SOUTH LOOP, CHICAGO
Getting to know the neighborhood with the guys behind South Loop Brewing Company
Chicago's South Loop neighborhood is quickly becoming quite the destination for any fan of great beer. Throw in its rich history and game days, and the South Loop is buzzing with tons of energy. We sat down with Jeremiah Zimmer, Jude La Rose, and Jason Maxwell, co-owners of the neighborhood's newest brewery, the aptly named, South Loop Brewing Company to discuss how the neighborhood runs through their veins and every pint they brew.
So let's start at the beginning, how did the three of you come together?
Jeremiah Zimmer: I’ve known Jude for a while, since 2006. We worked together at a previous job, both in sales. So that comfortably fed into what we're doing here. And then Jason is my brother-in-law – I've known him since late 2006 as well.
So from sales to a brewery...how did you arrive here?
JZ: It started with homebrewing; backyard homebrewing, kitchen stove homebrewing. All three of us had our own setups.
Jude La Rose: There was also "The Beer Club."
JZ: Yeah, it was essentially a beer co-op. Everyone would kick in $30, and there were 12 of us. We would then pick a theme based on whatever that month was. I would go out and buy $360 worth of beer, split it up so everyone got one bottle of each. No one had to commit to a 6- or 12-pack of something they'd never tried. We got to try a ton of beer that way. We all kind of bonded over different styles of beer that maybe we otherwise wouldn't have gotten excited over.
There was also a confidence builder in that piece too. You'd try some beers, and would be surprised how much you didn't like a beer. We'd feel that some of the beers we were brewing were on par, if not better. That's when we started thinking, "Why don't we get our beers out there and see how people like them?"
JL: We'd get together through email or text to choose themes, whether it was bocks for January or all Irish reds in March. It was nice to have X amount of beers all in the same style and just line them up. A good amount of education came out of getting beers side-by-side.
JZ: It challenges perceptions too, which, I think, is one of our favorite things. You line up eight different German wheats, and then you put a local wheat beer in the mix and do a blind tasting of them all. You may surprise yourself, liking something about the local one compared to the beers that define the style. It was eye opening for us, and certainly affects how we build recipes and the beers we choose to brew.
How much did those days of The Beer Club influence what you do today?
JL: It definitely helped out. I don't know that that experience made us hone in on any one thing that we're brewing now. I think we like beers that showcase some really good hops. We like other beers that showcase really nice malts. Part of that may have came from The Club, but I think it just came through the process of drinking and finding out what we like. When you have five or six of the same style in a row, you start to pick out what you really like out of that beer.
Your brewery is called 'South Loop.' We're talking today at a South Loop bar. What's the tie to the neighborhood for you three?
JZ: I lived in the South Loop for about eight years and moved to the burbs when my wife was pregnant. It depends on the day you ask my wife, but the whole "deal" was we will move out to the burbs where she grew up, but I get to open up the brewery here.
People who live in the South Loop love the South Loop. We never wanted to open up a brewing company somewhere else. It was always South Loop Brewing Company from the time it was just an idea. And it was for a number of reasons – you have Soldier Field and Bears games; there's the proximity to the lake; and the people that live down here that are young professionals that might be drinking our beer.
That's something of a unique approach compared to other brewers we've talked to. You're building your brewery around this neighborhood, rather than looking for any space that will accommodate you.
JZ: The South Loop was never a profit center for us. You can't think about the South Loop without thinking of Soldier Field, but it was about the culture and vibe down here. At the time when we planned this idea, there were no other breweries that were even thinking about being down here. That was part of the reason we established our social media presence in 2010 – and we actually didn't produce commercially licensed beer until last year. We wanted to plant our flag in the ground and say, "We're not there yet, we don't have half a million dollars worth of capital investment, but this is where we want to be. This is who we want to be." A lot of our beers tie into that, and weave in and out of that fabric that is the South Loop.
JL: If you dig into the history of our city, you see how much of it was built right where we are sitting right now. There's such a vibe around here. When you walk out on the street you can feel it. When you talk to the people, and when we do events in the neighborhood, you can feel it. We can't wait for the day when we're pouring super clean and fresh beer for these people.
Jason Maxwell: You have the history of the South Loop and then you have the present day South Loop. Like where we are sitting right now [The Spoke & Bird], this place is great and we know they're going to take good care of our beer. Someone who's dedicated to you – that even though they only have six lines, two of them are South Loop Brewing Company's. You form these friendships, not only for the people you are pouring the beer for, but also the people who are pouring your beer for the people. There are a lot of cool spots in the South Loop that are very excited for hyper-local beers.
We counted five beers from you now, right?
JZ: Yep, we're doing a unique batch each month for the first 12 months. We want to push our ideas out and see what people like; really figure out who our customer is.
And how are you approaching that?
JZ: You definitely can't be afraid of what people think about your beer. You've just got to do the best you can to make it. You have to have faith that people will like it. We give our beers to friends and family, as well as strangers, and listen to what they have to say. We're almost six months into brewing commercially, but so far so good.
JL: That's the beauty of craft beer in general. It's supposed to be celebrated, thought about, talked about, shared amongst friends – "How would you rate this?" Or, "Compare it." You're able to start a conversation that way, think more about a beer that way, enjoy beer more that way, get better educated that way. Those are all devices for people to become more excited about craft beer.
JZ: In our IndieGoGo video, one of the main things that was important to us was that we want to be the gateway beer for people who maybe are not already into craft beer. But we also want our beers to be unique and memorable enough that the beer geeks appreciate it. We're really trying to ride that line, and not be too many things at the same time. We want to find that white space, but still come up with ideas that are approachable.
A good example is our beer Saison du South Loop, a lavender Saison. It was my mother-in-law's 60th birthday, and she' not a big beer fan. She's a huge white wine fan, particularly Sauvignon Blanc. We wanted to make a beer for her birthday party that was as white-wine-esque as it could possibly be. We also wanted to use something that was special to her, and she has this huge lavender garden. It ended up being one of the more popular beers that we've made. So for her to try that and say that she loved it – we kind of accomplished both creativity and approachability with that.
Do you have the brew schedule for the rest of the year planned, or are you responding to some of the feedback from the first five batches?
JM: Yes and no. The nice thing is that we can change it whenever. We always have an outline. We've moved a batch to another month, or got a new idea and lets try this one out. The real problem is there are only 12 months in the year, and we have a bunch of ideas we want to get to!
We recently talked with Erik and the gang from Aquanaut. How's it been working with him and brewing out of their space for the time being?
JZ: We can't say enough about Erik. He's the nicest guy ever. He's supportive – we've learned from each other. In the beginning we obviously learned a little bit more from him as he'd been brewing slightly longer than we had on that system. But people say, 'everyone in the industry is nice.' Well, Erik really, truly, genuinely is that nice guy. We try to help each other if we can. And, it's a beautiful brewery.
Funny story about it, too – when it was 4 Paws' brew space, I was trying to propose the idea to them that we brew there in the same fashion that we're brewing at Aquanaut. That was right when they were looking to get out of the business. As fate would have it, we ended up brewing there anyway.
I also really appreciate what Erik is doing that is kind of like a smaller version of Goose Island. All of these brewers that worked at Goose Island are opening up their own breweries. And even though it's early on, you've got Transient, and us, brewing there... I'm sure after we're gone, maybe Erik will have someone else in there. Before you know it you're going to have a dozen breweries that got their start at Aquanaut.
And it's not like you guys can afford to screw up and put out one bad batch.
JZ: Absolutely. And bravo to Erik for helping us learn our system. There are things that we wouldn't have known if he wouldn't have been there on the first or second brew day giving us tweaks. But I'm proud to say too that we're quick learners. If any of us brought our book of ideas or showed you the volume of emails that shoot between us... There's a lot of thought about what we're doing and when we're doing it. So far so good, and so far no big mistakes!
It's got to be tough to have all these ideas and only have one tank at Aquanaut right now.
JM: Oh yea, but I think it's made us better brewers though.
And you own the tank right?
JZ: Yea. That thing is our baby.
JM: I think that was a pride issue for us. We didn't want to be seen as a contract brewer, not that there's anything wrong with that. But I think there's a stigma if you're not brewing your own beer. We write the recipes, we come up with the ideas ourselves, we name them ourselves. We brew the beer, we order the ingredients, and pick them up in my Hyundai Sonata. Have you ever been in one of them? it's interesting putting 1000 lbs in the backseat and in your trunk, then driving an hour up to the brewery. It's a scary ride.
We could have contracted, it was a personal choice not to. We wanted to learn all the intricacies of commercial brewing. That was how we felt we could do that best. It was just the matter of finding the right home at that point.
So you're currently brewing 'South Loop' on the North Side. How often do you get the question: when and where will the taproom be?
JM: Every time I talk about the brewery. It's a good question. It's a fun question to have because that is in the pipeline. It's something that we are starting to really gain momentum towards looking at places, finding specific locations, and what not.
JZ: It shows people care too. They are loving our beer and want to drink it at the source.
Do you have a general vision of what you want the space to be?
JM: That are a lot of factors that play into it. You know what you want, but then it becomes what spaces are available. What can you do with a certain space?
JZ: We have created a box with our name, you can't have South Loop Brewing Company in Lakeview. That would be a complete departure of the soul of our brewing company. It is so hard not to learn from the other local brewers in Chicago. They are so willing to help out and communicate. Before we even try, we know we need a taproom. We want one, but we also know we need one. That's how you grow and survive. To be able to invite people into your home, and to give them a beer right off the tap, and them see you make it right over there. We are trying to take that box that is the South Loop and where we want to be, and find a place that is big enough that we don't out grow it in a couple years.
The South Loop is becoming quite the beer destination as of late.
JZ: Yeah, within a couple miles you have three or four you can hit up. Our hope is that people will come here for us, but also be approachable enough to then hop around to the others. You've heard it many times, but a rising tide floats all ships. You really do feel that in this industry and especially this city.
Where do you see South Loop Brewing in a year or two?
JM: We'll have our own place in the South Loop, a taproom, producing on three or four different tanks.
JL: ...or maybe 12.
JM: Of course! I could see 16 oz cans – that's something we've talked about.
JL: I'd say waking up in the morning with a cup of coffee, getting to work, and just cranking out some kick ass beers.
JZ: I envision this conversation happening in a couple years with an open garage door, a taproom humming, cleaning happening in the background. A lot of cool brews, an outdoor drinking space. A little water dish for people walking their dogs. One of things I like about the South Loop is that you don't have a young baby, you have a dog. Most of the businesses around here acknowledge that and it's a cool little thing that ties them into the community. And working with these guys, at a company that we started, making beer, sounds like about as good as it gets. So it's easy to daydream and think about that, but we want to make people come back and drink more than one of our beers.
Lastly, what's in the fridge at home?
JM: Plenty of our own beer but I like to walk down the grocery store aisle and grab whatever I haven't tried before. Always local.
JL: Well my wife is pregnant and she's my drinking buddy, so I try not to come home with a ton of stuff because I know she'll get jealous. But we live pretty close to Half Acre so there's always fresh beer from them in our fridge. I love going to The Beer Temple and picking up any of the Saisons that he has. I've got some Wits in there right now, too.
JZ: Well it's hot as hell right now so it's hard to think about anything other than [Revolution's] Rosa, Anti Hero, or Hell or High Watermelon. We spend a lot of time on our patio, drinking beer, watching the kids play in the backyard. It's not all that bad.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
Cheers to Jeremiah, Jude, and Jason for sitting down with us at the awesome Spoke & Bird and talking shop with us. Keep an eye out for the next beer up from them, a collab with Mike Ditka's restaurants and perfectly named Witka. We'll be keeping a close eye on all their progress as they look for a home in the South Loop.