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Getting crafty

Microbreweries find their niche in nearby communities

Series: Brewing in the burbs | Story 1

Last updated 8/2/2019 at 2:49pm | View PDF

Jim Slonoff

Old bourbon and wine barrels set off the special event space at Alter Brewing in Downers Grove, which serves its beer creations in its tap room. "We do get the beer geeks in here, but we also get grandmas and grandpas," co-founder Mark Hedrick said. (Jim Slonoff photos) Developing names for beers can be as much of an art as brewing them, as Whiskey Hill Brewing's on-tap board displays. Tap room manager Stephen Peterson holds a flight of the current offerings at the Westmont operation. There's a beer for every palate at Orange & Brew in Downers Grove, whether from the extensive selection of packaged products or served up by owner Eric Schmidt from the taps featuring styles from local breweries.

Craft breweries have been popping up at a head-spinning pace in recent years, pouring out inventive takes on trendy IPAs and old-guard Pilsners along with stunning stouts, crazy kolsches and other varieties offering taste sensations for those who come to belly up.

Hinsdale residents have a wide array to choose from within a short drive, which we'll explore in this three-part, geographically organized series leading up to International Beer Day on Aug. 2. So raise a pint and quench your thirst in unexpected ways.

Alter Brewing

This craft pub crawl kicks off at the series' western edge, and at the top of the alphabet, with Alter Brewing in Downers Grove. Huge, gleaming, fully exposed beer tanks tower over the spacious taproom as warm summer air wafts in through an open garage door composing the facade, lending the place an almost tropical vibe.

Co-founder and brewer Mark Hedrick made beer at home for years before turning his hobby into a livelihood with this establishment in December of 2015. Others shared his passion.

"There were 2,700 breweries in America when we opened our doors. As of today there are 7,400, and well over 2,000 in planning," Hedrick said.

Behind a long counter are roughly a dozen taps bearing names including Dank You, After Party and, naturally, ALTERior Motive IPA.

One called Hell Hazed Over hits a nerve with Hedrick.

"I put my foot in my mouth when I said we're never going to make a hazy beer," he admitted, alluding to the hazy IPA fad.

Customer lobbying won out. Catering to patrons is paramount, he stressed, from keeping the joint clean to ensuring staff know their stuff.

"Educating our guests, whether they're novices or experts, really helps with their experience here," Hedrick said.

While craft beer enthusiasts can be loyal, they also like fresh output. Hedrick said Alter takes pride in the constant renewal of their tap offerings.

"We have about four beers that we brew year-round. We have about six seasonals, and then we've got dozens of one-offs and small batch stuff," he said. "We're constantly trying to innovate. You have to."

The warehouse in back doubles as event space for parties. A full-service brew pub in St. Charles is in the offing.

Hedrick advised guests should come with an open mind and avail themselves of free samples before picking their pint.

"Every brewer wants to make a delicious product, just like a chef wants you to enjoy your meal."

Whiskey Hill Brewing

Marshmallow and graham cracker cereal in beer? That's what flavors 5 S'mores Minutes from Whiskey Hill Brewing in Westmont. And, yes, there's cacao mixed in as well to deliver the complete campfire delight in imperial milk stout form.

Co-owner Matt Weil, a Hinsdale Central grad, bought the brewery last year after it had gone through previous iterations. Tucked back in a industrial park just north of 63rd Street, patrons arrive because they know what they're looking for.

"We rebuilt the whole place and relaunched as Whiskey Hill," said Weil, noting the name was the Prohibition-era nickname for Westmont.

Whiskey is not on the pour list, but one-of-a-kind flavors certainly are.

"I thought, "Let's brew this crazy stuff that people haven't done and show people a whole different side of regional American craft beer," he said.

Apps like Untapped and Heritage Corridor Ale Trail lead craft beer devotees to their hideout. Ron Brown and Brian Szady made the trip from South Elgin in pursuit of mashing masterpieces.

"It used to be that beer, more or less, had one sort of taste," Brown said. "To find out that beer is actually a huge variety of things is just incredible."

Weil said response has been fantastic and expansion plans are in the works to keep up with demand.

"If you've got good product, people are coming to see you. We've been very lucky," he said

The tap room is dog friendly, and he delights in seeing young families come toting food and drinks for the little ones. Seeing people pick up crowlers, or extra large cans, to take to parties instead of going to the liquor store also has been gratifying for Weil.

"I'm really proud of the brand we've built so far," he remarked. "It's been fun being on the ground level."

Orange & Brew

Back in Downers Grove, Orange & Brew Bottle Shop is providing a portal to, well, porters, sours and other products from brewers across the area. The 6-month-old business sells packaged products and has a tap room where customers can try styles from multiple local brewers in one sitting.

"This helps kind of narrow down (the choices) for people," said proprietor Eric Schmidt.

The name, as Fighting Illini faithful might surmise, honors Schmidt's University of Illinois alma mater. Upon entering one sees wall of shelves to the right crammed with some 360 bottled or canned beers to go, primarily from Midwest brewers.

"The first two shelves are local, then we go Michigan/Indiana with the next two," he said.

The tap room area features a wraparound counter and stools, with tables on the other side.

"We've got eight draft lines for beer," Schmidt said. "I always try to do a nice, approachable Pilsner and then feature a couple others, trying to randomize the styles."

The small kegs employed empty fast, keeping the clientele on their toes.

"People like that every time they come in, there's something different," he said. "They like the variety."

Jim Slonoff

Despite the Illini theme, don't get Orange & Brew confused for a sports bar.

"We're not a belly-up, watch-four-hours-of-football type of place," he said.

Daily business hours start at noon; it's closed on Mondays.

"Once the trains start coming in around 4 p.m. on Friday, we'll fill up for happy hour," he said. "It's a good, laid-back crowd."

A customer requests a 5-ounce glass of Milkshake Waka Raspberry, an IPA from Energy City Brewing out of Batavia. Perhaps his next pour will be served at the source.

"Were trying to be a place where you can come try some local things, say, 'I really like that' and then go visit that brewery to go try more," Schmidt said. "That's our goal."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean

Email: [email protected]
Phone: 630-323-4422, ext 103


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