The brand identity of the new Half Acre Beer—which launched its first brew, a lager, last week—is all about Chicago. The label's dominated by the silhouette of an iconic Chicago water tower. The company has office space in the meatpacking district. And the marketing slogan touts the label as "growing in Chicago"—eliding the fact that Half Acre Lager is brewed in Wisconsin, by Sand Creek Brewing up in west-central Black River Falls.
Now, contract brewing is nothing new—did you know that Samuel Adams Boston Lager has been made, variously, at large regional facilities in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Rochester, and Portland, Oregon? But the idea of farming out business across state lines doesn't quite jibe with the image of craft brewers as hands-on artisans, back in the garage geeking out over hops into the wee hours.
I asked Half Acre cofounder Gabriel Magliaro, whose business card gives his title as "point man," what the deal was. He pointed out that opening a brewery in the city of Chicago is notoriously difficult and notoriously expensive, and he and his partners, Brian Black and Maurizio Fiori, aren't interested in losing their shirts. This way, he said, they can try to accumulate a little capital before diving into the financial deep end with their own brew house.
He's not alone. Contract beers make up about 30 percent of Sand Creek's business, says brew-master Todd Kruger. In addition to the brewery's own roster of 11 beers, Sand Creek produces peat-smoked stout for Spring Green's Furthermore Beer, pilsner for Saint Louis's reborn Griesedieck Bros., and green tea-infused Zen IPA for Madison's BluCreek. He sums up his attitude toward contract brewing this way: "It's your beer, pay us, have a nice day!"
Until last year Magliaro was the ad director for Chicago Life, the glossy magazine supplement to the local edition of the New York Times, and his beer-making experience was limited to home brewing and a couple courses at the Siebel Institute, on North Clybourn. He's spent the last 18 months or so developing Half Acre Lager, working with brew-masters at Siebel and then at Sand Creek to fine-tune the recipe. (His partners are mostly money men.) Along the way he also inked a distribution deal with Chicago Beverage Systems—after many, many meetings. "We're a unique client for them," he admits, but the "adult beverage" industry is changing so fast, with the booming interest in small-batch and artisanal products, that it's in the best interest of outfits like CBS—which was the subject of some unflattering press last year when Bell's pulled out of the Chicago market as a result of a conflict with the distributor—to figure out how to deal with the little guys.
Right now bottled Half Acre Lager is available at six outlets, and most are within spitting distance of one another in Bucktown and Wicker Park: Jerry's, Pint, the Charleston, the Always Open convenience store at Milwaukee and Wabansia, and the 7-Eleven on Damen across from the park. (The sixth is Bacino's downtown.) Magliaro's hoping to have about 40 accounts by next month and just bought his first batch of kegs, so draft lines should be forthcoming. A Half Acre ale is in the works, on track for mid-November. Beyond that, he says, he wants to keep things pretty simple, adding maybe just a seasonal beer or two as inspiration strikes, and then, y'know, maybe build that brewery.
But enough about the business plan—how's the beer? It's pretty good: hoppy (for a lager), with a light, airy body and clean finish. It's also got this subtle, unusual citrusy-sweet note that tasted (and smelled) of oranges. But Magliaro says any fruitiness is a natural by-product of the fermentation process: the only thing in his beer, he swears, is water, yeast, and "lots and lots" of German malt and Czech Saaz hops. It's unusually robust—minimally filtered and lagered for a full 30 days. Good enough to brave Pint for? You be the judge.
For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gabriel Magliaro photo by Jim Newberry.