Empirical Brewery: Applying the Scientific Method to the World of Beer

I first heard of Empirical Brewery over a tweet in August 2011, just a few days before the Great Taste of the Midwest: “Anyone going to #gtmw!!! Win a free Empirical tshirt by finding us in the crowd & tweeting me a pic of you w/ our staff!”  Oh, I was on this.  I will do (almost) anything for a free t-shirt, so in addition to planning out what beers I wanted to hit at the festival, I studied the Empirical logo tirelessly so I would be able to pounce as soon as I caught sight of it.  I didn’t have to train too hard, though. As luck would have it, an Empirical staff member was on the bus that the hubby and I took from Chicago to Madison and I unashamedly tackled him and forced him to pose for a picture. However, even though I provided my address to the woman in charge of Empirical’s social media operations, weeks turned into months and I still had not received that coveted t-shirt.  This turned out to be a valuable bargaining piece as I used it as leverage to gain an interview with the founder of Empirical Brewery, Bill Hurley. He better not forget to bring the t-shirt…

We agreed to meet up in the bar area of Haymarket Pub and Brewery on the evening of Friday, November 18, 2011. I forgot how loud Haymarket can be on a Friday night; it wasn’t really conducive to an interview. Luckily, beer makes me talk louder so I started with the Indignant Imperial Stout, a 13% ABV behemoth that was aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels. Hurley arrived at 6pm on the dot and when the server came by, he ordered a 4-oz pour of all of the house beers. He explained he hadn’t been there in a while and wanted to see what Pete Crowley, Haymarket’s Director of Fermentation, was up to.

As we waited for Hurley’s samples to arrive, we began chatting about recent beer events in and around Chicago, such as the Three Floyd’s 15th Anniversary Party and Chicago Craft Beer Week.  By just observing Hurley during our off-the-record small talk, it is immediately apparent that this is a passionate, precise, and ambitious individual. When the samples of his beers arrived, he would take careful, calculated sips, and hold each sample glass up to the light to check out the clarity. At one point our server looked over a little confused and Hurley said “I think I always freak the servers out, they think there’s something wrong with the beer.”

Hurley is passionate about beer, and passionate about Chicago. According to Hurley, Chicago is being reborn with regards to craft beer.  “We have really talented people here; Chicago will be the best beer town before long.”  Hurley, who has been studying the market since Empirical’s inception in December 2010, says that the craft beer market in Chicago isn’t even close to being saturated.  According to Hurley, there is still a lot of room; we’re not even growing at 30%.  Right now we are displacing a lot of lower end brands but we can’t confuse that with actual market growth, says Hurley.  With Empirical, his ultimate goal is to create a lasting Chicago brewing institution. Hurley explains that we have Siebel Institute in town, the best water; there’s no reason why Chicago can’t be the best beer town in the country.  But the city of Chicago is not as supportive as some smaller beer cities such as Asheville, NC or Portland, OR; there are still a bunch of hoops you have to jump through to start a brewery here in Chicago.  Hurley is eager and wants Empirical to be up-and-running as soon as possible, and he wants Chicago to be a great beer city again.

Hurley’s financial advisors are not as enthusiastic about his business ambitions as he is.  In fact, just about all of them told him to reconsider starting a business in the current economic climate.  He already has the initial investment allocated, however, and he has received more interest than expected from investors.  He is very particular when it comes to the investors, stating that it is a requirement of any investor to 1. like beer, 2. like Chicago, or 3. like both, and he will not accept an investor who is only in it to make money.  He is in a unique position in that he has enough interest that he can turn people away and be selective with the individuals who provide financial support.

Hurley has not decided on the neighborhood location for the brewery yet although he is in negotiations with two places.  Due to the current real estate market, though, he may re-open negotiations to try and get a better price.  He is still keeping his eyes open and testing the waters; he wants to make sure it is the perfect space.  He is currently vetting equipment providers and also expects to have the equity license by the end of January.

Even though Empirical Brewery is still in its infancy, Hurley already has his sights on being an export brewery. “Why don’t we export our beer (overseas)? And why are we importing lagers?” He makes a good point.  I can speak from experience of being in Spain last summer that the only American beers available in Europe are watery lagers such as Budweiser.  And many of the foreign beers that are imported to the United States are of the same variety (e.g., Heineken, Stella Artois). “We have the best ales,” says Hurley, who continues explaining how these higher-alcohol, heavily hopped ales would stand up to export better than the light lagers. Hurley said he has spoken to brewers around town and asked them what their biggest problem is. Unanimously, they say it is keeping up with demand.  But why aren’t they exporting? From the start, Empirical is looking to export and be one of the only American craft brews available in Europe. “This is the best beer in the world and we need to send it overseas.”

While Hurley knows his beer and dabbles in homebrewing, he is leaving the recipe development and brewing operations to Jim Cozzens, a Siebel grad and certified Cicerone. Hurley met Jim through a friend, and within five minutes of meeting him, knew he was his head brewer.  “He’s got talent.  He doesn’t have the experience but he has the resume.” Jim just has this ability to look at an ingredient list and know what it will taste like, says Hurley. They approach recipes in a very scientific way, where they have an ingredient list, and change one variable to see how it changes the flavor of the beer. They have a few beers already in development and hope they will appeal to both the macro- and micro- beer drinker, in a high quality way.  “You have to have a quality product, and respect that product.”

Hurley and Cozzens had a tasting about a month ago to gain insight into what worked/didn’t work with their beers. (Good Beer Hunting provided a great recap.) This feedback from their future customers impacted the way three of their beers will be brewed.  This was very helpful for Hurley, who believes that it is his responsibility to educate the consumer, but that consumer needs to tell us what they like. Hurley enjoys this connection with the customer and feels it will lead to a higher-quality product. “This is the fun part,” said Hurley. In addition, Hurley feels it is important to set expectations up front and be responsive to the market place.

The theme of Empirical Brewery is science, and they want their beer to be named after science terms. They invite the public to submit “geeky, modern, fun” terms to be names for their lagers and ales. For more information about this up-and-coming brewery, visit their website by clicking here.

And, for those of you still wondering, yes, Bill Hurley brought me my long awaited t-shirt.  He also informed me that Empirical Brewery will be holding another tasting at the end of January and sweatshirts will be available.  Who do I need to tackle to get one of those?

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