The owners of Northcenter-based Argyle Brewing have been busy since we last checked in with the trio: applying for manufacturing and retail licenses, getting married, changing their name to Begyle. Oh, and brewing beer, which they should be ready to sell shortly.
We caught up with Begyle partner Kevin Cary one night last week at the brewery’s space at 1800 W. Cuyler St. situated alongside the Ravenswood Metra tracks. During a wide-ranging conversation held over glasses of hefeweizen, we talked about Begyle’s ambitious plans, why Bears fans are the worst, and the brewery’s Kickstarter campaign to end shrinkage.
What’s in a name?
Turns out, a winery in Oregon claimed the Argyle name first, and such is trademark law that beer and wine are considered the same category of business. The winery delivered a cease and desist and the brewers reluctantly complied. “I think we could have fought it” but the cost would have been prohibitive, says Cary, who, along with co-founders, Matt Ritchey and Brendan Blume, had grown attached to the name.
“Argyle actually came from my girlfriend,” Cary explains, due to the self-professed nerd’s habit of wearing argyle socks. Coincidentally Blume grew up on Argyle Street in Chicago and his grandparents ran a Christmas tree farm in Argyle, Wis. But the courts have little sympathy for serendipity, sentiment or kismet. “We had to let it go.”
Begyle (pronounced BEE-gyle) came about after weeks of brainstorming. Not only does the name imply a certain bit of trickery but as it happens “gyle” is a traditional brewing term: parti-gyle is the process of using the same grain to make more than one beer. “It kind of grew on us,” says Cary. “If we can’t be Argyle, we might as well Begyle.”
Aside from branding issues, the name change threw a wrench into the brewery’s license applications, which were complicated enough. “You can’t have any unpaid parking tickets, you can’t have been convicted of racketeering. We were basically agreeing to know more about each other than we ever wanted to know.” Having already filled out the required state and federal forms, the brewers had to start from scratch with the switch to Begyle — after also changing the company’s name on its lease, bank account and other relevant documents.
“It’s the first time any of us has started a business with this much regulation,” says Cary. (Blume’s family runs a pedicab operation in Chicago.) “It’s been a learning experience.”
Campaign to end shrinkage
For the better part of a year, the Begyle team has been paying out rent on its space without taking in a dime to defray expenses. “That was one of the things we planned for,” says Cary, who works as a financial analyst by day; Ritchey and Blume also hold down day jobs. “It’s a little bit unnerving. We had to get comfortable with no money.”
Breweries are capital intensive in the start-up phase, requiring major one-time investments in big-ticket items like fermenters. “It’s been kind of an eye opener,” Cary admits. Begyle has been fortunate enough to tap larger local breweries for equipment they’ve outgrown: nearby Half Acre sold the guys kegs and a walk-in cooler; barrels were claimed from Goose Island.
But there’s no getting around the $17,000 price tag for the counter-pressure growler filler Begyle needs to realize its goal of becoming a community supported brewery (CSB).
Though Begyle beers will be found on tap at neighborhood pubs like The Grafton, hopefully by the end of September, the partners plan to market the majority of their brews via a subscription model similar to community supported agriculture (CSA) programs run by small farmers. Only instead of receiving a weekly or monthly allotment of fruits and vegetables, members will pick up growlers of beer.
(To clear up a common misconception, Begyle will also sell a portion of its beer to walk-in customers, much in the way CSA farmers make their excess produce available at farmers markets. They hope to have the retail space built out by October.)
One advantage of growlers (glass or ceramic jugs that typically hold 64 ounces): they’re reusable, and thereby in keeping with Begyle’s eco-friendly approach. (Instead of disposing of their spent grain, the fellas are going to use it to bake dog treats.) Growlers also save loads of packaging costs in terms of bottles, labels and cartons for six-packs. The disadvantage: Filling a growler is “almost like pouring a pint,” says Cary, in that it’s meant to be drunk right away. Yet a CSB member might take home three growlers at a time, with the intention of consuming the beer over the course of several weeks. Again, harkening back to the CSA analogy, Cary notes, “You don’t have to eat all your vegetables on the same day. We want to be able to let customers come by when they’re in the neighborhood and stock up. We want them to fill up and not worry about quality.”
The counter-pressure filler operates more like a bottler, retaining carbonation and freshness and eliminating wasteful foam. “This machine is as close to 100 percent efficient as you can get,” Cary says. “For all the beer that we save, that’s beer we don’t have to make because it’s going down the drain.”
Opting to raise the funds for the filler via Kickstarter was a decision the partners made after much debate. Pipeworks Brewing offered a clear precedent, having collected $100,000 through Kickstarter to seed its operation.
“Coming back to the community model, it’s a way of getting ourselves out there, of reaching out and spreading the idea,” says Cary. “There is a dedicated group of people out there who really believe in what we’re doing.”
At publication, Begyle was roughly $5,000 short of its goal with eight days left in its campaign (see video below).
Building a community
Though Cary says Begyle’s business plan has “grown organically,” every decision regarding the brewery has been made thoughtfully, with an eye toward the founders’ larger vision. “We want it to reflect us,” he says of the brewery. “We’re just three goofy blond guys; we’re really into our friends and family.”
It was the strong community vibe of Ravenswood, Northcenter and Lincoln Square that attracted the partners to the building on Cuyler, along with the neighborhood’s emphasis on music and art. (Cary used to play trombone in a ska band and is planning on taking up the instrument again.) Their goal is to both feed off the local atmosphere and participate in it; to that end, the guys partitioned off surplus square footage in their space and created four artist studios, all of which have been let, with the occupants ranging from painters to a sculptor who works with reclaimed plastic.
This explains why one of the first opportunities to taste Begyle’s beers will come during the Ravenswood ArtWalk. Along with its resident artists, Begyle will host the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative and throw open its doors to the public. “We’re going to be giving out samples of beer” and possibly have an acoustic bluegrass band on hand, says Cary. “We’re really excited. We met with neighbors back in January. Now we want to have them come in and see what’s going on.”
Creating relationships is a large component of the Begyle ethos. While the CSB model allows the partners to gradually ramp up production, it’s also a way of getting to know the people who buy their beer by meeting them face to face for every refill. “We want to build a community around what we’re doing,” says Cary. Eventually they plan to extend the concept through brewery tours, home brew classes and volunteer opportunities.
Begyle has even devised a way to personalize its distribution to bars and pubs: Blume and Cary will deliver kegs by pedicab to neighborhood clients. Cary has done his share of peddling — it’s all in the legs — and confirms that schlepping beer will be a cake walk compared with hauling Bears fans uphill to Soldier Field.
Aren’t we forgetting something?
Enough about trademarks, licensing and CSBs. Let’s talk beer.
Cary, who grew up outside Flint, Mich., has been dreaming of opening up a brewery since he turned 21 (none of the partners has yet to hit 30). During his college years at Central Michigan, he developed an appreciation for Bells and Dark Horse; instead of binging on dollar drafts, “we would go out for $2.50 pints of craft beer.”
He and Ritchey (the newlywed in the bunch) are former roommates and experienced home brewers. “Matt likes the really malty beers,” says Cary, who, for his part, names Lagunitas as a favorite brand.
They plan to use pale malt as their base grain and are using locally-sourced hops, mostly grown in Michigan and Wisconsin, partly out of a commitment to identify as a Midwestern brewery and partly because, as a start-up, Begyle wasn’t able to obtain popular patented varieties of hops such as Amarillo and Citra. “You have to order hops two to five years in advance,” Cary explains, though Begyle did snag a couple of 44-pound boxes of coveted hops through a Sam Adams lottery.
Begyle debuted its initial lineup of five beers at a recent event in Oak Park: an IPA; a pale wheat ale; an American blonde ale; the Striped Elephant (a variation on a Belgian strong ale, using American grain, yeast and hops); and the aforementioned hefeweizen, which was notably refreshing with a hint of spice (coriander, according to Cary).
Though informed by the brewers’ own taste, future beers will range from Kolsch to stout, with Cary promising much input coming from customers. “It will be a collaborative environment,” he says.
The end goal for the partners, be it five years from now or next spring, is for Begyle to become a full-time occupation. Until then, the three are burning the candle at both ends. “A lot of my co-workers are like, ‘You look tired,’” says Cary. “We’re doing what we love.”