Barrels, Legislation & Festivals: An Interview with Katie Long of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild
Interviewed April 14th, 2016
at Gideon Welles Bar - LINCOLN SQUARE
Chicago Craft Beer Week is upon us. Eleven days and hundreds of events, from the North Shore to the south 'burbs, celebrating Chicago's favorite beverage. Kicking off with the acclaimed Beer Under Glass event in Garfield Park, and coming to a close several beer-filled days later in Lincoln Square, it's no small feat to put on a celebration as large as CCBW. And more impressive yet, is that it's made possible because of a team of just two, one being Guild Coordinator Katie Long of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild.
As much as we all like to revel in the Guild events held throughout the year, the ICBG is so much more than just a festival planner. To the average drinker, most will never know the work that the Guild does, but they experience it with every sip of their Illinois pint. On a sunny afternoon in Lincoln Square, we caught up with Katie, over a few local beers at Gideon Welles Bar–adjacent to her hard work, CCBW's, capstone event in Welles Park. We discussed what it is like to champion for Illinois breweries big and small, the pitfalls of politics, and putting on some of the most recognized beer festivals in the country.
Katie–you work every day in beer. What do you typically like to drink?
I'm an IPA whore, but I do like sours a lot. And I don't know what it is, maybe it's just the warm weather, but I love radlers. They're so drinkable and low in alcohol. Especially when you're running an event. Would I love to drink Bourbon County Vanilla all day? Sure! Would I be able to speak at the end of the day? No.
I understand you had an interesting path into beer. What were you doing prior to the Guild?
For ten years, right after I graduated college, I got into sales. I started in medical staffing and recruiting sales, and then I ran a scientific division...and ended in engineering. During that time, as a side gig though, I poured for Virtue Cider and volunteered for–and was on the board of–the Midwest Brewers Fest for a few years.
Justin [Maynard] had known that I was involved with that fest, and that I'd help for FoBAB (Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer) and any other events he had. He reached out to me and asked me to come work for him. I was bored with sales and that madness, so why not get paid to do fun stuff? Now, I've been with the guild officially for a year and a half.
It is a lot of work. It's just Justin and me. People think we just get to drink all day...
I find it interesting that you and Justin are not listed on the Guild's website.
No, we're just the get-it-done kind of people. People obviously know who Justin is, people are now learning who I am. He's the face–out there drinking. And I am the one, because it's my personality, taking notes behind the scenes. I don't want to miss anything. For what we do and how many members we have, I feel it's my responsibility and liability to make sure I don't miss a beat and get everything done.
That's why you two are such a power team.
So you're official job title with the Guild is, then...
Guild Coordinator. Justin is Executive Director. That's it, we are the guild.
The Guild has an elected board. What is their role outside of you two?
So the board is Kevin Cary (Begyle), Jim Ebel (Two Brothers), Matt Potts (Destihl), Ike Orcutt (Buckledown), Wil Turner (Revolution), Chet Brett (Church Street), Alex Lovinggood (Brickstone), and Brant Dubovick (DryHop). They are the voice of decision. Justin and I, we don't ultimately make any decisions. If members or anybody has a question, we present it to the board, and they vote.
What a lot of people don't know is that the Guild isn't just a festival running company. We represent all the brewers on a legal perspective. We do a lot of lobbying and legislation. A lot of the rules that are in place, not just in the state of Illinois, but nationwide, are from 1934 Prohibition. We're still working under these laws from a really different time. We're constantly battling.
There are a lot of hurdles I think many people aren't exposed to as well, as a consumer.
One of the more recent battles that we were able to overcome was increasing the cap on what breweries can brew. When you look at the Begyles of the world, or the Half Acres, they're growing. They're opening new facilities, production facilities–it wouldn't be fair to inhibit how much beer they can produce. Let them keep succeeding.
How are things presented to the board?
Right now we have about 130 regular members, which means they're brick and mortar and brewing on-site. Breweries in-planning or contract brewing–we have about 50 of those. One of the perks of being a member the Guild is that your voice can be heard. You can contact Justin or myself and we present it to the board. Another valuable platform are our quarterly meetings. It's also a great opportunity for people to speak their concerns.
What's a piece of legislation you're particularly proud of?
Most recently was The Small Brew Act. Every June, the Brewer's Association (which is the umbrella where all the guilds fall under) has an event called The Hill Climb. One of the things on the agenda last year was The Small Brew Act. We climbed Capitol Hill to talk to our local legislators, senators and governors to fight for small brewers. We also discussed legislation for spent grain to go to farms, and some other issues on a more national level.
For Illinois, last year we were fighting to increase the barrel cap, which was successful. We're always trying to change the language, manipulate the language, add language, take out language–just to better help all breweries; not just certain size breweries. Not everyone is the size of Revolution, Half Acre, Two Brothers, or Lagunitas. You have new, old, and everything in the middle.
Is there a lot action to try and level the playing field via legislation?
I wouldn't say it's based on size. The Brewer's Association is looking at things across the board. I think that the biggest thing we are trying to hit home, no matter the language or what we are trying to fight, is that craft beer is good. Craft beer brings jobs. Craft beer brings life to communities and towns that may need it.
I think that a lot of people in political positions are afraid to make changes that might stir up the big guy. The majority of what politicians will tell me is that they want to stay neutral. They won't make a decision either way. I get it, but ultimately we are not asking for anything that would hurt the big guy, what we are doing is trying to also help the little guy.
And here in Illinois there is plenty of opportunity for that, as we're seeing.
Illinois in particular, we need that help. We need that business growth. The state needs money. Having a small business, like a brewery, is going to bring jobs. Look at Revolution and how many jobs they've brought between the brewpub and production facility. Brewers, canning line operators, brewpub staff, sales, marketing, even janitorial–so many jobs from just one craft brewery. One that's considered small on the big scale.
It's just one small portion of your responsibilities, but how do you manage the festival planning?
One of the aspects of being the Guild, is that we have festivals. We do Chicago Craft Beer Week [CCBW], which is 11 days long. We do the opening event, Beer Under Glass, and we do the closing event, Welles Park Beer Festival. We are doing a new event in July, the Illinois Craft Beer Festival, which we are excited about, too. It is literally in the infancy stages, working permits and what not. Then there is the animal that is FoBAB. It's just how to best manage your time as you plan.
Not that anyone would complain about another beer fest–but what was the thought behind another Guild festival, not long after CCBW?
We have done Oak Park Beer Festival in the past, and we're no longer doing that. We wanted to do another summer event, something different. The big aspect of the Guild is we're a not-for-profit, so essentially the proceeds go back to the breweries, and we find somebody we want to benefit in some way.
We are also excited to make this an all-Illinois craft beer festival. Illinois is growing leaps and bounds with breweries, so why not be able to give back? We have nearly 150 members that we are looking to showcase.
CCBW. What has been the biggest improvement since year one?
I can't speak for year one because I wasn't involved back then. My first CCBW, I remember they had this punchcard where you would try to fill up by doing certain things. I remember I had this card, but had no idea what to do with it, I couldn't find any info about it...
So this year we're really excited–we are doing a CCBW "passport." Pretty cool. We are only asking 10 check-ins. Some people are teasing that that is no big deal. Well, we are asking people to go to 10 totally different locations. We have 80 venues participating, but I challenge the people to make sure you hit the South Side, the 'burbs, The Loop...and then get up to a place like Chain O'Lakes Brewing. We'll have swag for participating with the passport.
That's one exciting improvement, but in general we have just learned from our past mistakes. We know what people like. They don't want to be drinking on top of someone at a fest. Look at FoBAB, it continues to grow. But where do we go to next?
Yes, FoBAB is massive now. Is that event driven by the dollar? Or is there something about making it feel more special and intimate?
Yes, intimacy is important, and we still do cap it. We could have stayed at Bridgeport Arts Center, but unfortunately what that means is you can't grow with what is growing in Illinois. Unless you make FoBAB only-Illinois. But then you would have to be selective of which breweries you take.
So you run out of space, and for us it's not trying to get as many people in there as you can, it is more about showcasing the breweries. Last year we had 165 breweries with 400 different beers from all over. We had a couple breweries from Brazil, from Canada...it's become an international thing. When people go to this festival, they want to experience not only Illinois, but everywhere.
You must have some serious patience and multi-tasking skill to coordinate these beer festivals.
I volunteered and was on the board for Midwest Brewers Festival. That is a beast as well. I was on the fest board and just getting in to craft beer. I'm one of those people who feels a need to over-obligate themself. Working a full time job and having a life, I was like, "Yeah, let me just volunteer at this beer fest, too!" Next thing you know I'm holding a walkie-talkie and am this key person the day of the fest. I was left wondering how it all happened.
That event was on a pretty large scale, so when it came to doing Welles Park it wasn't alien to me. Some of that experience definitely helped me. I'm kind of a multi-tasker and planner anyway, so I like those kind of challenges. Bring it on!
We always like to ask what folks are drinking outside of the job, and we distinctly remember Justin Maynard's was Stiegl Radler. Oh, and riesling. Thoughts on that?
Yeah he likes his riesling. But, his new jam is Moscow Mules. For me Radlers are about the low-ABV option. When you're with brewers all day and you don't want to not have a beer, it's a good next option. Plus, if you're working a fest all day and people are relying on you...I shouldn't be that girl and have a beer too many. Plus, I never have time to eat during those fests.
You mean to say you don't rock the cheese and pretzel necklace?
Oh, yeah with my KitKats and sausages? Please!
We know brewers don't always like to use the term "trend," but is there anything you see that we might start to see more of?
You mean like radlers? Ha! I think that a lot are trying to be different and creative and go with the consumers' palate. When it comes to sours and barrel-aging, it's something different. People will love 'em or hate 'em. Radlers though, if you think about it...you have a lot of people who are not big beer drinkers, but may like cider or riesling–like Justin–they want that in-between beverage. As goofy as it may sound, radlers fit that bill.
I use my mom and my sister as examples a lot. My mom is a Blue Moon or Miller Lite type of person. My sister is a cider or white wine person. But they both love a radler. I think that's why a lot of brewers are jumping on them, because it widens their customer base.
Trends are fun, but it's great to see brewers circle back to more traditional styles, too.
Yeah, I think that is why you're seeing a lot of people bring a pilsner into their lineup. They are hard to do, too. You can hide behind certain things, you can dry-hop things, raddle things, you can change and manipulate a lot about a beer. But to get to a certain traditional style and perfect it, that is about bragging rights.
Our craft beer interest began toward the end of our college days. What were you drinking back then?
It was 2004 when I was a senior in college, and I played soccer at Illinois State. Being on a team, I didn't drink a ton, but for me it was Skol Vodka. Skol and diet Snapple. That was my jam.
Oh, yeah! Let's talk about how far I've come...
So, the Brewers Guild is made up of two people drinking riesling and vodka with Snapple.
You could get a handle of vodka for $10. A 24-pack of beer was $14 or $15.
When I was in school craft beer wasn't even a thing. I worked at bar from the time I was 14 up until I graduated, and I remember when they got Sam Adams for the first time. And my cousin worked for a distributer who sold Honkers from Goose. He would come over for holiday parties and bring craft beer. I was turning them down for my Miller Lite. Or my Skol vodka.
My first real experience with craft, was when my brother would go to Colorado and he would drink Rogue Dead Guy. I would look at it and think it was so dark–it must be Guinness! I was judging the beer by its color. I tried a few different beers with him, and then started going to BUG and the Midwest Brewers Fest. After trying different beers there, I realized it can be dark and I can still like it. I've always gravitated to pale ales and the hoppier beers. My palate just ran to it. I am also a whiskey and bourbon girl, so I like anything barrel-aged.
Fast forward, what breweries are you most excited about now?
Alter Brewing in Downer's Grove is awesome because it's like a mile from my house. And there beer is good.
How about something outside of Chicago?
You go to the South Side, and because I love IPAs, I would go with a Hop Skip from Brickstone. They have an awesome facility. My boyfriend's family is from the Mokena area, so I love to go to Hailstorm, too. 350 Brewing is a great stop. Tribes Ale House is awesome.
The north suburbs are blowing up too. Lincolnshire and Glenview are getting breweries. You have Chain O'Lakes and Light the Lamp. You can make a day of the north burbs. It's just insane how many there are. I would love nothing more if my job was to go around and visit breweries, but it's not feasible with how much we having going on.
If you go way down south, down state, Scratch in Ava, Illinois is amazing. Considering their beer is made with only what they can forage, it's unbelievable. And, they built their brewery. When I say they, I mean they hand-built their brewery. They're now building little cabins on the property. It's the middle of nowhere, but I'll tell you Scratch is so cool.
Any closing thoughts regarding Chicago Craft Beer Week?
We are just really excited. Really excited about the passport and year two at Welles Park. It was awesome to have all that space and that freedom. It was like a community where people came together. We are hoping for the beer gods to shine down on us with nice weather at both Beer Under Glass and Welles Park. No rain please!
You need to sell CCBW ponchos.
They will be there!
And when CCBW is done, how will you celebrate?
We'll be in the midst of planning the Illinois festival in July, and then right into FoBAB. But, I will probably enjoy a couple days in Michigan on a beach...doing nothing. Maybe with some Skol Vodka...