Most people think they know art when they see it. Whether it be walking the countless galleries of the Art Institute or passing one of the many architectural gems scattered across the city, there's no shortage of 'art' in our city. But what about other forms of art that don't immediately spring to mind? The comic book, for instance, has seen a renaissance of sorts in the last decade with the revival of some of the format's most storied characters on the silver screen. And what about video games? Years of work poured into a totally immersive world, with gameplay that blurs the line between fantasy and reality...
And then there's our beloved beer. When you really boil it down, craft beer is an art form. Each drop getting lapped up by the adoring hoards of beer nerds is the result of months of testing, sampling, and retesting until the brewer is satisfied with their creation. Two IPA's sitting side by side on your local store shelf can be as different and unique as the minds behind them.
Chris Tourre and Lance Curran (above, left and right respectively) of Arcade Brewery know their art. But you won't see them around town with a paint brush in hand anytime soon. Instead, they're combining their passion for comic books and video games with their love of beer to create something truly unique. The beneficiaries of a successful Kickstarter campaign, Chris and Lance plan to launch Arcade Brewery into a market already flooded with fantastic beer options. So what makes them unique? And why should you care, you ask? I recently joined up with the pair for a few beers at Fountainhead to discuss exactly that.
Thanks for meeting with me today! As a small brewery still getting on your feet, I can only imagine how busy you are. How did you guys get together and what are your roles at Arcade?
Lance: I'm considered the Creative Director...
Chris: ...And I'm Head Brewer. We also have an assistant brewer, Jay Eychaner, who will be working with us. He is brewmaster certified from Versuchs-und Lehranstalt für Brauerei in Berlin, Germany. We also have PJ McNulty, who is leading our sales department. He has tons of experience as one of the managers at Beer Bistro in the West Loop and he spent 10 years at Goose Island doing everything from cleaning kegs to pushing 312 out the door. We have a solid team of people that we're comfortable working with and everybody kind of has their role. It all comes down to getting our beer in people's hands so they can try it.
Lance: To give you a little bit of history, Chris and I were actually in a band together. We were working on an album when the studio we were working with flooded. We had this really amazing opportunity to record with one of my old heroes who had been working with us on our Arcade Kickstarter campaign – Martin Atkins, who was the drummer for Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, and Public Image Ltd. After the flood, that's when Chris started bringing up his brewing project. With my love of beer and my experience at Threadless, I thought we could do some interesting things; do some things that people had never done before. We're about creating experiences around the beer. From our bottle caps to our artwork, there's going to be a little something extra with Arcade that most breweries don't have.
Chris: To put it simply, I run the brewery side of things...
Lance: ...and I come up with creative ways to make it sell.
I've been hearing talk of Arcade for sometime but have yet to try any of your beer. When will I get to sample the goods?
Chris: In terms of production, we're waiting until Ale Syndicate is up and running because we're going to be doing an alternating proprietorship. It's not a contract as we still have control over all of our beers. We're not paying them to make beers for us, we're paying them to rent time and space at the brewery. We own our own fermentation tanks in the brewhouse, so we can lock in our own capacity. We'll be open when they open. As things progress, as equipment gets ordered, we do it at the same time. License things are done simultaneously. It makes it a little more complicated because you're running two of the exact same businesses from the same address. Legally and paperwork-wise it becomes a little daunting. But the payoff in the end for us is to create a really great community within that one brewhouse space.
Has Ale Syndicate given you an idea of when they expect to open?
Chris: Yea, later this year or early next year. The equipment is going to be ordered shortly and it just depends on how long that takes to get manufactured. When they open, we open. The only thing that would delay us a few extra weeks would be the distribution. Ale Syndicate uses River North but we're going to self-distribute. Whenever you get a craft brewers' license from the state, there's a 45-day waiting period where we could be brewing, but can't actually have any beer off-premise. So that would be a great time to start doing sales. But we're going to be pretty much right in-line with the brewhouse launch of Ale Syndicate.
We talked to Ale Syndicate a few months ago and they really seemed to have a clear vision for where they're headed. How has it been working with them?
Lance: When we first met with them they were on the south side and we were really into what they were trying to do. Chris was doing what we call "public brews." He was brewing in different art galleries and having the community get involved by supplying different recipes, which is kind of the blueprint for what Arcade Brewery would become. I had been reading about Ale Syndicate and what they were doing and I invited them to come out. They did and they just fell in love with what we were doing, and with Chris' beer. We just started talking more and more and then finally decided, 'hey, maybe we should just work together on this.'
So what will your day one beer lineup look like?
Chris: I think we'll push out with the William Wallace Wrestle Fest Scotch Ale. We're also going to be doing a couple of public brews. The Grapefruit IPA and Mega Milk Stout are going to be perennials for us. We look at those as sort of our flagships at this moment.
Lance: One thing we're doing is building outside relationships with businesses using our bottle caps as arcade tokens. And we've been partnering with local businesses to exchange our bottle caps for discounts on products. The thing with craft beer is that a lot of people who drink it don't really have a beer they go to on a regular basis and keep that beer in their fridge every week. They keep trying new beers every week. So how do we build that loyalty? How do we get someone to keep picking up our six-packs? We're trying to find ways to build that interest and keep our beer in your fridge on a regular basis.
So are you producing any of these beers yet? Are the recipes down pat?
Chris: Yea, for sure. We've done enough pilot batches and developmental batches at the homebrew level that we're really happy, and they're all scaled up and ready to roll for our system. Obviously, things are going to change a little bit from the small batch to the large batch but we're happy with the basics of it and we're ready. There's nothing stopping us but the wait.
There's a major shift to when you go from homebrewing to production scale. When you're a homebrewer, it may be as simple as running down to the store to grab an ounce of Citra hops. But you don't necessarily have that luxury as a small brewery – to say you're going to have an IPA with Citra in it that you can make year-round. It's incredibly expensive and tough to source those ingredients.
Any trends in beer right now that inspire what you're doing?
Chris: Anything that pushes the local scene. It creates more passion around the beer, it creates a more knowledgeable customer base around the beer and it just makes it more fun. We're trying to take that whole concept a little further with our art and the design of what we're doing with our beer. We're taking it online and making it a world-wide experience instead of just a local one. People can actually be involved with the beer from a global perspective and not just have to think about 'local.'
Speaking of getting involved, I've been checking out the online Arcade forums. What's the idea there?
Chris: We're a crowd-sourced brewery. We have a line we call "public brews." We'll do them three to four times a year, seasonally. It's through our community that those beers will be developed. However, we're not necessarily doing homebrew to production. We'll get some input on some adjuncts that we'll add to the beer. We want people to have a say in the name, the ingredients and maybe some of the artwork. We really like to use that as a model. We've already done that with our William Wallace Wrestle Fest.
That's quite a name. Where did that come from?
Chris: We launched our first public brew and design challenge a couple months ago.
Lance: We said 'We're going to make a Scotch Ale, so what should we name it?' We had over 112 submissions for the name and then we narrowed it down to seven and voted on that. Then, we had a vote on our Facebook page. It ended up being William Wallace Wrestle Fest. We launched a design challenge around that theme and we had over a dozen design submissions.
Chris: That was great because we had designs coming in from California, Colorado, and Tennessee – so it was great to get all these different takes on the idea. A lot of the submissions were this sort of 8-bit design that people liked. But Lance and I were excited that Matt LaFleur's design won because it wasn't an 8-bit design. It was a very stylized pen and ink drawing. We didn't want to be niched into only being able to do video-game-related imagery. People thought that's all we wanted, though we made it very clear in the design challenge to not limit yourself to that style. It was very successful. Matt got paid $300 for the winning design and we're going to bottle that into a bomber and have a "Public Brew Day."
Lance: We really want to feature the artist as part of the beer. When it comes out, we'll have signings with them featured. We think of the artwork as part of the beer itself. It's part of the whole experience of the beer.
We've seen something similar a couple years ago when Finch held their Threadless IPA design competition.
Lance: It was really awesome. I'm actually one of the directors of Threadless and one of our advisers is the founder. So we'll definitely be doing a design challenge again soon. I've been with them for over eight years, so I'm very in touch with their community. The first person to send a design to the Arcade Brewery design challenge was Threadless designer Tom Burns – who created our most successful t-shirt design of all time, called 'Communist Party.' We were sitting around wondering if we were going to get any submissions at all, and the first one is this from very successful designer. He could be submitting them to anyone and he submitted to us for fun. That was really exciting to see that come in. We also had great participation with over one thousand people voting. For a brewery that hasn't released anything yet, it's pretty amazing to see that kind of involvement.
What about the design for your other labels?
Chris: Well, we've been trying to keep the design for the Mega Milk Stout kind of a secret, but we've been releasing the design for a lot of our stuff and letting people see the artwork. We've been keeping the Mega Milk Stout hidden and I think people are going to be blown away when they actually see it. The designer is Matthew Skiff, who's a very popular apparel artist. What he's done for our label has been pretty incredible.
Lance: I'm really into doing stuff with comics – but I'm not looking for us to do a collaboration Thor/Marvel beer. I want it to be original content by the creator. I want it to be something unique and original. I really get into the gaming industry and the independent game movement is amazing right now. People are creating indie games and it's being done by people right off the street. To me, that's a lot like the craft beer industry. You've got a lot of passionate people creating things that aren't supported by the big corporations, and I stand behind that a lot. I just like the originality of it.
Anything else coming up?
Lance: Have you heard about our comic beer coming out called 'Six Pack Stories'? We're putting out a beer which is basically a comic across six bottles of beer. The first beer is being done by the creator of Walking Dead, Tony Moore. It's called Festus Rotgut; a western Zombie tale across six bottles of beer. He's still working on it.
Chris: What's unique is that we'll wait for him to have the artwork into us – and then, as a brewery, we'll look at it to be inspired by the artwork. It's sort of a backwards design model.
So you don't have a beer to pair with the artwork yet?
Chris: We don't have any beer until we see the artwork. The comic script has been written for a while and was written by one of the top Marvel writers right now, Jason Aaron. He writes Wolverine and Thor and stuff like that. He put out a really great storyboard and Tony is the guy who actually created the artwork and co-wrote the first Walking Dead series. He came up with the artwork design, which he's still working on right now.
Have you seen any of the artwork yet?
Chris: Yea, we've gotten some concept artwork. He's a notoriously slow worker because his artwork is just phenomenal. We've been patient with him but we're really hoping it comes in soon.
Note from THR: Since we interviewed Chris and Lance, the Tony Moore artwork is complete! Keep an eye out for news on that front in the coming months.
Lance: He's also doing the six-pack carrier. At first we were going to have our designer do the carrier as well but he really wanted to do that. So it's going to be a very unique part of the story as well.
From a logistics standpoint, how does that affect producing it en masse?
Lance: It's going to be hard and time-consuming. You'd run six of each label through at a time, then package them all in milk crates. We're creating a collector's item. It's going to be good beer and have amazing artwork. We get emails all of the time asking when this is going to be out and how people can get it. That's something we're going to do annually, as I have a lot of contacts in the comic industry. A lot of these artists are big beer fans themselves so it's exciting for them and they really dig the concept.
When you're not drinking a homebrewed Arcade, what's in your glass?
Lance: I drink a lot of New Glarus. I go to Wisconsin a lot and pick up everything they put out. I get Black Top, a black IPA, which is probably my favorite IPA. As far as my go-to beer around here, that's probably Lagunitas. I really love Lagunitas.
Chris: It's the variety that I really like. I don't know if I have a go-to beer. My house beer is probably Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It's really an any-situation-beer. When I'm out at restaurants and bars, it's really whatever is new on tap. 'What can I try that will give me some insight into what's going on – or can give me some ideas for my own recipe development?' If you've ever read The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Pappazian, he says his favorite beer is 'the one I'm drinking right now.' You get to the point where you can't compartmentalize what you've had.
Where is Arcade Brewing in a few years?
Chris: First, we'd like our own facility. We want to work with Ale Syndicate. We have a great relationship with them, but we also know it's not permanent. If we want to grow some business, we can't be constantly using their facility. We want to have our own facility and identity and really encapsulate Arcade and who we are at that space. You want to grow capacity, you want to make more, better quality beer.
Lance: When you're starting something new, you want room to make a few mistakes. The relationship with Ale Syndicate allows us to make some mistakes, learn what works, what doesn't and really learn the business as we grow before we actually get into investing in our own facility. Ale Syndicate has been amazing in allowing us to really see what idea and concepts of our actually work. We really think of ourselves as much more than a local brewery, because of the opportunity people have to be involved in what we're doing. We hope to branch out to become a larger distributor...quickly.
For a brewery that doesn't have any production beer yet, there's certainly a lot to be excited about with Arcade. Give them your two cents by visiting their community forums. And make sure you're the first to know when you can try their brews by following them on Facebook and Twitter. They also run an incredibly entertaining Twitter/Netflix event called "Brew & Tweet" – the perfect solution for a slow weekday evening.
Thanks to Chris and Lance for taking time out of their busy evening to grab a beer and talk shop!
Photography provided by Jen Lemasters and Arcade Brewery