Monday, March 31, 2014

At long last Penrose blesses Chicago with its beer

Posted By on 03.31.14 at 02:00 PM

Penrose Brewings first three year-round beers: Proto Gradus, P-2, and Navette
  • Jeff Cagle
  • Penrose Brewing's first three year-round beers: Proto Gradus, P-2, and Navette
Penrose Brewing of Geneva, Illinois, threw a Chicago launch party last Monday at a lovely Humboldt Park studio space shared by Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting. Because that was a week ago, Karl Klockars at Time Out and Chuck Sudo at Chicagoist have beaten me to the punch, and their posts both include a fair amount of the brewery's backstory. So I can skip that stuff, can't I?

Well, I'm not gonna. Maybe y'all just come here to watch me make with the crazy adjectives, but you're gonna get some "journalism" too. Penrose's opening is among the year's most anticipated developments in the local craft-beer community. Even before its founders went public with their plans last March on an episode of Hop Cast, rumors had been kicking around—probably because the two of them started planning in December 2010.

At that point both Penrose principals, Eric Hobbs and Tom Korder, were still at Goose Island. Hobbs, who'd grown up in Geneva, worked in sales, and Korder was an innovation manager at the brewery—alongside John Laffler, who's now with Off Color. The Hop Cast guys joke that he was Goose's "Laffler wrangler," and the friendly teasing goes both ways: the gin-barreled cherry-brett version of Off Color's Troublesome that won a silver medal in the Fruit Beer category at FOBAB last fall was also known as "Tom Korder Is a Jerk."

Penrose's brewery is gearing up as you read this, and because Hobbs and Korder found a great deal on a used 40-barrel brewhouse, it has much more capacity than they'd originally expected. They've got four 40-barrel fermenters already, with three more on the way. Penrose will focus on Belgian-inspired recipes, like Chicago's much smaller Une Annee, and as soon as it's able it'll start playing around with barrel aging and wild microorganisms (it'll have an in-house lab to do cell counts—you've gotta keep close tabs on those potentially ruinous little beasties). Much like Off Color, the brewery favors sessionable, low-alcohol beers over palate-wrecking whoppers—great news now that, at least in theory, it's supposed to be getting warm out.

The Penrose tap room in Geneva opened on Tuesday, March 18. Big thanks to its manager, Jeff Cagle, for all the photos in this post.
  • Jeff Cagle
  • The Penrose taproom in Geneva opened on Tuesday, March 18. Big thanks to its manager, Jeff Cagle, for all the photos in this post.
As Hobbs told Mash Tun in issue four, "The hardest thing about brewing is doing something very simple, very clean, making it well, and being consistent." Korder, who has a background in mechanical engineering, started brewing professionally at Anheuser-Busch, so it's safe to say he's had "simple, clean, and consistent" beaten into him from day one—and even the most egregious beer snob will admit, if only under duress, that A-B macro lagers are formidable object lessons when it comes to crisp, drinkable beers whose balanced, unflashy flavor profiles leave absolutely no room for error.

P-2 Belgian-inspired pale ale
  • Jeff Cagle
  • P-2 Belgian-inspired pale ale
At the Good Beer Hunting party, Penrose poured three such beers: the Belgian-inspired pale ale P-2 (so called because it was Korder's second stab at the style), the Belgian-inspired black ale Navette, and the Belgian-inspired single Proto Gradus. A fourth year-rounder, a saison called Devoir, is on deck.

P-2 is a modest 5.4 percent alcohol, despite an addition of Belgian candi sugar. It's slightly hazy thanks to the wheat in its grain bill, which also gives its malt profile a mellow creaminess on the nose—though when you taste the beer, it's more like a faintly peppery water cracker. The hops in P-2 include Galaxy, Cascade, and Bramling Cross, an English variety that Korder told TOC tastes like black currants.

Maybe I just don't know from black currants, but I smell mostly peach, pineapple, and papaya, with a bit of juniper underneath. On the palate the beer opens with a flash of gentle sweetness like very ripe cantaloupe, which gives way immediately to bitter resin and an astringency like a guava that's just a day or two too young. It hits you with lush fruit, then moves to a crisp, dry finish in a clear, quick, dramatic sweep. If you can resist taking another sip just to feel that again, you've got more willpower than I do.

Navette Belgian-inspired black ale
  • Jeff Cagle
  • Navette Belgian-inspired black ale
At 6 percent alcohol, Navette is the strongest of the three. It's brewed with toasted buckwheat, coriander, and Aramis hops, which the Internet seems to think impart notes of citrus, herbs, flowers, straw, and earth. It smells like baker's chocolate, chicory coffee, cardamom, and whole wheat toast with a film of orange marmalade—though I get hints of other fruits too, mostly dried black cherry, dried apricot, and raisin.

As you'd expect from a beer this color, Navette is roasty and a little bitter—strangely, I'm also convinced I can taste toasted pepitas dusted with curry powder. I can't pick out the coriander, but as Korder said on Hop Cast, "If you can immediately tell what spice it is, you're probably using too much of it." There's also cocoa and pumpernickel, plus some subdued fruit—mostly more dried apricot. This is the fullest-bodied beer of the three, and the only one that feels warming, rather than cooling.

Proto Gradus Belgian-inspired single
  • Jeff Cagle
  • Proto Gradus Belgian-inspired single
Proto Gradus (the Penrose folks say "grah-dus," not "gray-dus") uses the same Ardennes yeast as Navette, but that's about all they have in common. This 4 percent "single" has a beautiful fruity, floral aroma that wraps its gentle green-hay hop bloom in orange blossom, white grape, peach, and cedar. It has a surprisingly silky texture for such a light-bodied beer, and it finishes dry, like P-2—there's something cool and mineral about it, like holding a smooth river pebble in your mouth. But it's what happens before that satisfyingly clean finish that makes Proto Gradus special. Tangerine, mango, and lemongrass tangle with delicate tartness and green-banana astringency, both of which play well with the honeyed-biscuit malts.

Penrose plans to use Proto Gradus as the base beer for its sour program, which sounds like a smashing idea to me. I can also see it becoming a go-to summer session beer around these parts, where it'll be in great company—Chicagoans can already choose among Metropolitan's Zwickel Flywheel, Off Color's Troublesome, Half Acre's Pony Pilsner, Two Brothers' Sidekick, and Church Street's Heavenly Helles, to name just a few.

For the time being you can only drink Penrose beers on tap, though bottles (four-packs and large format) may arrive as early as July. So far I've seen or heard tell of Penrose pouring at Northdown, the Bad Apple, Jerry's Andersonville, the Hopleaf, Owen & Engine, Longman & Eagle, and Fountainhead. On Monday, April 14, Small Bar Division hosts a Penrose pop-up featuring P-2, Navette, Proto Gradus, and Hereafter, a strong golden Belgian-style ale with pears and sage that's brewed in collaboration with Perennial (whose cofounder Phil Wymore has a history of his own at Goose Island).

Penrose's facility in Geneva also has a one-barrel pilot system that's turning out experiments and pilot batches unique to its tap room, and Karl Klockars at Time Out had the wherewithal to write down a few: a gose, a blackberry saison, and a raspberry dubbel. (I was taking notes last Monday, but they weren't always the right notes.) This might call for a trip out west on the Metra.

And just like that, we've gone from pleasant, accessible beer to unpleasant, inaccessible metal. I've been a fan of Chicago extreme-metal deviants Lord Mantis for years—I reviewed their second full-length, Pervertor, in March 2012, and then awarded them a spot in that year's Best of Chicago issue.

So I'm thrilled to report that Lord Mantis will release a new album next month—well, maybe "thrilled" is the wrong way to describe my feelings about such suffocatingly hateful music, but I'm definitely going to listen to it a lot. Death Mask comes out on Profound Lore on April 29.

I've frequently remarked, to no one in particular, that extreme-metal bands would do well to remember the importance of character in their vocals. Too often I get the impression that somebody's growling or shrieking just because, you know, that's how you're supposed to sound in this sort of music. That's not evil; it's as bland as waiting-room wallpaper.

But listen to "Body Choke." That motherfucker is upset about something. He sounds like you've just impaled him on a spear, and now he's gonna pull it through his own body so he can get close enough to you to tear off your lower jaw with his bare hands and throw it under your car.

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.

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