Brewer Chat: The Incomparable Pete Crowley, of Haymarket

If there is a shortlist of names synonymous with Chicago craft brewing, 'Pete Crowley' is almost certainly near the top. He has a unique story about what got him to this point – a story that includes the East Coast, Colorado, Rock Bottom Brewery, a crucial Chicago historical event & FoBAB to name a few. The Illinois Craft Brewers Guild President has had a hand in a lot of what has been going on in the Chicago scene, and he's no stranger to lending a hand either. Pete is the kind of guy you wish was always hanging around the bar to share a pint with; and luckily for us, we had just such an opportunity. We sat down with him over a few brews to talk Illinois, barrel-aging, history and the future, among other things...

Can you talk a little about how you got to this point in your career?

I graduated from South Carolina in '94 and went to Colorado for what was supposed to be two weeks. The first day I was there I walked into the Flying Dog brew pub. (I went to college on Keystone Light and Milwaukee's Best. If ya couldn't funnel it, we weren't drinking it). I walked in there and they had the Doggie Style Pale Ale which, at the time, was probably one of the hoppier beers available in the country. But I'd never had a craft brew or anything. I didn't understand that they made beer; I didn't get it. I asked the brewer the question "So, what else do you do?" He said "No, I'm the brewer." I'm asking him "Right, so what else do you do? Do you tend the bar, wait tables?" "(Brewer) No, I make the beer." Still confused, I'm thinking "You make beers, so...what's your job?"

They handed me this pint and I was like "What is that!?" I had no idea what hops were. It wasn't pale, yellow and fizzy. I fell in love with it. So my two week stop in Aspen ended up being three years. My parents were so mad. Literally, I graduated, went out there around New Year's and didn't come back.

The people at Flying Dog were so cool. And then I met the guys out at Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company. Ken, is the guy's name – and he let me start to brew there. Everyone was so cool and I knew I wanted to be in this industry. I didn't think I wanted to be a brewer then though. Then I went to a beer festival in Snowmass and everyone wanted to talk to the brewers, and I did too. Man, these brewers are so cool. I think I want to be one of those.

So I moved to Denver to work at Broadway Brewing. I got there and had my car full of stuff, and the guy was kind of a jerk. I arrived and he said "Yea, a buddy of mine wanted the job so I gave it to him instead." So now I have my car full of shit. And I'm in Denver. I had a few bartender friends at Rock Bottom. I said "man, I need a job. I've got my car full of stuff, I've got nowhere to stay." This is a true story. I feel like every time I fall in a pile of shit I come up smelling like roses!

They handed me this pint and I was like “what is that!?” I had no idea what hops were.

Was this the original Rock Bottom location?

Yup, the downtown Denver location. The bartender said "Wow, we just fired our assistant brewer last night." They hadn't even announced it, it had literally happened the night before. I'm in there at lunch time and the head brewer walks up. She was the first female brewer I'd ever met. She's like "what kind of music do you like?" I said "I don't know. What? Are you hitting on me? What's going on?" She said, "If I'm working with someone, I just need to know what they're like..." So, I got hired for the assistant brewing job.

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So what kind of music did you listen to?

I said U2 was my first choice. This is back in the 90's remember.

Well as long as it wasn't Backstreet Boys.

Yea or Menudo

I started working there at $7/hour. I lucked out that it was the brewpub out of all brewpubs. In a month, I had already seen twenty brews. I learned so fast. So, I'd been there a year and the head brewing job in Cleveland opened up. There were head brewers ahead of me that would have taken the job but no one wanted to move to Cleveland. So I said I'd move to Cleveland...and hated it. Sorry, Cleveland.

So I stayed there for a year and the head brewer position in Chicago opened up. This is in '99. It was the job-of-all-jobs for head brewers at Rock Bottom. It was the busiest brewery, in the coolest town. The Denver job was big too, but that wasn't available. Everyone wanted the Chicago job. But the eight or nine people with more seniority than me had all just had a kid or bought a house. So they looked down the list and said "Ugh, the only person available is Crowley." I said "I can be there in 4.5 hours." I took the job and never looked back. I've been in Chicago since '99, where I ran the downtown location for ten years.

So you had made it as a headbrewer in a great city. What made you take the next step toward Haymarket?

Rock Bottom used to auction off a "Brewer for a Day" for charity. My business partner's dad (Jack) bought it for him for a Birthday present to come in and brew with us at RB. Jack thought he'd like it but he didn't use it for a year. Finally, his dad calls me and says "hey, I bought this thing for my son a year ago and it expired, can we still do it?"

I was like "Ugh, this guy's gonna ask me all these questions. Fine, fine." So John (Neurauter) comes in and does Brewer-for-a-Day, and within four hours we're drinking beers, hitting it off. He makes his own sausage, smokes his own pork shoulders...and he's really into how beer is made. And I was really into how food is made. So we hit it off immediately and within a year of meeting we were already raising money for our own spot. Within three years we were open. It was fast and furious. And we're still really good friends, which a lot of business partners can't say.

So now you have Haymarket, your own brewpub. How have things progressed since opening day?

We opened three years ago on Christmas Eve. When we opened we had sixteen guest draughts. I pulled in every favor I had from my midwest brewing friends. I was trying to be the place-to-be for beer in Chicago. I didn't want to open up with Bell's Oberon and Goose Island Honkers. I wanted beers that no one else had because that's what a brewpub is: beers you can't get anywhere else. Founders sent me KBS and CBS, their cherry maple syrup beer. I had four or five beers, of which, I was the only one in the state of Illinois to have. Then we started getting our beers on tap...

How many total taps do you have?

We have forty eight total. Some of them are duplicates since there are two bars. At any given time there are going to be twenty to twenty three beers on tap.

Which beers at Rock Bottom were your favorites and did any influence what you're still brewing?

Probably my favorite one was the Crow and the Sparrow which is now Angry Birds Belgian IPA. I started doing hoppy Belgians when I went to Belgium in 2000. I fell in love with the combination. A homebrew friend of mine, Jeff Sparrow, kept playing around with a recipe and came up with the Crow and the Sparrow. His last name + mine. Then we found a poem called "The Crow and Sparrow". So when we released it, everyone said "wow, you're so literary." So I had to Google "Crow and Sparrow." In the poem, the Sparrow kills the Crow, so that didn't work out for me.

I wanted to make that here (Haymarket) but didn't want to use that name. Since we both were birds, I just called it Angry Birds because I really wanted to get a letter from Angry Birds. I haven't yet and it's been three years, hah. The other one would be my barrel-aged raspberry, Clare's Thirsty. I kept that name, well, because she's still my wife and I can't change her name. Those two, I've been making for a long time.

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Barrel-aging...it's getting pretty popular.

It's definitely popular right now. Goose has started making Bourbon County  in larger quantities. It's always been popular, but with more distilleries opening, there are more barrels. Also, a lot of the U.S. companies are more willing to keep the barrels here instead of shipping them to Scotland or Ireland. It was hard to get barrels for a long time. The reason why I think the Midwest had the first big push in barrel-aging is the proximity to Kentucky. That's why it didn't blow up on the West coast.

Tell us more about the Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers (FoBAB).

You're about to get the inside scoop! We actually rented the UIC Pavilion. We have it for three days in November. This year (2014) we're going to do a Friday night session and two on Saturday. In the past, the place (Lacuna Lofts) has been so small we couldn't fit anyone else in legally and there were two elevators that were 80 years old. It was an awesome space but the elevators killed us because it took people almost an hour to get up to the festival. We can't let them in early because we're trying to get everyone out of the first session. So this year, we're taking the elevators out of the equation. The UIC Pavilion is used to huge crowds. But we don't oversell the event so it's still easy to get your beer.

That's got to be cool to see all these great beers out there. The same stuff isn't winning every year.

That's true. GABF this year was a great example.Chicago basically got killed this year. We didn't win shit. There were maybe three Illinois breweries that won this year. To your point with the new breweries, it was neat to see at GABF this year, sitting at the award ceremonies and there were like 30 breweries I had never heard of. There are so many new breweries and they are making great beer. It's great to see new faces and new beers.

Are you picky about where you get your barrels from for brewing?

Woodford is my favorite. I go down there every year and sit on the deck and watch the river go by and drink Woodford out of coffee mugs. They'll pull barrels off of the racks and we'll pop the bung and drink. They are really nice people. When I first met them I was working at Rock Bottom and we were trying to do a nation wide Woodford/Rock Bottom campaign. At the time they weren't sending barrels to breweries they were sending them over to the UK. Irish Whiskey and Scotch are all second-use barrels, where Bourbon has to be a new barrel. So I called the guy and he's like "come by tomorrow." This is Kentucky, in the middle of nowhere, and he goes "well we might be distilling, we might rack some barrels." I mean, this is tomorrow, for a big distillery; but he's says "we're definitely having lunch so come for that." So I went down there and they great. They come up for Whiskey Fest every year so I get to keep in touch – they are super cool. They'll dump their barrels and overnight them to me on a truck. So, I get them within 24 hours.

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We've seen several Haymarket collaborations pop up around town recently. Is that something we'll continue seeing from you.

Yea, I have a lot of pending collaborations and I like to brew in both locations. I did one with Brant (Dubovick) from DryHop before they opened and Greenbush in the past was really fun.

Thats why I like collaborations. a) Everyone is really cool and nice, so it's fun to work with them and b) I feel like it rejuvenates the brewer a bit. You go and do a collaboration and it's all new. I think thats why everyone likes them so much. It's also free advertising – free promotion – like "try this beer that we made with another brewery." We are the only industry that does that kind of stuff. You don't see GM and Ford making a car together.

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We're history nerds. So, the name, Haymarket – did that come to fruition after you found this space, based on location. Or was it something you already had in mind?

Yea, I get that question a lot. Well, John & I looked for a space for about a year. And we wanted a name that was historically significant for Chicago, so we could draw from that. Ya know, that's kind of unique for breweries here in Chicago – like, yea there's Goose Island, but they're not on Goose Island.

Which just kills me.

Yea, you know what I mean? So, no one here has that tie, right? Nothing screams Chicago. So we looked at neighborhoods where we could use a name that implied Chicago. So, when we found this place, I just thought "You gotta be f'n kidding me!" I mean we're a block away from the monument to the Haymarket Riot. And I did a little more research; not only was it probably the 2nd most significant historical event in the city – next to the Great Fire – but nobody today really knows about it. People that live here are like "huh? Haymarket?" So, I fell in love with it immediately.  

I just couldn't believe this spot was available. But at the time (2009) the West Loop was just starting to pick up. People knew who Stephanie Izard was, but who knew she'd open up this place (Girl & the Goat) and it'd be booked every night for 3 months straight? So we jumped on this because it was the best, biggest space for the best price. But it was not pretty over here in the beginning. So we landed a long-term lease for a great deal. And it didn't take long for these few blocks. I mean Girl and the Goat opened right before us, then you got Nellcôte, Au Cheval...it's unbelievable now. Robert De Niro is building a hotel over here. It's just crazy. People are like "you picked the anchor spot to open in the West Loop, how did you know?" Hah! We were just lucky. We grabbed it because it was cheap and it was near the Haymarket site.

So, you have beers named after the Haymarket Riot, too.

Yea, so our flagship beer, Mathias, is named after Mathias Degan who was the first officer killed when the bomb exploded, right over here on Desplaines Street. We don't take a side in the whole Haymarket affair, we just tell the story. So, for example, we have Oscar's Pardon on tap as well. Oscar Neebe was one of the Haymarket 8 who arrested, tried and sentenced to hang for the riot. Neebe was actually pardoned by John Peter Altgeld and it sort of ruined his political career. But, Oscar Neebe was actually a yeast salesman for local breweries, before he got involved in the whole affair. So he obviously had to have a beer named after him.

So, we ask everyone: what's in your fridge right now at home?

Uhhh, well I drink so much at work that I don't drink much at home. I mean, I have a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc right now in there [laughing]. Um, I would say though, there  are a couple beers that have always been near and dear to my heart that I go to. Sierra Nevada Celebration is one. I'll take a 6-pack of that any day of the week. And Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was probably my first go-to at the bars. But, I've been a huge fan of what Revolution has been putting out. Anti Hero is great, so that's something I would grab if I'm looking to bring something home. I try and drink beer that my friends make, but I'll try anything new too.

[Motioning to a few dry tulip glasses]

Well, I think we need another beer because it looks like we're empty.

Let's do it...

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A big thank you to Pete for having us in to Haymarket to duck in from some crappy January weather. It was a great afternoon getting to see some behind the scenes stuff, talk history and dip into Pete's personal beer cellar. We'll no doubt be back soon.

To find out more about Haymarket, stop by their social media outlets on Facebook or Twitter. Or, of course, drop by the brewpub in the West Loop at Randolph & Halsted.