18th Street Brewery is hedging a bet. A bet that you'll take an afternoon to hop on the South Shore Line to Indiana to try out their beer. Located in Miller Beach, a small lakeside neighborhood in eastern Gary, it's probably not a place that's high on most Chicagoans' list of places to visit. Many of us know Gary as a town that's seen brighter days. A town with a rich history long lost in the decay of a struggling industry.
Drew Fox and 18th Street want to change that image. The brewery, originally funded through Kickstarter, has blossomed into reality and plans on opening it's doors later this week. We stopped into the, at the time, still under construction brewery and tap room to talk shop. What we found was a man passionate about his city, his new business, and most of all, the beer he brews.
Thanks for having us Drew. Tell us a little about your background. Are you originally from the Gary area?
No, I'm originally from Chicago, I grew up in Humboldt Park and then moved out here about eight years ago. My daughter and my son go to IU. We wanted to send them to a nice well rounded private school and obviously Chicago is fucking expensive.
So where did you learn the art of brewing?
My background comes from a lot of reading and homebrewing. In 2009, I started homebrewing on a small scale. In November 2010, I built a 350 sq ft test batch facility in our back yard and started doing all of our test batches there. I wasn't really ready to put those beers out into the market. Later, I got invited to do Brew Springsteen which is where I met Brad Shaffer and Jason Klein from Spiteful and really got into the community. Along those same lines, Pipeworks was starting to come out around 2010. I met Gerrit Lewis at an event and just hit it off. We realized we were trying to do the same thing they were and they got out of the gate before pretty much anyone outside of Revolution. So I started volunteering there every now and then. Gerrit called me one night at 1 o'clock in the morning and said, "Hey, you want to come work with us? I know you're trying to do your own thing but we need help." I was like, hell yea! So I started out two days a week while I was working my day job. Two days went to three days and they wanted to bring me on full time. I couldn't do that but it really worked out in the end. It gave me a lot of access to things which most people didn't have access to. I pretty much worked for them ever since.
So what's with the name? Was 18th Street supposed to be on the south side of Chicago?
Our original plan was always to be in Gary. 18th Street, the name, came about because I lived in Pilsen for a little bit and fell in love with the culture and community. We wanted to open a bar there but the Alderman was a dick. And we're like, fine, we're taking the name with us!
We're betting most of our readers haven't explored the south shore too much. What's something people should know about your community?
Miller Beach is a beach community and we have one of the best locations in North West Indiana. We're just 1.8 miles from the beach. They just dropped $28 million into Marquette Park which is gorgeous. The Aquatorium was redone right about the same time which is about $4.5 million. We're surrounded by national park. There's a lot to do in this little community. It's really a hidden gem that a lot of people don't know about. So when people ask, why did we choose Gary? Well for one I live here. Two, we want to showcase a lot of what's happening here.
How have you been received by the people here?
We're the first brewery in Gary. Originally the city didn't understand what a brewery and tap room was so they gave us a little bit of shit. We had to go in and really educate them. Miller Beach (where we're at in Gary, an annex of Gary that's still part of the city) has an MBA (Miller Business Association) which is our Chamber of Commerce. They're really happy we're coming but the city of Gary was a totally different story. You've got to remember that there have been a lot of pipe dream businesses that say "We want to be in Gary" and they just never come to fruition. So they really vetted us out to make sure we are the real deal. As of late though, they've been very excited and enthusiastic.
Do you plan on tailoring your beer styles to the local market?
Absolutely. Gary is a blue collar town. Miller Beach is probably the more affluent area but it is definitely culturally diverse. We're surrounded by five steel mills. When the guys from the mills come down, I know for a fact that you may have a few who want a Russian Imperial Stout but I know a few who won't even touch it. We'll have Small Beers that will basically cater to that demographic. We'll educate them. We'll say "We know you love Pales at 2.5-3.5% but you really should try our new Pale which is 5.5%." We'll work them up to it. The biggest disservice you can do is come into any community and not educate the community on craft beer. You can't serve big beers in a community like this where customers aren't accustomed to it, so you have to work your way up. You've really got to respect that because they're the ones who will sit at your bar everyday and drink your beers.
What about the South Shore train around the corner? Your accessibility from the city has to be a big plus.
It's a huge benefit and we're really pushing that idea. We're still a part of the Chicagoland area. Just being on the train and twenty minutes away from the city means you can really come here, have a great time, and not worry about getting in your car and driving home. That's huge for us because we want this to be a destination point because of what we have to offer. The brewery is small piece of that. There's so much down Lake Street that people from Chicago don't know about. That train is really key for the success of this community but also the success of this brewery.
So about that beer... what will your opening day lineup look like?
Well we're brewing Hunter, which is our Imperial Double Milk Stout. We'll probably throw all that in barrels. We'll come back with Deal With The Devil and Sinister and then we'll do a Small Beer, right around 2-3%.
We've seen your bottles in a few places around the city like Gene's Sausage Shop in Lincoln Square and Bottles & Cans in North Center. Will we continue to see 18th Street on shelves in Chicago?
I love that place, it's awesome! Carly and Joe are just good people. We're going to be very selective about the accounts we do so we'll still be in Binny's, Capone's, Bottles & Cans, and probably a few others. But it won't be like we're going to flood the market in Chicago. A lot of people in the community have been waiting for us to open. So to distribute everything away and not distribute locally would really hurt us in the long run.
And so, our final question. If you're not drinking your own beer, what's in hand?
I'll tell you, a lot of beers right now that really impress me are some of the beers Destihl is doing right now. They are making some amazing Sours, some amazing Small Beers. I saw Austin (Smythe) yesterday. He had this test batch of a Small Beer that was awesome. I'd say that's probably the brewery to watch out for.
We can't thank Drew enough for taking the time during the final stages of their construction to chat with us. There's no doubt in our minds that we'll be making that trip down to Indiana on the South Shore line and can't wait to see the planned beer garden this spring.
Photography by the talented and beer loving Melinda Meyers.