Brewer Chat: Kevin Cary of Begyle Brewing

NORTHCENTER, CHICAGO

Begyle (and that's pronounced Bee-gyle), is a relative newcomer to the Chicago craft scene but has already made a big splash. Hot off their accolade "Best New Brewery: 2013" by Chicago Magazine, they've been managing to keep quite busy, and their neighbors happy. Their tiny growler-filling room tucked away between the L and Metra in North Center has quickly become a destination for thirsty beer geeks in the know.

With the city on the brink of Chicago Craft Beer Week, we sat down with Kevin Cary, founder and brewer at Begyle to discuss everything from Michigan roots, pre-Untappd beer tracking, and how it all came together to form one of Chicago's most exciting, and community-centric breweries.

Kevin - thanks for sitting down with us! Where did it all start for you before Begyle was a thing?

I'm originally from Michigan, near Flint, a small town called Fenton. A town of about 15,000, I think there’s about as many people in this neighborhood as there are in my hometown. In the early 2000’s when I turned 21, craft beer in Michigan was booming. When I went away to college I was introduced to craft beer early on. It wasn't called craft beer back then, we called it local beer. Even in 2002-2004 it was all about drinking beer that was made in Michigan and just experiencing the growth of beer in the state. I can remember when Bell's ran the Eccentric Café as the production brewery. I was 18 the first time I went to Bells and I got to sneak in with a friend who playing with the band in the garden. It was cool that was my first real experience of a brewery and especially a craft brewery like Bell's.

So that's what spawned your love of craft beer?

So that kind of planted the seed and this idea of how great breweries are. Michigan is a manufacturing state, but unfortunately through the majority of my upbringing we saw them close factories, like all over Michigan and especially Flint. All they did was close the plants. Growing up, our friends and parents would move away to Kentucky or Tennessee; wherever they were building the new auto assembly plants. So manufacturing and small business was always something that stuck out. With that, learning about breweries and learning that small breweries are effectively small manufacturing facilities, I was always kind of amazed by how they operated and I also really enjoyed the flavor and taste of craft beer. Why go to dollar pint night at the crappy bar and drink Bud Light when you can go to the local brewpub and drink 2.50 a pint craft beer. Things like that kind of opened my eyes in college.

What were you drinking back then?

Bell's Two Hearted was huge. Oberon was big. To think how far they've come from being a small Michigan brewery to now; a nationally, if not globally recognized craft brewery. Also, the small local place by my school, Central Michigan University, was Mountain Town Station. It was an old railroad station that turned into a steak house but they brewed craft beer. You could get a half barrel of a raspberry wheat ale for $65. So it was pretty much, why not get that? If you do the math, the ABV was a little stronger so you got a little bigger bang for your buck.

So when is the Begyle Raspberry Wheat coming out?

Never. Maybe we’ll come up with something to pay homage to it.

I was always kind of amazed by how (breweries) operated and I also really enjoyed the flavor and taste of craft beer. Why go to dollar pint night at the crappy bar and drink Bud Light when you can go to the local brewpub and drink 2.50 a pint craft beer. Things like that kind of opened my eyes in college.

So you're at college, drinking good beer, where do you go from there?

For full disclosure, my first beer as a 21 year old... at Buffalo Wild Wings... was Sam Adams Cherry Wheat... this is like skeletons in a closet kind of thing. Shit. Blue Moon was in there as well, and I’m not really embarrassed to say that was one of the first craft beers I drank because without Blue Moon I wouldn't have realized what their version of a Belgian Wit is.  So after that we were kind of hooked on new beer. We spent a lot of time driving to the Lansing area or other places to find good beer because you couldn't just go to the party store and find good beer, even European import beer. So we would go to Cost Plus World Market and do a mix 6-pack. By the time we graduated from college, we had tried over 300 different beers from around the world and around the country.

Any favorite breweries?

A lot of that was Goose Island, we always had the idea of taking a road trip to Goose Island in Chicago, since we were going to get it straight from the source. Brooklyn Brewery was a big one back then. It was just cool to see how many different beers we could amass and try. Then after that we got into homebrewing. This was right before we graduated.

We tried all these new beers, but I don't want to discredit Keystone Light at all because we spent just as much on Keystone as we did those other beers.

How did you track the beers you drank without something like Untappd?

We built a shelf. By the time we graduated we have every single bottle we drank, or at least those we were smart enough to save, probably about 95%. We would put them on top of our kitchen cabinets and then once we ran out of cabinet space we went to Home Depot and bought a piece of wood that was maybe 2 inches wide. We created a shelf that started at our kitchen, and wrapped around the living room.

The original Untappd...

Haha yea, if only we were smarter and spent more time on computers versus drinking. By the time we graduated we had amassed over 300 bottles. In Michigan that's 10 cents per bottle which we didn't take back. That's like $30! The landlord didn't take too kindly to our shelf. But it was cool, it was fun.

So you ended up in Chicago. How did that love of beer translate once you moved here?

When I first came to Chicago, it was Goose Island, Piece and Rock Bottom. That same year I started seeing Half Acre Lager pop up in bottles. What is this? This is great! But I was kind of perplexed why there were that few breweries in one of the largest cities in America. Coming from Michigan, you have Kalamazoo, which had Bell's. Short's was in its infancy back then but growing fast. You had all the metro Detroit breweries popping up and you had Battle Creek and Dark Horse. There was a lot of breweries in Michigan that had kind of started making a name for themselves in the world of craft beer. And yet Chicago is on one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. That's a great supply for brewing beer. Why aren't there breweries here? That kind of propelled me to daydream a little bit more and start thinking about this idea that someday I'd like to open a brewery.

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That's a big step to go from daydreaming to a production facility. How did you end up here?

I can't remember specifically following a brewery from beginning to end like I did with Half Acre or Revolution. Back in Michigan, I remember hearing about Short's but it was basically this guy brewing in the middle of nowhere and there's no real early documentation because Facebook wasn't as robust as it is now. You go back to 2007, 2008, 2009, you could probably find every step Revolution took to become a brewery if you looked hard enough. From early construction to finished product. That was something that was very influential on me.

All of that led me to the day, three years ago, where Brendan and I came up with the idea that we should open a brewery. He said he always wanted to deliver beer by bicycle and I had always wanted to start a brewery. So why don't we combine forces and give it a go. Neither of us had experience beyond homebrewing but we thought it would be easy and it wasn't even close to easy.

So how do you fit into the bigger Chicago beer picture?

As far as how we fit in that picture, I'm not sure I can answer that. I'm happy to be part of what I consider to be one of the best craft beer scenes in the country. A lot of that is the amount of education and the quality of consumers that we have here in Chicago. One of the great things that happened when I moved was the access to beer from around the country. The plus side of growing up in Michigan and drinking that beer is that you have access to some of the best breweries in the country, but they're mostly those in Michigan. You really didn't have access to outside beer.

In Chicago, one of the things I started noticing was that beer bars like Map Room and Hopleaf got beers from around the world. And I think that really resonates with the craft beer consumer here in Chicago. They've had access to really good craft beer for a really long time. The base is so much stronger than anything we ever had in Michigan. It was such a gradual growth in Michigan for local beer that we didn't even call it craft beer. The stickers that say "Drink Michigan beer", you see them everywhere. It's more "local beer" in Michigan. Here it's "craft beer."

Can you explain more about the idea of the "community supported brewery"?

The whole idea was based off the community supported agriculture model of selling vegetables in a share model where you get the money up front and then delivering throughout the year. That was going to be a way for us to bridge the gap between homebrewing and commercial brewing. We would sell all of our beer to a dedicated group, they would give us feedback, we would adjust the beer as necessary and, as we grow, they would grow. We had to take some different steps to get to that point. We went into distribution a lot faster than we intended because it took a lot longer to get a liquor license.

I like talking about beer, about things I’m passionate about. And this is one way to do that. As long as there are people in this neighborhood, we’ll be here.

What about the community aspect?

The other core concept besides the share model was to be inside of a community. A community that we're familiar with. To have a retail component. To be a positive impact on the community. Brendan (Blume) grew up in this neighborhood. He was born and raised here. So he had a direct connection to this area. For me, I was familiar with the neighborhood because my girlfriend lived here. When we were looking for property, we looked specifically in the Ravenswood corridor. It's probably one of the only mile and a half long industrial parks that directly borders a residential area that I know of. That was really important to us. Having people come to us directly to buy beer, to come in and talk. It's fun to see now, customers coming back in that live on the block or as they're coming home from work. I think that's really shown how lucky we are to be located in North Center. We could be in an industrial park in a suburb but there isn't really that connection. That wouldn't really suit who we are. I like talking about beer, about things I'm passionate about. And this is one way to do that. As long as there are people in this neighborhood, we'll be here.

You're pretty well hidden in this building but you're right next to the Irving Park brown line stop. How does that factor into your plans?

One thing that was really important to me was the idea of beer tourism. I would travel specifically to go to certain breweries or I'd look up the local brewery and walk there to try it. I wanted, and I'm still hoping, that when people come to Chicago and they're staying in the Loop, they're going to hop on the brown line and go visit our brewery. Mainly, that's because I did that and I enjoyed it. Going on a tour of Brooklyn Brewery five years ago was one of the steps in the process of being what we are. Those kind of things stuck out enough to the point that it led to opening a brewery.

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The first time we saw your beer on draft was at DryHop with the Johnny Quest Thinks We're Sellouts.

Yea it's our black IPA. It actually ages really well, it get's smoother over time. DryHop has been a really big influence on us. We definitely have some mentors. Joe and Carly at Bottles & Cans have been mentors to us, but Brant at DryHop has been one of the biggest. Greg and Brant are awesome dudes and worked super hard to get DryHop open. I'm glad they're friends first and we're also in the industry together. Johnny Quest was one of our first commercial batches of beer in November 2012. When Brant first moved here from Pennsylvania, we started hanging out at the brewery and he would bring some test batches from DryHop over. We would share some of our, at the time, homebrew. He would tell us all about how he got started by getting a homebrew kit from his wife. Now he's Head Brewer at one of the best brewpubs in the Midwest. We kind of bonded over that same background. He really helped us bridge the gap between homebrewing and commercial brewing.

From our relationship with him we created Johnny Quest and, to this day, it's one of my favorite beers we've ever put out. We're also coming up with a new collaboration. Last time we named the beer after Less Than Jake, a Ska band in Florida. They found out through Twitter that we named the beer after them and they were totally stoked about it. Our second collaboration will include them so it will be a three way collaboration. It will be us, Dryhop, and the band.

Any other collaborations?

Yea, with Aleman. We did a collaboration with them and Stone Brewing. That was probably one of the rarest beers we've ever put out. It was a six barrel batch of red Saison called Redonkulous brewed right here. Jeremy Moynier, who is the lead brewer for Stone came out to Chicago for an event and brewed on our 2 barrel system. He went from this 100 barrel system in San Diego to our 2 barrel system here.

We got the opportunity to speak with Jeremy in depth and asked him, "If you have one piece of advice to give us, what would it be?" He told us to invest in quality control early. From that collaboration with him and Stone we made the decision to invest in QC and really take it seriously. Our first hire was Liz and she actually is in charge of our quality control department. She has her PhD in microbiology.

Have you considered doing any collaborations with Michigan breweries based on your background?

I think that would be really cool. I don't know in what context we would do a collaboration. Maybe if we found a brewery that was equal sized or just through the grapevine. A lot of good things happen randomly like that. If the situation ever arose we would definitely take it seriously.

Exterior photo from Kickstarter campaign. Corner of Cuyler & Ravenswood.

Exterior photo from Kickstarter campaign. Corner of Cuyler & Ravenswood.

Kevin's lab for QC & "magic"...

Kevin's lab for QC & "magic"...

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So about this building...what was this before you guys got here?

Yea, the building itself was built right after the Great Depression, 1934/35. So that makes it, what, 80 years old now? It was some kind of manufacturing facility, but we only know the exact history back about 25 years. Then it was owned by a company called Atlas, and they build materials testing equipment - so there're all these big sliding doors everywhere so that they could transfer carts and things around the whole place. After that, the landlord gutted everything right before we moved in, so we got a clean slate. We will actually expand here once the artists' studio next door ends its lease. That was done intentionally. We decided to rent out that space to some artists to help offset costs in our early stages. And it kinda goes along with our whole community, sharing approach.

And any plans for a taproom possibly?...

Maybe... it was actually stated that we could have a 'tavern' in the original zoning language. The reason that we didn't open as a taproom from the beginning was because we just wanted to start slow, and get to know our neighbors a bit. Yea, just prove ourselves as good neighbors first before we go that route.

Well that's very respectful of you guys.

Hah, yea, well we wanna be good neighbors of course. We started out initially signing on for five years, which we thought was like signing our life away. Then we got two years into it and we're just getting to the part of discussing expansion here, and remodeling for the retail portion. And we thought 'oh shit, we've only got three years left now.' So, we were able to negotiate with the landlord to extend it to fifteen years. So, we'll be here for thirteen more years at least!

I've gotta say, your brand consistency is spot on. And such consistency is what I'd consider to be pretty unique in the craft beer world. Where did that importance spawn for you?

A lot of that comes from our graphic designer, Melanie. She grew up with me back in Fenton (MI), and graduated high school with Matt and me. She now works for American Greetings. I had kinda hoped she would be willing to lend us a hand early on. When we had the go around this time, we were discussing brand and she said she definitely wanted to be a part of it. Given her talent level, I said off the bat I wanted her to have full creative control. A 'do what you do' sorta approach for her, and not to let me hinder anything. I only had opinions on a few naming ideas. For example, originally I wanted to call us "Argyle Brewing."

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Begyle's hand-me-down, down walk-in cooler complete with 30th birthday homage.

Begyle's hand-me-down, down walk-in cooler complete with 30th birthday homage.

Yea, what was the story behind the name?

From "Argyle" to "Begyle"? Well, I really like Argyle socks. So basically my girlfriend Allison suggested we call it Argyle. I thought that was great. When I approached Brendan about it – '"Why don't we call it Argyle." He said that he'd actually grown up on Argyle Street up north here in Chicago, and his parents had a Christmas tree farm in Argyle, Wisconsin. So for about six months of our journey we were Argyle Brewing.

Then a winery in Oregon of the same name found out that their trademark for wine carried over to beer and liquor. We already had our logo, Facebook, Twitter, website & we were about to order our T-shirts. We ended up canceling that order after getting a nice cease-and-desist. So in short, we like to say: 'If you can't Argyle, Begyle.' The winery's letter stated that our new name couldn't be deceptively similar. We were having trouble trying to adapt argyle but then we found beguile which means, to charm, trick, enchant or deceive. We thought that kinda stuck out, and then we found it spelled b-e-g-y-l-e which is Shakespearian. That was kinda cool, and that the meaning was 'to deceive.' So, with that we became Begyle.

Our package always looks good, but let’s make sure our beer is consistently good every time too. And that’s kind of our philosophy with brewing overall. Be approachable, affordable and consistent.

A lot of new guys seem to go for the "shock value" approach to label design, the wilder the better. That in turn, creates an inconsistency and and becomes part of the noise.

Yea, if you can find a talented graphic designer early on who has an eye for that sort of stuff, it can prove invaluable. It might be hard to see worthwhile right up front, but it proves itself over time. That's held true for us - we get a lot of recognition for our consistency with the branding. That is just as true for the beer. We come out with a new beer every month, but we knew we wanted Hophazardly to be the same. Our package always looks good, but let's make sure our beer is consistently good every time too. And that's kind of our philosophy with brewing overall. Be approachable, affordable and consistent.

Chicago Craft Beer Week is here, anything you're most excited about?

Yea - we're doing a tap takeover with Great Lakes at Lincoln Station. We got a lot of inspiration for the brewery early on from those guys, and Bell's. So for this takeover we'll be matching them style-for-style. We get a lot of inspiration from them, so it's just really cool to get paired up next to them on tap. Other than that, we've also got a tap takeover at Beer Bistro, and a beer dinner at Fountainhead. There are just so many events this year, it's gonna be fun...

Alright, final thought: if you're not drinking Begyle, what's in your fridge?

Presently, I think I have a growler of Daisy Cutter in there. I have some cool stuff from travels too; not regular stuff I'll drink, but what I bring out if I have friends over. Most of the time at home if I'm drinking it's because I've got people over. In general, you'll usually find me drinking something from Chicago – whether that's Revolution, Half Acre, DryHop, Metropolitan... But yea, we're pretty lucky to have a cooler full of beer here, too, so that's a nice perk.

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Thanks again to Kevin for having us in to chat and walking us through his brewery. You can check it all out yourself by visiting Begyle for a growler or a taste, tucked away in North Center – & give 'em a follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Photography provided by the infinitely talented and beer loving Melinda Myers.

 
 
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