For some reason, whenever I hear about a brewery opening up in the suburbs, I tend to discount it. Not that I think the beer will be bad; it’s just that it is so far. I’ve been a fan of Church Street Brewing Company (especially their Heavenly Helles) for a while but I had no idea where Itasca was nor was I particularly interested in finding out. As many Chicagoans, there is Chicago and then there is the mysterious abyss that is the Chicagoland suburbs. The other day, however, the hubby (the genius that he is) asked, “Why have we never been to Church Street? It’s only a half hour away?” Why indeed. So last Saturday we packed up baby Flynn (who is now almost toddler Flynn) and headed to Church Street to sample some brews.
Like many suburban breweries, Church Street is located in a non-descript industrial park. We parked (bonus of suburban breweries? Abundant parking!) and entered the adorable tap room decorated with beer posters and growlers from local breweries. There are two or three high top tables with additional seating at the small bar. We were immediately welcomed by a friendly server who ran through descriptions of all of the beers. The hubby chose a pint of the Heavenly Helles and I got the Magisterium Maibock. Both are exceptional examples of their respective styles and we both kept asking ourselves why it had taken so long to venture out here.
Lisa Gregor, co-owner of Church Street, came over and started talking to us. I mentioned that we had met at an Illinois Craft Brewers Guild meeting about a year and a half ago and she immediately knew who I was and was ecstatic that we were able to make it out to the brewery. She asked if we would like samples and before we could answer, she disappeared behind the bar and re-materialized holding a cafeteria tray laden with one-ounce pours of all of their offerings. The first two were the Helles and Maibock that we had already enjoyed so we started the tasting with the third offering, an Irish red lager. The recipe for that beer is their Crimson Clover Irish Red Ale, but they fermented it utilizing lager yeast. The result was slight maltiness with a touch of roast and a clean finish. The next sample was the Heretic Hefeweizen. This is a lighter hefeweizen than you may be used to if you are a fan of the style with a balance of clove and banana, rather than letting either of those esthers overtake the beer. The next sample was the Devil’s Advocate Belgian Golden Strong Ale. This is a dangerous one since at 8.8% ABV it strikes a pretty hefty punch but goes down as smoothly as the Helles lager. The final sample was the Brimstone IPA, Church Street’s take on an American IPA with loads of citrusy Cascade hop aroma.
Lisa checked up on us and brought over a sample of the Itascafest Martzen fresh from the fermentor for us to try. I can’t wait until this one is ready; another trip to Itasca will definitely be in order. She then asked if we wanted to go on a brewery tour. We weren’t planning on it but I am never one to turn down the opportunity to hear about a brewer’s process. We met Joe, Lisa’s husband, head brewer, and co-owner at Church Street. Joe is an engineer by trade and still works at his “day job” while also churning out award-winning brews at Church Street (the Heavenly Helles was named Best Lager in Chicago by Chicago Magazine and Best in Show at the Midwest Craft Brewers Festival). He will retire from his engineering job next year where he has over thirty years invested and will then work at the brewery full-time. Joe did his homework prior to opening the brewery and spoke with individuals who had already gone through the process of opening a brewery. Unanimously the one thing that every brewery owner regretted was starting off with a small brewhouse. Determined to learn from others’ mistakes, Joe purchased a 30-barrel brewhouse right off the bat. In addition, Joe, who traveled a lot overseas for work and fell in love with German brewing methods, wanted to be able to utilize decoction mashing techniques so he installed two brew kettles. For those not familiar, decoction is a way to conduct multi-step mashes without adding additional water or applying heat to the mash tun. According to John Palmer, author of How to Brew, it involves removing about a third of the mash to another pot where it is heated to conversion temperature, then boiled and returned to the mash tun. Joe Gregor wanted to brew in the traditional German decoction methods so he installed the two brew kettles in order to allow him to do so.
While the majority of the beers Church Street brews are their own, about 20% of their business is contract brewing. They are working with the coordinators of Riot Fest to brew a beer especially for metal heads and they also brew a beer for the Wild Fire restaurant chain.
This was one of the most technical brewery tours I have ever been on; if you are a beer geek that likes to get into the nitty gritty of what makes a beer tick, this is the brewery tour for you. I often feel that the most important ingredient in brewing is the people and the passion that they bring to their craft. This is apparent in this small family business where each employee is more friendly than the next and is excited to sit down and talk beer. And Lisa offered to watch Flynn for a few minutes so the hubby and I could enjoy our beer and some adult conversation. Now that I know where Itasca is, the hubby, Flynn and I will certainly be back. Do yourself a favor and pay them a visit and sample some “righteously good beer!”