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Omnivorous: Hops Dreams

After ten years and innumerable roadblocks, Handlebar's Josh Deth has finally broken ground on his brewpub.

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A week before Christmas Josh Deth was at the bank, closing on his construction loan, when the phone rang. It was the insurance agent for the tenant vacating the two-story, yellow brick building Deth, owner of the Handlebar, had bought to house his new venture, Revolution Brewing Company. If all goes according to plan the brewery and bar should be up and running by the fall. Right now the space is 12,500 square feet of raw potential, the empty main floor dominated by a gleaming 15-bbl brew kettle—the lower wall of which, the insurance agent was sorry to inform Deth, the moving crew had just punctured with a forklift.

The damage—annoying, but mostly cosmetic—was hardly the first setback in what at this point has been a ten-year odyssey. Deth's been making beer for more than a decade—at home, at Logan Square's short-lived Golden Prairie Brewing Company, and at Goose Island's Fulton Street operation. He came up with Revolution's punning name and logo back in 1998 and quit his job at Goose Island in 2000 because he thought he had a line on the Milwaukee Avenue building that's now home to the Paramount Room. That plan didn't work out—unsurprisingly, adds Deth, as "I didn't have a lot of money, or a lot of experience running a business, or any financing."

Instead, in 2003, he went on to open the Handlebar with his wife, Krista Sahakian, and several friends. Along the way he also picked up a master's degree from UIC's urban planning school, which led to a stint running the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce. By 2007, he says, the Handlebar was at a place "where it was no longer a major cash or time drain," and he was restless. "I'd been at the chamber of commerce for two years. And one of the things I did there was keep an eye on buildings in the neighborhood—find out what was going on, track new development, and just feel the pulse of the neighborhood." When he stumbled across the yellow brick building at 2323 N. Milwaukee, he was smitten. With a retail space (complete with vintage punched-tin ceiling) up front and a broad manufacturing floor in back, it was perfect for a brewpub.

He signed a contract to buy it in March 2007. By Christmas of that year he'd put together an investment package for potential backers, raised almost $1 million from private investors—and had his loan application rejected by a dozen banks.

That loan officers might not share Deth's faith in beer as a solid business plan isn't that surprising. Craft beer may be booming—small brewers saw almost a billion-dollar spike in sales in 2007—but opening a brewery in Chicago is an uphill climb, given city bureaucracy, prohibitive capital requirements, and Big Beer's powerful distribution network. Portland, Oregon, has 28 microbreweries; Chicago has, optimistically, six: Goose Island, Rock Bottom, Piece, Moonshine, Metropolitan (whose first batches of lager are fermenting away in Ravenswood and should hit the market in late January), and 18-month-old Half Acre, which hopes to start brewing full-time in its new North Center facility in late February. Even if you rope in the outliers—south-suburban Flossmoor Station, northwest-suburban Millrose Brewing Company, DuPage County's Two Brothers, and Three Floyds in Munster, Indiana, we're far outmatched.

Deth was about to give up—again—when, at a Christmas party thrown by Banco Popular, he met a charismatic banker named Nelson Da Silva, who took an immediate shine to the project. It still wasn't easy, but by June he had the building—just in time for the economy to fall apart. "If we didn't have a standing commitment" from the bank, Deth wrote on his blog (revbrew.com/blog) in November, "we'd be in deep doo-doo right now." Banco Popular, which secured a share of the federal bailout in late November, did indeed follow through, to Deth's immense relief and gratitude.

Now, six months and many permits, blueprints, and financial infusions later (including $150,000 in tax increment financing), he's finally ready to start building a brewery.

Immediate plans include a bar and restaurant in front, with large cafe windows opening onto Milwaukee Avenue and a row of planters made from refurbished Bourbon County Stout barrels procured from Goose Island. In back, visible from the brewpub, will be the brewery. Because of cost considerations Deth had to ditch his plans for a LEED-certified building with a green roof. But he's working in green features like water-efficient fixtures wherever possible. Upstairs, whenever he can afford it, will be an event space and concert hall, showers, and, of course, a bike room.

Deth's already gotten some inquiries from would-be brewers, but he's not hiring yet. Still, he lights up when talk turns from the mechanics of small-business loans to the reason for two years of acid reflux and insomnia: beer. Specifically, the beer Revolution is going to make. His personal tastes run to the hoppy and unfiltered, "So clearly we're going to have some hoppy ales," he says. But, he adds, "I don't want to scare off people who don't like hops." With 14 taps planned for the bar, there should be plenty of room for experiments like the hibiscus-infused Hefeweizen he recently brewed up in his basement.

Beer, he says, is like soup. "If you're a chef, you like to use the tricks of the trade that you know that work. There's a couple different mirepoix that a chef uses as a base, but they may vary that, and then they've got a stable of 20 or 30 key ingredients, and then there's how you plate it, and so forth. There's so many varieties." That variety, he says, is what will get people in the door. A good time will keep them coming back. But first, he says, "I've got to get to work."v

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