This past memorial day, I had the immense pleasure of spending a slow, wandering kind of weekend at a summer camp in Wisconsin owned by some new friends of ours. They invited us up for a “friends and family” weekend with little more structure than some loosely scoped meals and a band on Saturday. The rest was up to us — which meant plenty of walking around, swimming, yard sale and antique shop scouring — and plenty of lakeside drinking. This is Camp Wandawega, and it’s a vision of perfection.
On Saturday, sitting on the pier, I cracked open a growler of Solemn Oath Klöros, which I nabbed at the recent launch at Standard Market, an impressive farm-sized market in Westmont. With a bar and outdoor patio, the market caters to a growing craft beer audience in the area, and on this occasion, the boys from Solemn Oath were making tons of new friends in just there second week of brewing. I was there as a co-host, sharing prints, postcards and Mash Tun journals with our suburban brethren.
Then I headed north toward Elkhorn, WI where Wandawega waited. Every time I cross into Wisconsin, I mutter to myself “this is New Glarus country.” In 2002, New Glarus pulled back distribution in Illinois, so now it shines from Wisconsin’s greener pastures, inviting an old fashioned run to the border. There, you can pick up Spotted Cow, a cask-conditioned farmhouse that drinks like a blonde (in fact, they sweeten it with a little local corn) and Fat Squirrel, a nut brown ale, at almost every grocery and liquor store.
But if you start poking around, you quickly realize that there’s no shortage to the styles and flavors of New Glarus. On this trip, I packed the car with the Thumbprint Series IIPA, an imperial, and Black Top, a black IPA, both of which served us well in the 97 degree heat on Sunday. Alongside a bloddy mary, I was in heaven. Turns out, Wandawega is the kind of place where you can start drinking at 10am, play fetch with a dog, swing out into the lake, shoot a few arrows, and start a bonfire. And then do it all again after lunch.
On the way home, back down Fox River Road just north of Fox Lake, I scouted out a small liquor store / log cabin advertising wines and micros. Fox River Spirits seemed like a last possible stop for New Glarus before crossing back into Illinois. Inside, we found a hunters’ lodge atmosphere and some locals buzzing around the coolers.
Blair, a retired fire chief and owner of the place was popping bottles and pouring tasters of everything from Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, a thinner-than-expected, vanilla-sweet ale from Lexington, to some regional brews like Oso’s Night Train porter full of crystal and chocolate malts. This was clearly a local gathering place for newly minted beer geeks. As one regular put it: “a few years ago, we used to have to drive 30 minutes just to get basic imports. Now we walk down the street and have our choice of 300 different micro bottles, and a ton of local stuff. Hell, you’ don’t ever have to drink anything from outside Wisconsin now!”
Only a few years old as a craft beer geek himself, Blair’s got some stories about starting a liquor store. He recalls the first time he got some beers in from Belgium and thought they were spoiled. “Tasted real odd, real tart.” he said. He gave them to the neighbor to get rid of them. A couple weeks later, someone came in looking for Belgian sours. “What’s that?” Blair thought, “you mean beer that’s supposed to taste sour? Well, shit.”
Blair has plans for a much larger tasting room. He’s already knocked out the back wall to expand, and has a small bar tucked into the back corner where he currently sets up to share. It’s as much for his own education and for his customers. “I had a hard time selling the more obscure stuff until I started letting people taste it” he said, “but once they had a taste of something, they found out they loved all kinds of beer.”
I’ve been following Steph’s blog thegirlandherbeer.com for some time now. She produces great content, works hard at her homebrew and even shares beer cooking recipes. Daisy Cutter Risotto anyone? I finally got to meet Steph in person at Goose Island’s En Passant release party in April — which gave us a chance to nerd out over beer photography — and she even snuck in a shot of yours truly as though I were a nocturnal animal tripping the wire on a camera snare in the jungle. The nerve.
What’s your favorite beer and style?
My favorite style is definitely the APA. A lot of APAs offer the same hoppyness that an IPA might have, but they also don’t overpower, leaving more balance between hop and malt. I think you get the best of both worlds without the sometimes ridiculously high ABV. I also really enjoy saisons and farmhouse ales; I’m a sucker for anything that pairs well with a summer day and a hot grill. As for a particular beer, I keep it pretty basic. My anytime go-to beverage would probably have to be Half Acre Daisy Cutter — an APA, of course.
What’s in your fridge right now?
Not much, to be honest. I have a real issue trying to keep beer in there because I buy and consume pretty much immediately. I could never keep a beer cellar or any type of collection because I am not able to exercise restraint. I did just buy a couple of four packs from Sixpoint - Resin and Sweet Action. I’m sure they’ll be regulars in the fridge now that Sixpoint distributes in Chicago. Other than that, I’m positive there’s someone who would be impressed with the variety of pickles I have at any given time.
What was the first beer that clued you in?
New Glarus IPA in 2006. My best friend was moving to Arizona, so of course, we sent her off with a going away party which included the typical kegged collegiate beers. At some point in the evening, my friend’s dad showed me his own personal cooler of New Glarus he was drinking from and insisted I try the IPA. Not wanting to refuse a generous offer (read: I’ll drink pretty much anything put in front of me) I took a sip and I was a goner. Before that, I had only really ventured outside of the macro world by drinking New Castle, Guinness, and Stella — you know, the gateway beers. Ever since, I’ve been trying whatever I can get my hands on, some good, some great, some awful.
What’s your most memorable beer moment?
Brewing my first batch of home brew. So many nerves and paranoia went into brewing the for the first time, so to not only have it turn out well, but to have people really enjoy it was amazing.
Bartender or brewer?
You know, I really feel as though each deserve the same amount of respect. When done right, brewing beer is an absolute art form, comparable to an Iron Chef’s cooking. To make something with the sole purpose of enjoyment and enriching people’s lives is beyond admirable; especially when it’s done with the right goal in mind; making good beer. At the same time, a bartender is responsible for helping people understand what good beer is. A good bartender will find the right style to convert a beer hater into a beer lover. I find myself dazzled by both. I’m not sure if that’s saying much, though; I’m thoroughly impressed by airplanes.
What was your greatest beer hunt?
Oddly enough, it was chasing down Sixpoint Bengali Tiger late last year. After reading nothing but good things about these guys, I had pretty much built up an obsession with trying their beers. Last fall, news got out that they would start distributing in Washington DC, which happened to be where I was scheduled to be in November for a wedding. The hunt was on! I got into DC late on Friday night knowing it might be my only chance to patronize a local beer joint. I went to Churchkey, and it was so packed I had to wait outside for a while because it was at capacity. Once I got upstairs, I had to push my way to the bar and asked for a Bengali Tiger. They had just sold the last draft — F#*@. I ended up finding some early on Saturday morning at a Whole Foods. I put it on ice in my hotel room sink and drank it out of a tiny paper cup. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was a successful hunt, and a tasty one at that!
What’s a beer on your wishlist?
I’ve yet to try Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. Anyone willing to donate to my cause, feel free; I have no aversion to handouts. I also didn’t get a chance to sample Half Acre’s Galactic Double Daisy Cutter last summer. Does this make me less of a person?
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.