Talking art, science, and beer with co-founders Eric Hobbs and Tom Korder of Penrose Brewing
Focus. Often, in today's furiously paced craft beer world, it's a race to the starting gate and many details are left unattended. Everyone wants to be the next guy, or gal, of the beer scene but they don't think about what makes them unique. What sets them apart? What makes their brewery a statement of themselves?
This is not the case for Penrose Brewing Company. Nestled in the quaint western Chicago suburb of Geneva, just a 45 minute train ride from the city, Penrose recently celebrated its one year anniversary. You would never know it though, because Penrose looks and feels like its been established for a decade or two.
Co-founders Eric Hobbs and Tom Korder simply ooze focus. No detail, no matter how small, is overlooked, and it has been like this since day one. From their Belgian inspired ales to beautiful taproom and bottle labels, everything has been meticulously dissected to be the best representation of Eric, Tom, and the Penrose brand. We hopped on the Metra to Geneva for the pleasure of sitting down with the co-founders to discuss how they've been able to find the balance between art and brewing science.
Let's start at the beginning. What were you guys up to prior to starting Penrose?
Tom Korder: We met at Goose Island. I was the Brewery Operations Manager, Innovations Manager, and Barrel Program Manager. Eric was the Key Accounts Manager for Binny's and the more chain focused retailers. We really solidified this idea at a beer dinner we were at together.
Another couple Goose Islanders! How long were you each there?
TK: I was there just over five years and Eric was hired just before I was. We also both spent time at Anheuser Busch. I was there before I was at Goose, and Eric was there after Goose, following the buyout. We've collectively been in this industry for twenty years now, and decided we wanted to branch out on our own. Start our own thing from the ground up, and build it from our vision.
You have a pretty nice operation here for only being, what...a year old?
TK: A year and a month. We rolled everything all at once.
Eric Hobbs: We drained this place, the first week was just crazy. Went from six beers on tap to two. Pissed people off for about a month until we got our volumes back up, and have since slowly figured out how to run two business.
We see Penrose at an ever increasing number of places around the city. How have you got the word out so quickly?
EH: At first it was just me out there. Then with the shift of the market and it becoming so popular, it became too much for me to handle. Originally the plan was to settle in with 50-70 core accounts, many that I have known for years. With the constant rotation, it just wasn't happening. I realized that if I wasn't in the account and making the sale, we weren't getting consistent re-buys.
It wasn't an issue with the beer, which was my first fear. It just became out of sight, out of mind at that point. There are so many breweries coming in, trying to do what we're doing, you have to be there. So we have since hired two more people. They double as bartenders and brand ambassadors.
TK: You look at any beer that's in the market - Revolution, Lagunitas, Two Brothers - they're all doubling down on reps. Anybody who wants to compete in the Chicago market has to have a team of people.
EH: We are not trying to just compete, we are trying to get ahead and build something. These are people who have hired a dozen people, who are already established. Who doesn't know Lagunitas IPA? Who's never heard of Anti-Hero? Those breweries are settled in. We are trying to not only build something, but find that beer that is going to be the one to hook people. We want to have the freshest beer, with a constant supply, and that's hard to balance.
Speaking of the beer, we love the non-traditional Belgian theme you're running with here. When did you decide you wanted to focus there?
TK: We started into it from the beginning, at Goose Island. We love to brew it, we love to drink it. We thought they were approachable, but unique enough. There's really nobody in the Midwest who's staked their claim to that style. We thought having that yeast strain as another ingredient, instead of another common denominator, was very important. We got a lot of flavor out of that, and that is why we use a lot of different yeast strains.
Have you found there's any kind of learning curve in the local community as you're selling something a little different?
EH: I think it's caused a slightly slower growth for us because of it. There's an education process that we need to own. We've tried to put a focus around staff education and training. It helps people understand our brewing philosophy and why it's important for us to have a nice balance between malt, hop, and yeast character.
TK: We want people to know that Belgian, doesn't just mean Doubles and Triples. There's so much more to that style. There's such a wide range of what Belgian beer can be, and that's what we're trying to do.
Consistency from batch to batch always seems to be a challenge for a new brewery, but you guys seem to have largely skipped that hurdle. Can you speak to your efforts there?
TK: It is really hard when you are not doing it every day. When I make one beer time after time it's easy. If I have one that is a little out of spec I can blend it down and mix it with another one. One of the things we focused on was control in our brewhouse process, and trying to control our fermentation process as well. My focus has been control. It's why we built the brewery at the scale and size that we did.
You see a lot of breweries now not doing the same beer twice. Look at Pipeworks. They rotate through a million different things so they don't need to have that consistency. It's good and bad. They're a small brewery, but now they're scaling up. What's going to be their plan moving into a bigger brewery? Can you have that constant rotation as a bigger brewery or will you need to have that one Anti-Hero or Lagunitas IPA? I think it's a great way to start out. You get a lot of beers out, you get a lot of people buying it, and you get people wanting to try this new beer they've not seen before. But at some point you need to have that familiarity.
So why Geneva? Do you have ties to the area?
EH: I grew up here. I always saw this void when I would come home. All these great bars and restaurants, many on board with craft beer early on, but no one in the area being the local hometown brewer. I had heard rumblings of people talking about opening up shop, but I was determined to be the first to do it.
What's the story of Geneva? It looked like a town with a bit of history on our walk here from the station.
EH: Yeah, it is a really old downtown, settled along the river, about 150 years ago. You still see a lot of the early settler's names around town. The Herrington Inn carries the name of the family that settled Geneva. Colonel Fabyan was one of the big landowners. A lot of that history started on the river and moved outward. Then, having the railroad makes it possible to connect with the city.
TK: And you can drink beers on the way back!
How's the local reception been? Are you in a lot of the bars and restaurants in town?
EH: Pretty much all of 'em. Everyone has been supportive early on. Now the sales part is on us to create more awareness and drinker loyalty. Obviously you're competing with everyone when it comes to that. There are still a lot of people around here drinking buckets of bottles, and $3 drafts of whatever's on sale.
Do you think you've developed that sense of local's pride from the city, being the local brewer?
TK: I think we're still trying to build the feel that Penrose is so local. We're right down the street, you've been there, and it's cool! That's where you solidify that local feeling. We think we'll really build that this second year.
Let's talk about the Penrose brand. You were obviously very conscious of your brand from day one; something we can't say for the majority of new breweries popping up around the city.
EH: The conversation began with this expectation of high standards across the board. Whether it was our beer, our tap room, or how we handle our relationships with our retail and wholesale accounts. You don't want to miss a detail anywhere.
That's why we ended up using Ian [Law]. When I proposed this to him he was definitely full hands-on. He didn't even charge me for a lot of things early on. He said he knew the importance of stepping off in the right direction. It meant more to him than being able to pay him as much as he might deserve for this type of stuff. He said we'd all be in a better place if we get this off and running in a good direction.
He and I had a very similar idea for the brand. I come to him with very specific intentions, like the Wild Series labels. I told him I wanted them modeled after codex journals, I want number series. He takes what I give him and really tightens it up.
What about the name itself?
EH: Our name is inspired by the tiling pattern. Roger Penrose created this pattern. He was a mathematician and scientist and created this beautiful tessellation that is rooted in math. Tom was the one who brought the idea up, saying it's just like craft brewing - a balance between art and science. We liked it because it has this beautiful pattern and gave us a lot of brand platform to work with. And of course "Penrose" didn't mean anything to anybody. So we were immediately thinking, let's avoid any issue by simply taking a word that doesn't have an attached meaning already or isn't being used by another brewery.
There was a lot of conversation at CBC [Craft Brewer's Conference] this year about that very thing. This infighting you are starting to see more and more. Is it going to remain as communal as everybody claims it is? I don't see how it can with everybody constantly trying to grab a finite amount of space.
That's really been an unfortunate industry trend lately.
EH: Well've got to protect your intellectual property. That's why you file trademarks. Knowing that there's going to be oversight and overlap, it is just going to happen eventually. I do believe that most breweries ultimately try to take the high road.
We had an issue before we even opened. There was a brewery in Colorado, Pikes Peak Brewing Co., that was about to release a series of beers called the Penrose Reserve Series. Granted we weren't even open yet, but we were very actively using our name and had done some collaboration stuff with Perennial. So luckily our name was already being used and was out there. I just asked the guy kindly, "Look, we already filed for mark on this. To avoid confusion, once you're done with these initial releases will you redirect?" And he said "Absolutely, thanks for the heads up." He was super cool about it.
What's your go-to beer hangout when you're in the city?
EH: If I'm up in Lincoln Square, I'm definitely going to swing into Half Acre's tap room, or across the street and see Mandy from Bad Apple. We probably have a boat load of time in Hopleaf over the years.
TK: That’s always the place for those one-off Belgian beers.
EH: It just depends on where we are in the city. There have been a lot of places that have been very supportive of us. I try and make the rounds and go see all the folks who are carrying our beer regularly, whether it is a little spot like Table, Donkey and Stick over in South Logan area, or Jake Melnick’s in River North. But if I do have to post up somewhere, and say favorite Chicago brewery, I am going to say Half Acre. I can pop open my computer, do a couple hours of work, usually see a couple people I know, say hello.
Final question. What's in your fridge at home right now?
EH: My go to of late is Little Crazy, I have had cans in my fridge going on three months straight.
Photography by Jack Muldowney
A huge thank you to Eric and Tom for having us out to their brewery and sharing their final bottle of Wild X with us. Keep an eye out for Penrose's special bottle releases throughout the year as we're told they're quite the event.