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Local Brew

For the first time since 1978 there's a Chicago company in the beer business.


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Jack Schaller is a hops man. That's not what you might expect, considering the breweries he's worked at: Hibernia, which during his tenure there put out its malty Eau Claire ale, and Falstaff, where he helped develop the less malty but still rich Ballantine India Pale Ale. Nevertheless, in the world of specialty beers--where connoisseurs can be divided into the malt crowd and the hops crowd--Schaller knows where he stands.

This afternoon, though, he's not thinking about hops. Instead, as brewmaster at the recently opened Chicago Brewing Company, he's inspecting barley. Bag after 50-pound bag of it is being fed into a mill and ground into pieces, the largest about the size of an oatmeal flake and the smallest more like a grain of flour. The grain goes in one side of the mill and out the other, shuttled by rotating coils through a clear pipe into a huge kettle full of boiling water.

The mash, as the resulting combination of grain and water is called, will cook for about an hour; during the brew the water absorbs the flavor of the barley and breaks down the starches into fermentable sugars. Schaller keeps checking the size of the grinds and making adjustments when necessary. He scoops up handfuls of the freshly ground cereal, letting some sift through his fingers to the floor. He runs his fingers over other handfuls, takes his glasses off so he can get a closer look, tastes a bit. Then he resets a few knobs on the mill and takes another handful.

Meanwhile, as the barley hits the hot water, whitecaps churn and grow inside the brew kettle. (The kettle is covered so particles of dust and bacteria can't drift into the brew, but it has a long horizontal window on the side that slides open for adding ingredients or watching the action. The water, like the barley, comes in through pipes.) After all the barley has been added, the foam gradually dissipates and bits of grain like sawdust float to the surface. But the violent waves continue. "That's the way to make good beer," says Schaller. "You get it to rock and roll in there."

"When you get a full boil going, it's almost hypnotic," says Steve Dinehart, Chicago Brewing Company's founder. Dinehart, a senior economist at the Board of Trade, wanted his own brewery for years. Two years ago, he finally got started--looking for a brewery site, getting a staff together, rounding up equipment, and working on a recipe. Over the months, with the help of the Siebel Institute (the nationally known brewing school and research center on Peterson Avenue), he and Schaller came up with the lager recipe they call Legacy Lager. Brewing started in a converted Beatrice canning plant near Armitage and Elston in April, and Chicago Brewing's first shipment went out to liquor stores in early July.

Dinehart, a Chicago native, has been experimenting with offbeat brews since his college days in the mid-70s. "Summers I used to work on the railroad, and on Fridays, on the way home, I'd want to pick up some beer, something different." One summer he happened upon Black Horse Ale, which prompted Dinehart to revise his ideas about beer drinking. "The idea was to have something that I was just going to have a couple of, and to relax and enjoy it." Later on, at graduate school in Michigan and on road trips to Canada, he discovered the Danish beer Carlsberg. "Other people were bringing back cases of Coors and Oly from the west coast," he says. "I was bringing back cases of Carlsberg from Canada."

About 1984, when Dinehart was living in Washington, D.C., working for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, his interest in beer took on another dimension. A few old small specialty breweries were still in existence out east and new microbreweries were beginning to crop up. "I read a lot, and I went around looking for these breweries I had heard about. That was what piqued my interest." Dinehart wanted to eventually return to his hometown, and back then there were no brew pubs in Chicago. "I was thinking there was a lack here," he says. "So I came back with the intention of opening this."

Dinehart enlisted a few family members--his wife Jennifer and his younger brother Craig--and eventually hooked up with Schaller and former food-service manager Gary Konigsfeld. (Dinehart's youngest brother Keith now works at the brewery too.) They started rounding up equipment, a lot of it from breweries that had gone out of business. What they ended up with is a strange mix of old and new. The 55-barrel brew kettle and lauter tun--another kettle, used mainly for separating the barley from the malt-infused water--are from the Pullman Brewery, a 350-year-old family brewery in Kulmbach, West Germany, which went out of business in 1980. Kulmbach was once home to a lot of family breweries, Dinehart discovered, and in the Newberry Library's archives he found a letter from one of the brewers that mentions another Kulmbach brewing family: the Dineharts. It seems the Dineharts were providing stiff competition for the letter-writing brewer; in the end, though, it looks like the Pullmans put the Dineharts out of business. Steve Dinehart doesn't know whether his family is really related to the other Dineharts, but it makes for a good story anyway: "In the end, we avenged the family pride."

If the copper Pullman kettles, which date from the 1950s, are the most traditional equipment at Chicago Brewing, the fermenting tanks are the most advanced. Chicago Brewing's beer is fermented in unitanks, 12 of which Dinehart was lucky enough to acquire secondhand--from a recently closed New York State brewery. Unitank technology is only about ten years old, making it a relatively new development in the industry. The neat thing about the tanks (and the reason for their name) is that they are self-contained: the outer shell of a unitank is filled with a layer of ethylene glycol, the same refrigerant used in antifreeze, and each tank is equipped with a thermostat. Because they're insulated and self-contained, unitanks eliminate the need for a refrigerated fermenting room, and they also make it possible to brew several different beers at once, says Dinehart: "We can have this tank doing a lager and this tank doing an ale while this tank over here is doing a porter."

Right now, Legacy Lager is Chicago Brewing's only product, but Dinehart plans to introduce an ale sometime next year, and he'd eventually like to produce holiday beers too: "Come Saint Patrick's Day, we can run off one batch." An on-site pub is also in the long-term plan, and Schaller wants to open a miniature lab, where home brewers could experiment with their own recipes using commercial equipment.

"We're on a crusade," says Dinehart. "I kind of want to be known as, 'There's a bunch of beer freaks over there at Chicago Brewing, and they just knock their socks off putting out the greatest beers they can. I don't like them all, but boy, did you try that one? It's fantastic.' That's what we're after."

Brewing, like most cooking, is just a matter of putting together the right ingredients at the right temperature for the right amount of time. Beer, though, leaves a lot of dirty dishes behind; during the course of a brew, one batch equaling 50 barrels of liquid gets moved around between almost a dozen different containers--for brewing, straining, hopping, fermenting, pasteurizing, chilling. To a casual observer, in fact, it might appear that brewing consisted entirely of opening and closing faucets and operating the pumps that send the brown liquid from one vessel to another.

Steve Dinehart still spends most of his time at the Board of Trade, so Craig Dinehart and Schaller--with help from Gary Konigsfeld--do most of the brewing. Eventually, they hope to employ about 20 people, but two are enough to manage a brew; one person can open or shut a pipe while the other watches one kettle or another.

Schaller compares the mashing stage--the first step, when the barley is mixed into the hot water--to brewing tea. "This is the steeping stage." Different enzymes released from the grain at different temperatures break down the starches. Legacy Lager mash goes through four different temperature changes. This is the pretty part of brewing, the part that's like making candy; the antique copper brew kettle bubbles with caramely brown soup, and the sweet-burnt smell of malt fills the room.

After all the right enzymes have been released, the hot liquid gets siphoned into the lauter tun, which sits right next to the brew kettle. The lauter tun looks just like another brew kettle from the outside, but on the inside spins a dangerous-looking apparatus, something like an eggbeater with teeth. As the mash spins, the teeth keep the grains from clumping together so all the color and flavor in the barley can seep into the water. The liquid--called the "wort"--is pumped through pipes, in and out of the lauter tun again and again, to extract as much from the barley as possible. Meanwhile, Schaller is one floor down, taking samples of the brew from a spigot attached to one of the pipes. When he's satisfied with the wort's density, he'll give the word and the liquid will be pumped back into the brew kettle for hopping.

First, though, comes sparging; the soggy grain left in the bottom of the lauter tun, which by this time looks something like wet coffee grounds, gets sprinkled with water to squeeze any remaining molecules of flavor out of the grain as Schaller continues to take measurements from the spigot. "It's like coffee," he says. "The first stuff that comes out is real strong, and at the end it's practically all water." The key is to get the right mix back in the brew kettle.

The used grain is spit into a holding tank, where it sits until it's shipped off to farms to be used as feed, and the extra water is flushed into the basement, where it drains through the floor. Somebody will have to get into the lauter tun and clean it out with a hose, and more water will spill into the basement. A lot of water is used during a brew, and I'm beginning to understand why there are drains all over the basement; Keith Dinehart says new floors were the biggest change they had to make to this building. I'm also beginning to understand why Jack Schaller always wears knee-high rubber boots.

This city's first brewery, Haas & Company, opened in 1833, the same year Chicago was incorporated as a city. It sold 450 barrels of ale in its first year (Chicago Brewing Company, which is the third Chicago brewery to use that name, will probably sell 30,000 barrels in its first year). Haas & Company was soon bought up by William Lill, who was later joined by business partner Michael Diversey. The brewery stood at the corner of what is now Michigan and Chicago (where the Walgreens is now), a site purchased from Chicago's first mayor, William Ogden, who was also a silent partner in the brewery. The Lill and Diversey brewery quickly established a considerable reputation; by 1846, Lill's Cream Ale was the most famous brand of beer in the country and was sold as far away as Louisiana, New York, and Minnesota.

Competition arose for the ale breweries beginning around 1840: lager beer. Lager was lighter in flavor and less alcoholic than ale, and Americans soon grew to prefer it. So in 1847, on a piece of land at Chicago and Rush also formerly owned by William Ogden, John Huck and John Schneider started Chicago's first lager brewery.

Ale wasn't completely out of the picture; Adolph and Henry Mueller started an ale brewery in 1850 on the State Street site that's now Marshall Field's, and with their earnings they eventually opened two more. But most of the dozen breweries that opened over the next two decades were lager makers. By 1855, Chicago residents had become so loyal to their neighborhood taps that when temperance-minded mayor Levi Boone proposed a city ordinance that would close taverns on Sundays and raise the cost of a liquor license, there was rioting in the streets. On April 21, following a series of smaller confrontations and the arrest of several saloon keepers for selling beer on Sunday, thousands of residents tried to rush the Cook County courthouse. Two hundred city policemen and three state militia units were called out, shots were fired (though no deaths were reported), and 100 people were arrested. The Lager Beer Riots went down in the history books, and Mayor Boone was not reelected.

In 1857 the Lill and Diversey brewery put out nearly 45,000 barrels, making it one of the country's largest breweries. About a half dozen breweries burned in the Great Fire in 1871, but a dozen more--including the original Sieben brewery in 1876--opened in the 20 years following. Then a few years after the turn of the century, as names like Pabst and Schlitz and Anheuser-Busch began making national inroads, the smaller local breweries slowly began dying off. A handful closed before Prohibition; a few more closed during Prohibition, though the eight illegal breweries operated by Al Capone sold an estimated 20,000 barrels a week. But most of the city's breweries closed between the late 40s and the late 60s--the period when the big-name national beers flourished.

"What you saw in the 50s, to a certain extent, was the homogenization of America," says Dinehart. "There was a defined American standard, and into that stepped the so-called national premiums. That included Schlitz, Bud, Pabst--Schlitz was the number-one beer 15 years ago. What they offered was a 'premium' beer. That's how they marketed it."

The neighborhood breweries tried to fight back by lowering their prices. "I remember when I was a kid, in grocery stores you'd see these plastic bags of beer cans," says Dinehart. "There must have been 20 beer cans in there for 99 cents. That was their reply to the national market." The strategy didn't work, and one by one Chicago's breweries shut down. The last to go was the Peter Hand Brewing Company, which sold the names of its two most popular brands, Meister Brau and Meister Brau Light, to Miller in 1972. In 1973 Fred Huber of the Huber Brewing Company in Monroe, Wisconsin, bought the brewery and produced a lager called Old Chicago; the brewery closed again, for good this time, in 1978. (Sam's Liquors now stands on the site.)

When Dinehart and Schaller started developing a recipe for their beer, they used turn-of-the-century local brews as their inspiration. They went to the Chicago Historical Society and looked through issues of Western Brewer magazine, the industry rag that published here from 1876 to 1920. "We went back and looked at some of the different types of components," says Dinehart. "Trying to get an idea of, were these people using six-row malt or two-row malt? How dark were some of the malts they were using?"

Then they tried to find components that were similar to what was used back then. They found a good two-row barley, which--because it produces fewer kernels per plant--is more expensive and better than the six-row variety. They got their hands on a special hybrid hop grown in Washington State. The yeast they use is German, and Dinehart thinks they're the only brewery using it in this country. Even the people at the Siebel Institute were wowed by it, he says: "They put it under the microscope and said, 'I've never seen yeast like this before.'"

For one important ingredient, though, they didn't have to search farther than a few miles. "As much fun as people make of the Lake Michigan water, it's excellent," says Dinehart. "It's really close to Burton-on-Trent [the water Britain's Bass Ale is made from], which is considered some of the finest water in the world."

The water is probably Chicago Brewing's only dependable ingredient; barley and hop harvests can vary from year to year, and Dinehart knows of only one supplier for the yeast. If the ingredients change, they'll have to change the recipe too, which means going back up to the Siebel Institute for testing, running a few small test brews, and then doing a dozen or so 50-barrel test brews. On the other hand, these guys would probably enjoy it.

Hopping is probably the trickiest part of brewing, though by the time the hops are actually added to the brew all the hard work has been done. Choosing the right hop is the real feat. The hop plant, a viny cousin to marijuana, does two things to beer: it provides bitterness and it adds flavor. Both elements come from oils and resins in the plant's flower; brewers use a dried version of the flowers--in the form of either dried greens or compact pellets--and extract the flavor and bitterness by boiling.

All hops are bitter, and if bitterness is all a brewer is after, any old hop will do. Good flavor, though, requires more thought and more expense. You can taste the tang of flavorful hops at the end of a careful swig of beer; on the other hand, Budweiser and its counterparts don't have much of an aftertaste, indicating that either those brews don't use many hops or the hops they do use don't have much flavor.

Chicago Brewing Company uses a pretty complex hop; it includes floral elements ("geranium," says Schaller), pine, mint, citrus. Schaller won't reveal the variety he puts into Legacy Lager, but he will tell me that he uses pellets--eight pounds per 50 barrels, to be exact--rather than fresh hops. "Pellets don't lose their bitterness, they retain aroma longer, and they require less care."

Hops smell stronger than malt, especially after they've been added to a vat of hot wort. As Schaller sprinkles the hops in like chicken feed, the sweet smell that's been hanging in the air gives way to a bitterness and the beer's caramel color acquires a greenish haze. The hops cause the foam that's built up on the wort to disappear almost instantly; Schaller explains that that's because the chemicals in them react with sugar in the malt.

While the beer is cooking, we taste some test brews. The fermenting tanks hold 100 barrels, but the kettle only holds 50, so each glass of beer coming out of the fermenting tanks is really a combination of two test brews. First we try a combination of the brews numbered five and six, which hits the tongue like beery lemonade. The tartness subsides a little after the first taste. Three-four is less tangy; after five-six, it's hard to taste any hoppiness at all. Schaller's favorite is seven-eight, which falls somewhere between three-four and five-six in bitterness.

Chicago Brewing Company's first beer is a lager, but the stuff we've tasted is almost too full-bodied to fit the term. Schaller has a name for this phenomenon: nouveau beer. "It refers to American-brewed beers that combine a number of different beer profiles. Many of us are brewing beers which are very full-flavored and hoppy." Schaller, for example, calls his beer a lager, which is the same term Old Style uses for its product; yet the two beers taste remarkably different. Other new breweries are putting out dark amber beers they call pilsners (traditionally even lighter than lagers) and ales and lagers that are equally intense in flavor. Because of brews like these, beer's traditional categories are overlapping, maybe even becoming obsolete.

Hops are the single most important flavor component of beer, says Schaller, and yet most people don't like hops. "Hop aroma is an acquired taste," he says. "It was Miller, I think, that did a test on this and found that people think hops are the most disagreeable element of beer. The average American beer--I'm talking Stroh's, Bud, Miller--has about one-third less hops than it did 50 years ago. Everything's diminished; beers are lighter beverages than they were ten years ago. We're running against that--us and every other microbrewery."

A microbrewery, according to the brewing industry, is an operation that puts out less than 15,000 barrels a year. The Chicago Brewing Company, whose estimated annual output will be 30,000 barrels, is technically a "regional specialty brewery," but in spirit it's a microbrewery. A micro can best be defined by one, its use of expensive, unusual ingredients and slower, colder fermentation than the big guys, and two, its attempt (at least in most cases) to represent a particular area of the country. Occasionally, regional beers try to carry on some time-honored recipe, or at least to develop a recipe that's inspired by the methods or ingredients of former local breweries (as in Chicago Brewing Company's case); other times, the association between beer and locale is simply sentimental.

The brewing industry tends to refer to the current crop of small regional operations as the "new" microbreweries, since similar breweries in abundance before Prohibition were basically the same as today's microbreweries in size and product. The first of the new micros, the New Albion Brewing Company of Sonoma, California, opened in 1977. It went under in 1983, but by 1980 six other micros had opened in the U.S.; as of June 1, 1990, there are 210. (And these numbers don't include older micros, like San Francisco's Anchor Steam Brewery, which has been in existence continuously since 1860; it started producing the beer it's now famous for when washing-machine heir Fritz Maytag bought the foundering brewery in 1965.) New micros are currently opening at a rate of three or four a month.

But most of these small breweries aren't in the midwest. There are a mere eight or nine micros in Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois combined; California, in contrast, is home to 65. Most of the country's microbreweries are in the Pacific northwest, with another concentration scattered throughout New England (the best known of which is probably the five-year-old Samuel Adams operation in Massachusetts, whose recent pushy radio ads have been near impossible to miss and whose beer sells better than almost any other microbrew in the country). The spate of brew pubs that have opened in Chicago over the last few years certainly adds to the number of micros in the midwest; but a brew pub's product doesn't represent a city quite the same way as a bottled beer can, by spreading a brewery's name across the region, or even the nation.

"It's been slower to catch on here," says Alan Dikty, of the Brewers' Research and Development Company in Evanston. "But the midwest, unlike the west, has never totally abandoned their smaller regional breweries." The midwest may not have a Sam Adams or an Anchor Steam, he says, but it has Leinenkugel and Point. Such regional brews fall below most microbrews in quality of ingredients and (thus) flavor, but they're certainly a cut above Miller Lite; and regardless of quality, there is no coastal beer--microbrew or otherwise--that represents a region in the way that these represent the midwest.

Then there's Ken Pavichevich's brewery out in Elmhurst, which a few years ago began producing a pilsner called Baderbrau. Baderbrau has been available at most liquor stores and bars around town for a year or so. Dinehart sees Pavichevich as a friendly neighbor. "They address the same market we do, but they're not competition. We have maybe 50,000 barrels between us. That's 1 percent of Chicago beer consumption."

Baderbrau is the only beer Pavichevich brews so far, and at fewer than 15,000 barrels a year, his operation is a lot smaller than Dinehart's. "You have two different approaches," says Dikty. "Baderbrau is 'Damn the torpedoes, let's spend a lot of money and go first-class all the way.' They have a cellular phone in their delivery truck. They have specially designed kiln-fired tiles in the brew house. Pavichevich wants to be a scaled-down version of a modern state-of-the-art brewery. Chicago Brewing's approach is more low tech. They're keeping their overhead down and concentrating on the beer."

But Baderbrau, Legacy Lager, and their counterparts across the country need to be seen as part of a larger phenomenon, says Dikty: the changing attitude of people in the beer industry as a whole. Five or six beers like Miller and Old Style aren't enough for a population that buys its coffee at Starbucks and its groceries at Treasure Island. Three years ago Anheuser-Busch had three beers on the market: Budweiser, Michelob, and Busch. Dikty says that today they have closer to 12. Likewise Coors has gone from one product to six or seven. "Beer as a commodity," says Dikty, "is becoming extremely segmented."

The brewing process isn't over when the beer hits the fermenting tanks, but most of what can be considered the brewmaster's art is. The beer will sit in the tanks for about 12 days, the yeast working at converting sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. One of Schaller's final jobs before transferring the beer to the tanks is to make sure as many solids as possible are removed from the mixture. He and Craig Dinehart pump the hopped wort into a giant whirlpool, where centrifugal force pushes the chunks of coagulated sugars and proteins and any remaining bits of barley toward the center of the tank. "Did you ever notice that when you flush your toilet, solid matter, as you might call it, moves to the center?" Schaller asks, clearly enjoying the analogy. "This is the same idea."

While the hot liquid spins, Schaller pumps globs of what looks like yesterday's oatmeal out of the bottom of one of the fermenting tanks. This is live yeast that's been turning an earlier batch of wort into beer; in a bottom-fermented beer such as lager, the yeast settles on the bottom and is easily removed through a hose. Schaller then dumps the yeast into a small tank and seals it airtight. With the flick of a switch, air pressure will force the yeast out of the tank into a pipe where it will combine with the rest of the beer and then get flushed into the fermenting tank.

After about 45 minutes of listening to the wort whirl, Schaller and Dinehart siphon the stuff off the outside of the tank and pump it through a device that looks like a giant radiator. Hot wort goes through one set of the radiator pipes and cold water through the other set, and as the pipes intertwine and the liquids move past each other, the wort cools to a temperature low enough for yeast to live in, about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

When the wort is cool and the yeast is locked up tight, the drama starts. With a big whoosh the air pump starts pushing the yeast through. Where the yeast hits the liquid there's a window in the pipe, and the yeast moving through the beer looks like an orange flame. As the beer combines with the yeast, the yeast pump forces air into the beer, too. All part of the plan, says Schaller: "Yeast like about nine milliliters of air per liter."

The whole process takes about ten minutes. When it's done, Schaller opens the door at the bottom of the empty whirlpool tank and wave after wave of steam billows out. Long before the view clears and the spent hops in the bottom of the tank become visible, their sharp odor pierces the air: an exaggerated combination of the bitter sourness of a lemon with the clean tang of a pine tree. "It'll clear your sinuses," says Craig Dinehart.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.


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