“This is a young company with young owners,” announces Half Acre Beer Company founder and president Gabriel Magliaro at the start of his weekly public tour. He wants to make sure the group of 45 twenty and thirty-somethings are having fun.
“Drink as much as you like while you’re here on the tour,” he says while hoisting a plastic beer stein.
The crowd cheers.
Never mind the fact that craft brewing is hard work requiring precise measurements and precise temperatures, or that many new businesses don’t make it past their first year in operation. The Half Acre Beer Company is infused with youthful exuberance and swagger.
The brewery’s six full-time employees are having fun, because they make and sell beer for a living.
While Half Acre first started brewing in Black River Falls, Wisconsin in October 2006, since opening their new Northcenter brewery on 4257 N. Lincoln Avenue in October 2008, the company seems to have taken Chicago’s North Side by storm. Today over 400 Chicago bars and stores sell Half Acre beer.
As further proof of the local interest in Half Acre, “The Saturday tours are sold out by Monday — they’re full every week,” says Brand Champion, Kate Thomas. For those of you not quite hip to it, Kate uses an updated name for “Marketing Director.”
“We have a business where work and play merge a lot,” Magliaro said in an interview. That’s more than just talk: Wedged in between towering brewery equipment is a dartboard, a foosball table and an old stereo. A whiteboard near the entrance lacks corporate-speak, but is filled with a half-finished game of hangman.
“With craft beer, everything is done by hand. You won’t find any lab coats here,” says Magliaro. In fact, this reporter/homebrewer noticed a few 6-gallon carboys squirreled away in a corner. Yes, the Half Acre crew homebrew too, says Magliaro. “If this company begins to be a place where it’s not fun to work, then we really missed the mark.”
The 10,00-square-foot microbrewery turns out about 2,000 barrels of beer a year. About 20 percent of their beer is still brewed in Wisconsin, mostly anything that goes into a 12-ounce bottle.
Despite the economy, Magliaro’s new venture may be a smart business move. According to the Brewers Association, national craft brewing (breweries who brew less than 15,000 barrels) sales revenues grew by 10.1 percent in 2008. In addition, there were 1,525 breweries on July 31, 2009, the highest total in 100 years. It makes sense: during an economic downturn, what do people want to do? Drown their sorrows in beer.
But Magliaro doesn’t let his possibly bright future distract him from the beer, the fun.
“Intentionally, we change things all the time to try and get better at what we do,” says Magliaro. For that reason, the Half Acre lager you bought last summer probably won’t be available any time soon. “We’re sticking to ales for a while. [Our process] is pretty unique. Probably not good from a marketing perspective, but this company was founded on the basis of having a good time.”
“But we have times when we work pretty hard,” Magliaro pauses for a moment. “Long hours.”
The brewery space is rented from the Murphy family — as in Mrs. Murphy and Sons Irish Bistro, or the more famous Murphy’s Bleachers across from Wrigley Field.
James Murphy, the son, “is a big beer fan,” says Magliaro. “We had a relationship with them because they had been buying our stuff — the Murphy family had been using it for storage, and they were looking for another application.” James Murphy approached Magliaro and suggested they open a brewery in Chicago.
Magliaro agreed and Half Acre took five months to rebuild the space. “There was a lot of code [stuff] to do what we’re doing here,” says Magliaro.
Magliaro, a New Jersey native, had been living in Chicago since graduating from the School of the Art Institute in 2003. Before that, he worked in breweries in Boulder, Colorado, where “there’s a hundred breweries in 100 miles. It’s a great community there.” Magliaro had hopes of creating a similar kind of community in the Midwest.
“First we started up North, in Black River Falls. And then after we had some quality brand awareness [for Half Acre] and got up the gumption,” Magliaro and his team made the move to Chicago.
“Being in Chicago is great for us because we’re in the middle of 11 million drinking mouths. Most other microbreweries are in small towns and need to, keep pushing further out to get their product out there,” says Magliaro.
Next up for Half Acre?
“It would be nice to get to about 10,000 barrels a year to get some financial stability. Maybe a taproom and we like to get involved in some restaurant or brewpub thing,” says Magliaro. “But we don’t have plans to grow to some huge regional brewer.”
Next on tap?
Their Baum stout, later this week, and then Ginger Twin, their India red ale coming at the end of February.
Half Acre conducts public tours for people 21 and older every Saturday at 1pm. But call ahead to get on the list — it fills up quickly. Half Acre Beer Company: (773) 248-4038.