There has been a bit of controversy in the Chicago beer blog-o-sphere of late with regard to the plethora of new breweries opening up in the next year or so. Just this week, Kid Carboy on Aleheads.com outlined many of the new breweries vying to get in the Chicago craft beer market. It was not a comprehensive list, though, as he focused solely on the city proper and didn’t include any of the suburban Chicago breweries-in-progress. But I am in agreement with Paul from Chitown On Tap that Chicago is nowhere near saturated when it comes to local craft beer and breweries. As I’ve stated in previous posts, I am a firm believer in the more breweries the merrier (or “beer-ier,” if you will); we should make an effort to welcome and support any and all breweries trying to make it in the market. One of these new breweries aiming to join the Chicagoland craft beer scene is Solemn Oath Brewery, a venture between John Barley, a marketing/brand guy, and Tim Marshall, former brewmaster at Rock Bottom Lombard. We set up a time to meet at Haymarket Pub and Brewery where the symbolism did not escape me: I was meeting a former Rock Bottom brewmaster who is starting his own brewery, at Haymarket, a brewery opened by Pete Crowley, a former Rock Bottom brewmaster. Got that? I was not expecting to have as much fun as I did with these guys and I am excited to see what they will bring to the Chicagoland beer scene.
According to Marshall, he just fell into the career of brewing. He started working at the Rock Bottom in Warrenville as a Miller Genuine Draft-drinking server. He had never even had craft beer before; Rock Bottom was his foray into craft and he was amazed that beer could taste like that. He stayed with Rock Bottom and some brewers took a chance on him, and Pete Crowley was one of those brewers. Marshall never went to Siebel or had formal training; he just worked under some great brewers who were great teachers. Over the years, Marshall worked at both the Warrenville and Lombard Rock Bottom and “can’t say enough good things about those suburban Rock Bottom guys.” Crowley used to be the Senior Brewmaster for this region of Rock Bottoms and, therefore, was Marshall’s boss for a few years. When Crowley left Rock Bottom to open Haymarket, Marshall took over the Senior Brewmaster role. This position is now held by Rock Bottom Chicago’s Chris Rafferty.
Despite having one of the best beer-related names ever, this is Barley’s first venture into the beer business. His background is actually in marketing and he worked as a Director of Marketing for a local non-profit. He was always a fan of craft beer; in fact, he used to travel to Belgium fairly regularly to visit his parents who moved there when Barley was in college at DePaul. Barley’s father was not a fan of Belgian beer so it became a father/son outing to try to find a Belgian beer that his dad liked. While the father is still not a fan, it allowed Barley to taste some fantastic Belgian beers. However, it wasn’t until John Barley was visiting his brother in California 18 months ago that he started really thinking about the possibility of opening a brewery. The Barley brothers went around the San Diego area, going on beer tastings and having an overall fun time, and on the airplane ride back to Chicago, Barley began outlining his ideas about starting a brewery. Now John’s brother, Joe Barley, is moving to the Chicagoland area to assist his brother and Tim Marshall in getting Solemn Oath off the ground.
John Barley came up with the Solemn Oath concept, which is a reference to the oft-used Robert Burns poem bearing Barley’s namesake:
There was three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.
I asked Barley what this means, and how it became to be the foundation of their brewery. Barley said, “So these farmers swore a solemn oath to kill John Barleycorn, which was the personification of the grain. They swore to cut down the grain to provide for their families by making things like bread, or how we interpret it….beer.”
While Barley came up with the brand, he knew the people he needed to put in place in order to make the concept a reality. He met Tim Marshall during an extensive interview process to find a brewer and the two formed a friendship. And Barley knew Marshall was the guy to lead brewing operations at Solemn Oath. I asked them why they chose Naperville, rather than another suburb or even the city of Chicago, and I was not expecting such an enthusiastic answer; these two young men are clearly passionate about the area where they are building a brewery. “There is an excellent nightlife, and (Naperville) has a good craft beer scene, but it is still underdeveloped,” said Barley. According to Barley, downtown Naperville has 50 or so bars and restaurants, similar to the West Loop area of Chicago. Naperville consumers, however, still need a lot of beer education as wine seems to be the beverage of choice. “There are 450,000 people in Naperville and the immediate surrounding area, and no restaurant has tried to open a brewery or taproom in the downtown area, and it needs one,” said Barley.
When I asked the Solemn Oath guys about the types of beers they will be brewing, they said they want to “be different by being the same.” I wasn’t sure if I heard him correctly; or at least I thought he might have indulged in one too many of Pete Crowley’s fine beers. So I asked him to clarify his meaning. He provided Chicago’s Metropolitan Brewing as an example showcasing how the majority of the world drinks watery, tasteless lagers, but Metropolitan brews lagers that are insanely tasty and drinkable. That makes a lot of sense: you want to make beer that people can recognize and identify with, but you need to make sure it is also interesting and memorable. Marshall will brew the kinds of beer he likes to brew and feel out the suburban beer market by bringing 20-25 different beer styles the first year. This will allow them to throw the beers out there and see what people like, what they don’t like.
They plan on producing a full spectrum of beer styles, both ales and lagers. Marshall continued by saying that they will do lighter, fruitier Belgian styles, as well as a lot of wood aging. While a brewery’s barrel aged beers are often released in limited quantities, Marshall emphasizes that these will not be exclusive beers but rather a regular member of the everyday tap line-up. When I asked Marshall what were his favorite beers to brew, he looked at me with a straight face and said, “Anything that requires me to hit things with a mallet.” After he acknowledged my confused look, he further explained that he liked to brew beers that required a lot of monitoring and brewer involvement, such as crushing spices to add to a brew or ensuring that lagers are fermenting at the proper temperature.
Barley and Marshall are opening a production brewery rather than a brewpub because they want to support the already existing restaurant/bar scene in downtown Naperville. They want to produce exceptional brews that the Naperville area will serve in their restaurants; they want to support the existing infrastructure. The brewery itself is located in an industrial park and will be about 7000 square feet, with a 1000 square foot retail space and tap room. Barley showed me some pictures of the solid walnut bar and the tasting room glasses. This is going to be a classy, fun place to hang out, grab a beer, and fill a growler. I think it will be a destination rather than an afterthought; I can’t wait until they are up and running so I can travel to Naperville to check out the brewery.
While lately there has been a lot of talk of the Chicago area up-and-coming breweries and their statuses, Solemn Oath is well on its way of bringing its beer to market. They are currently building out the space (be sure to check out their Facebook page for pictures) and the brand new Premier Stainless brewing system should be delivered at the end of February or early March. Unfortunately, they still must wait for the license to come through which, according to Marshall, they should receive in two to 24 weeks.
It was around this time in the interview process that Pete Crowley himself came over and started talking with Tim and John about the brewery set-up. They shared horror stories of getting acclimated to new brewing systems and what Pete is currently working on. At this point Pete asked if we wanted to see the barrel aging in the basement. Uh, YES. Once again, I turned into a bit of a blubbering idiot around Pete Crowley. Hopefully I will get over that at some point in this blogging process. I mean, I won’t likely be a successful beer blogger if I faint whenever in the presence of brewing greatness.
After our tour of the inner-workings of Haymarket, we returned to our table where we continued to hang out, drink beer, and eat dinner. Typically when I ask owners of a brewery to meet up with me, I allot about an hour, an hour and a half tops, as I do not want to impede on their valuable time but John Barley and Tim Marshall were happy to hang around well into the evening. This is a great couple of guys and I am very much looking forward to heading out to Naperville to try their beers once they are operational.