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For a beer columnist, I don't go to all that many beer festivals—I'm missing Sierra Nevada's Beer Camp Across America at Navy Pier to write this, for instance. But I've made it to enough to have seen the name "Aquanaut"—and the name "Strange Pelican," which is what this Chicago operation called itself until March, when it decided to change colors after legal threats by Pelican Pub & Brewery in Pacific City, Oregon.
I first managed to drink something Aquanaut brewed at Beer Under Glass in May: It had collaborated with Transient Artisan Ales on a pair of cask-matured hybrid beers that combined Transient's saison yeast with an English mild's malt bill. I'll admit, I checked them out because I'm a Transient fanboy, but I enjoyed the Aquanaut version, aged with toasted oak and cacao nibs, quite a bit more than the Transient beer (which was finished with lemon and ginger). I've stayed in touch with the Aquanaut guys ever since, tracking their progress toward the various licenses necessary to start selling commercially.
Aquanaut founder Eric McNeil, 30, first used the name "Strange Pelican" in public when he poured his home-brewed beer at a Chicago launch event for Counter Culture Coffee in August 2011. Beginning in October 2012, he attempted a build-out at two different spaces in Fulton Market. When Bowmanville brewery 4 Paws closed up shop in January of this year, however, he changed course abruptly—with the help of ground-floor investor Phil Tadros, Strange Pelican bought 4 Paws' equipment and took over its lease. (Tadros, who runs a design firm called Doejo, also founded Bow Truss Coffee, where McNeil worked as a roaster.)
At that point, Tadros expected Strange Pelican beers to be on the market in March or April, but such predictions have a way of looking insupportably optimistic in retrospect. Six months and a name change later, Aquanaut is still waiting for its state license. McNeil says the brewery's lawyer has promised him the paperwork will go through in mid-August, and in the meantime, Aquanaut has set up an alternating proprietorship with South Loop Brewing, which is installing a fermentation vessel of its own and will pay to brew in the Bowmanville facility once a month for at least the next year. Similar to a sublet, this will help Aquanaut afford its rent, which is slightly more expensive than it would've been in Fulton Market—in part because the space is significantly larger, with plenty of room for expansion.
McNeil has also brought aboard assistant brewer Brian Burgmeier, 28, a friend since high school. The two of them are Aquanaut's only staff at present, though like many small brewers they plan to enlist volunteers and interns to help with manual labor once they're up and running. McNeil, who went to school for graphic design, has been making Aquanaut's labels himself, but he recently started commissioning work from artist Ennis Martin.
Aquanaut plans to self-distribute for the time being, since its capacity with the equipment it already owns is at most 1,400 barrels per year—brewers making up to 30,000 barrels per year are permitted to self-distribute as much as 7,500 of those. It will launch with a core lineup of three beers, all canned in six-packs: an ESB, a porter called the Misterioso, and a rye IPA called Maiden Voyage. Right now the brewery doesn't own a canning line, so it'll either need to buy one or contract with a mobile canning service.
McNeil has taken the Siebel Institute's "concise" course in brewing technology, and he's spent a fair amount of time shadowing professionals on the job. But neither he nor Burgmeier has held down a full-time commercial position before. You wouldn't know it from Aquanaut's three regular-rotation beers, though.
The Aquanaut ESB, the gentlest of the three at 5.3 percent alcohol, reminds me of Temperance's Gatecrasher, except less hoppy and bitter. On the nose it's got caramel malts front and center, touched with something earthy and floral—maybe a bit of rose and that great just-started-raining smell. The flavor is even more intense than the aroma, shading into toasted, buttery toffee and then English milk tea, for a clean, pleasantly astringent finish.
The Misterioso (6.3 percent), a porter brewed with oats, smells powerfully of iced coffee, milk chocolate, and sweetened puffed wheat. It's noticeably creamier in feel than the ESB, with a dense roastiness tinged by flavors of hazelnut and cocoa—it tastes like a more aggressive Black Butte Porter, which is a pretty high compliment coming from me.
I hesitate to say that the Maiden Voyage Rye India Pale Ale (6.7 percent) was my favorite Aquanaut beer by far, because it might sound like I'm throwing shade on the others—but this was definitely the one that crossed the line from "good" to "extraordinary." (I suspect McNeil feels the same, because Maiden Voyage was originally called Aquanaut—in a weird way, that makes it the brewery's flagship.)
Generously hopped with Cascade and Amarillo, Maiden Voyage has the aromas you expect from the style—pine, orange zest, peppery rye—but it also practically glows with mango and papaya. There's even a clear note of strawberry, which you can't stop noticing once you've picked it out. It's the sort of lovely idiosyncrasy that helps a beer distinguish itself in a crowded market. The amped-up fruit carries over into the flavor, balancing the toasty, slightly spicy caramel malts. Maiden Voyage also has a surprisingly rich, buttery mouthfeel for a sessionable IPA—each sip lingers like a bite of custard tart.
Six-packs of the Misterioso and the ESB ought to cost $9.99, though if all goes well McNeil wants to drop the price by a dollar (which would make Aquanaut some of the cheapest craft beer in Chicago). In any case, Maiden Voyage will be a buck more, and it's worth it.
You've probably noticed that Aquanaut's core lineup favors malt-forward, English-influenced styles, but McNeil says he'd like to move into Belgian-inspired beers as well—he let me try a sweet, spicy tripel that's still in progress. Aquanaut plans to augment its six-packs with one seasonal release at a time, bottled in bombers; the first should arrive in the fall. Another tap-only Transient collaboration will drop in or around November—a Belgian red brewed with rye and aged in red-wine barrels with cherries. (McNeil found an unloved cherry tree on the lot of a vacant house in Humboldt Park, and over the course of a few nights liberated about 15 pounds of fruit.) Transient founder Chris Betts has been friends with McNeil for a couple years—since well before Transient debuted in Chicago last summer—so it's probably safe to expect the two breweries to keep working together.
Once Aquanaut beers start shipping—one month from now? two months?—McNeil hopes to land tap handles at bars that already have Bow Truss accounts. He's pretty sure he's in the door at the Hopleaf, Farmhouse Chicago, Au Cheval, the Bad Apple, Fountainhead, the Bar on Buena, and the Long Room. I'm sure he'd agree with me when I say it can't happen soon enough.
Now then! I think my visit to Aquanaut Brewing calls for some vintage stoner metal from Sleep: "Aquarian" appears on the 1992 album Sleep's Holy Mountain.
That record also includes the tune "Dragonaut," which I've already posted in Beer and Metal. If you want a song actually called "Aquanaut," you've got to dig up the 2002 demo by Sanford Parker's old band Buried at Sea.
Anyway! Sleep plays at Thalia Hall on August 28 and 29, and if you haven't bought tickets already, you have my condolences—both shows are sold out.
PS: Remember when I reviewed Metropolitan's Zwickel Flywheel last summer? For 2014 that ruthlessly fresh, insanely tasty, and tragically ephemeral beer has a name of its own: It's called Heliostat, and it ships today. Hit me up on Twitter if you spot a keg before I do!