I've known Ed Marszewski for years—first as one of the troublemakers at Lumpen magazine, then as overlord of the Co-Prosperity Sphere, where my old band Brilliant Pebbles used to play his art festivals. I've hung out with him at Maria's (he helped transform it in 2010 from its previous incarnation as Kaplan's Liquors), and last June I accepted his invitation to judge the Mash Tun Fest he held to mark the publication of the third issue of his Mash Tun beer journal. So it's not news to me that he's one of the principals at the nascent Marz Community Brewing.
What is news, though, is that almost a year and a half into moving into a storefront space at Halsted and 33rd, Marz finally has all the proper licenses to sell its beer commercially—not just pour it at festivals, which it's been doing for some time already. Tonight Marszewski and company celebrate this momentous development with a launch party at Co-Pro.
That storefront houses a four-barrel Psycho Brew system and four fermentation tanks (two three-barrel and two five-barrel). As brewery equipment goes, this is a pretty modest setup, but what Marz lacks in heavy stainless it makes up for in personnel—or, as they'd put it, "cholos."
Marszewski got to thinking about opening a brewery after launching Maria's four years ago, and his earliest comrades were his carpenter brother Mike and his brother-in-law Eric Olson. Mike and Eric were already home brewing, and the bar gave all three of them firsthand experience of beer's power to bring people together. (I'm not talking about one-night stands, either.)
It would be a painfully long time before the Marz crew could begin test batches on their own system, though—that finally happened in late summer 2013—and during this protracted incubation period, more and more people were drawn into the brewery's orbit (even though it was still largely hypothetical). Marz folks brewed at home, learned the ropes at CHAOS Brew Club, or apprenticed at Pipeworks. Eventually they'd number more than a dozen. (Due to laws forbidding a single person or group from owning both a bar and a brewery, Mike has divested himself of his stake in Marz, and is no longer actively involved; likewise Ed has sold his share of Maria's, and can't work there. Mike now owns Maria's himself, while Ed is owner and president of Marz.)
Tim Lange, who shares the job of head brewer with Olson, came to Maria's looking for somebody from Marz after hearing about the brewery through the grapevine (he's since gotten involved with CHAOS as well). Recent CHAOS vice president Pete Alvarado and Wild Blossom meadery cofounder Kazys Ozelis (he also works at BevArt and used to help run Homebrewer's Pride of the South Side) both already drank at Maria's. So did Eli Espinoza, another CHAOS member. Home brewer Mike Redwick works as Marz's welder and handyman; artist Johanna Wawro, an old friend of Marszewski's, helps with installations when the brewery appears at festivals or hosts parties. Tom Piekarz, who aside from Marszewski is the only Marz employee drawing a regular check (the others get paid whenever they put in hours), handles sales and marketing; he came aboard via a job at the Mash Tun journal. The first Mash Tun Fest, in May 2012, brought brewer Alex Robertson, formerly of Indiana's Crown Brewing, into the fold—the Marz crew loved his sour beers and extended him a personal invitation.
Almost all these folks brew, instead of just helping out with grunt work—even the ones who can only pitch in part-time as their other jobs allow. As a consequence, Marz's recipes come from all over: Espinoza is developing a still-unnamed rooibos wheat ale, Ozelis has an oak-aged amber in the works, Alvarado devised a rye-barreled imperial stout called the Corrupt, Lange created the Machine APA, and Robertson contributed the grätzer Smoke Wheat Every Day and a Berliner weisse somewhat grotesquely named the Bubbly Creek. ("Bubbly Creek" is an old nickname for the southern fork of the Chicago River that bounds Bridgeport to the west; in the early 20th century, meatpackers dumped so much blood and offal into the water that gases of decomposition surfaced in visible plumes of foul-smelling bubbles.)
From the beginning, Marz has been a do-it-yourself operation—or more accurately a do-it-together operation. During what Marszewski describes as the "insidiously painful" licensing and permitting ordeal, the staff assembled their own brewing equipment, which meant a lot of mechanical failures and fucked-up installations—they ended up watching lots of instructional YouTube videos and calling professionals they knew to ask questions about, say, how to get a glycol chiller up and running. Once they started turning out test batches, some beer definitely got dumped.
Part of the learning process has been collaborating with other brewers. Marz visited DryHop to make Arnie Palmer Meets the Dragon Lady, an APA that riffed on the Arnold Palmer, with Ceylon tea, lemon peel, and Citra hops; I gave it a thumbs-up when I tried it in late April. Marz also did a brett white IPA with Lake Effect called Albino Berzerker, and they're developing a frankly insane-sounding "umami" stout with Against the Grain in Louisville—it'll include beer aged in brandy barrels and in, get this, soy-sauce barrels. Marz's brand-new Harvest IPA is a collaboration too, albeit with a brewer from even tinier operation—Chris Jacobsen from Antithesis doesn't yet have a space of his own, so he's been sharing other folks' gear.
Aside from the half dozen beers I've already mentioned, Marz's output to date includes a porter called (probably inevitably) Bridgeporter, a saison provisionally christened May of '68, and versions of the Bubbly Creek brewed with yuzu fruit and with Chardonnay grape juice (the latter nicknamed "Winobacillus").
All of those (except the yuzu Berliner) were among the six Marz beers that Maria's had on tap the day I hung out there with Marszewski, Olson, Lange, Alvarado, and Redwick; the others were Smoke Wheat Every Day, the Machine, and the collaborative Harvest IPA.
I tried the plain version of the Bubbly Creek Berliner weisse at the brewery, before we adjourned to the bar. It might've been my favorite of the day. Soured with Robertson's own strain of lactobacillus, propagated for Marz by Lance Shaner at Omega Yeast Labs, it smells like lemon juice, dry straw, water crackers (most of the malt is white wheat), and the rind of an aged cheese. Despite an alcohol content in the vicinity of 3 percent, it's beautifully silky, with lively carbonation that makes it feel simultaneously airy and plush, almost like a meringue. Soft tartness combines with creamy malts and subtle fruit flavors to suggest vanilla yogurt with peaches, and the beer finishes with a tingle of spice and something funky that reminds me of pineapple drinking vinegar.
The Winobacillus version seems less spritzy, with a slicker feel and a rich, slightly musty aroma, like wet cardboard, grape skin, old sherry, and toffee. The tart, creamy flavors are still there, though, but this time the accompanying fruit leans more toward strawberry and melon.
Smoke Wheat Every Day (4.3 percent alcohol) is a blend of two parts Bubbly Creek to three parts smoked wheat ale. (The latter is made with 95 percent smoked malt, so thank goodness it's diluted.) Unsurprisingly, it's also a light but creamy beer, with malts like a flour tortilla blistered on a gas range and a lovely sparkle of green apple and white grape to brighten the smokiness. It's a bacon sort of smoke, not an ashtray sort of smoke, which is definitely a good call.
The Marz guys classify May of '68 (7 percent alcohol) as a saison, but it's like no other saison I've ever had—I kept returning to it, trying to get a handle on its combination of toasty, buttery caramelized malts, bitter but distinctly tropical hops, and crazily winelike fruitiness, which tangled together red grapes, tawny port, and even bubblegum. The yeast is doing something magical here, like the yeast in De Dolle's amazing Stille Nacht (though the two beers don't have much else in common).
Brant Dubovick, head brewer at DryHop, had spoken highly of the Machine (5.3 percent alcohol), so I was ready to like it—and the beer made it easy. Though it's hopped with Simcoe, Amarillo, and Warrior, it gets much of its idiosyncratic character from a hefty dose of Nelson Sauvin, a variety whose big, intense, rounded profile always reminds me of baked pineapple and fresh cedar bark. Raspberry, ruby red grapefruit, and cantaloupe help balance the malts, which have a sort of burnt-toffee-and-pancakes thing going on. The Machine's finish is startlingly light and quick after all those powerful flavors, and leaves behind a glimmer of clean mineral bitterness.
The Harvest IPA (5.8 percent alcohol) uses just-picked Cascade cones and pelletized Centennial hops, and it might be even better balanced than the Machine—it's got pine and tangerine on one side and honeyed biscuit on the other, bridged by Alfonso mango and jasmine. Freshness is key with wet-hop IPAs, so make this your first Marz beer if you get to choose.
By the time I started taking notes on the Bridgeporter (6.3 percent alcohol), my palate was pretty muddled and fatigued, but I could still tell it was a solid beer: sweet and roasty, with notes of cafe au lait, milk chocolate, and toasted hazelnut. I might've wished for a more luxurious mouthfeel, in keeping with those dense and decadent flavors—but maybe it's better that Bridgeporter is an easy drinker. I could go for more than one.
The Marz guys also brought a hand-bottled sample of a Bridgeporter variant called What the Pho, brewed in collaboration with chef Bill Kim. Kim infuses oak staves with the spices from his pho base (I'm a little unclear how that works), and then the wood goes in the fermenters. I'm not sure which spices he used—cinnamon, cloves, ginger, fennel seed, and star anise are all common in pho—but for better or worse, the beer doesn't taste much like soup. I wrote down "Mexican hot chocolate."
Marz has no obvious home run in its lineup yet—a beer that could do for it what Black Butte Porter has done for Deschutes, for example. (Well, not unless Berliner weisses get way more popular in a hurry.) But by drawing on a diverse talent pool, these folks already make good beer across an impressive range of styles. I look forward to seeing what happens as their brewery grows.
Right now Marz has a capacity of about 450 barrels annually, and Marszewski hopes to bump that up to 600 or so next month by switching to larger brewing vessels. He thinks that will be enough beer to cover the brewery's costs (assuming it all sells), but in this as in most other aspects of the business, he's learning as he goes. At its current facility, Marz will top out at maybe 900 barrels a year, and that will require more fermentation vessels (which aren't in the cards till late this winter at the earliest).
Marz is self-distributing for the time being, and has only shipped kegs so far (it delivers to roughly three dozen bars, among them Dusek's, Owen & Engine, Jerry's Andersonville, and the Rock Island Public House). Sometime in October the brewery wants to start packaging its beer for store shelves—22-ounce bombers, maybe 500-milliliter bottles—and to that end, it's bought a labeler and MacGyvered itself a bottling machine. Marz's initial bottle labels have already been approved by the feds.
Further down the road, Marz hopes to build a tap room and beer garden at the storefront space, as well as move its production facility to a bigger building—big enough for a 30-barrel Sprinkman brew house (similar to the hardware Empirical Brewery has). At that point the storefront will become Robertson's domain, devoted exclusively to sours. That's all at least a year away, probably more, but Marszewski is already at work scaring up another round of funding from friends, family, and (for the first time) outside investors—he's hoping to sway some brewer friends in the Netherlands. Marz's current "people pitching in whenever" staffing system seems likely to break down if the operation grows that much—Marszewski will have to see how many of the part-timers feel like leaving their jobs and coming aboard full-time.
The Marz launch party at Co-Pro tonight runs from 6 till 10 PM, and it includes Marz beers (of course), food from Honey Butter Fried Chicken and Publican Quality Meats, and music by Bobby Conn. It was originally an invite-only event, but several dozen tickets have been made available to the public at $10 apiece. Sales end at 5 PM.
This week's first sign-off song isn't metal, but it's a welcome reminder that the Flaming Lips haven't always been insufferable: "Take Me ta Mars" appears on the 1990 album In a Priest Driven Ambulance.
I also dug up a few details on a short-lived NWOBHM band called Marz, whose entire catalog consists of the 1980 single "Lady of the Night." Marz shared a couple members with Overdrive, including drummer Ian Padgett; more than 30 years later, he's still active in music, and appears on the The Final Nightmare, which Overdrive released last month. This is "On the Road to Freedom," the second of three songs on that lone Marz single.
Lastly, Italian psychedelic doom band Ufomammut has a song called "Mars" on the 2005 album Lucifer Songs.
I know I posted Ufomammut in my Smylie Brothers review in July, but I'll take any opportunity to show them a little love.