It’s inevitable, after any homebrewer’s first successful batch of beer, they begin to hear that voice that says "you could do this for a living." For some, that voice gets drowned out by other ventures bidding for their time. For a few, that voice gets louder and louder until it consumes every waking moment. Soon enough, your nights are occupied with drawing up plans for your brew system, scoping out the neighborhood for that ideal location, coming up with a memorable name, and perfecting the delicious beer you are about to spread to the masses. For Church Street Brewing Company's Joe and Lisa Gregor, that’s exactly what happened after Joe’s son decided to buy dad some homebrew equipment. Little did he know how that small gift would alter his parents’ lives in the next few years.
Joe, a chemical engineer by trade, cites his extensive work travels as the foundation for his love of beer. His travels to Germany made a lasting impression which is reflected in both the beers he creates as well as the brewing system he designed. As you walk around the brewery and tap room you can see how Joe gives a nod to the German heritage of his beers, from the flag hanging in the tap room to the steins displayed behind the bar.
We had the pleasure of visiting Church Street Brewing at their production brewery and taproom in Itasca, IL. Located near the end of Industrial Drive, it’s a hard place to find in an unassuming location but it's well worth seeking out. On our arrival, we were greeted by Co-Owner, Lisa Gregor and Brand Manager, Chet Brett, who walked us through a tasting of Church Street's entire beer lineup. Head brewer Joe was traveling during our visit, however Lisa and Chet were up to the challenge and answered everything we could throw at them.
Thanks for having us! Let's get right to the beer. What does the Church Street beer lineup look like?
We have our Brimstone IPA and you can still find the Crimson Clover Red Irish Ale. We always have the Continental Lager and the Scottish Ale. The Heavenly Helles is probably going to be a spring through summer beer and our Fall beer will be a Marzen. With that one, instead of calling it an Octoberfest we’ll call it a Marzen. In November, we’ll come out with a Dunkel, another traditional German style. Finally, our Heffeweizen will be run throughout the summer. So that's how the front line goes.
We first had your beer at the Chicago Beer Festival at Union Station and were big fans of the Brimstone IPA.
Well that was the first one we got into the Map Room and the first beer available in the city. Jay at the Map Room put that up and you know, that’s about as good as you get in Chicago.
Tell us about that Helles. It's delicious and unlike like anything we've had before.
Nobody makes a Helles. The reason nobody makes it is because most people don’t have the ability to do a decoction mash.
What does that mean exactly?
Decoction mashing is a way that you extract sugars out of malted barley. Over the course of the mash, you raise the temperature a few degrees at a time and then let the mash rest for a bit. You achieve this by transferring some of the mash out of the tun so it can be heated up. It's then recirculated to the mash tun at a higher temperature to bring the entire mash up to the next step temperature. This process is repeated about four times during the mash. The thing is, you don't see a lot of breweries doing this, but we think it adds a crisp and clean flavor profile to the finished beer.
That sounds like it would take some time.
It takes time and it takes equipment. You have to be able to transfer hot mash from this tank into another then from that tank and put it back in.
And that’s why Joe says that sometimes it’s easier to brew on this scale. He can get his water within a half degree. When you’re homebrewing and you get your temperatures within 5 degrees you’re doing a pretty good job. You feel like an octopus making the water in these tubs move around, pulling these cooling things out at the proper times. Well, he’s got a system back there where you hit a button and it turns the water one way. You follow the system through and you've got a pretty precise beer; a replicable beer.
Joe will talk about how he appreciates what the big boys are doing (AB, Miller and those companies) to be able to replicate the same flavor throughout their brewing universe. That type of consistency bodes well for a few things.
Where did you first distribute? Was it in the suburbs?
Yea so Lisa and Joe got with Fred Losch, a distributor out of Lake County and they had it for a few months before we made it to Dupage and Cane counties.
How’s it been going?
The great thing is, there’s so much beer to sell throughout all Chicagoland. The city, we’ll get to. There are a lot of other breweries that are slugging it out for tap handles. I was up in Lake County recently which is a real up and down area for us. So you just have to keep the dialogue with the retailers and distributors. I went into an account that isn't going to sell our beer for a couple months because I’m just giving them a head’s up that we’re here. Things are changing and, as a precursor to that change, I’m going into those places and saying “hey, we’re still here and when I get those bottles, I’m coming to you.”
Is your location in the suburbs versus the city a strategic move?
No but it does help formulate our decisions. For example, in the discussion of cans vs bottles. As a brewery in the city, you might have a younger demographic wanting that as an acceptable form of packaging. Where as here, Joe and Lisa’s thought was that our demographic is a little bit older, they’re still comfortable buying beer from bottles and so, as a result of that, we’re going with a bottling line as opposed to a canning line.
What’s the story with your bottling line?
The bottling line is going to be ready to go. It’s just going to be a matter of the labels and all the other pieces that have to get put in place.
Why Itasca? Is it because you guys are from out this way?
Exactly, and a little back story about the Church Street name. Joe and Lisa, who are from out this way, found a location in Addison on Church Street, but the deal for the place didn't turn into a lease. Along the way they were left without a place. They had moved ahead with the state and the feds for licensing to the point of, we’re not going back. Starting from scratch wasn't going to be the answer, it was just going to slow everything down. So we pushed ahead with Church Street and eventually found this place.
So Chet, are you doing most of the ground work distributing the beers or does your distributor handle that?
Well, in theory, they’re going to reach a lot more people in a day than I ever will. In reality it’s been a little frustrating because, when I go to a bar, we have a significantly high success rate. But then you see that, in their world, they have goals and objectives that they need to meet. So we need to make our brand important enough through its uniqueness and it’s ability to sell which ultimately is the bottom line for everybody. But it’s also needs to be tangible. A few weeks ago we had a bunch of the distributors from one of the companies come over and check out our space which I think gets them a lot more invigorated when they see the facility. Fortunately for us, we have great beer and that’s something that nobody can argue with. We see that every week in our tap room and we see it every week at the festivals. People don’t have to say we have great beer but that’s what they’re telling us.
Have you seen any evidence of “pay to play” at any bars in the area?
We’ve walked into bars and they say “these handles only go to one distributor” which isn't strictly legal but there’s nothing we can do about it.
There are a lot of laws dictating distribution but 95% of it is done straight up. People want to have good craft beer which has fortunately been a great equalizer. If I were going side by side or against Miller-Coors then maybe there would be a story but basically these tap handles are pretty accessible if you have a good product. The difficulty is holding on to them when the guy behind you comes in with another good beer and then you have to get back in line again.
How much emphasis do you place on the bigger beer festivals?
We’re side by side with all those guys so you have to be there and I love being there and I love that people get the chance to share in our product. It’s a pretty good way of getting out and seeing what others are doing. I’ll take any one of these events. I prefer to focus on the single session festivals because I feel like you can do a better of job of getting the brand out there, getting the name established during a 3-4 hour event.
Any plans for any collaborations in the future?
As far as brewing with anybody, nothing yet. But we've forged friendships with quite a few other breweries along the way. We’re still challenged by the amount of time and staff we have. We want our brewmaster Joe around to make our beers more often. We could ask James and William from Flesk, or Carson and Brian from Pig Minds, or any of these other people that we really respect and appreciate their beers to come brew with us but that hasn't happened yet.
On the other hand, the camaraderie is as good and welcoming as ever. We walked in the doors just 7 or 8 months ago and said “hey, we want to be part of this” and you’re part of it. It’s just a great feeding ground of sharing.
We hear Head Brewer Joe has a full time job outside of Church Street. Is he brewing through the night on occasion?
No, we brew during the day. He’s been with the same company since he was in college so he has about six weeks of vacation and travels for work so he’s able to take a day or two of comp time every couple weeks. So if we plan ahead, he’s able to take the day off whenever we want to brew.
But then on the other days, he’s over here at 5 o’clock and he’ll take readings and measurements and taste and take notes. It all started from their son, a West Point graduate first lieutenant, Steven Gregor. He got into home brewing and said “Dad you need a hobby”. Joe basically get’s to do all the brewing that he wants to do and doesn't have to worry about all the other stuff. He doesn't want to know about Facebook or Twitter, he just wants to talk about brewing. As long as you want to hold a glass and let him fill it up, he’ll talk to you. People really seem to get the way he communicates about beer.
So how do you plan to keep pushing the boundaries?
I envision what Stone has out on the west coast now that we've gotten the approval from the village of Itasca to have a beer outside. Where will we be three years from now? This place is going to be pretty straightforward. I’d like a little bit of Stone’s zen gardens and waterfalls. Right now we’re trying to grow hops. That will take 3 years for them to flower but it’s going to be something.