When you are opening a brewery in Chicago, there are a couple camps that you can fall into. You can either develop a strong social media campaign from the moment you decide ‘hey, I’m going to open a brewery,’ keeping your future customers informed of brewery buildout and test batches. Or you can take a more stealth approach, keeping your cards close to your chest until you are ready to release beers to the community. Jerry Nelson of Une Année Brewery falls into this latter camp. Jerry has been a quiet fixture of the Chicago craft beer scene for a few years. I first met him a year and a half ago and tried to convince him to sit down for an interview, but he kept telling me that he wasn’t ready. I got the impression that he wanted to be more established and to have a clear focus of his business plan prior to publicizing his brewery. Well, he is ready and his beers are slowly making their debut around Chicago. The hubby, baby Flynn and I were able to visit Une Année last week and get a better idea of how Jerry’s Belgian-inspired beers will take Chicago by storm.
The Few, The Proud
Not many can say that they learned how to homebrew in the Marines. But Jerry Nelson did. He was never a light beer drinker; if he had a beer, it was a craft beer. But in 1995, he was kind of turned off to beer in general and had already started switching to cocktails. It wasn’t until he started hanging out with a few homebrewers in the Marines that he started getting into beer again. He would sample these homebrews and began making the connections between different types of malt creating certain flavors in the finished product. “It was eye opening,” said Nelson. “I didn’t know there was more than one type of malt that you could put into beer. I think people are a little more educated about beer now than in the mid-nineties. But back then it was different.”
Nelson began to homebrew himself, utilizing a hotplate and a small kettle in the barracks. Whether or not homebrewing was allowed in the Marines was a bit of a gray area; since not that many people were homebrewing at the time in the 1990s, the powers that be turned the other way. However, it was standing order that you could only have a case of beer per person in the barracks at the same time. “I got busted on that because I had a couple cases of bottles [of homebrew] in my locker and then I had a fermentor, you know, fermenting beer. But I was just about to get out of the Marines so they were like ‘make it disappear and we’ll forget about this’,” said Nelson. Even after he got busted, though, he still didn’t stop. “I would cook and I would know when the inspection days were coming up. On those days I would move the fermentor and any extra bottles down to my car.”
In addition to learning how to homebrew, the principles Nelson learned in the Marines helped shape the man that would become a brewer and brewery owner. “I was definitely different before I went into the Marines. In high school I was a bit of a crazy kid and did things that I shouldn’t be doing. But the Marines helped me become more disciplined, and I am much more of a clean freak now. The brewery has to have a certain order to it. I think the organization will help in the long run once the brewery starts growing,” said Nelson.
Building a Brewery
After the Marines, Nelson went to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign to obtain a degree in Architecture and then worked as an Architect in downtown Chicago. “I had actually stopped homebrewing at this point. It wasn’t as easy to get ingredients, there wasn’t as much selection as there is now in Chicago,” said Nelson. About six years ago, a friend with a homebrewing kit invited Nelson over to help him out. “As soon as I came over and did that one batch with him, I wanted to continue to do it. I went online and thought it was great that there are now all of these great resources that I didn’t have when I was homebrewing in 1995. I was pretty much homebrewing non-stop from that point on,” said Nelson.
While many brewers have degrees in Chemistry or Engineering, Architecture is another discipline that provides an excellent foundation for a brewery owner. A background in Architecture provides the ability to break things down into small pieces; to focus on what needs to get done. “In Architecture, you go from the grand scheme and break it down into smaller parts. So when I was designing the brewery, I had the grand scale and then broke it down to how I wanted this thing to function.,” said Nelson.
Nelson’s degree in Architecture is apparent throughout his brewery. Nelson provided a tour of his brewery, starting first with his slightly modified grain mill; he added some enhancements to allow the mill (which looks only slightly larger than a homebrew model) to hold a full bag of grain. Many smaller breweries receive their grain pre-milled but Nelson wanted to mill right before brewing to add a little more freshness to the batch. Plus he gets to do things on the fly a little bit better, has a little bit more control over his brewday, and he can order grain in bulk. Nelson built his walk-in cooler, creating an insulated room made with left over materials from a few knocked down walls from a nearby building and a window air conditioner.
But the area where Nelson’s architectural background truly comes into play is the brewhouse. Nelson did not purchase a brewhouse from DME or another manufacturer. No, Nelson researched what he wanted and built it himself. He looked at Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas and the brewing systems they started on; they all started on systems that were similar in scale to Nelson’s brewhouse. “They were basically just large stainless steel vessels,” said Nelson. He found a fairly inexpensive wine fermentor and made that into his mash tun, adding a false bottom with a copper manifold, similar to a homebrew setup. “On a high gravity beer, we get about 80% efficiency,” said Nelson. The brew kettle is also a wine fermentor, and he laid all of the brickwork around the base of the kettle and installed the burner beneath it. He saved a lot of money putting together the brewhouse himself; the 15-barrel fermentors cost more than the brewhouse.
While the background in architecture definitely helped him in building a brewery, I was curious why he decided to make this career change. “I was an Architect and working at a good firm, but it was right in the middle of the economic crash of 2008 so I started looking for a new career,” said Nelson. “I was able to keep my job but it was right around the time I would have loved to have started my own firm as an Architect, but I would have been struggling due to the crash. So I started to look for something different. I was already homebrewing and I felt that was a good career path for me.” Once Nelson made the decision to pursue brewing as his career, he knew he had to step up his game. He attended the Siebel Institute to gain the theory and additional knowledge. He intensified his brewing and made sure what he was doing was by the book. He also started researching all the different breweries that opened up in the last 15 years or so to uncover how they started, and what kinds of systems they started on.
Belgian styles are Nelson’s favorite beers to drink so that is the style he is focusing on brewing at Une Année. “Back when I was in school, if I went to a bar and wanted something special, I would order a Chimay or a [Unibroue] La Fin Du Monde,” said Nelson.
Jerry plans on having a line of Saisons and a line of Trappist style beers. The first in his Saison series is Less is More, a session Saison that clocks in at only 4.6% alcohol but is full of complex citrusy flavors thanks to the orange zest and orange juice that is added. Less is More will be a year-round offering but there will be seasonal Saison offerings, as well, all with architectural references as names. (‘Less is More’ is the phrase made popular by German-American Architect Mies van der Rohe.) His Trappist line of beers will all have names that exhibit a party atmosphere. The first release will be Masquerade, a Belgian-style Tripel, and he is currently working on the recipe for Spectacle, a Quadrupel. Jerry plans on doing a Single and a Dubbel next year, both continuing with the party-atmosphere monikers.
There is no doubt that the Chicago craft beer scene is a supportive environment, but it is sometimes a challenge for a family man to partake in all of the Chicago craft beer festivities. Nelson is married with a young daughter (his Belgian IPA ‘Maya’ is named after her) and it is difficult to balance the brewer lifestyle with family time. “It is a little bit of a challenge because you want to do what the other single guys are doing,” said Nelson. “I think the craft brewers in Chicago have this really good camaraderie; they are getting together, they are going out and supporting each other. And that’s really great and I would love to do that, but I have to remember to get back home. I love hanging out with my family.” Nelson has even designed the brewery so he can be finished by 5 PM during the week and be home on the weekends. “I get to pick up my daughter, whereas before I started the brewery I was getting home at 7 PM. It is a balancing act. I usually go home and spend time with my family, and then when everyone goes to sleep I work on paperwork from 9 PM until midnight.” Nelson is fortunate to have such a supportive family as he has pursued his dream of owning a brewery. “If your family is not behind you 100% it’s going to be tough,” said Nelson.
For more photos of Une Année, visit Christopher Murphy’s photostream.