Brewers on the Cusp of Blowing up
By Won Kim
In a city heralded for its food and beverage scene, it can be overwhelming trying to keep up with what’s new and exciting. Billion dollar acquisitions seem to be happening with a frequency that would make horny rabbits seem sluggish. Amid all the openings and business deals happening, it should be noted that there is still a burgeoning and exciting underground brewing (I couldn’t help it, there will be some puns – unintentional, but effective). Luckily for us, Chicago is large enough for the minor leaguers who are passionate about their craft and ready to showcase their carbonated adult beverages to the ever-growing craft beer world.
Every single seasoned brewer started as a homebrewer, the same way any good chef cooked, or any good artist started with drawing most of his or her life. This is the process to turn any true passion, whatever the creative platform, into a career. I have had the pleasure of working with some of the best homebrewers that this city has to offer. Individuals, groups, and married couples that work hard at their jobs to be able to fund their passion for creating unique and experimental beers. Long gone are the days when you and your buddies would buy a homebrew kit from Jewel and brew that first batch of a pissy pils. You called yourself a brewer and thought that you’d be able to do it for a living until you realized that you would have to multiply the amount of beer produced by a million.
I have thrown and organized many beer events in Chicago in the last 6 years with a focus on showcasing homebrewers ready for the majors. From having to drink a ton of sample beers for dinners and parties, to assembling massive public bottle shares, I can safely say that I have had my fair share of beers. Self-appointed beer deity Greg Koch described my beer events as “beer raves.” I took to that title and eventually went on to work with him, Randy Mosher, and Jason Ebel in a homebrew competition called Iron Brew. This was at the height of my curated beer events. Industry-heavy heads actually recognized what was going on and offered homebrewing participants to brew commercially with them as a prize. The best part was that out of the 20 homebrewers, almost all of them would move on to work full time at a brewery. With that in mind, I would like to focus on a few of the brewers I have worked, drank, and blacked out with.
These are the OGs that would start me on my Brew HaHa adventures, when they were two of the four members of homebrew collective Lowdive. Matt Kanable and Andrew Lautner would eventually go on to start Kimbell Brewing. These are the guys that took a chance on me and helped organize a private beer dinner showcasing their beer and my food. This eventually led to doing a much more toned-down version of the Brew HaHa at our friend Mike Anderson’s backyard in Humboldt Park, where Tooch [Adam Mattucci] and I would handle food and they would provide the suds. Their beer was something special. From the meticulous marketing of their brand, to the recipes of the beer, you could tell Kimbell’s was “pro” brew. It wasn’t about getting smashed and drunk dialing your ex. It was about balance, trying to get the most out of the ingredients, and maintaining consistency.
Matt and Drew also know how to take constructive criticism, which allows them to excel in whatever style they choose to brew. My particular favorites from them as of late have been their sours. These beers are wild, tart, and fruity without being too sweet or overly acidic, which a lot of wild-fermented ales tend to be. They schedule brew days and consider beer to be sacred without being pretentious about what it is and what it “means” to them. I love these guys because they know how to appreciate beer, don’t make a big fuss about what it is, and make great shit.
Karl and Marilee may be some of the sweetest and raunchiest people I know. I met these two at a seafood dinner thing at Whole Foods, where I was filling in as the cook to test out some recipes to customers. Their friend, Gonzalo, was bragging about their beer rig at home and raved about their homebrew. The picture I saw showed a 16-tap system in a bedroom with a bunk bed over a chest cooler that housed all the beer. I thought it was fake or an Onion article picture, and I told them that I must see it in person. They were so cordial and open to having a stranger over just to share beer and hang out. That kind of openness and genuine kindness is hard to come by these days, so much so that it almost makes you suspicious.
It was love at first site: I visited them at their home in Albany Park and left annihilated, which wouldn’t be the last time I’d leave there not remembering a damn thing. Karl and Marilee have hosted homebrew parties, fried chicken nights, and even let me brew a beer with them. I didn’t do a goddamn thing – I was too hungover, and eventually passed out while they did all the work. I particularly loved their Beeting Heart Kölsch, which was one of the first commercial beers I tried from them commercially (long story). It’s smooth, mildly sweet, and has an earthiness and bright red color that only beets can bring. These guys have been on a hell of a journey to get their beer out there and have worked so damn hard only to have to start over again. Yet, they still do everything with a goddamn smile because they know and truly believe that this journey will all lead to achieving the dream of just brewing beer and making people happy.
Soma Ale Werks
Despite having bumped heads a couple of times on how to run my events, I know that Tom means well, is generally curious about how things work, and is very concerned with finances. These are good qualities to have, which is probably why he owns a home and I don’t. Tom and I go way back to when Drew [Andrew Lautner] and I met, when craft beer was about to just bust a nut all over this city, probably around 2010. When Dark Lord Day drew barely one thousand attendees, IBUs started being a thing, and when “tap takeovers” started happening. Meanwhile, Tom was brewing beer out of his narrow apartment in Wicker Park. He knows the amount of room he has and utilized every single inch of space needed to get his brews in order. He has been a staple and stronghold in the beer scene by being an active member in Chicago Beer Society, attending or working every major beer event in the country, and planning his vacations around beer destinations. This man is passionate and sometimes outspoken – all for the sake of beer.
One of my favorite beers from him is Cucumis Sativus – a saison with cucumbers – which was his entry for the Iron Brew competition, and also one of the crowd favorites. It’s light and refreshing, perfectly carbonated, with just a hint of cuke. The beer is super versatile in its applications. I can see it being used in cocktails, marinades, or just drinking a shitload of it, because you can! Tom’s also super lucky to live with a girlfriend who supports every beer-related thing he does, because she is as knowledgeable and passionate about beer as he is.
So, there you have it, three brewers who love beer so much that it makes me fight and advocate for them however I can. These are passionate, creative people that are ready to showcase their talents if just given the chance to. I’m not a Cicerone, nor do I claim to be any kind of beer expert, so I can’t give two shits if you disagree with me. Though I may seem a little jaded on the whole craft beer thing, I’ll never be jaded on good people doing good things.