention to be like every other new brewery. To be true to myself and to maintain integrity in what we are trying to do, I vowed to myself and my business partner before we even began to think about opening a brewery that I would travel to the UK, work in a brewery, and experience real English beer culture for myself. If we were going to claim to be a traditional English brewery, we were going to know what the hell we were talking about.
And so, here I am…a little over half way through my three months in the UK, working in a brewery, doing the hard work, day in and day out; spending my free time visiting pubs, trying beer, traveling the UK, understanding the culture – all with the goal in mind of bringing these unique English experiences back with me to Chicago and introducing them to people through our very own brewery - time honored traditions, timeless beer styles, and an emphasis on enjoying the moment in which you find yourself…the present tense. I have met some incredible people since I have been here…people that have provided me amazing opportunities to view things behind the scenes, people that have been eager to answer any and all questions I have, people that have put me in connection with other helpful people. It has been a great experience so far, and it has only strengthened my desire to open a traditional English style cask brewery in Chicago so that we can give people the opportunity to experience a proper pint.
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