Just a reminder to my Chicagoland readers, tonight is the big night. Solemn Oath will be pouring at Standard Market in Westmont, Ill (map) as part of their launch series in their first week as a brewery. Myself and Paul Schneider of Chitownontap.com are co-hosting. If you follow either of us on Facebook, Twitter or here on the blog, just mention us and get a discount — $3 pours!
I’ll also be selling large prints of my photos of Solemn Oath, and a few of my faves from Greenbush and Goose Island for the first time (you can see the entire collection in my shop). I’ll also have postcard prints and copies of Chicago’s new craft beer journal, Mash Tun, for sale. Come out and say hello!
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.
A couple Thursdays ago, I had the unique opportunity to visit Goose Island during working hours for some photo documentation. I’ve been here a few times for hosted events, but never to document the brewery itself. I was psyched to get some extended access. Paul from Chitownontap.com put together a reflective article about Goose Island, post-AB buyout, for the Chicagoist and this was a perfect chance (thanks to Paul) to get a real good look at what it means to brew craft beer for one of the big guys. In short, it still looks a lot like brewing for the little guys, but with serious momentum.
I met Joel Becker on second shift outside the Fulton Market location a bit west of Chicago’s downtown Loop. One round of Goose Island staff was exiting to their cars as the sun set, but for people like Joel, things were just getting started.
After a quick tour of the sprawling facility, including the packaging line, loading bays, mill and barrel rooms, even the lab, Joel gave me a swig of Old Town Yard and couple safety instructions, then set me loose to document every nook and cranny I desired. Like anyone who works 40+ hours a week, Joel finds it understandable, but amusing, that people like me nerd out over valves and tools. He sees the blogs, and he sees shots like these below often. It makes him smile.
I set out immediately, met some of the staff, and started shooting. What follows is the most comprehensive look I’ve ever had at a production brewery. I grew up working summer jobs in factories and restaurants, so a big part of me still loves the efficiency and optimization between man and machine. Combining that love with the mastery and passion for craft beer and, well, you get a post like this. With over two hours at my disposal, it felt amazing to just be able to take my time and look for the shots.
Later, as you’ll see below, Joel and Zach shared a new “innovation recipe” with me, called En Passant, straight from the fermenter. In an upcoming post, I’ll give you a good look at John Laffler’s barrel room across the street, as well as the En Passant release party held there the following week. For now, I’ll keep the En Passant chatter a bit sparse. Enjoy.
The mezzanine level provides a look inside the various mashes. From here, brewers get hands on adding ingredients and managing flows from one tank to the next on the “human-machine interface.” On this visit, they were brewing up an imperial IPA with a mesmerizing mash texture that beckoned me like an hallucination from the movie Altered States.
We took a quick trip outside where three main silos hover over the alley like monuments. Just inside, a huge fermenter laying on its side and smaller units built right into the walls, which provide easy access to the three outside tanks.
In a nearby barrel aging room, the sour smell of Brettanomyces hung in the air, a spore-forming yeast strain used to make tart beers like Juliet and Lolita. This room is kept sealed from any other process in the brewery to prevent infections from spreading. The delicate nature of working with Brettanomyces has ruined plenty of batches at less stringent craft brewers. Entering this room, we had to dip our shoes in sterilizer.
At 6pm, the main floor was a bit sleepy. Some cleaning and monitoring from the first shift gets underway, while the guys get to work loading the grain mill up on the mezzanine level.
Goose’s big beers were busy getting shuffled from one stack to another in the cooling room. Each one of those stacks contains some of the country’s best, and most sought-after barrel-aged brews — Sofie, Pepe Nero, Pere Jacques, Juliet, Big John — you name it, it’s in here.
The packaging line is a mix of hands-on and automated work. A small team of employees fill the cases by hand, and then send it zipping down the line to get sealed and rotated into stock.
The most obvious sign of change is in the kegs. Almost every one I saw, even those with Sophie-branded caps, was from Anheuser-Busch. Poignant to some, perhaps. For others, a cautiously optimistic sign of the opportunity ahead for Goose Island in terms of distribution and optimization. There really isn’t much holding them back at this point.
In the lab, there’s plenty of activity between Goose Island and other AB production breweries as they share the task of perfecting Goose’s original recipes on new equipment. The guys smell and taste a recent Matilda sample, and contemplate their next move with the batch.
The Siebel Institute (located on Clybourn Ave. near Goose’s brew-pub) has a cluttered, but substantial system permanently set up in one of the smaller brewing rooms here. Members of the institute experiment with recipes, learn about some of the finer points of the brewing process, and otherwise combine the realms of academia and real-world experience to keep everyone fresh.
Joel and Zach, a recent internal hire and former chemist at AB, tap into En Passant, even as we watch the meter dip as it rushes into kegs on the other side. The brainchild of a small team including Joel and fellow brewers Keith Gabbet and Claudia Jendron, En Passant is brewed after a recipe for an Old Fashioned cocktail. This sweet, cool brew has a slight rye kick that pairs perfectly with whiskey. Not a bad way to end a shoot — but there’s much more to the story. In an upcoming post, I’ll take us over to the barrel room — one of the largest, if not the largest, in the country. And after that, the En Passant release party.
Paul Schneider is the blogger behind my favorite Chicago beer site, ChitownOnTap.com, as well as the new voice of craft beer over at The Chicagoist. He’s taught homebrew classes (tickets through Dabble) at Finch’s and more recently (and substantially) at New Chicago Brewing where he drops incredible knowledge about all things malt, yeast and hops. When it comes to Chicago beer, he’s got big plans — so keep an eye on this guy. He’s also a social studies teacher and more than once corrected my historical references during our alcohol-infused cultural debates. William Tecumseh Sherman, Napoleon — all I know is neither of those jokers is buying the next round.
What’s your favorite beer and style?
I’m really enjoying stouts and porters right now. Not the thin, barely-there disappointments or the double dry-hopped imperial hoo-has, but the bold, creamy, roasty goodness right in the middle. I’ve been drinking Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout, Revolution Eugene Porter, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald, Three Floyds Black Sun, Greenbush Apathy Oatmeal Stout, and Dogfish Head Chicory Stout. I can’t really name a favorite among those; they’re all great in different ways. I’ve also been snatching up just about any saison I can find — the funkier the better. I think my tastebuds are craving warmer weather.
What’s in your fridge right now?
In the homebrew kegerator, I have an extra milk stout brewed with coffee and cara cara orange peel that just finished carbonating. It has this really interesting tension between the brightness of the citrus rind and the earthy depth of the coffee and roasted malts. The bitterness from both of the specialty ingredients pulls it all together, and the healthy dose of lactose makes all of those flavors just float across your palate.
I also have a lemon pepper saison that I brewed with lemongrass and coriander for the citrus quality, and Szechuan and pink peppercorns for a gently tingling mouthfeel. A ginger addition puts the spices in harmony with the bready wheat and pilsner malt flavors and makes this a great sushi beer, though it complements a good bratwurst just as well.
As for commercial beers, I’m sitting on some 2011 Bourbon County Brand Stout, including the coffee and Bramble Rye versions. They’re ponied up right next to their Goose Island cousin, King Henry. A few bottles of Bell’s Hopslam are waiting for the right occasion, as well as some Boulevard Tank 7 and Half Acre Big Hugs. I have some homebrew from Soma Ale Werks and Brutally Honest that I picked up at Brew Ho Ho last month that I’m excited to dip into. Sadly, my supply of Greenbush bottles from our tri-state beer run is nearly depleted.
What was the first beer that clued you in?
I was home from college in December of 2007 and went to the Goose Island brewpub in Wrigleyville with some friends after a concert at Metro. At the time, I really enjoyed 312 and thought it was the greatest thing on earth. Ha!
My buddy Steve came back to our table at one point with a chalice of hazy golden nectar that glowed like it was on fire against the yellow light of the fermentation room. The glass was marked with a highly-embellished “M” whose glint screamed, “Motherfucker, stop staring and drink me!” I obliged, and Matilda rocked my world. I had no idea beer could taste like that. I’ve been chasing life-altering beer experiences ever since, and I’ve found them in hop-bombs, imperial stouts, sours, and countless other beers that have stretched my palate in new directions. More recently, I’ve been seeking out and really appreciating superb examples of less extreme classic styles. Haymarket’s Speakerswagon Pilsner and Goose Island’s Harvest Ale have sold me on the harmony, balance, and subtlety of more moderate amounts of hops and barley.
What’s your most memorable beer moment?
I have to admit that I’m a total geek. I love learning. My day job is teaching history and being a geek is totally fine — probably necessary — in that realm, but it’s something that I carry over into the beer world for better or worse. That said, my most memorable beer moment was teaching an all-grain homebrewing class at New Chicago Beer Co. I had an enthusiastic group of students and we had a great time brewing, laughing, and learning together. After all, isn’t this whole beer thing great because it’s social, because it brings people and ideas together? Sure is for me.
Bartender or brewer?
A bartender, at best, can be a curator of a beer experience, and there’s dignity and value in that. The social component of bartending is compelling to me, but not to the degree that the creativity of brewing is. That’s where it’s at for me. The inventiveness of someone like Jared Rouben at the Goose Island brewpubs, Pete Crowley at Haymarket, or Jim Cibak or Wil Turner at Revolution is really a gift for all of us. They churn out dozens of one-of-a-kind offerings every year, mostly using the same four ingredients. It’s really amazing what they do, akin to the blend of technical prowess and improvisational genius of a great jazz musician.
What was your greatest beer hunt?
My greatest beer hunt was actually a journey, much more an exploration than a mission. Last summer I went on a road trip through Michigan with my girlfriend at the time. We hit Three Floyds and Greenbush on our way up to Grand Rapids to check out Founders and Hop Cat. From there, we made our way down to Kalamazoo for Bell’s, then ventured east to Arcadia and Dark Horse. We passed through then just-opened Paw Paw Brewing on our way home. It was a killer trip that got me excited about filling in some notable gaps and stretching myself farther north and east next time. It also convinced me that Michigan is a top-tier beer state, and that Chicago has a hell of a lot of room for growth.
What’s a beer on your wishlist?
My wishlist is pretty long. At the top are the Chicago breweries coming to market soon like New Chicago, Pipeworks, Solemn Oath, Spiteful, Argyle, and Broad Shoulders. I’m also really excited to try beers from breweries that haven’t hit the Chicago market, like Surly, Deschutes, Russian River, and Sixpoint. If I had to pick one beer, I would say The Abyss from Deschutes. It’s supposed to be an incredible imperial stout.
Paul will be excited to know that I brought him back a bottle of Abyss from Deschutes on my recent trip to Portland. It’s astonishing. Me and a few friends did a five-year vertical tasting this past winter.