State of Chicago Beer: A good time to be thirsty in the Windy City

The Start-Up Upstarts

Adam Smith (right) and Adam Cieslak (left) of Maplewood Brewing Company inspect their brew in the light // Photo courtesy of Maplewood Brewing Company

Adam Smith (right) and Adam Cieslak (left) of Maplewood Brewery inspect their brew in the light // Photo by Stephanie Byce, Good Beer Hunting

About five years ago, Adam Cieslak was working as a patent attorney in downtown Chicago. Deciding patent law wasn’t for him, he helped co-found and became the head brewer at Maplewood Brewery, which has taken home an award at the Great American Beer Festival in each of the last two years.

Its new taproom, Maplewood Lounge, on the border of the Avondale and Logan Square neighborhoods is set to open December 15, and will include samplings of beer cocktails made from Maplewood’s own whiskey, gin, and other spirits. Some of its proprietary whiskey is aged in barrels that housed Fat Pug, Maplewood’s oatmeal stout that took bronze in the category in Denver.

Cieslak says it was his intention to be a distiller and a brewer at the same time because the logistics just made sense when ordering brewing equipment.

The still at Maplewood Brewery // Photo courtesy of Maplewood Brewery

The still at Maplewood Brewery // Photo by Stephanie Byce, Good Beer Hunting

“The labor going into [brewing and distilling] is damn near identical—more than halfway there. We wanted to explore some spirits that, in our opinion, only a few places in the country are really exploring. It’s not really our aim to reinvent bourbon […] Our main focus is to do unique malt whiskeys, gins, things that relate to beer somehow or are at least inspired by beer.”

Maplewood produces 4,000 barrels a year with the help of a contract brewery, while also distilling about 500 barrels of alcohol before they get proofed down.

Having a distillery in the same place where you brew beer obviously offers a few advantages when it comes to aging, souring, and fermenting your drinks of choice. And because of that distillery, Maplewood has the opportunity to be the only place in town to make, say, an Oktoberfest-inspired whiskey.

“Next year we’re planning an Oktoberfest party, but we’re not going to release an Oktoberfest beer,” Adam Smith, brewer and special projects lead at Maplewood says with a mischievous grin on his face.

“We’re going to have a fest whiskey that’s going to have the same malt build as a festbier and then distilled and barrel-aged […] We’ll have a light, Vienna-based beer, so a light modern festbier almost like a helles, next to a sidecar of a whiskey. I don’t know anyone else who can do stuff like that, and if they can, they’re not doing it. I think that’s the way that we can innovate a little bit.”

The Southsider

The Marz Brewing Company Brewery // Photo courtesy Marz Brewing Company

Fermentors in the Marz Community Brewing Company cellar // Photo courtesy Marz Community Brewing Company

Ed Marszewski has a lengthy resume of projects, including owning and running a bar, owning an art gallery, founding a public radio station, and publishing a handful of journals, including the beer-focused Mash Tun, and most recently starting Marz Community Brewing Co., which have kept him busy and grounded in the Windy City.

As pipefitters and brewers scramble to put the finishing touches on the brewery in Chicago’s southside Bridgeport neighborhood, Marszewski drags on an American Spirit and reflects on why he wanted to get in the beer business.

“We want to provide a place for people to come down to the neighborhood of Bridgeport, give them a reason to come and investigate the neighborhood, by using this as a place to start or finish, but to also create manufacturing jobs and other jobs for people who live in the neighborhood,” he says. “And to have a great local brewery to drink at […] All of life’s problems can be solved over a glass of beer. The bar was the locus of every single project I’ve done over the past 20 years. It’s where you meet, where you plan.”

Ed Marszewski of Marz Community Brewing Co. // Photo via Marz Community Brewing Co.'s Facebook page

Ed Marszewski of Marz Community Brewing Co. // Photo via Marz Community Brewing Co.’s Facebook page

Marz Community Brewing Co. occupies a massive, 48,000-square-foot space in Bridgeport, but only about half that will be used for brewing, selling, and consuming beer. The rest of the three-story warehouse that used to be a Comet Balsa Wood Plane factory will be used as storage for barrel-aged beers and perhaps an art gallery or meeting place for the people of Bridgeport to use to launch ideas or settle quarrels.

Ed employs locals to do the painting, wiring, taping and anything else that needs to be done in the gutted warehouse. Adi Goodrich, a Chicago native who’s gone on to become one of Los Angeles’ most sought-after set designers and photographers painted murals for the brewery.

Soups, salads, and sandwiches will be served, while music curated by Lumpen Radio and played over a custom-designed tryptophonic sound system by audio architect Scottie McNiece will fill the air. If one wants to have a beer, this is an ideal environment to do it in.

And the thing is, Marszewski admits this is all a selfish ploy to get rich, while shining a positive spotlight on his own neighborhood.

“Everyone thinks the Northside is the place to be,” he says with conviction. “They’re wrong. All the cool, good, crazy, weird shit is on the Southside. This whole brewery thing isn’t just for the community. It’s for me. It’s a little selfish, actually.

“Five years from now,” he daydreams, “I’m eating a nice beautiful shish kabob sandwich somewhere, able to leave Chicago. I love it here, but I want to eat a sandwich somewhere else.”

The Comeback Kids

The Finch Brewing Company Exterior // Photo courtesy Finch Brewing Company Facebook

The Finch Brewing Company Exterior // Photo courtesy Finch Brewing Company Facebook

If you asked any craft beer geek in Chicago what was going on with Finch Beer Company about six months ago, you’d probably get a shrug and the feeling that you’ve had the last of Hardcore Chimera, its double IPA that developed a cult following just about everywhere but its hometown. At its peak about three years ago, Finch was distributed in 20 states. Now that number is 14.

After some reshuffling at the top of the ladder (its founders and namesake Finch family members are no longer a part of the company), a rebrand that included a slight name change and redesigned cans, and relocation to the West Fulton Market, across the street from Goose Island, Finch is digging in to gain a foothold in the city’s established beer scene.

Outside investors helped Finch rehire head brewer Mike Jacobs from Lagunitas while relocating the brewery after a failed run as a brewpub for about nine months. The investors kept the brewery above water as it didn’t brew any beer for over three months while it underwent a stark transformation.

Ken Limas, the chief marketing officer at Finch, says that the result of all this time, effort, and capital pumped into resuscitating the company will hopefully yield some of the most sought-after beers in Chicago.

“Right now we have our heads down; telling everyone thanks for your patience,” Limas says. “We’re making great liquid that’s in your hand. The rebrand is proving extremely successful […] As long as you concentrate on making great brews, that’s what it’s all about. We’ve been quiet the last eight to 10 months because we want our beer to do the talking.”

Right now Finch produces five different beers, but its 8,000-square-foot brewing facility on Walnut Street has the capacity to make much more than that. It’s also a part of the aforementioned West Loop Brewers District. Opening a taproom in May 2018 in proximity to one of the most popular breweries in town should help a fledgling one.

Deep pockets, a prime location and a dedicated head brewer is putting Finch in a good place if it wants to become the next destination brewery in Chicago.

“You can’t fool the craft beer consumer on quality, flavor, all those things,” head brewer Mike Jacobs says. “The state of the union? It’s local, local, local. What’s the flavor of the day? It’s local.”

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