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Beer Story: How Did Our Area Become A Beer Neighborhood?

By Meryl Williams | Thursday, April 4, 2013
Nic Lutton, bartender of nearly one year at Fountainhead, stands before the bar's impressive bottles selection. Credit: Meryl Williams

Nic Lutton, bartender of nearly one year at Fountainhead, stands before the bar’s impressive bottles selection. Credit: Meryl Williams

While the craft beer business is booming in Chicago overall, the movement’s strength seems to be focused in our neck of the woods, especially along the Ravenswood Corridor and along Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Square and Northcenter where half a dozen breweries and distilleries have made the area their home in the last seven years. All of a sudden beer drinkers know this is the place to be. Beer bars, package stores with long beer lists and beer-and-wine-making ingredient stores are thriving in Northcenter and Lincoln Square with an engaged, local customer base.

It’s a fact: The area has become a Beer Neighborhood. And yet, the thing is, it has been for a while now. In some ways, Lincoln Square, Northcenter, and Ravenswood seemed almost destined to be Chicago’s premier beer neighborhood.

So which came first: the beer or the beer-drinker? Is this a beer neighborhood because it’s filled to the brim with breweries, bars, and specialty stores, or does it boast these luxuries precisely because it is a beer neighborhood?

It seems to be a little of both.

Several factors are at play here: Among a rich German heritage, a voracious thirst among residents for quality craft beer as well as residents who are interested in making it at home, a handful of diverse breweries making beer in our backyards, and a unique sense of community and ownership felt among all involved, the area enjoys the benefits of a rich recipe for beer neighborhood success.

Dan Howard, Brew Camp employee, looks up information for a customer at the beer-and-wine-supplies store on Damen. Credit: Meryl Williams

Dan Howard, Brew Camp employee, looks up information for a customer at the beer-and-wine-supplies store on Damen. Credit: Meryl Williams

German heritage plants deep roots

Jared Saunders, director of Brew Camp on Damen Ave., moved to Chicago in 1997. At the time, he said, there weren’t any breweries near his first Chicago apartment in Lincoln Square, but the German heritage was, and is, prevalent. Saunders attributes this culture, on top of Lincoln Square’s tradition for cultural and beer-oriented street festivals, with paving the way for the area to being so beer-centric.

“This is the German area, and wherever they go comes some decent beer,” said Saunders. “We have the Brauhaus, DANK Haus, and all kinds of little German pubs and restaurants still just going strong. Both Lincoln Square and Northcenter have the history of such successful street fairs and I think that draws a crowd, too.”

Karl Klockars, a Chicago and Illinois beer blogger at GuysDrinkingBeer.com, agrees.

“Around 2005, 2006, when Metropolitan [Brewing] had only three beers, this area was still good for drinking beer,” he said. “Huettenbar, Brauhaus, [among others] are German-chartered. That is the history of the neighborhood.” Metropolitan Brewing opened on Ravenswood Ave. near Foster Ave. in late 2007.

Still, he said an old dog can learn new tricks. Just two years ago, those places were known to offer German beer almost exclusively.

“But even in the past year, there have been changes at those places,” said Klockars. “Before, you would never see anything but German beer on a tap handle. But now, local beers are entering those places. We know what good beer is and we tend to seek it out.”

German roots in the area run deep: The Lincoln Square neighborhood’s nearly-100-year-old German-American Festival tradition is still going strong, bringing it with beer, brats, and live, traditional German music. The area will celebrate its 14th annual Maifest event later this spring as well, when the neighborhood’s May Pole is decorated and celebrated even more than it is when it is standing year-round.

The famed Chicago Brauhaus moved into the square in the 1960s, and today, as their website proudly proclaims, they serve up “traditional German food specialties, beer and wine and plenty of music and dancing six days a week.”

West Lakeview Liquors owner Kristina Bozic said speaking German helped her get her first bartending job in this part of town, at Laschet’s Inn, just after she turned 21.

“I still go there to this day,” said Bozic. “I love that they have food now.”

Bozic’s mother was from Germany, and her parents were drawn to the area in 1969 by the Eastern European culture and community there. She said her mother even owned a shop on Lincoln Ave., next to Gene’s Sausage Shop, selling European cards and knick-knacks.

Saunders pointed to the recent and extremely successful Winter Brew contest as an example of how the area’s German culture brings in those from all over the city to experience good, local beer. The contest, featuring all local brewers, took place in January at DANK Haus as a partnership between Square Kegs Home Brew Club and the Lincoln Square-Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce.

“Winter Brew was a huge success,” Saunders said. “We had 500 entries last year and it sold out. This year we had two sold-out sessions. Germans established good beer here, and now this is where people go to look for it.”

Resident interest in craft beer and home brewing elevates the visibility of the area’s beer bars and specialty stores

Some in the business are doing so well due to the neighborhood’s increased interest in craft beer that they’ve had to expand. Brew Camp, not only moved to a larger space next to the Damen Avenue L stop recently but they’ve just opened a second area strictly for their classes.

“We have two new and extremely successful breweries, and four or five are in the works, all within a couple square miles,” said Saunders. “More people are taking up the hobby. But there’s a difference between DIY-ers and a crowd that wants to see it, and experience it. People want to hang out with their friends and watch beer being brewed.”

Interest and demand for craft beer is growing in our area, according to Klockars.

“I find it interesting that it translates into smaller mom-and-pop corner stores,” he said. “A corner store by the Montrose [Brown Line L] stop has a craft beer selection that is astonishingly good. Stuff that was sold out in Michigan, or hard-to-find Goose Island stuff–you go there, it’s there. It’s gone so deep.”

Bozic’s West Lakeview Liquors is another example of such a store. They opened their doors on Addison in 1988 and boast a wide selection of over 1,500 craft beers, spirits, and sometimes hard-to-find wines.

“I have been working so diligently since we opened on the craft beer here, and I’m so excited to see what it’s done,” said Bozic. “Chicago is an amazing craft beer city now.”

She cited Begyle and Spiteful Brewing as helping bring this about most recently, as well as a handful of her favorite beer bars nearby, including Half Acre’s new tap room, Bad Apple, Laschet’s Inn, the Globe, the Long Room, and others with making craft beer accessible to the neighborhood.

On the other side of the coin, beer bars in the area also know craft beer, local or otherwise, is important to their customers, and they’re asking for it more and more.

The beer bar Bad Apple, at 4300 N Lincoln Ave. Credit: Meryl Williams

The beer bar Bad Apple, at 4300 N Lincoln Ave. Credit: Meryl Williams

“We pride ourselves on our beer list and we’re fortunate enough to be able to get rare, unique beers,” said Mandy Franklin at beer bar The Bad Apple, 4300 N. Lincoln Ave. “We’ve been here three-and-a-half years now and while it wasn’t as much a craft brew community then, it is now. I’m not sure if it’s specific to this neighborhood or all over the city.”

Franklin said she has enjoyed watching the neighborhood become more and more interested in craft beer over time.

“It’s just an exciting world to be a part of,” she said. “To watch it grow from being a difficult market to being at the point where if you don’t have craft beer in your bar, you’re looked down on. The more people demand it, the better it’s going to be.”

Other beer bars are responding to the call as well. Klockars commends The Fountainhead on Montrose Ave. with making some strong, positive strides in the local beer scene. The restaurant will open a new outdoor patio area soon, and just took on Chicago chef and local celebrity Cleetus Friedman as their new chef. He joins the team along with Fountainhead’s new beer director, Mike Maloney, whom Klockars at least partially credits with the reputation The Grafton, 4350 N. Lincoln Ave., enjoys today as a beer bar that can hold its own.

“The Grafton was the first place Begyle [Brewing] had a tap head on,” Klockars said. “It is an embarrassment of riches in our area, if you like that kind of thing, which I do.”

Friedman agrees that Fountainhead is doing big things for Ravenswood.

“They just are so good between their marketing and the way they utilize their space to feature the brewers,” said Friedman. “The beverage program here is top-notch. You sit at this bar and you are wowed by the selection. It’s insane. I wanted to be in a place where I could create food to rival this beverage program and it’s going to be a challenge.”

Friedman is a brewer himself, and he is going into his third year of beer collaboration; every month he makes a point to work with a beer, wine, or spirit-maker to create a recipe and ultimately a beverage. Spiteful Brewing’s Jason Klein said Friedman had contacted him about a future collaboration, something Klein said he is looking forward to.

Joe and Carly Katz opened Bottles and Cans on Lincoln Avenue in October 2012. Credit: Meryl Williams

Joe and Carly Katz opened Bottles and Cans on Lincoln Avenue in October 2012. Credit: Meryl Williams

Carly Katz feels like she and her husband Joe found the right space in Northcenter for Bottles and Cans, 4109 N. Lincoln Ave., at just the right time. She and Joe opened their craft beer and high-end liquor store in October of 2012, just weeks before finding out that Carly was pregnant.

“We thought we’d just throw as many stressful things in our way as we could at once,” joked Joe.

Five-and-a-half months later, the couple is doing well and responding to Ravenswood and Northcenter customers’ requests for what they’d like to keep on their shelves–as well as making a list of things for Carly to try once she delivers.

“We knew this neighborhood would welcome a craft beer bottle shop,” said Joe.

Brewers in the area make craft beer even more accessible

Klockars said it was pure luck that two major local breweries chose the area as their home at the same time, leading the way for future beer community growth.

“Our area’s [beer neighborhood status] has a lot to do with the fact that, by happenstance, Metropolitan and Half Acre ended up in the same place around the same time,” said Klockars. “That was pretty influential. Since then, Revolution and Haymarket have set up shop further south, and Spiteful and Begyle are in this area as well as Bottles and Cans.”

Brad Shaffer, one half of the duo that makes up Spiteful Brewing, checks the density of this brew, or "specific gravity", to determine its alcohol level. Credit: Meryl Williams

Brad Shaffer, one half of the duo that makes up Spiteful Brewing, checks the density of this brew, or “specific gravity”, to determine its alcohol level. Credit: Meryl Williams

Begyle Brewing and Spiteful Brewing both made their homes along Ravenswood Ave. between the Irving Park and Montrose brown line stops in the last two years. Half Acre Beer Company preceded them by opening on Lincoln Avenue in 2008.

Brad Shaffer and Jason Klein, the duo who make up the team at Spiteful Brewing, admit that Ravenswood was not the plan all along, but that it was the best place they could have ended up.

“We lucked out,” said Shaffer. “This neighborhood ended up being awesome.”

Self-distribution by small breweries in our area comes into play here as well; Klockars has also been following the beer distribution legal process on his blog. A section on his site titled “Save the Craft” is devoted to coverage of state legislation that ultimately allowed for smaller breweries, like Spiteful and Begyle, to self-distribute their beer to a certain extent.

“Distributors have been paying close attention to local craft beers,” said Klockars. “They know consumer attention is there. Now if a brewery is small and hard to get on the radar of a distributor, they can self-distribute. [For example,] Begyle can carry their beer right over to the Grafton along Lincoln Avenue. They’re here, the bars are here, the customers are here.”

Spiteful does this as well, taking one day each week to drive all over Chicago and to the suburbs to deliver their products: Two guys, two vans, and an ever-growing list of stops to make.

Because there’s so much interest in craft beer around where they brew, they have the luxury of being able to hand-deliver to places like Bottles and Cans–sometimes even by bicycle.

Shaffer said sometimes they will get a call from a neighborhood store saying they’ve run out of one of their beers and ask for more on a non-delivery day. If they’re working on a batch right then, Klein can stand watch while Shaffer hops on his bike and makes neighborhood rounds, stuffing bottles into his bike bag.

“Neighborhood accounts are great for that,” said Klein. “Then we can deliver while we’re brewing, if a delivery is that close.”

Klein said that distribution is the most time-consuming part of what Spiteful does, and their list of stops keeps getting longer. Staying local can help ease that burden.

While Klein and Shaffer knew they wanted Spiteful to be in Chicago, they looked in all directions for the perfect spot.

“[This location] fell into our lap,” said Klein of Spiteful’s home at Honore and Berteau. “A lot of places had space, but they were too big. We weren’t even going to be on a system this big, originally.”

He said when they saw their current space, they knew it was perfect for their needs.

Brad Shaffer maintains one of Spiteful's seven brewing tanks. Credit: Meryl Williams

Brad Shaffer maintains one of Spiteful’s seven brewing tanks. Credit: Meryl Williams

A sense of community and ownership

The relationships among brewers, store owners, and beer bars is communal no matter who you talk to.

“At the end of the day, if we’re all doing well, we’re ALL doing well,” emphasized Carly. “We’re all working together.”

An excellent example of this can be drank in the form of Begyle Brewing’s Neighborly stout.

Neighborly, a home goods store on Montrose Ave., opened this past holiday season. They had a party to celebrate their opening, complete with a specially-brewed stout by Begyle, to mark the occasion.

Neighborly owner Jenny Beorkrem says the relationship came about after she and her boyfriend met the three guys behind Begyle at the Ravenswood Art Walk last September, just weeks before Beorkrem’s store opened. The reputations of both preceded each other: Kevin Cary of Begyle knew of Beorkrem due to her now-iconic Ork Posters, many of which he owned, and Beorkrem knew of Begyle because she and her boyfriend, a craft beer enthusiast, had been following the brewery’s career since it opened months earlier.

“We introduced ourselves to each other and agreed we wanted to work together at some point in the future,” said Beorkrem. “Neighborly was getting going, so we asked them to brew a beer for the opening as a cross-promotion type deal.”

Begyle Brewing did not respond to our requests for an interview, but Beorkrem said she believes this area is special to the brewery.

“When they were getting going, the local brew scene and the existing breweries were extremely helpful to them,” she said. “They started their business up here because of that. They’re really nice guys so it’s easy to get to know them. They want to work with the area.”

Spiteful’s Klein and Shaffer say their location turned out to be a fortunate break for them. They’ve felt welcomed by everyone from neighbors to stores to even those who are technically their competition.

“This neighborhood’s response to us moving in was the icing on the cake,” said Klein. “Not only are the residents very supportive, but the shops and other breweries, even.”

Spiteful has borrowed kegs and labels at times from Begyle, just blocks away over on Cuyler.

“They always want to help, and we want to help if we can,” said Shaffer.

The Fountainhead on Montrose has an extensive tap selection. Including Begyle Brewing's handle in the center. Credit: Meryl Williams

The Fountainhead on Montrose has an extensive tap selection. Including Begyle Brewing’s handle in the center. Credit: Meryl Williams

Spiteful has made positive impressions in the area despite only beginning to brew on-site in November of last year.

“Spiteful can’t do wrong,” said Carly. “People are asking for whatever they are doing.”

Her neighbors are popular with her customers, which benefit her store and the breweries.

“Begyle and Spiteful are bringing an incredible amount of awareness [to local craft brewing],” said Carly. “And they’re just a couple of guys making the time and sacrifice.”

She spoke of first meeting Shaffer and Klein in December. The two came into her store and introduced themselves. They offered to bring some of their winter ale, Jingle Balls, to the store for her and Joe to try, and the couple thanked them for the offer.

“They came back in later that same night with it,” said Joe. “It’s fun having those guys close. They’re such a fun group.”

Friedman cites being able to stay in Ravenswood as an incentive for joining the team at Fountainhead.

“City Provisions was based in community,” he said of his former lunch restaurant in Ravenswood, which closed earlier this winter. “Because of that, we became embedded in Ravenswood, and became close to the families and the people here. I get to stay in Ravenswood, where people know who I am. I built a fan base here that gets to stay here with me. I love it here. The people are very tight-knit.”

Friedman said this area has so much to offer in terms of breweries, distilleries, and great restaurants that he would hate to leave.

“The world could fall off around us and we’d be fine,” he said.

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