The second annual AleFest Chicago, held the Saturday before last at Soldier Field, was a who's who of area brewers: Goose Island, Two Brothers, Flossmoor Station, Piece, Rock Bottom, Mickey Finn's, and America's Brewing Company, makers of the beer sold at Walter Payton's Roundhouse, were all in attendance, with offerings ranging from good to outstanding. The dark horse, though, was Metropolitan Brewing, a tiny operation drawing its pours out of a double-decker Craftsman toolbox retrofitted with a tap.
Technically this craft brewery doesn't exist yet. The owners, husband and wife Doug and Tracy Hurst, are still building their facility in Ravenswood and don't expect to have any beers on the market until the end of November. But they've already developed two flagship lagers, Dynamo Copper and Flywheel Bright, plus a summer Kölsch-style brew, Kränkshaft; they're also in the process of creating three more seasonal lagers. And in the meantime they'll be at the Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison on August 9 and the Oak Park Micro Brew and Food Review on August 23.
The business has been in the works for years, since Doug graduated from Chicago's Siebel Institute of Brewing Technology in 2004. A former audiovisual engineer who's been brewing at home for nearly 20 years, he makes Metropolitan's current offerings using a six-gallon "pilot system." Tracy gave up freelancing as an executive assistant and office manager in November to devote herself to the start-up, and Doug began working on the brewery full-time in March. So they've had some time to decide what they like—and they like lagers. According to Tracy, the majority of craft beers are ales, which take half as long as lagers to age and so are less expensive to produce. "Starting a brewery is risky enough anyway," she says. "Why not just go for the gold and do what we really want to do?"
They're hoping that more people will start breweries in Chicago, where they'd like to see a bigger craft beer presence. The potential competition doesn't faze them. In fact, as the Hursts see it, craft beers don't compete with each other so much as the industry as a whole competes with megacorporations like the newly merged MillerCoors, which just announced it will locate its headquarters in Chicago, and Anheuser-Busch—now part of the even bigger Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate InBev. Doug sees an upside to these developments for small producers. "People are concerned about where American beer is going—it's not going anywhere, it's staying right here," he says. "There are more than 1,400 craft breweries these days. And the more craft beer makers there are, the more people drink craft beer."
"The craft beer industry tends to be a lovefest because people are so into it, so into what they do, so into drinking each other's beers," says Tracy. She and Doug seem pretty into it, anyway. Their Web site, metrobrewing.com, features not only a description of their beers, background on the company, and info on past and upcoming events but also a blog about their daily progress, documenting events like having 300 pounds of hops delivered to their apartment. "We've never seen the UPS guy so pissed," Tracy writes.
And then there are the adventures of Walt, Gary, and Eunice (metrobrewing.com/garywalteunice), cartoon home brewers with their own MySpace page; when they're not accidentally exploding their home brews by adding too much yeast, they spend their time in bars singing German drinking songs. The idea came to Doug in a dream a couple years ago, and was carried out with the help of a friend, Mark Hirschler, who provided the illustrations; Tracy writes the stories. Gary and Eunice bear more than a passing resemblance to the owners of Metropolitan, though this, Tracy says, "is wholly a coincidence."
Tracy posts on the blog under the name "craft beer's obsequious minion," and there's a grain of truth to that, she says: "We like to say that craft beer is our boss—we bow in deference to it. We don't run the brewery; the brewery runs us."