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An in-the-works brewery goes off the grid 

New Chicago Brewing Company confronts a brave new world of crafting beer

Samuel Evans (seated) and Jesse Edwin Evans are building the brewery of the future.

Samuel Evans (seated) and Jesse Edwin Evans are building the brewery of the future.

Jeffrey Marini

The first time brothers Jesse Edwin Evans and Samuel Evans show me the empty, echoing rooms that will house their in-the-works brewery, New Chicago Brewing Company, they keep getting lost. Wandering through an underground concrete labyrinth, Jesse says, "Let's see if this goes through to the other section." It doesn't. "I took a wrong turn," he admits. "Now we're below the—we're above the—OK, we'll just go back. Somehow we just missed the tilapia farm."

The 15,000 square feet of space the Evanses are turning into a brewery is part of the Plant, a former meatpacking facility in Back of the Yards that industrial designer John Edel is refashioning into a vertical farm (it was the subject of a story in the Reader last year). In addition to the brewery, the 93,500-square-foot building houses 312 Aquaponics (which pairs a tilapia farm with hydroponic growing beds for edible plants including greens and herbs), the Living Well Brewery (which makes kombucha tea), and Green Submarine Pickles. Greenhouses, a living wall, and a shared kitchen are in the works.

The idea is to turn the whole compound into a zero-waste facility. The heat for brewing New Chicago's beer will come from an anaerobic digester, which uses bacteria to convert organic waste—produced in the building and by neighboring food businesses—to biogas (and sludge, which becomes fertilizer). The gas is then cleaned, compressed, and run through a high-pressure turbine (repurposed from a military fighter jet engine) to create electricity and 850-degree steam. The brewery, in turn, will produce spent grains—which can be used to feed the tilapia, grow mushrooms, and feed the digester—and carbon dioxide—which will be piped to the plants in the building to make them grow faster.

click to enlarge MATT BERGSTROM

"The project is about closing loops," Edel says. For that reason, he's looking carefully at the energy needs and waste outputs of each potential occupant. He wants to demonstrate that even the most energy-intensive businesses can operate at net zero in a sustainable way. That's part of the reason brewing is important to the Plant: "It's an energy-intensive activity, it's a waste-intensive activity, and it's a food activity. There are no toxins; it's pure, clean stuff, and 100 percent of the waste from brewing is useful." Once the digester's up and running, he says, they'll be selling some power back to ComEd—but "they don't let you sell them much, because you get classed as a power plant pretty quickly."

Vertical farms and aquaponics facilities already exist in the U.S., though they're still relatively rare, but the Plant could very well be the first place to create a series of loops that includes an anaerobic digester, food businesses, brewing, fish farming, and plant growing. Most anaerobic digesters are used on large farms to manage animal waste, though some breweries are also implementing them for wastewater. Anheuser-Busch began using one at its New Jersey facility in 1985 to turn wastewater into biogas and now has digesters at ten of its 12 breweries in the U.S; Sierra Nevada and New Belgium both installed similar digesters around 2002 because their wastewater was overwhelming the municipal water treatment facilities in their respective cities.

Magic Hat Brewing Company began using a digester last year that, like the one the Plant will have, breaks down spent grains as well as wastewater and converts them to natural gas that becomes fuel for the brewing process. Steve Hill, the social networking manager of Magic Hat's parent company North American Breweries, says that the digester will save the brewery, which produces an annual 155,000 barrels, about $200,000 per year.

Anheuser-Busch's digesters cost $5 to $10 million apiece to build, according to Gene Bocis, who oversees utility and wastewater systems for A-B's North American zone; Magic Hat's was $4 million (though an outside company owns it, so the brewery didn't have to front the money). The costs are scalable to some extent—Edel estimates that the Plant's medium-size digester will cost $2.1 million—but even a small digester is likely to be out of the price range of most new breweries. Doug Hurst, who opened Metropolitan Brewing in Ravenswood three years ago, says he thinks most craft breweries are fairly green-minded, but "this isn't a huge moneymaking business so it's hard to justify a large initial outlay as a small start-up."

Still, Hurst thinks it would be nice to be able to do something more productive with his spent grains than send them to a landfill. Some brewers give them to farmers to feed to their cattle, but Hurst hasn't found anyone who's willing to drive to the city to pick them up.

A facility that produces essentially no net waste is hard to fathom. The city's waste removal companies certainly didn't buy it when Edel told them the Plant wouldn't be needing their Dumpsters. One representative of Allied Waste was particularly aggressive, Edel says: "I told him at the start, this is a zero-waste project; we're not going to be putting much in there."

This is not Edel's first go-round with converting an abandoned building into a do-good shared facility. In 2002 he bought a derelict former paint warehouse in an area of Bridgeport sometimes referred to as "Little Beirut" and gradually turned it into Bubbly Dynamics, or more formally, the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center (the subject of a 2005 Reader cover story). The building is now occupied by artists, bicycle builders and mechanics, and a tutoring program, with a waiting list of people hoping to get in.

The building that houses the Plant used to be Peer Foods, one of the last major meatpacking plants in Chicago until the operation moved to Indiana five years ago. Lots of stuff got left behind in the move, from conveyor belts to old desks (with pictures of the Virgin Mary and the Pope still hanging above them) to drums of barbecue sauce. "This is the kind of stuff that's still left over after nuclear holocausts," Jesse jokes, pointing out dozens of enormous containers of hickory-smoked beef stroganoff mix in the brewery space's back rooms. "All of this—the entire contents of this room—is going into the digester. All of this is going to be eaten by bacteria and turned into power that's going to heat our kettles."

The Evans brothers are planning to produce about 12,000 barrels of beer in their brewery's first year, mostly bottled in bombers, but some in six-packs, and distributed only within the city limits to bars and liquor stores. Their brew also will be available in the 2,500-square-foot tasting room that they're planning, where they hope to serve some of the food being made in the building.

The fact that the building's occupants have decided to reuse everything possible has made the cleanup a longer and more difficult process than it might otherwise be. Volunteers the Evanses enlisted through Facebook and Twitter (in exchange for free beer and pizza) "cleaned and organized every little nut and bolt and tool," Samuel says. "It would have been much easier to put a Dumpster out back and lob it all in there." Instead, everything went into a storage room that's going to be the maintenance shop for the whole building.

The brothers think that the free beer helps bring people out, but it's curiosity about the project that's the real draw. "A lot of people are interested in learning about our sustainability practices," Samuel says. "A lot of people are home brewers. A lot of people just want to see how an odd process like what we're doing works."

It's going to be a relatively long process: the Evanses have been at work on New Chicago Brewing for a year and a half now and don't expect to open until March 2012. In the meantime, they're gradually acquiring equipment and licenses and experimenting with recipes. They're committed to making the hoppy, strong style of beer typical of the west coast that they fell in love with while living in California.

Both brothers grew up and went to school in Champaign; in 2004, Jesse, who's now 31, moved to Oakland. A couple of years later Samuel, now 27, joined him, and they started a web design company called 30 Proof, which they still run, and began dabbling with brewing beer in their backyard. From there, the brothers launched a beer website. "That was our ploy to get free beer at first," Jesse says. As they got into it, though, they started doing interviews with beer luminaries including Anchor Steam's Fritz Maytag and Dean Biersch, one of the founders of Gordon Biersch Brewing Company. They found even the most established brewers to be very accessible and welcoming. "We could call up any of them and they'd get excited," Samuel says. "Not because of who we are, but because of who they are."

Meanwhile, they expanded from home brewing to contract brewing for Whole Foods and local independent liquor stores and grocery stores under the name Lucky Hand (the brand still exists, distributed by a partner who bought out the brothers when they moved to Chicago). The two main beers they made were what Jesse refers to as "1850s beers," styles developed in the 19th century, like California Common—also referred to as "steam beer," although Anchor Brewing has trademarked that term. The brothers used all organic ingredients (though they never pursued the organic certification) and delivered most of their kegs by bike.

Building a brewery in the Plant is a big step up, and it brings some complications. Because of the way they're planning to heat the beer and capture the carbon dioxide from the brewing process, the Evanses need custom-built equipment, which Samuel estimates will make their start-up costs about 25 percent higher than they would be otherwise. "We can't just order inexpensive Chinese equipment from overseas and, 16 weeks later, start making beer—which is a much more simple way of doing it, rather than building everything. We're working with the farm managers here on the design of it, we're working with a lot of our brewer friends, and we're making up a lot of it as we go along, too."

Samuel points out that the kombucha brewery in the building, which is already in production mode, has had issues with the aluminum pipes that capture its carbon dioxide falling apart, apparently in reaction to the gas. "Whenever you're doing something that's new and somewhat untested, you run into a lot of problems like that," he says.

Pete Crowley, who opened Haymarket Pub & Brewery in the former Barney's Market Club last year, says that building a brewery in an old building can complicate matters too. In his case, he had to bring several parts of the building up to code. And the inspection process can be dicey. "Even though there's eight, ten breweries here, there are lots of inspectors that have never seen a brewing tank," Crowley notes. He says his inspector "didn't understand what fermentation was; she was worried about this yeast being in there, and it took a lot of explanation for her to be OK with what we were doing."

But if the brothers are expecting problems to crop up along the way, they're also anticipating an eventual payoff—and not just the feeling-good-about-the-environment kind. Once they're up and running, their production costs will be "insanely lower—like 75 percent lower," Samuel estimates. Some of the ingredients for the beer itself will come from the Plant, too, though the Evanses still will be buying the vast majority. They're planning a fresh hop beer from several varieties they intend to grow along the wall outside the brewery. "The full amount of production hops can't come off of this site," says Jesse. "But when you make beer with those full-leafed cones right after they've been harvested, it's an amazingly different experience."

Beyond that, neither will say much of anything about the exact type of beer they plan to make, except that it won't be anything like what they made in California. "We're starting over completely, taking the opportunity to make the beers that we've always wanted to make," Jesse says.

Besides their own beers, the brothers are planning to devote three barrels in their tasting room to experimental beers made in the New Chicago facility by home brewers and aspiring brewers. If a beer does well they'll bottle and sell it, too. They hope to help launch other breweries in Chicago, a place they believe could sustain a much bigger craft beer market than it currently does. "We want to provide incubation support for nanobreweries. Existing breweries here in Chicago have gone out of their way to give us advice and help us out, so we would like to continue doing that," Jesse says.

Crowley's reaction to the Evanses' brewery supports the brothers' assertion that the local craft brewing scene is a welcoming—and, ideally, growing—one. "Any new brewery in Chicago is great," he says. "We're all excited about the expanding beer scene in the city." 

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