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Craft beer from the inside: A Gchat 

To get a feel for the business, talk to the people doing the work.

Jess Straka of Metropolitan Brewing and John Laffler of Off Color test out the railings at Off Color’s brand-new brew house.

Jess Straka of Metropolitan Brewing and John Laffler of Off Color test out the railings at Off Color’s brand-new brew house.

Andrea Bauer

[Reader Bar Issue]I follow a lot of beer people on Twitter, and because I've had a lot of fun watching Off Color cofounder John Laffler and Metropolitan general manager Jess Straka sparring with each other online, I invited them for a Gchat about beer. Straka started at Metropolitan as a volunteer in March 2009, just a few months after Doug and Tracy Hurst launched their lager-only operation. Metropolitan plans to open a new brewery somewhere in the city this year, which will initially triple production.

Laffler interned at Metropolitan in its early days, side by side with his partner in Off Color, former Two Brothers brewer Dave Bleitner. As a Goose Island "innovation brewer" Laffler was elbow-deep in their famed barrel-aging program, but since 2009 he's been planning for Off Color. Two weeks ago he and Bleitner assembled their brew house in a space near Pulaski and Armitage, and last weekend they debuted four collaborations at a pop-up bar at Black Rock. Off Color plans to start filling kegs in April, then sell six- and four-packs; its first year-round offerings, in keeping with its stated mission to make beers nobody has heard of, will be a gose and a kottbusser.

Philip Montoro: My first "favorite" beer, when I first learned that beer could be something to enjoy, was Black Butte Porter in 1994 in Eugene, Oregon.

Jess Straka: Sounds like a lovely one to get started on. What about you, John? Was Leinie's your first craft beer? Berry Weiss or Red?

John Laffler: I drank a shit-ton of Huber in college. Of course Huber is now Minhas.

PM: Oh God, that used to be the official blackout beer at the Bottle.

JL: Bought by Brazilian Canadians.

PM: Brazadians?

JL: So Jess, do you want to talk about all the new nanos, or do you want me to? There's a lot of new breweries and that's awesome, but the current rate is unsustainable. And there's more producers than outlets growing right now.

PM: So you think not all these startups can survive and mature?

JL: It's really cool to see outsiders throw their hats in the ring. On the one hand there's a creativity and outside perspective from not coming within the industry and cutting your teeth somewhere else. But then, someone has to teach you how to clean a tank, how to use caustic safely, how not to burn yourself or hurt someone. And it's professionals that know how to do that. Home brewing does not prepare you for that.

JS: When I moved into Chicago proper, it was so hard to find good beer. I went to the Map Room a lot to try new things. It's kinda great to walk into a bar and expect craft beer now. Except when they don't maintain clean lines—then bars just ruin it for everyone. (Keep your lines clean, bro!)

PM: As an outsider, I get the impression that the craft-brewing community in Chicago is pretty collegial.

JL: Sure, it is.

JS: For sure.

PM: Lots of collaborations, lots of shared volunteers even.

JL: But it's factioning a lot more than it ever has before.

JS: There are so many more people involved now, John. We're into the third wave.

PM: What were the first and second waves? Is this like ska?

JS: I think of first as Goose Island and Two Brothers, second as Metropolitan and Half Acre.

JL: Revolution and Haymarket came in after that. No one had opened a brewery in Chicago before Metro and Half Acre in, what, ten years.

PM: So John, you think there's a bit of a bubble now?

JL: Absolutely—here in Chicago, in the U.S., in Europe.

PM: What happens when it bursts?

JL: A lot of people have a lot of skin invested in these things. If I fail I'm screwed.

JS: Failure is not an option. And you won't, because you guys have been working your asses off, John. I should be railing you, but I can't help it.

JL: Yeah, so I spent a lot of time and effort learning our craft and developing a business plan to mitigate that risk. Some people haven't done that.

JS: Gary Gulley of Panic is taking his time. He's a home brewer associated with Square Kegs in Lincoln Square. He interned for Metropolitan last winter.

JL: Good brewer.

JS: Solid. Has a family. Is putting everything on the line for his dream.

JL: Sorry, but relying on Kickstarter to fund you is not a sustainable business plan. It's great for the people that get free money, though.

PM: That's how the Pipeworks guys capitalized. Well, KS and matching funds from investors.

JS: John can speak to that more personally, but Doug and Tracy have definitely instilled in me a very serious appreciation for starting a business and starting it so you succeed.

PM: Have either of you had enough of the Pipeworks beers to have an opinion on their talents? I've been kinda crushing on a few of their beers, to be honest.

JL: I like their beers. Good friends of mine.

JS: I love Ninja vs. Unicorn. I appreciate their creativity. Definitely can't keep up with all the releases though!

PM: Their approach seems unusual, and I wanted to bring that up: a bazillion different styles, rather than a stable core lineup.

JL: That's true of Mikkel [Borg Bergsø] and Jeppe [Jarnit-Bjergsø] too.

PM: Who's Jeppe?

JL: Evil Twin. Mikkel's twin brother.

PM: It seems like having lots of styles and constantly experimenting puts you at risk of having lots of beer just not selling. Some of those experiments will fail, right?

JL: They should! Experiments should fail. If they don't you're not trying hard enough.

PM: Sure, but if you experiment with stuff you're trying to sell, it seems like it could cost you a lot of money.

JL: Sure. There's a balance there.

JS: That's a risk.

JL: And the smaller you are the more beer you have to sell.

PM: It seems like Pipeworks (and perhaps Mikkeller) are experimenting on store shelves, rather than in the privacy of their breweries . . .

JL: At Goose Island I got to fuck around and didn't have to release anything, so all the bad beer I made didn't go anywhere. If you're smaller that's not true. It's ballsy.

JS: Not coming from business, it's interesting to see how folks are able to open up and do what they do and have fun doing it.

PM: Smaller breweries have to release almost everything, right? They can't afford to have no return on a batch?

JL: Depends on cash flow. I've seen beer put out that by no means should have been. More capitalization protects you from that risk. I'm budgeted for two failed batches right now.

PM: Is it just economics that causes so many small brewers to use only large-format bottles, instead of six-packs or cans?

JL: Oh, God yeah. Packaging is extremely expensive.

JS: Warehousing bottles and cans can be an issue. We only have room for so many skids of glass.

JL: What's the least amount of cans you can get now? What, half a semi load if you're lucky?

PM: Why are six-packs generally cheaper than bombers by the ounce, even for the same beer, if the packaging is so expensive?

JS: That's an excellent question.

JL: Bombers are overpriced. They are used to signify quality and specialty. If you put all your beer in them, it destroys that. Unless all your beer is special. And if you don't have any bottling equipment and do it all by hand, why would you put your beer in 12-ounce bottles?

JS: Oh man, the Meheen.

PM: Meheen?

JS: A manufacturer of bottling machines.

JL: Metro has a four-head. Does, what, a case every 90 seconds?

JS: Nineteen bottles a minute, on a good day.

JL: So, fancy beer bars or 4 AM 22-year-old hot spots? I think Jess and I differ on this.

JS: The Continental isn't too young these days. The Owl is. Sometimes.

PM: The Continental is bedraggled.

JS: Geography! It's near my house!

PM: That is a busted-ass scene!

JS: The Owl used to be stumbling distance from my last place.

PM: Hey, for serious for a sec, is there anything distinctive about the beer scene in Chicago, as far as y'all know? Do you know enough about other cities to say?

JS: I don't.

JL: It's just the people.

JS: Drunk John is a real trip.

PM: I've seen a lot of John's napkin drawings on Twitter, that's true.

JL: Putting them up at the pop-up bar, by the way.

JS: I love my Chicago beer peeps.

PM: Seriously? Like on the walls?

JS: That's awesome, John.

JL: It's my first art show. So, Jess. Do you see craft beer in Chicago maturing or being reinvented by newcomers?

JS: Good question.

JL: And you don't get to cheat and say both. This isn't like when we play Scrabble. (Jess cheats at Scrabble.)

JS: You aren't supposed to tell anyone about that! I can use my werds! Anyway, maturing. Growing.

JL: I think it's at a division.

JS: Growth and change are part of maturing.

JL: There's definitely maturing in a way.

JS: I also agree with John.

JL: There are folks who have been in things for a while and are organically at a place where it makes sense for them to spread their wings. Hopleaf adding a second bar, for instance.

PM: Oh my God, it's so nice to be able to sit down in the Hopleaf on a Saturday night.

JL: Isn't it! There's also a whole set of new people coming in, and that can be really exciting. They shake things up, and that should happen.

PM: Who are the new kids? Atlas, Begyle? Four Paws? I can't keep up.

JL: Exactly. Craft beer isn't stagnant. Old Chicago, new Chicago, middle Chicago, east Chicago.

PM: Isn't Old Chicago what they called the ruined city in Buck Rogers?

JL: Ha! If we as industry can't keep up, how can consumers?

PM: By the way, kinda tragic what happened to 312 when it moved to New York.

JL: True.

JS: Can we not talk about it. (Or let's!)

PM: But on the other hand, Bud apparently isn't watered down. So there's that.

JS: I think it's cool that consumers from three states tried to sue Budweiser.

JL: That was stupid. If you don't like it, fine. But a frivolous lawsuit?

PM: I approve of the sentiment, but it was a poorly chosen battle!

JS: Their shitty beer will be their own unraveling.

JL: If the TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] starts checking ABV [alcohol by volume] in bottles, it's us, not Anheuser-Busch, that get fucked.

JS: Truth. Look at you, always one step ahead.

JL: So yeah, go ahead and draw attention. Everyone wants to piss on AB, and trust me, I have more issue with them than almost anyone, and for better reason. But are we thinking about what's good for beer, or how we make a cheap fucking headline?

JS: You are so hotheaded! This must be why the ladies love you!

John: A 0.3 percent ABV variance is hard as shit to hit.

PM: It's like applying industrial process rules to, say, Black Dog Gelato, which say you can't use fresh strawberries.

JL: Yup. What do you do if a tank comes in under ABV? Dump it? Take up two tanks hoping the second is over so you can blend it down?

PM: I guess you could wait for some water to evaporate out of it!

JL: Ha! Well played.

PM: You both seem to think the Chicago beer scene might get a little more competitive with such an explosion of new players.

JL: It will.

JS: I like it when we can all get along and enjoy each other's accomplishments.

JL: Just hope it won't be anything like SoCal.

PM: What happened there?

JL: More mature market with a number of bigger and growing producers. Don't you love seeing Stone and Lagunitas snipe at each other?

PM: Do you think the fact that they grew up in the same market might be why their bombers are some of the cheapest you can find at most craft-beer stores, though? There could be a plus side to the rivalry.

JL: I believe strongly in competition. My best work has usually been done out of spite.

PM: Ha!

JL: It's cheap because they know how their businesses work. A $5 Hop Stoopid bomber is a marvel.

PM: I guess the economies of scale must factor into it too.

JL: For sure. They know what they're doing.

PM: For the sake of my wallet I hope somebody in Chicago figures that out too! Only Two Brothers seems to be in the ballpark with their large-format bottles. Surely it's no coincidence that they're a large, established brewery.

JL: That's why when I see a new brewery planning a supersmall brewery making superhoppy beers for a lot of money with hops they can't get at the same time Lagi is opening up a brewery bigger than every brew house in Illinois put together I can't help but be worried for them.

PM: Yeah. I've been looking forward to the Lagunitas tap room, but that brewery—I can't imagine how it'll change the ecosystem here.

JL: Radically.

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