Four Local Craft Beverage Makers Bring Change to Industry and CommunityFeb 27, 2023 ● By Bob Benenson
Photo credit wallsdesk.com
With more than 200 breweries in the Chicago region, we are living in the golden age of craft beer. With so much competition, brewers must bring their A-game, which makes it easy for beer lovers to find local, well-crafted, enjoyable brews. For some of these area breweries, it’s not just about the liquid in the glass, but about innovating to elevate the craft beer sector as a whole. Here, we highlight four of our area’s breweries that are making big strides in incorporating local, organic and botanical ingredients, sustainability and equity into their brews.
A decade ago, the craft beer world had been overtaken by one among the many dozen varieties of beer: India Pale Ale, or IPA. This style is known for its hoppy (i.e., bitter) flavor and relatively high alcohol by volume (ABV), and for a time some brewers engaged in a race to see who could produce the hoppiest, or highest-octane, IPA.
Chicago’s Forbidden Root, started by investor/entrepreneur Robert Finkel in 2013, took a very different direction. For this brewery, it wasn’t about the hops or the ABV. It was about the unique flavors produced when a brewery added botanicals—flowers, herbs, fruit and, of course, roots—to a beer’s recipe. To lend a bit of magic, Forbidden Root brought in legendary craft brewer and author Randy Mosher with the title of “alchemist”.
Forbidden Root distinctive beers quickly found a following, which led in turn to the 2016 opening of its brewery/restaurant in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood and the late 2021 opening of Cultivate by Forbidden Root, its brewery/restaurant in Ravenswood, amid the concentration of breweries known as Malt Row.
A willingness to experiment with ingredient combinations has given Forbidden Root one of the most unique beer menus anywhere. Director of Operations Brian Krajack describes the creative process: “We still want to make sure we’re sitting on the side of things like, doing a farmhouse [ale] with turmeric. We had one that was called Further Afield, with lemon thyme, Meyer lemon and marjoram, it was awesome… We want to have the fruited botanicals, but we do love the spice elements of the botanic world as well, especially since we love cooking; all of us do,” Krajack says. “We’re always talking and thinking of ideas and experiencing what other people bring to the table and incorporating thoughts and ideas from anyone we talk and meet with.”
Broken Tee Brewing, a new crafter that opened last July in suburban Highwood, and owner Paul Bumbaco found farmer Kyle Jacobson, of Jacobson Family Farms, in Antioch, who could use the spent grain from his brewing process as livestock feed. Spent grain is highly perishable, so one of the keys to making this work is that Jacobson is only about 30 miles north of Broken Tee.
During his long tenure as golf pro at Skokie Country Club, in Glencoe, Bumbaco became an avid home brewer, eventually building a mini-brewery in his home basement that includes a canning machine. He began his career transition serving as taproom manager for Ravinia Brewing, in Highland Park, then found the location to build out his own brewery in nearby Highwood, located a few steps from the Metra train station.
“I think we’re very conscious of sustainability in the industry and also recycling,” Bumbaco says. “So, for our brand, my head brewer and myself, the notion of not having our spent grains end up in a dumpster or in a landfill was very appealing.”
Groundbreaking Organic Beer
Michael Cameron had a dream as he and his wife Helen built their Uncommon Ground restaurant into a pioneering farm to table institution. As a member of a brewing family in the Pacific Northwest, he wanted to start a craft brewery of his own. He finally met that goal in 2014 by opening Greenstar Brewing in a backroom space at Uncommon Ground’s Lakeview restaurant. It wasn’t just another craft brewery; in keeping with his and Helen’s strong belief in better-for-people, better-for-the-planet food, Greenstar because the first Certified Organic brewery in Illinois.
According to Cameron, “The only challenges were explaining to people why we were doing this.” It helped that Uncommon Ground already had so much credibility among good food diners. “I remember the first comment we got from people was, ‘Oh, of course you did. That’s where you guys are, of course, you open an organic brewery, that’s who Uncommon Ground is,’” Cameron says.
Brandon Stern, Greenstar’s head brewer, explains that organic grain, hops and yeast respond the same in the brewing process as do conventional ingredients. The challenge, he states, is that organic ingredients are just harder to source. “I really only have access to probably five or six different malt varieties,” Stern notes. “Hops, again depending on supply, I’d say probably at most 10, maybe 12 varieties, so it forces a lot of creativity.”
Women-Owned Brewery, Cider House and Hard Cider Brew Pub
When Eris Brewery & Cider House opened in 2018, it would have made a splash just by being the first brewpub in Chicago that emphasized its own craft hard ciders over beer. There are currently 11 different homemade ciders on Eris’ menu, many of them creative flavor combinations with names such as Punx, Apfelort, Pepper Jam, Baked Apple, Peach and Bong, and Berri Mint. By comparison, there are four house beers on the menu.
But the impact of Eris goes far beyond its cider-centric appeal because it is one of the few adult beverage companies that are women-owned and operated. Michelle Foik, a veteran beer and cider marketer, teamed up with Katy Pizza, which brought loads of project manager experience to the table. (Katy’s husband Nunzino Pizza was an early investor in Chicago’s legendary Revolution Brewing, where Foik also formerly worked.)
Together, Foik and Pizza chose the name Eris from the Greek goddess of discord, oversaw the overhaul of a former longtime masonic temple in the Old Irving Park neighborhood, opened to positive reviews, and then together weathered the critical challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Foik’s ability to break through the glass ceiling in the male-dominated industry benefited from her strong reputation working in many managerial roles at major producers such as Revolution, Goose Island Brewing and Virtue Cider. Foik says that for a long time she would speak at seminars and ask women in the audience if they had owned businesses and liked beer, and hands went up, but when she asked if they would like to own their own brewery, there was little response.
Now Foik sees changes afoot. “There are a lot more women that are interested in the brewing industry, and that’s a positive change,” she says. “Now you’re seeing more women working directly in the heart of the brewing industry, rather than just sales and marketing.”
Bob Benenson is the publisher and writer of Local Food Forum, a newsletter that covers all
aspects of the local food community in the Chicago region. He can be contacted
at [email protected] Corp.
Forbidden Root, 1746 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago
Cultivate by Forbidden Root,
4710 N. Ravenswood Ave., Chicago
Broken Tee Brewing Co.,
406 Green Bay Rd., Highwood
Uncommon Ground/Greenstar Brewing,
3800 N. Clark St., Chicago
Eris Brewery and Cider House,
4240 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago