Solemn Oath Brewery — On a Crusade for Craft in Naperville

I got to do something very special this month, and it was worth the 45 minute drive from my apartment in Ravenswood Chicago to the sleepy suburb of Naperville, IL at 8am on a Sunday — I swear. I got to document the first weekend of beer making at Solemn Oath Brewery, poised to be one of Chicago’s next great microbrew destinations. And I don’t say that lightly.

Owners John and Joe Barley are quietly plugging away alongside head brewer Tim Marshall, of Rock Bottom, Lombard lore. They’ve been gutting and building out a former auto-body shop in a remote light-industrial park a little ways of interstate 88 west of Chicago. This immense and raw space is inspiring — a bit like a fortress of solitude — for the young crew setting out to do something special in craft beer for Illinois.

My first run-in with Tim’s special talents was at the Festival of Barrel Aged Beer in Chicago a few years back. I remember being surprised to see Rock Bottom so well represented at such a competitive event, and even more surprised when Tim and co. started cleaning up in the award ceremony. Experimental beers like Clusterfunk! and Pritchard #4 were personal favorites.

Tim is bringing his barrel aging experience to Solemn Oath, and plans to fill every space he gets — a couple of whiskeys to start. And while he’ll branch out immediately in terms of style, there’s a big gap in Belgo-Americans they plan to fill from a Midwestern perspective, blending the funk of Belgian yeast strains with an American approach to hops, grains and alternative ingredient exploration.

Despite its relative distance from Chicago and its fortress-like quality, Solemn won’t remain in solitude for long. In the next month or so, we’ll start seeing Solemn Oath beers declaring themselves during Chicago Craft Beer Week. Their official arrival party is at Bavarian Lodge on May 18th and at Standard Market in Westmont on May 25th. The opening of the taproom is scheduled for May 19th, right in the middle of it all.

Juxtaposing the sprawling, busy atmosphere of the brewery, the taproom is intimate — room for a couple dozen people — and it opens onto the brewery on one side and the parking lot on the other to create a sprawling, unconstrained sense of space. With a special liquor license they worked to get from the village of Naperville, visitors will be able to drink up to three beers and get a growler to go.

There are a lot of people that get into craft beer for the aesthetics, and in addition to their brewing chops, it’s clear that branding, interior design and the architecture of Solemn Oath is a passion for these guys. Furnishing the tap room will be Greta deParry’s incredible woodwork and furniture, with a solid piece of hard wood for the bar and her now-famous stools made from concrete and bent metal. Mixed with the steel tanks, raw concrete walls and epoxy painted floor, the entire visual fades into a magical sort of grey-blue gleam.

The logo, by Los Angeles designer Greg Favro, is a heavy gothic typeface paired with a delicate wave of grain that references the medieval days where both solemnity and oaths had a less-than-ironic place in our society. Scrawled across the brewing floor is the phrase “Aut inveniam viam aut faciam” — Latin for “I will either find a way, or make one” — in an equally serious, but more elegant typeface. And the label art balances the desire for intricate visual storytelling with the commercial need to be clear and to-the-point when it comes to beer. The graphic artist, Jourdon Gullett, has already created a half dozen labels that tie together nicely with symbolic themes and a style somewhere between the wood-cut nature of New Glarus, the colorful spirit and dark lines of Rogue and energy and hard-wrought, graphic style of Three Floyds.

Aesthetics and beer are either critical, or uncomfortable bedfellows for many people in the industry. Andrew Wright, an illustrator and designer in Chicago, and a reader of Good Beer Hunting, recently emailed me with this very tension in mind:

It strikes me as odd that the beer world takes so much time and pride in producing top quality products yet consistently neglect the way it looks. I may not be searching in the right places and I know there are exceptions. Brooklyn using Milton Glaser, for instance, tells me that they understand the power of aesthetics. I know good design isn’t supposed to be noticed but I do believe that there is a way to appreciate it while still having it function.

As someone who clearly has a passion for the aesthetics of craft beer, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen plenty of brewers that neglect or reject aesthetics in the name of authenticity, purporting that to provide an aesthetic experience is to distract from the beer. To their point, there have certainly been examples of start-up breweries that overemphasize branding and treating their beer like a widget they can slap cool graphics on or connect with a subculture to get credibility. These will be weeded out, but like weeds, they will keep coming back. None of that should distract from a true brewer’s desire to consider the entire experience of their product, from tank to taproom, tap to bottle.

And for places like Solemn Oath, the instinct to align a great beer experience with a special aesthetic experience seems completely natural and honest. Craft beer resonates with the local small-town beer drinker looking for honesty in his beer. It also connects with urbanites longing for the localvore lifestyle and the still-growing maker movement. Both of these audiences have a picture in their minds of what drinking a beer should look and feel like. And while I respect that not every beer maker is capable of, or interested in, providing their point of view on what they think that beer drinking experience should be like, I’m a huge fan of those who are. Because when you make a beer, you bring a living, breathing element into this world (quite literally) and if you can make that world a more beautiful place for that beer to be, then you’re really on to something.

Special thanks to Paul Schneider of Chitownontap.com (on the right in the first image) who will be working at the brewery this summer. His early interview with the boys of Solemn Oath was published in The Chicagoist.

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