Sustainable Beer on Chicago’s South Side: Whiner Beer Company
By Calvin Fredrickson
Located in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, Whiner Beer Co. is housed within a “vertical farm” called The Plant, an almost too-good-to-be-true bastion of environmentally minded business. Folks, it’s the real deal, and its ideology represents a watershed moment in Whiner founder and brewmaster Brian Taylor’s career. More on that later. With 15 years of brewing experience to his name, Taylor had technical know-how in spades. What he needed was a creative partner, someone who could evoke the playful, tongue-in-cheek personality of Whiner’s European-inspired beers. Enter Ria Neri, local hospitality veteran and artist, who embraced Taylor’s vision for Whiner by expressing mutual influences – ranging from 70s French comics to armadillos – through the brewery’s branding and beer labels.
By packaging their beer in cans, much of it barrel-aged, Whiner is looking to convey a highbrow-meets-lowbrow aesthetic. Wary of taking themselves too seriously, Taylor and Neri explain that the brewery’s name is a lighthearted allusion to the wine industry. One gets the sense that Whiner is tipping its hat to the world of wine with a twinkle in its eye. As of October, Whiner was still awaiting word from the TTB, and Taylor was chomping at the bit. “We’re basically ready to go,” he said. Indeed they are.
Daylight spills from broad windows onto the brewery’s concrete floor and walls, playing off brushed steel fermenters. The buzz and cracks of final customizations echo throughout the brewery, dust hanging in the air. Glowing white Xs punctuate the brewery and cellar ceilings. Taylor joked that people take more pictures of those lights than they do anything else. In their defense, the lights are rad. But Whiner’s story and vision outshine the brewery’s cosmetic appeal. What follows is an overview of Whiner’s stainless and wood cellars, their souring and blending processes, and their role at The Plant.
Whiner’s 30-barrel, three-vessel brewhouse will accommodate step mashing, a brewing process typical of some of the French- and Belgian-style beers Whiner will produce. Two 60-barrel fermentation tanks dwarf two 15-barrel counterparts, vessels that will serve fermentation, blending, and yeast propagation processes. “Everything serves a really good purpose where it sits,” Taylor said, a credit, in part, to Corcoran Fabrication & Design, whom Taylor often contracted for work during his days as head cellarman at Goose Island.
For Whiner, stainless plays an important role in producing consistent beers. Taking a cue from beers of years past – Sofie, anyone? – Taylor will be blending four parts clean, stainless-fermented beer with one part wine barrel-aged sour, resulting in a tart, balanced beer. While stainless is a necessary side of Whiner’s fermentation, wine barrels hold mystique for Taylor and Neri in a way that stainless does not. In fact, the first two barrels Whiner received were promptly named after their proud stewards – scrawled in sharpie on one, “Brian.” On the other, “Ria.”
“I think I bought the barrels before anything,” Taylor said. “I had wine barrels in here and nothing else.” The best barrels are Cabernet Sauvignon, he said, which lend to initial fills bold wine flavors and aromas, though Pinot noir barrels are good, too. These barrels also present a relatively inexpensive vessel for long-term aging, something that is impractical in expensive stainless steel tanks. Wine barrels, being porous, allow for slow oxygen ingress, which is an excellent environment for microbial activity. Taylor will be encouraging that activity by pitching strains of Brettanomyces yeast into Lactobacillus-inoculated wort. Doing so will develop intense fruity and sometimes farm-like aromas, along with lemony, yogurt-like tanginess from the soured wort.
Whiner’s love for oak is no joke – with 40 barrels in the cellar and counting, Taylor muses of having a foudre or two soon, which can hold close to 400 gallons of liquid. “On a microbiology side, I like the wine barrels, because it’s more about growth; whereas with bourbon barrels, it’s about bourbon character and oak.” Federal and state approval holdups have kept Taylor from filling his barrels just yet, but when he does fill them, lush vinous notes will mingle with the deep oak aromas that have already permeated the cellar.
Several techniques exist for souring beer, including hot- and cold-side introductions of Lactobacillus. One type of hot-side Lactobacillus addition is kettle souring, which usually involves an eventual boil, arresting additional bacterial fermentation in the wort upon reaching a desired pH. Another hot-side Lactobacillus addition involves soaking mesh bags filled with malt – in Whiner’s case, pilsner malt – in 110º wort for 24 hours, a technique Taylor honed while working alongside Jared Jankowski at Goose Island. “Everyone says it doesn’t work, but it worked twice as well for us,” Taylor said. Instead of killing the Lactobacillus bacteria with a boil, Taylor sends the inoculated wort to barrels, where it ferments and develops additional lactic character for the period of about a month.
Measuring total acidity – a technique Taylor learned at Boulevard – and blending, Taylor said, will promote greater control of flavor and acid profiles in the finished product. “We want to make sure the sourness of the beer isn’t overly sour or not sour enough,” he said. Once Whiner’s stainless- and wood-fermented Le Tub Wild Saison – one of Whiner’s flagships – is blended in the brite tank, Taylor will pitch Brettanomyces claussenii, a fruit-forward yeast strain that will create additional complexity and tamp down potential Pediococcus activity in the bottle. Pediococcus, like Lactobacillus, is a bacteria strain that creates lactic acid in beer, albeit one that can work more slowly and create off flavors. Recalling his experience processing Juliet wine barrels at Goose Island, Taylor estimated one in ten barrels had to be dumped. Those barrels had become “sick” or “ropy,” resulting in slimy, gelatinous beer, the result of Pediococcus. “It’s dangerous as hell,” Taylor said.
Sulphur sticks, potassium metabisulfite, and citric acid are among the more common treatments for barrel maintenance – and they’re all methods Taylor eschews in favor of a simpler, water-based method. His approach to barrel maintenance involves steaming and rinsing – no chemicals used. It’s an approach that would have some cellarmen quaking in their boots. A confidence like Taylor’s doesn’t develop overnight, however. It comes with years of experience, and a foresight in making one beer out of many. That process, all-important to Whiner, is called blending.
Balance and depth of flavor are two qualities Taylor wants to impart to Whiner’s beer – an effort, he feels, that can be accomplished through careful blending. “Our plan here is to have a massive blending program,” he said. Many brewers, particularly of wild and sour beer, point to blending as being a critical part of beer production, a sentiment Taylor shares. He pointed to Belgian lambic producers as being inspirational to his process. “We plan to have a real gueuze program,” Taylor said, which will involve aging and blending one-, two-, and three-year-old beer. As complex as it sounds, Taylor says Whiner’s aim is simple: “We want to make sure we’re blending down what tastes good.”
Being an American beer producer, Taylor’s usage of the terms lambic and gueuze is sure to make style purists bristle. Admitting that he uses the terms loosely, Taylor shrugs off the earnestness of detractors to his appropriation: “I mean, what are you gonna do? Obviously we’ll never be the Belgians with anything. We still inoculate each barrel with what we want, which is not what they do.” By describing these efforts as lambic and gueuze, Whiner looks to pay homage to such traditional styles, not co-opt them. “We don’t have 300-year-old barrels with 20,000 different wild yeasts and bacteria thriving in there,” Taylor said. “We’re starting on day one.” In saying so, Taylor depicts the relative youth of America’s craft beer boom, the progress it’s made, and the ground yet to cover.
Described as a vertical farm and business incubator, The Plant is home to numerous businesses rooted in sustainable food production. Among them are a prawn farm, a beekeeper, a bakery, and a roaster called Four Letter Word, which is helmed by Neri. Apart from being home to Whiner, The Plant also represents an ideology valued by Taylor, who characterized the brewing process as being “super wasteful.” Taylor reflected on his time in the industry: “I’ve been in this business 15 years and I know how much water I waste, grain I throw away, chemicals I’m dumping down the drain.”
Working with Ian Hughes at Goose Island changed how Taylor approached brewing. “Hanging out with Ian all those years totally changed my mind about all that,” he said. “[Ian] was able to get a yeast collection started, and spent grain sent out to people who actually use it.” Looking back on brewing days gone by, Taylor said, “Honestly, I was that guy – I didn’t give a shit, like, five years ago.” He definitely gives a shit now.
Whiner hopes to improve upon the conventional wastefulness of breweries by using The Plant’s anaerobic digester and CO2 collector. Spent grain and yeast, for example, can be added to the digester, which will create methane gas from organic matter that can be used to power Whiner’s boiler. “Methane burns much harsher, and at about four to five times higher a rate than natural gas,” Taylor said. Since Whiner’s boiler is natural and methane gas-compatible – as simple as the flip of a switch – its interior is stainless steel, which allows it to handle the dirty gas.
“We also have a CO2 collector,” Taylor said, another sustainable effort that will benefit tenants of The Plant. After Whiner degases emptied fermenters through a pipe into an algae tank, algae will eat up CO2 and create O2. Then, Taylor said, “We can degas into the [rooftop] greenhouse for the plants, and that’s where my kettle stack goes, so they’ll have some humidity control year-round.” On the future of brewing, he said: “The water usage is crazy. Eight barrels of water for one barrel of beer? You know, you just can’t continue that way for the next 50 years or you’re in trouble. That sort of thing is very important to us.”
If all goes to plan, Whiner hopes to have beer in cans and kegs across Chicago by year’s end, with Le Tub Wild Saison and Rubrique-a-brac Biere de Garde leading the charge. If Taylor’s previous beers are any indication, the near future has in store some seriously tasty South Side beers. And if Whiner’s tact takes hold among brewers, the next 50 years might not look as grim as Taylor predicts. They might look green.
Whiner Beer Co. is located at 1400 W 46th Street. Chicago, IL. 60609. See Whinerbeer.com for more information. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram: /whinerbeer and @whinerbeer.