The debut of Uncommon Ground's Greenstar, the first organic brewery in Illinois | Bleader

Monday, August 18, 2014

The debut of Uncommon Ground's Greenstar, the first organic brewery in Illinois

Posted By on 08.18.14 at 02:00 PM

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Greenstar's first two beers, an India pale ale and an American pale ale. I'm 80 percent sure that's the IPA on the left.
  • Greenstar's first two beers, an India pale ale and an American pale ale. I'm 80 percent sure that's the IPA on the left.

In 2011 the Green Restaurant Association named Uncommon Ground's two locations the first and second greenest restaurants in the country—and in this case "green" means solar panels and wind power, not homemade composting toilets and fruit flies everywhere. Last month Uncommon Ground raised the bar by launching Greenstar Brewing, certified by Wisconsin-based nonprofit MOSA (the Midwest Organic Services Association) as the first organic brewery in Illinois. It's in a 1,200-square-foot space just north of the Wrigleyville restaurant, whose bar is pouring Greenstar's first two beers, an American pale ale and an India pale ale; by the end of August, Greenstar will be on tap at the Devon location too. With the exception of the occasional festival, you won't be able to drink this stuff anywhere else.

Michael Cameron, who owns Uncommon Ground with his wife, Helen, announced his plans for Greenstar last September, at which point he hoped to have the brewery up and running by December. (Well, we all know how that goes, especially in this town.) His brewmaster is Martin Coad, who'd previously been in charge of the tanks at Hofbräuhaus Chicago in Rosemont, where he was hired in 2012. All of Greenstar's recipes are his.

It turns out the tanks in a certified organic brewery look just like everybody elses tanks.
  • It turns out the tanks in a certified organic brewery look just like everybody else's tanks.

Coad started home brewing eight years ago, and in 2009 he got a job at the Brew & Grow near Kedzie and Addison. While there he soaked up invaluable expertise from a coworker named Larry Coble, who enjoys a reputation as a sort of sage to his fellow beer nerds.

Cameron knows of only a handful of organic breweries (as opposed to organic beers) in the United States—as far as he's aware the nearest is the Grand Rapids Brewing Company in Michigan. Coad says the organic brewing process differs in only a few details from that at a conventional operation; for example, organic standards forbid him from adjusting the pH of his water with phosphoric acid, which many brewers use, so he relies on lactic acid instead.

The big distinction is of course the necessity for organic ingredients, which can present supply problems—the malt situation is pretty good, Coad says, but an organic brewer has to settle for a relatively small palette of hop varieties. At first, he jokes, he thought to himself, "I'm gonna have to make all my beers with Cascade." But as small organic farms (and organic beers) have proliferated—many breweries that aren't themselves certified make a beer or two that is—his options have broadened.

Uncommon Ground co-owner Michael Cameron and Greenstar brewmaster Martin Coad
  • Uncommon Ground coowner Michael Cameron and Greenstar brewmaster Martin Coad

Coad also has access to Uncommon Ground's organic rooftop garden at Devon. One of the beers fermenting during my visit, Willy's Wit (named after Helen Cameron's father, Wilhelm Kreuzer), uses undried or "green" coriander seeds from that garden. The other beer in process (for the time being, Greenstar has just two fermenters) is a Kölsch that he plans to flavor with Uncommon Ground's own black currants for a dessert pairing at the Devon location's seventh annual vegetarian harvest dinner on August 27.

Even Greenstar's tap handles are environmentally friendly—they're made out of fallen timber from Jackson Park. (Cameron says he knows the guy who has the city contract to remove downed trees after storms.) And every Tuesday, Uncommon Ground donates a portion of proceeds from growler sales to a local green nonprofit—August's beneficiary is urban-agriculture group Growing Home, and September's will be Slow Food Chicago. Uncommon Ground's steel growlers cost $30 empty (somewhat alarming if you're used to the price of glass), but filling one with the beer of your choice will cost you a much more customary $12 to $14.

Greenstars seven-barrel brewhouse
  • Greenstar's seven-barrel brewhouse

I did try Greenstar's APA and IPA, of course—if you're a regular reader, you know that I tend to save the actual beer reviews for the end. They're sort of the punch line to the whole setup.

This was another one of those cases where I tried to close my tab when I left and learned that everything had been comped. I don't do this for the free beer, but I'll admit, I didn't insist on paying. I tipped, though, not least because one of the bartenders had shared a great story about the time she met Paul Newman.

Anyway. Despite what American drinkers have been trained to expect upon seeing the words "pale ale," neither of these beers will satisfy a hop fiend—they don't jump out of the glass and slap you around. But Coad clearly learned a thing or two about handling malts from the Germans at Hofbräuhaus. Both recipes call for a portion of Munich malt, the variety that gives a great doppelbock its creamy mouthfeel.

I bet you can tell what goes in these glasses.
  • I bet you can tell what goes in these glasses.

Hint: It comes out when you pull on this thing.
  • Hint: It comes out when you pull on this thing.

The APA (4.6 percent alcohol, $6 per pint) uses flaked oats and English Crystal malt as well as Munich, which together give it a surprisingly silky texture for such a sessionable beer. My glass had an oddly loose, wispy head, but it didn't feel flat. Toasted caramel, peach, and tangerine dominate the aroma, and the flavor opens with honeyed oatmeal, followed by ruby red grapefruit and satsuma. (Maybe it's because I was drinking at 11 in the morning, but this seemed like a very breakfasty beer.) The hop bitterness is gentle and astringent, like citrus pith. I even taste something green and floral and faintly tart, which I was very pleased with myself for finally putting my finger on—it reminds me of soursop, a tropical fruit related to the cherimoya (aka "custard apple").

The IPA (7.5 percent alcohol, $7 per pint) was better carbonated on my visit—its effervescence is almost fluffy, which works well with its more luxurious body. Richer malts, like burnt sugar and toffee, balance a more aggressive, resiny bitterness, but similar to the APA, this beer has a mellow hop character that's mostly fruit: on the nose it's like orange, Meyer lemon, and a little cedar, while on the palate it's more like tangerine, red grape, grilled pineapple, and juniper. The IPA is obviously the hoppier of the pair, but in both cases the malts do at least as much as the hops to distinguish the beer—a choice I'm down with, given that I seem to be developing a thing for ESBs.

Now this is definitely the IPA.
  • Now this is definitely the IPA.

The APA and IPA are pouring directly from the brewery's twin bright tanks, and Coad hopes to get as many as ten Greenstar taps going at once by colonizing the conventional keg system in the restaurant's basement, which is currently occupied by beers from the likes of Revolution, Great Lakes, and Tighthead. I feel pretty safe saying there will be much more to see here in the months to come.

Coad likes to play metal while he works, but because I had to get through our interview in a hurry (he and Cameron were hustling out to Oak Park to rep Greenstar at a festival there), I didn't manage to ask him about his favorite bands. Fortunately, my fallback technique—stupid wordplay—worked out fine. Meshuggah have a song called "Organic Shadows" on their 2002 full-length Nothing, for instance. If you hang out with me at all, you've probably seen me wear a T-shirt with this album cover on it.

I went looking for something that isn't 12 years old, and thought about posting "Fertile Green" from High on Fire's 2012 LP De Vermis Mysteriis. I decided to go even newer, though.

Trap Them's "Organic Infernal" is on Blissfucker, which came out in June. And, uh, pardon my language.

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

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