Organic, Sustainable Brewing with Martin Coad of Greenstar Brewing
Greenstar Brewing, a storefront brewery at the corner of Clark and Grace, holds the title of Illinois' first organic brewery. That should come as no surprise as the brewery is part of Uncommon Ground, a Chicago staple that has been focusing on local, sustainable, and organic food since 1991. In 2014, Greenstar Brewing began production and they followed in the restaurant's green footprints.
At the helm of this organic brewery is brewmaster Martin Coad. After cutting his teeth at Hofbräuhaus Rosemont and learning traditional German technique, Coad was ready to take the reins and run an entire brewery. He's been doing just that and everything that Greenstar puts out are 100% his recipes. If you're looking to try any of his creations, you'll have to swing by one of Uncommon Ground's locations in Lakeview or Edgewater. We stopped in to chat with Martin and get an idea of what organic beer is all about.
Tell us about your background? How did you become the brewmaster at Greenstar?
I started brewing about eight years ago. My girlfriend got me a Mr. Beer Kit for Christmas. It’s funny when you find something you are passionate about and a light bulb goes off in your brain. I just got so into it and bought so much new equipment, read so many more books. I got a job at Brew & Grow on Kedzie. Had a mentor there, Larry, who's been working there 15-20 years. I got to learn a lot from him.
I heard about an opening at Hofbräuhaus in Rosemont and I actually got to meet the owner. I landed the head brewer job at Hofbräuhaus, that was a great experience. I got to work side by side with the international technical director of brewing and learned pretty much everything about German brewing and technique. I heard that Uncommon Ground wanted to do organic beer, and they would be the first to do so in the state. I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to be a part of something unique. Plus I get to brew all of my own recipes.
What does it mean to you to be an organic brewery?
The definition of something that is organic means it's produced without pesticides and genetically modified ingredients. For beer, no harsh chemicals in the brewing process. The importance of that is huge for us. There’s a lot of myths about brewing organic beer, like it costs a lot more. It’s really cents on the dollar for your basic beer ingredients.
To me this is really important. We’ve gone the way of mass use of chemicals in our food ingredients and that has arguably caused a number of health problems that maybe didn’t exist before. Same with genetically modified food. I’m not anti-science at all, there’s a lot of science in beer. There’s some evidence that GMOs are linked to cancer and we’re mucking with something we don’t yet fully understand. So moving away from that and providing the public with something that you know is just beer is super exciting and important for us, and pretty much what we all are about. Getting back to our roots.
As an organic brewery, is it hard to source ingredients? Do you face challenges that non-organic breweries don't?
To be certified organic there’s a board that certifies you. They make sure that all the ingredients you use are also certified. So in order for us to use a malt, hop or yeast in our beer, it has to be from a source that also has a certification. I get a lot of great malt from Briess, they’re a huge company, not exactly a craft malster, but they have some really high quality organic malts. Great Western Malting Co I use a lot too.
I’m excited to see the craft malster environment develop. I’m always looking for new quality ingredient sources. I’ve gotten a ton of fantastic hops from New Mission Organics in Michigan. They have a great product, great prices and that’s what fuels our IPA.
For yeast, we go through Omega Labs. Yeast is a microorganism, so pretty much if yeast is on its own, it’s organic. The difference is what it’s cultured with. Omega uses an organic malt extract in culturing our yeast.
Uncommon ground is known for local, sustainable, farm fresh food. How does that fit in with your beers. Any special ingredients you use?
We’ve actually done some farm based beers. They grow green coriander on the rooftop farm (at the Devon location). The green coriander, if you aren’t familiar, is fresh coriander. Regular coriander is the seed plant for cilantro, and the seeds dry out really fast in about 24 hours. During that time all the aromatics pretty much disappear. The fresh green coriander in a beer is fantastic. It almost has this candy sweetness to it. I make my own extract out of that and it goes into our witbier.
Do you take a culinary approach to your beers?
Oh for sure. Being part of Uncommon Ground, we’ve been a farm to table restaurant for 24 years. Every recipe that I come up with is under the guise of how does this fit with our menu, and working with the chefs to pair things up. I’d say I don’t go as far as say Jared Rouben (Moody Tongue) and I wouldn’t call our beers culinary beers, but I do believe brewing a combination of both creative, interesting ideas and also really trying to focus on a beer that is true to style can pair with a wide variety of foods. Things like cutting down on bitterness. Our IPA is not really a bitter IPA but it has a ton of hop flavor. You can eat a variety of foods and it won't really blow out your palate. We’ve also done a number of brewmaster dinners where the menu is specifically designed to fit around the beer and we’ll continue to do those the next few months.
What prompted the idea to brew organic beer?
It was a conversation when I started talking to the owners here. They asked, "Is it possible for us to do organic beer that is good?" I said "That’s an awesome idea, let me do some research and get back to you." I called the two biggest beer ingredient providers in the US and they said it was possible but only the crazier people in the industry are doing gluten free beer. I was able to get good ingredients sourced from local farmers and even bigger malt distributors. The first beer we made we called it Certifiable.
What's in the name Greenstar?
Greenstar Brewing was decided for the name partially because we wanted to focus on organic, sustainable brewing but also because Uncommon Ground has won so many green stars over the years. That’s what you win from LEED certifiers. That’s the association there. It’s important, it’s cool and we love our name and our brand.
What is the long term plan for Greenstar?
Long-term expansion plans would not be to follow what other brewers have done and focus on distribution and getting bigger and bigger. Our long-term expansion plan is to focus on brewpubs. If we become super successful, then what we would want to do is open more Greenstar brewpubs. To me, brewpubs are more respectful to the beer and to customers. You’re never going to get beer as fresh as you will straight from the taps of a brewpub.
Where do you see yourself in a year or two?
Our goal is to take over all the taps at Uncommon Ground, or mostly all the taps. We have 12 taps so maybe ten Greenstar offerings, a collaboration, and a cider. Just because of demand, we’ve only been able to hit that number once. With doubling our tank capacity we should be able to hit that goal. This year we brewed 20 different recipes. We’ll definitely have taken over all the taps at both restaurants. I’d like to start some limited distribution, meaning a keg here or there at organic co-ops or places that care about organic beer... maybe Whole Foods. One big thing that Uncommon Ground has been big on is growing naturally. We don’t want to take out a massive loan and start distributing nationally. We want to grow with the demand for our beer.
Is organic something that was a part of you before you joined here?
Yeah, a lot of us are more and more concerned about eating organic food. When it comes to alcohol we don’t really think about that. We think it’s a simple product so it must be organic, but that is simply not the case. Specifically with beer, it is largely an agricultural product and a lot of these plants are heavily sprayed. So for me, I’ve been eating organic food for many years. As far as beer goes, I’ve always been a big proponent of that, and this is the first brewery that I’ve worked at where we did certified organic beer. But we’re also the first brewery in Illinois doing that.
How do you educate people about what you're doing here and why it's different?
We tell people that what you're drinking was brewed just 50 feet away and that we’re the first certified organic brewery in Illinois. Everyone is big on samples here. Let people try what we have on tap and that’s our focus with every customer that walks in through our doors.
What about gluten free beer, would you ever consider brewing that?
Sure. That’s something that there is a market for and we carry gluten free beers. We do get people with celiacs that come in. Ideally I’d love to do a gluten free beer from base ingredients like chestnuts or buckwheat. I’ve also been looking into a new product called Clarity Ferm. It’s one of those accidental discoveries like penicillin. It’s a clarifying agent to clear up beer. They discovered that it denatures the gluten in the beer and it reduces it to less than 20 pbm, which is the definition of gluten free. In the US you can only call a beer brewed with a gluten ingredient that uses Clarity Ferm, gluten reduced (like Stone Delicious IPA). In Canada and Europe, you can call that gluten free.
Can we expect to see you guys brewing organic sour beers or barrel aged offerings?
We have plans for that, but we need to get to the point where I can dedicate some beer to that type of project. I haven’t got to the point where I have extra beer. The last thing I want is people to walk into the bar and say “Oh you have a brewery, what do you have on tap” and I say “Nothing, but we’ve got a bunch of stuff in barrels.” Once we get more tanks and expand, definitely. Michael the owner has a great relationship with Casa Noble organic tequila, so we might get an organic tequila barrel to put some beer in.
When you aren't running around the brewery here, what can we find you sipping on at home?
I joke around because I spend so much time looking around liquor stores, seeing what’s there. So it’s a lot of trying different stuff out of both curiosity and interest, but as well as research. It’s one of the best industries to do research in.
I tend to stick to my motto of drink locally but I do love Firestone Walker, they have fantastic beers. In Chicago, I love Revolution, and we were just at Brickstone for a guild meeting, they make great beer. I love Dryhop and the beer that Brant in putting out. I’d be hard-pressed to find a brewery off the top of my head that I would say not to go to. You know I love Piece, I love Cutler’s beers. There was a number of years he won a gold medal and they still medal all the time. They’re always developing new stuff too.
Photography by Robert Battista.
A big thank you to Martin for having us by the brewery. Find the entire Greenstar lineup on tap at Uncommon Ground.