Entrepreneurs built this great nation of ours; the creation of small businesses and ‘mom and pop’ stores were the foundation of our early economy. Since the industrial revolution and the increased popularity and convenience of big box stores a la Wal-Mart, America has, unfortunately, lost some of that independent spirit. In recent years, however, the trend has moved away from large corporations and towards these small businesses again. The Saturday in between Black Friday and Cyber Monday has been dubbed Small Business Saturday and encourages individuals to do their holiday shopping at small, standalone shops. Well, craft breweries are, by definition, small businesses and on this Small Business Saturday, I decided to support a relative newcomer to the Chicago craft beer scene: Lake Effect Brewing Company.
Although Lake Effect has been in development for a few years, it is no longer a brewery-in-planning since they recently received all of the licensure needed to start brewing and getting beer out to retail locations. The concept of the brewery is simple and focuses on the ingredients and water derived from the areas surrounding Lake Michigan, utilizing the lake’s water and Midwestern hops and barley, while concentrating on American versions of traditional European beers. Brewery owners Clint Bautz and Lynn Ford invited the hubby and me to stop by on Saturday to see the brewery’s progress and (what else?) try some beer! Both gentlemen are still working day jobs until they can generate enough cash flow to pay rent. Ford is a software engineer and Bautz, an Urban Planner, recently reduced his hours to part-time so he could dedicate more energy to the brewery. “My job’s really excited that I’m doing this,” said Bautz. “They thought that I might be going to a rival firm but when I told them about the brewery, they were very supportive.”
The brewery is 1500 square feet with room to expand next door. Ford found the space located at 4727 W Montrose after months of looking for a place to house the brewery. “It’s a pretty good location. Right by a Metra stop, a blue line stop, and a major bus hub,” said Ford. And in the spirit of craft breweries helping other breweries, Bautz purchased the fermentation tanks from Greenbush Brewing in Michigan. What’s great about these tanks is that they are on wheels so they can be filled and ferment the beer at room temperature, but then wheeled into the cold room for brightening.
If you have been following the Chicago craft beer scene over the last year, then you know what a slow and arduous process it can be; most breweries take between two and five years to go from “hey, let’s open a brewery!” to the first beer being poured at a local watering hole. Bautz and Ford have not been affected by the process, though, and just look at it as a series of steps. “It’s exciting,” said Ford. “It’s the little things. It’s methodical, baby steps.” Bautz added that they are following a phased approach, first concentrating on getting the factory up and going. “Then we can look to see if we are ready to get people in here to do growlers and stuff. Right now our goal is to make beer, get kegs out, establish a presence in the neighborhood, maybe do some tours. We’ve had a lot of people wanting to come over and check it out, have a few beers.”
“All we can do when the public comes here is 2-ounce samples,” said Bautz when I asked about the possibility of a tasting or tap room. “We would love to send people home with growlers now but we’re still waiting on [additional] licensing.” They hope to have a tasting room up and running soon after the first of the year. According to Bautz, they are debating whether to have it in the space next door, which is another 900 square feet, or to go to street level on Montrose and leave the brewery as just a factory. “That way we could treat it as almost a separate business,” said Bautz. Well, after all that talk about growlers, I wanted to get a taste of some Lake Effect beer. Bautz poured the hubby and me samples of three different versions of their Extra Special Bitter. The first one was fairly light and almost had a clean-lager quality to it. The second iteration was my favorite and was a take on a Belgian ESB as it used candy sugar with traditional ESB ingredients. The third version was quite tasty as well, although it was more traditional in recipe in that it did not have the candy sugar.
The brewery is littered with carboys filled with test batches of what Bautz and Ford hope to be final recipes. While it takes two brews to fill up one professional-grade fermentation tank, test batches are brewed once on the brewhouse and then the young beer is put in multiple carboys for fermentation. This more than anything speaks to the transition from homebrewer to professional brewer and it was interesting and unexpected to see this standard piece of homebrew equipment interspersed with professional brewing paraphernalia and tanks. Once the recipes are nailed down, though, these carboys won’t be utilized as much as the brewery focuses on production of their flagship beers.
Lake Effect Brewing Company had its first professional showing at Beer Hoptacular in early November where Bautz and Ford served up their Belgian Blonde, Centennial IPA, Lake Effect Snow (a Belgian Wit) and an Extra Special Bitter. The beers were well received by the thirsty crowd. And while Bautz and Ford were in attendance at the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers (FOBAB) earlier this month, they did not have any beer present. They should be pouring at next year’s festival, though, as they are tweaking their Imperial Stout recipe and there are already numerous barrels from local distilleries such as Few Spirits and Koval patiently waiting at Lake Effect to be filled with tasty beer. While they are concentrating on kegging for the time being, if they do bottle, it is going to be one of these stronger, barrel-aged beers.
While Bautz and Ford are excited to bring their beer to the whole of Chicago, they are even more excited about laying ground roots in the Jefferson Park neighborhood, an area that has just recently gotten into the craft beer arena. “Right now we are just concentrating on kegging and getting those kegs to local bars in the neighborhood,” said Bautz. “We have the Metra Station right there, it’s approximately 25,000 people that go back and forth on it everyday, and the Blue Line stop’s right there, so we’ll probably have a beer-to-go type operation.” Bautz mentioned that they will have an almost Floosmoor Station set-up in that the Metra stop is literally right next door.
And while Bautz and Ford are embracing the new neighborhood, Jefferson Park is embracing right back. “We have some really nice recipes and some really great bars in the area are interested in what we’re doing,” said Bautz. “There isn’t too much craft beer in this neighborhood. There’s Gus at Fischman [Liquors] who does a fantastic job bringing [craft beer] to the area. That’s just one stop up [on the Blue Line].” Some other craft beer bars in the area include Gale Street Inn, just a block up from Fischman’s; Hops and Barley, another great local pub featuring a great selection of craft beers; and Paddy Mac’s, which is located just to the east of the brewery, to name a few. “Then you have the dives, and what is funny about the dives is that many are making the switch to craft beer,” continued Bautz. “So these bars have a lot of older regulars but now that the taps have kind of switched over to craft beer, you are seeing a lot of long-time Miller/Bud drinkers starting to pick up a Kwak or Delirium [Tremens] or whatever.” And maybe, sometime soon, they’ll be picking up a Lake Effect Bitchin’ Blonde, too.
For more images from our visit at Lake Effect, check out my hubby’s photostream.