Chicago's Craft Beer Jack of All Trades: Alex Lovinggood of Brickstone Brewery
INTERVIEWED MARCH 4, 2017
AT BRICKSTONE BREWERY & RESTAURANT — BOURBONNAIS, IL
The Chicago craft beer community is a tight knit group. With owners, brewers, and sales reps from across the area often converging at the same events, a few characters are bound to jump out. For us, one of our first remembrances of such a frequent figure, was that of Alex Lovinggood. Currently a brewer at Brickstone's production facility in Bourbonnais, Illinois, Alex is someone we've run into at seemingly every turn over the last few years.
Whether it's at a Tuesday night beer event on the North Side, a weekend festival gathering, a Guild meeting or just grabbing a beer at one of the city's taproom, he seems to be omnipresent. Alex has worked his way around the brewing circuit after starting with a role at Temperance, then moving on to Burnt City and, and now finally to Brickstone. Having settled into his new home and work space an hour and change south of the city, we met with Alex to find out what he's up to at the big brewery in a small town, how he got there, and what drives this jack of all trades to take on even more responsibility as a board member for the Illinois Craft Brewer's Guild.
We've seen you all around the Chicago beer scene for a while now. How did you get into this line of work?
I've worked in a lot of careers, if you want to call them that.... I worked in special ed for a lot of years. I worked at a misericordia home on the north side of Chicago which is a big facility for children and adults who have down syndrome and developmental disabilities. But during all that time, I was bartending because it was a way to make extra cash when you're 22-23 years old.
This was in Chicago?
Yea, northside of Chicago, Evanston, Wilmette. I was working at Farmhouse. There are two locations, one in downtown Chicago, and later Evanston opened up which I opened up. Obviously, there's a lot of craft beer there.
Was that your intro to the craft beer scene?
Well before that, I was drinking craft beer just because a bar I was a regular at, Fireside, had craft beer. I drank a 3 Floyds Robert The Bruce one day and realized beer had flavor.
Seems like everyone has that beer. But how did you take that first step into the industry?
I was just going through the motions, making delicious craft cocktails, serving delicious craft beer. But I'd always heard about this brewery that was opening up in Evanston — Temperance, Temperance, Temperance. One day in mid September 2013, Claudia [Jendron], the headbrewer, Amber, the assistant brewer, and Josh [Gilbert], the owner, sat at the bar. They were wearing the Temperance shirts and that peaked my interest. These guys might know somebody there! So I just started talking to them and found out who they were. That was actually their first brew day. They came in, drank some beers, and we just struck up a conversation. You guys have talked to Claudia, she's the fucking best person ever.
No argument there.
She's open, she's inviting, and she said, "Why don't you come into the brewery one day and see it." Well I'd been to breweries, so I knew what it was, but I'd never been to a local brewery. So about two weeks later, I took them up on it and just kind of showed up. They were kegging a beer, and Claudia said, "You want to learn how to keg a beer?" Why not? So I did that, and then she said, "Why don't you come back next week to see all the brewing stuff?" Then, "Why don't you come back tomorrow, we're going to be doing some cellar work." It just happened so naturally that it never felt like anything. Next thing I know, the taproom is about to open. Before that I was there five days a week. It opened and Josh said, "I want to start paying you but I want you to work in the taproom as a bartender." I told him no.
Why say no?
I wanted to keep giving away my time because I didn't want to just bartend anymore. I'd gotten a taste of brewing, cleaning kegs, and working in a brewery. It was about a month and a half total that I volunteered my time and then one day Josh came up to me and was like, "Hey, we're going to start paying you." That was kind of that.
Were you still at Farmhouse?
I was still working at Farmhouse but it was around that time I was approached and offered a job at another bar in Chicago to be the manager. At the time I started that job, I was full time bartending, plus managing a couple nights, plus working however often I needed to at Temperance. About seven months into that, I ended up getting fired. There were no hard feelings though. They said, "Listen, you're at this brewery, go do that. You're not giving us 100%." I was giving more time at the brewery than I was at the bar. I called my wife and I told her. She was like, "Well, get another job at a bar." ...Well, what if I didn't? What if I worked at the brewery full time?
I bet she loved that.
Oh yea, I mean I had two forms of income before. So I was just going to start working at the brewery and just lose all that money. She was accepting about it. I went into Josh that next Monday and told him what happened and that I wanted to work there full time. It kind of worked out that Amber, the assistant brewer, was moving to Colorado. I just kind of slid in and took over.
And then you ended up at Atlas [now Burnt City].
It was right around Craft Beer Week of 2015 when I made the transition. They'd posted a position so I called Ben [Saller, Co-Founder, Burnt City] and went and interviewed for it. They offered me the job for cellar and lab worker at the production facility on the south side. I went down there and ended up running the packaging line and doing all the brewing and cellaring.
Your days volunteering at Temperance really weren't that long ago. How did you end up as the head brewer at Brickstone?
From the day I started volunteering at the brewery until when I left there and was working at Atlas was just under a year and a half. That was also at the time when their trademark lawsuit was coming to a head between them and Atlas Brew Works in DC. So obviously, things were tight. To be honest it was rather early on that I knew I'd made a reactionary decision rather than just waiting it out — but that happens. About four months in, I was down here when Brickstone first opened their brewery in September. We were sitting here drinking Sangria and I told him I really wanted to come work here. It just worked out. I started on November 9th of 2015 and just about a year and a half later, here we are.
So you moved from the big city to Bourbonnais. How's that change treated you?
I grew up in a small town... well technically I grew up in Kansas City but in Junior High I moved to a small western Illinois town called Monmouth. There were about 7,000 people there and I lived there for about five years. So this is normal for me. This is a big area.
You and your family have gone through a lot of changes in a short time. You must have one great wife!
She's always been supportive. We cut our pay in half and for the first five and a half months at Brickstone, we were still living on the north side of Chicago and I was commuting. I went to Walmart, bought a $30 camping cot, a sleeping bag, and a pillow, and I put it in the back room of the brewery. I would come down on Monday and I'd work till Thursday or Friday, sleeping on the cot at the brewery overnight, and heading back home on the weekends. That put a lot of stress on her as we had a one and a half year old daughter and worked six days. Luckily we had a good support system with her parents living close.
Looking back, did you ever think you'd end up here?
Not at all. But you're always looking to exceed and to be the best at your position. I like the work. I moved to where I feel comfortable. I work where I feel comfortable. When I met these guys and started working here, they took me, my wife, and my daughter in like family.
Describe the average Bourbonnais drinker.
It's a blue collar union town. We have a couple big industries down here. CSL [Berhring] is about a half mile away from us. They're a drug manufacturer and probably employ 1500 to 2000 people. They're the largest employer down here. But it's school teachers, hospital workers, people who work at auto body shops — just your everyday man. The people who make our cans are our regular customers. The people that sell cars across the street are our regular customers.
So you've only been here a year and a half, but what can you tell us about the education process of craft beer in a town like Bourbonnais?
Ten years ago, they started with a lager, a cream ale, a blonde ale. They had to inform and teach the consumer what beer was. Still, we couldn't brew a sour ale and have it sell out in the taproom. We're still a little "nubile" if you will, a little young. Then again, an IPA will sell faster than an Irish Red.
So the community has sort of come along with you in the last decade?
Yea, we've changed a lot of pallets. There's nothing really in Bourbonnais for beer other than Brickstone.
We see your cans everywhere in Chicago nowadays. How's the reception been since you started distributing in the city?
Chicago has been extremely supportive of us since day one in 2012-13 when we were just doing draft only. It's all about the connections but it also helps that we were putting out a superior product. A product that's good, you can stand behind, and other brewers drink. That's the most important thing. If I make a beer and other brewers like it, I can pretty much presume consumers will like it.
Brickstone has won medals at GABF and the World Beer Cup. How important were those for the brewery?
It changed the direction of the business. It wasn't just a medal, it was everything surrounding that. 3 Floyds Zombie Dust got a bronze medal. Piece Pizza got a silver medal. Those are two nationally known breweries. Then Brickstone Brewery & Restaurant in Bourbonnais, Illinois got gold.
That's a competitive category too.
It's a competitive category, it's a big category, and an unknown brewery that entered GABF for the very first time ever won a gold medal, over these two breweries that are known for their pale ales. In 2012 when the award was won, they didn't necessarily want to do a production brewery. The production brewery exists because of that.
That's pretty impressive.
Yea. In the back corner of the restaurant there are barrels aging where booths used to be. For these guys to convince their parents to take out a booth with five seats, that can get turned five times a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, that's going to get you maybe $20-30,000 a year, all to put wood casks in there with product that's not going to see profit for a year... that's a lot of changing mindsets.
You're the Treasurer of the Board for the Illinois Craft Brewer's Guild. Why take on that responsibility?
When I get into something, I get into it 100%. Beer and brewing is no different. I latched onto this community and saw how collaborative and communicative it was and I really enjoyed that. Brewing, cellaring, and packaging beer is awesome, but how can we get everybody to drink beer? How can we get the word out to everybody? So I started helping the guild with events and canvassing for Craft Beer Week in 2014. In 2015 I was on the FOBAB committee which organized the whole thing. Then I got voted onto the Board of Directors, and this last year internally on the board I got voted to be the Treasurer of the board. Obviously we've gone through some leadership changes in the last year and we're just trying to mitigate everything. Beer is good for everybody. If everybody has access to beer, then that's good for every brewery in the state.
What's the next big thing for Illinois beer?
I think the breweries set the trends. When you have more breweries, there's going to be push backs everywhere. The guild is becoming more legislatively focused. The events we do — FOBAB, Craft Beer Week, Winter Wonderland, and a summer fest we're doing — those are what help fund us. But at the end of the day, it's about supporting the breweries and their needs and trying to mitigate between 160 different breweries. Obviously Brickstone is quite different to Pollyanna, or Revolution, or Hailstorm, or Border Town. Right now, we're looking at laws that say how much a brewery or distributor can give a retailer. The growler thing is still fresh in everyone's mind.
Is that issue still being discussed?
It's still out there but the state representative that was behind it a year ago, since we just started the 100th general session, isn't going to be the sponsor of that bill at this point. So that one is kind of losing steam. We surveyed the brewing members and the majority were just completely against retailers filling growlers. At the end of the day, if it was 51/49, as the guild we represent the majority of the members.
How important is the brand to Brickstone?
It's great because you walk into a liquor store, you see an APA, Forbidden Wheat, and Hopskip next to each other, and you can look from a distance and see it's Brickstone because of the brand we have. It's so different compared to what a lot of people are putting out nowadays. It's crisp, it's sharp edges, 90 degree angles, colors that stand out.
And your cans are sourced locally?
Yea, he original plan was to do 16 ounce cans. They found out this local Crown source didn't do them. So instead of doing four 16 ounce cans, they changed to 12 ounce cans to keep it local. They print them yesterday and they come today. You come in here on a Tuesday night and the manager of the company is sitting at that table, and two of his workers are over there.
What are you drinking at home?
I'm a bad brewer I think... I don't drink at home that often. I drink a lot of Manhattans. I always have a bottle of Maker's Mark and Glenlivet 12-year scotch. My brother works for Lakeshore, so I almost always have some Budweiser or High Life in there. People come over to my house and ask if they can have some Brickstone and we have to go over to the brewery and get 'em.
What's next for you?
We're here to stay. I moved my family down here. Moving a Chicago girl out of Chicago, even if it's only by 50 miles, was tough. I came in here not knowing these people very well, and in a year and a half they've taken me and my family in like their family. I don't want to keep moving. I like the beers we make a lot. It's a good family.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
A huge thank you to Alex for taking time out of his Saturday to come to work and talk about his new life in Bourbonnais. Visit Brickstone Restaurant & Brewery seven days a week fifty miles south of Chicago or look out for their four canned offerings at many places around town.