Brewer Chat: John Saller of Atlas Brewing Company

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Atlas Brewing Company is a small craft brewpub located near the border of Lincoln Park and Lakeview. A recent addition to the neighborhood, Atlas has already impressed with their diverse beer selection and excellent food. We recently had a chance to speak with John Saller, one half of the brewing brothers behind the operation at Atlas, and he walked us through what they've been up to during their first year as well as their plans for the future.

 

Can you give us a little background on how you got started in the business?

I’d been working in restaurants for a while. Then I was a coffee buyer, then the wine buyer for a Whole Foods in Chicago and then began a business plan for a brewery. We finished a rough draft of the plan but we didn't’ have a very good sense of how to go about raising the money. Then we met Steve Soble who’s the owner at Seven Ten Lounge next door. We’re all Hyde Parkers and he actually started in business 30 years ago with a guy that I'd worked for and I’d known for 25 years. I was carrying around a binder of Siebel Institute  notes and he just asked if I wanted to start a brewery – and I said I did. 

Were you all homebrewers before that?

Ben [John’s brewing brother] and I were. Steve doesn’t have a background in brewing though he was one of the early adopters for good beer in Chicago, and is also friends with Ray Daniels and Randy Mosher; people who are very well known names in the homebrew world. They had talked about starting a brewery in the mid-90’s and the details just didn't work. So then, 15 years later, it started to pan out.

So, location for Atlas was kind of a no-brainer based on Seven Ten Lounge being next door?

Yea, so this used to be the pool hall for Seven Ten. So Steve, Ben and I all wanted to start a brewery – and Steve said if we could find half of the investors then we’d all go into business together. And that’s what we did.

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So how’s it been starting out? You've been in the space for how long?

No not even a year. We’re planning our first anniversary celebration on June 29th. We’ll tap our anniversary ale and hopefully roast a pig, and who knows what else.

In the past, I've helped open a restaurant and worked in another fairly new restaurant. And, as far as opening restaurants go, this has gone fairly smoothly. That said, opening a restaurant is not a smooth process. There are always dramatic things that happen, delays and all of that. But you know, we've been doing fairly well. We need to get busier but most of the time you hear that the 2-year mark is sort of the 'make or break' for a restaurant. And having been open less than a year we feel like we’re doing really well so far.

Was your background in restaurants your basis for incorporating food with Atlas?

I really like the hospitality aspect much more than I like the idea of selling 6-packs to liquor stores. I really like to bring people in and have a space where people can hang out, and where I can serve the beer myself. When Ben and I were originally making our business plan – which turned out to be unnecessary – it was for a production brewery.  And we didn't really see how we would have any hope of raising the capital to start a brewpub. But a brewpub was ultimately the goal. The fact that this was already a place with an existing kitchen, and bathrooms and all of these things that you need for a restaurant and brewery was great.

You also serve whiskey, aside from the food + beer focus, correct?

We have liquor as a whole, though our whiskey selection is definitely the best of the liquors. We try to have a few interesting gins as well, but definitely whiskey is our focus.

When you order your food or your whiskey, are you trying to come up with things that compliment your beer?

Everyone in the business has their own focus. So the kitchen does a really great job and is really focused on the food. I would say our beer is what sort of sets us apart in Chicago just because there are very few places that are making their own beer where you can also sit and have a meal. We try to have everything be part of a coherent idea. We try to have food that is beer-friendly, and most of our beers are food-friendly.

Can you tell us a little about the beer itself? It seems like you have a pretty diverse range. What's the hoppiest?

Right now it’s our Hyperion Double IPA. We try to always have a good variety of styles. We'll always try have a wheat ale on tap and have something on the light, drinkable end; obviously not as light as what people call light beer, but our Golden Ale was inspired by a German Pilsner. Otherwise, we do things seasonally. In the winter, the beers are going to get stronger and darker. In the summer they’re going to get lighter. At any given time we have 7 to 11 beers of our own on tap; and 1 to 2 of those are new beers that come out each month. So over the course of the time that we've been open I think we’ve had about 25-30 different beers. We have a new one coming out today, another new one will be coming out for our anniversary – we’ve got a proper Pilsner coming out. So actually we’ve got 4 new beers that will be tapped within the next month and a half.

And when you bring in new beers like that, are you allotting for that on your tap space or are you moving things out?

Things run out. So far, we’ve never had an issue where we’ve used all of our taps. We have 12 taps and we’ve only ever had 11 of our own beers at any given time. We brew a seasonal, and it runs out, then it’s gone.

I did see you've got new tap handles. Are those as of this week?

Yea, today. Actually one of the bowling mechanics next door runs a wood shop, and he made a big box of them for us. Also, as of today, we’ve signed on with a distributor. So hopefully we’ll start to see those handles in all sorts of other bars around the city.  Of course we’ll have a very small capacity as far as production breweries go.

Newly milled tap handles adorn the beautiful bar setup at Atlas.

Newly milled tap handles adorn the beautiful bar setup at Atlas.

What is your capacity?

With our current equipment, we figure we can maybe make 800 barrels a year and then depending on how business goes here we’ll maybe sell 500 of those in-house. So we’re talking 15 kegs a week maybe going out the door to other locations.

So, I remember seeing some of the old Atlas ads on the wall here and then realized it’s a previously used name, from an old brewery in Chicago. Was there a process about acquiring that?

The trademark had expired so we were able to just start using it.

How did you come across that one specifically?

It was actually kind of random. We all brainstormed, 3, 4, 5 hundred names and narrowed them down to our top dozen or so. 'Atlas' was one of the names we liked before we figured out it had been a brewery in Chicago a long time ago. So it was just by coincidence. When prohibition ended, the president of Atlas Brewing Company at the time mailed off their first case of beer to the President.

So are you planning on doing that?

Well, he is another Hyde Parker, maybe we should. Unfortunately, we don’t have a case of beer and he probably doesn't drink things that randomly arrive in the mail either.

The sense that we’ve gotten from the local beer scene is that, although you guys are all competing for the same market, you’re all still a pretty close group.

Yea, definitely. At this point, we know most of the brewers in Chicago, at least by name and face. And there are a few that we hang out with pretty regularly. We try and go try their beers and support what they’re doing, and we put their beers on tap here too. I think there’s room for everybody.

I saw you had recently done a collaboration with Begyle Brewing?

We actually did 2 with Begyle - we did one here and we did one at their place, and we tapped them both during Chicago Craft Beer Week. They were a Black Abby Ale, which is something that we kind of made up - a strong brown Belgian with raisiny, fruity malts and a little bit of a dark roasted malt. And the other was what we called a Galactic Witbier, which is a witbier that has Galaxy hops, so it has a little more bitterness than you would typically associate with a witbier, but also that sort of ‘new’ South Pacific fruity hop character. It’s a relatively new hop (from Australia) that has pretty much hit the US brewing scene in force in the last year or two.

I didn't realize Australia was really a hop-producing country...

Yea, so hops, similarly to wine grapes, have that sort of regional variation where you can taste something and say ‘oh this is a Pacific Northwest hop.’ And if you took that same hop and grew it in the Czech Republic, it’s not going to taste the same because of the climate and the soil, etc. So, we’re now getting varieties out of New Zealand and Australia that have flavors that you would not have associated with hops before: like blackberry, gooseberry, mango and other citrusy kind of flavors. There are some that even taste similar to like an Australian Sauvignon Blanc, that have grassy citrusy flavors.

Going back to collaborations, we saw that you’ve done some barrel-aging using Few Gin barrels, correct?

Right, besides Few we’ve done some with Koval too. We’ve aged some beers with whiskey barrels, some with gin barrels – all from local producers. [Pointing out barrels around brewpub] Let’s see, so that one there has our Imperial Stout in it. That one still has gin in it. This other one just had Imperial Stout in it, but now has our Black IPA.

Neighboring Evanston's Few Spirits share used gin barrels for those unique pours at Atlas.

Neighboring Evanston's Few Spirits share used gin barrels for those unique pours at Atlas.

Can you describe what this does to the beer?

When you start with a fresh oak barrel – we don’t, but when one does – they’re charred on the inside. So when you put liquor into it, it picks up that flavor from the oak. It gives it a little bit of that charred flavor, sometimes a vanilla flavor, a woody flavor. When you take all of the liquor out of the barrel, some of it has soaked into the wood, so then when you fill the barrel with beer, the flavor of the liquor and more of the oak flavor seeps out into the beer. Though the liquor has already extracted some of that oak flavor, so the oak taste that you get with beers isn’t as pronounced as it will be in a whisky or gin for example.

You hear a lot about the whisky barrel-aging as something brewers are doing, but using gin barrels seems unique.

We’re really excited about our barrel-aged stuff. We’re actually doing a barrel-aged cocktail too. We have a bunch of Letherbee Gin in there with some dark Belgian candy syrup, which is an ingredient that we use in beer, for some of our traditional Belgian styles. It actually dries the beer out when you use sugars because simple sugars ferment completely, whereas the complex sugars from the barley and wheat don’t ferment completely. This is what traditionally causes Belgian styles to be stronger. So, for our Anniversary Ale, we put a bunch of local honey in it, to get a little bit of that honey flavor, but also to achieve this.

It sounds like you guys are pushing a lot for that local influence.

As much as possible. You know, we’re still getting malts from the UK and from Germany, for when we are doing a certain style of beer. There are maltsters in the UK that have been making malt for hundreds of years that produce flavors that you just can’t get yet from what is available in domestic malts. And although most hops these days come from the Pacific Northwest, that’s starting to change. There is a guy who is organizing a collective of hop farmers in Michigan, Hop Head Farms, and trying to subvert the supply chain of hops to craft brewers. Because the Washington/Oregon hop system is very much geared toward large brewers, including the way that the hop farmers themselves are compensated -- they’re compensated by alpha acid content, which is what gives bitterness to a beer. So if you’re Budweiser, you’re looking to buy as few hops as possible, not really going for the hop flavor or aroma, you’re just going for that little bit of hop bitterness. So, the more alpha acid that is packed into the hops the better in that case. So growers in the Pacific Northwest have traditionally been paid by the alpha acid content, not by the pound. So, then you come along and start to grow Cascades which is the sort of classic aroma hop that helped make Sierra Nevada the huge influential beer that it is. Cascades have a third of the alpha acid as a lot of other varieties of hops. Then all of the sudden you’re asking farmers to grow something that is a third as profitable for them. But the reason they’re still grown at all is because craft beer is becoming such a large portion of the beer market. Even if craft beer is only 10% of the total volume of the market, it’s still 35 or 40% of the hop market. That and cyclical shortages of aroma hops allow for more room for people like this guy in Michigan to break into the hop market.

Ben Saller conducts his brewing operations in the brew space, smack dab at the end of the bar.

Ben Saller conducts his brewing operations in the brew space, smack dab at the end of the bar.

Is there a state or region that you particularly admire or consider as leading the charge in the craft beer scene?

Fifteen years ago it was Wisconsin around here. Five years ago it was Michigan. And now, Chicago has a ton of new breweries. It remains to be seen who sticks around and matures into a regional influence. It's a very exciting time for craft beer in Chicago, and in the country as a whole really. The number of breweries over the last few years has been growing literally at an exponential rate.

When you’re not drinking Atlas, what’s in your glass?

I honestly almost never drink the same beer twice anymore. I try and keep on top of what’s out there. There’re so many varieties, it’s almost exhausting. So when I go into a place, I drink whatever I haven’t had before. And I tend to find myself at places that are likely to have something I've never tried. 

So what’s next up for Atlas?

Well, we’ll be distributing soon, and that’s gonna be awesome. Otherwise ya know, we’re still so new that we’re still waiting to see what ‘we’ become. But now that we’ve gotten our feet under us since opening, I think we can really start to focus more on doing cool events, trying to keep partnering with other local breweries and just try and get our name out there more. In the immediate future, we have no particular plans to expand, but down the road, who knows. Could be fun...

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Thanks to John and the whole crew at Atlas for their hospitality and giving us a taste of their excellent beers. Visit Atlas at 2747 N. Lincoln Ave and find out what they're up to on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.