Entrepreneurs pour passion into brewing
Microbreweries in Darien, Willowbrook and Woodridge join flourishing landscape
Last updated 7/26/2019 at 3:39pm | View PDF
The number of microbreweries in Illinois has more than quadrupled in seven years, from 54 in 2011 to 229 in operation last year.
Chicago is home to dozens of them, but Hinsdaleans don't have to drive that far to taste a quality craft brew.
This article - the second in a three-part series - highlights three options, all within a 12- to 20-minute drive of Hinsdale.
Black Horizon Brewing Co.
Charles St. Clair walks out from behind the bar at Black Horizon Brewing Co. with a beer in hand. He's meeting one of his responsibilities as co-founder: quality control.
"I make sure the St. Baldus tastes like St. Baldus," he says, enjoying a sip of the Belgian-style quad aged in a rye whiskey barrel.
St. Clair, one of three co-founders of the Willowbrook microbrewery, used to be a "vodka guy." Now he and partners Kevin Baldus and Alex Stankus share a love of beer with each other and their customers.
Stankus, the head brewer, draws on the years he spent in the gourmet food industry and his experience as a homebrewer.
"I slowly took over the kitchen at my house," he said. "My family was a little hesitant at first, because I was taking over all the space, but soon there was free beer, so they didn't complain too much about that."
Black Horizon's beer list offers a mix of popular styles, like the Horizon IPA, and traditional beers, like the Tales of Old Vienna ale.
"Our goal and philosophy was to push ourselves to constantly make different beer styles and improve upon ourselves," Stankus said.
A glance around the taproom offers a glimpse into the owners' personalities. The bar is fashioned from old Riverside-Brookfield High School bleachers, where Baldus teaches. The comic books that line a shelf above the bar are owned by St. Clair and Baldus, and the Nintendo 64 belonged to Stankus for years before it arrived in the taproom.
Baldus said he enjoys hearing directly from customers about products he and his partners are making on the premises.
"We do often get surprised on what beers take off and are really popular," he said, pointing to Stealing Sunshine (a sour) as a recent example. "We never find out until we release it in the taproom."
St. Clair said there's just one complaint when all your beers are good ones.
"A lot of people just come in and are like, 'The only bad thing about this place is I have a hard time deciding,' " he said.
Miskatonic Brewing Co.
Josh Mowry and John Wykiewicz had 15 years of experience working for places like Goose Island and Two Brothers before they joined forces to open Miskatonic Brewing Co. in Darien.
Their clout put them in a position to have an agreement with a distributor before they opened their doors in July 2015.
"It's really unusual to have a distributor sign on with you before you have a liquid to try," Mowry said. "They were aware of what we could do from a quality control standpoint and beer standpoint."
After a year, the company was ready to start canning. Sales are now about 55 to 60 percent packaged beer and 40 to 45 percent draft.
The packaging must appeal to the buyer, Mowry said, and he gives credit to his graphic design artist, who is "righteously good." But he doesn't like the beauty pageant aspect of selling beer.
"I think that I'm someone who cares deeply about the quality of liquid coming out of a brewery," he said. "It can be frustrating when marketing is the most important thing, but I think it's true marketing is the most important thing."
Brewing is a constant tension between consistency and creativity, Mowry said. The brewery produces a full run (that's 30 full-size kegs and 200 cases) of beer every month and a new beer every four to five weeks.
"Probably 40 percent of our volume is stuff we're making over and over again," he said.
The industry is amazingly inclusive, Mowry said, nothing that four other breweries gave him their business plans to guide him as he wrote his own.
"We all got here through a lot of help from a lot of people, and we all remember that and we all try to pay it forward," he said.
Skeleton Key Brewing Co.
A decade ago Emily Szopa found a home brewing kit under the Christmas tree. She, her brother, John, and her boyfriend (now husband), Paul Slayton, were intrigued.
"We just started home brewing and fell in love with it immediately and started doing it every
week," Paul said.
The three viewed opening Skeleton Key Brewing Co. as a way to tap into their creative sides. They also saw it is a way to help others open their own businesses.
"Originally, we wanted to open a brewery where we could help home brewers bring that product to market," Emily Slayton said. Liquor licensing laws prevented it.
But the idea evolved into the Brewery Incubator, a 12-week program that invites an aspiring brewer to come in and work with the team.
"The two guys who came through our program first just opened their brewery (Garage Band Brewing) in Plainfield three months ago," Emily said.
The three aren't out to foster more competition, said John, who's also the head brewer. But they do want others to understand the challenges and risks involved in starting such a business.
"Were here to say, 'You can do it - just understand how difficult it is going to be,' " he said.
Despite the proliferation of microbreweries, John believes there always will be room for another neighborhood spot to enjoy a pint with friends.
"I feel there will never be any shortage of space for things like that," he said.
The three were very conscientious about creating a space where customers - and they themselves - would want to hang out. They've been surprised by just how many regulars they've cultivated.
"It's almost become like a family to us," John said.
Their beer list features classic styles with a twist, such as the pale ale that includes spruce tips Emily harvested herself after earning her foraging certificate.
"It's as local as local gets," she said.
And when they're looking to add a flavor, they try to avoid the obvious ingredient. The maple taste in their Scotch ale doesn't come from syrup, but from candy cap mushrooms.
"John has to come up with new recipes all the time," Emily said. "If you're not challenging yourself to find new ways of looking at things, I think you get burned out pretty fast."