From Bavaria to Chicago: An Ode to Tradition with Dovetail Brewery
INTERVIEWED MAY 12, 2016
AT DOVETAIL BREWERY - CHICAGO
In an American market dominated by hop forward beers and big stouts, the average craft consumer has turned their back on many of the traditional European styles. Whether it be a cloudy hefeweizen or smoky rauchbier, you're unlikely to see your local brewery focus more than the occasional one-off brew on these styles.
Dovetail Brewery, the latest addition to Northcenter's packed beer scene, aims to change all that. Brewing traditional German styles along with a Lambic style on the way, founders Bill Wesselink and Hagen Dost are bringing something new to the Chicago scene. Crafting simple, traditional styles in the way they learned while studying the art in Germany, Dovetail opened its doors to eager drinkers this month. Before their opening day, on a busy May afternoon in between deliveries, we stopped by their cavernous brewspace to find out the inspiration behind one of the most unique breweries in Chicagoland.
This is a beautiful, and huge, space you have here. What can you tell us about it?
Bill: We have a five-vessel brewhouse which is custom made. We've got four vessels downstairs and one upstairs (the coolship). Three vessels were made in Vancouver, WA and the copper vessel came from the pilot plant at the world's oldest brewery, Weihenstephaner in Germany. That one is 106 years old.
When Hagen was in Europe visiting these equipment brokers, he was looking at fermentors the guy said, "Oh, we've got this barn, come check it out." They were driving through the Bavarian countryside to find this barn full of old brewing equipment. That fermentor was sitting on the floor, cut in half.
Hagen: When they removed it from the pilot plant, I guess they were in a hurry and just cut it in half. We sent it up to a company in Milwaukee who does a lot of work for MillerCoors. They've got one of the only guys around who does copper welding. He welded it back together and put all our steam fittings on it.
Wow. That's quite the story. Did it take some convincing to get them to give it to you?
H: Well, he was surprised we wanted it, actually! We drove through the countryside in Bavaria to their old family home which has two barns in the back. The barns were just full of archaic brewing equipment.
Is there a benefit of having this old copper vessel versus more modern stainless steel?
H: Our brewhouse is fully custom. We're doing very traditional mash routines, double decoction for lagers, and we're doing a lambic style beer. So to do those, you need traditional equipment. In additional, our kettle is direct-fired. When we boil and do decoction, we're actually heating and boiling with fire to get a maillard reaction. That's kind of the same thing you get when you put a steak on a grill. We feel that gives it a little more complexity of flavor.
And this entire building is your space? No shared tenants?
H: Yup, it's 22,000 square feet. We're brewing the non-wild beers down here, along with storage for finished goods. The second floor is the coolship and wild fermentation. It's a lot of space.
So how did you two get together?
B: We met in beer school in Germany. We went to Siebel here in Chicago and they're partnered with a brewing school in Germany called the Doemens Academy.
So you never actually met while in Chicago?
H: No, but we're both from here.
Not a bad place to decide to want to team up to start a brewery.
H: We met in Fall 2011. I was doing the program piece by piece and Bill did the diploma program. We started hanging out and figured out pretty quickly that we both liked really traditional methods. We liked the breweries in Bamberg, the Belgian Lambic producers, and the Alt beer producers in Dusseldorf. We just realized there was a common denominator between all the breweries that we really loved. They were still doing things in a traditional manner and taking the time. These things that we're doing here take a lot of patience and time.
Is your approach strictly European or is there some American influence here? Is there a give and take?
B: Well, we're an American brewery doing traditionally made beer. We love IPAs, but there's a lot of it being made right now. What we're doing is kind of an underserved market.
Let's take a look upstairs at your coolship. You have to be the first brewery in Chicagoland to have one of these.
B: When we chose to start a brewery, we decided we needed to buy a coolship first, as it's the most important piece for what we want to do. We don't know if it's the only one in Chicago but it's definitely the only one with a view of the Brown Line.
Describe the process with this a little bit.
H: After the boil, we pump the wort into here. The wide surface area helps to cool it down. It also helps to drop out of the hot tub. It comes in here around 210°F. Our flagships stay here until 150°C, then there's a drain in the corner that feeds into the basement and fermentation area.
How long does the cooling process take?
H: It's about 45 minutes. Just enough time to set up some hoses downstairs.
We've seen how at Cantillon they open up all the windows and let in the Brussels air. Do you do the same here in Chicago? You're right off the L and Ravenswood Metra...
H: Yup. The Lambic style stays up here for 12-18 hours, and we let whatever happens happen. It's true spontaneous fermentation.
B: But we're not calling them Lambics. 'Lambic' is a protected term like Champagne, and we don't ever want to tread on that. Right now we're calling it 'Lambic style,' but we have a few years to figure out what the heck we're going to call it.
You seem to have quite a bit of room for barrel aging, too. Do you ever get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of space you have here?
H: No, not really. I've been around manufacturing in one way or another all my life. We never really talk about it but we're big believers in transferrable skills and both of us have plenty of them. We went through the whole brewing school program, so on the technical side we're comfortable. We have our master brewers certificates but we don't consider ourselves brewmasters, whatever that is. We're brewers, and master is a term to us that takes a long time to earn.
How did you acquire so many barrels so quickly?
H: We got all of these from Revolution. When they're done with their barrel-aged beers, they sell them. Breweries that are doing barrel-aged stouts, they're only good for one, maybe two batches.
Is there any Lambic style you're particularly looking forward to trying your hand at?
H: Just the seasonality of it. I love the flow of the seasons and going to the farmers market to get different fruits. I can't say I do this consistently but I've had a couple summers where I made jam every week. It's awesome to have a new fruit come in and find something special.
Lambics require old, 'cheesy' hops, correct? Are you buying those or do you just buy new hops and let them sit out?
H: Some suppliers sell old cheesy hops but they're the same price as fresh hops so it's kind of silly. We just started buying everyone's leftover hops.
B: Some of them we have to age as well.
H: We bought a big old 200 lb bale of fresh hops from Deschutes and just left it in here. We'll have a hot wet summer which is great to age them nice and quickly. We also bought a lot of old hop pellets from 2011 for 50 cents a pound. We thought they'd be aged by now but this nitrogen packaging is amazing.
What's the plan with distribution?
H: We'll be primarily one to two miles out from here, self distributing, and the rest through the taproom. There are around 600 liquor licenses in the area.
What've been your impressions of Northcenter so far?
B: Well we've got a great neighbor with Begyle Brewing. We drink there a lot. They've been great and it seems that everyone that goes there is friendly. It's a really nice, great neighborhood.
H: They've been really nice to us and have been telling people about us. People seem excited. What's nice is we do different things so we're not stepping on each other's toes. The beer community has been really supportive and the neighbors have been fantastic. The city has actually been really great and you don't hear that often.
What are you excited most about, being here?
H: It's everything. It's having multiple breweries along Ravenswood Ave. so it becomes kind of a brewery trail. The public transportation aspect is fantastic as well, being so close to the Irving Park L stop.
Let's take a look at your open fermentation vessels. What's the story behind these?
H: These are about 20 years old. We pulled them out of a brewery in Bavaria. The brewery's claim is that they're the oldest family-owned brewery in Germany.
B: We went to Germany to help pull these out of the brewery. We got a discount for the manual labor. We were supposed to take three days to get them out, but we got there and the guy said, "We're doing this in a day. Start working." He gave us some beer and off we went.
Why go to Germany to get this stuff? Shipping that here has got to be an issue.
B: We went because it was dirt cheap. Anything like this would be custom and really expensive.
H: The brokers were great. During our masters class, we sat down with them and laid out the concept for our brewery. They found these for us and they're from one of the premier manufactures in Germany. One of the reasons these were such a great find is because these are effectively eight fermentors for us. You can brew two days in a row and double batch it.
Describe the benefit of open fermentation.
H: We always like to say that yeast are like people. They like sugar, they like to reproduce, and they don't like stress. Whenever you have head pressure on the yeast (ex. in a conical fermentor), the harder it is for the yeast to do its work — eating the sugar, and expelling the alcohol and CO2.
What is your plan for naming of the beers?
B: Well, that's going to be really easy because we're not naming them. They'll be named by style alone. Dovetail is the brand, and the style of beer is the name. It's gotten a little out of hand with some brewery's beer names and you don't even know what you're drinking.
You're going to have specific glassware for each style. Why is that important to you?
H: Well, what we always say is that we design beer for all the senses. One of the senses is sight. When we design our beer, we think about how it will look in a very specific glass. That's the first thing. When you serve it up in the proper glass, it's appropriate to the style, and it looks attractive. It's important for us to give the best presentation to our customers because we want them to enjoy that experience. That beer coming to you, and making you thirsty before you drink it, is part of the experience.
What are you drinking at home?
H: Well I'm not home much right now. But we drink a lot of Begyle. Their Blonde is fantastic.
B: His dad is our barrel cooper and is always drinking Pilsner Urquell and Stiegl, so we have a lot of that.
What does the Chicago beer scene mean to you?
B: I think it's really exciting. It kind of mirrors the overall craft beer scene in the US, because it's unrestricted. The idea that you can do anything is it's strength. The fact that we're doing this thing and people think it's cool, says a lot.
H: Well compare it to Bamberg. Anywhere you go in Germany or the Czech Republic, those are saturated markets. Bamberg has 90,000 people and they have 10 breweries. They sell most of their beer, probably 98% of it, within the city. I think that's where Chicago is going. We've talked to bar owners, say from Logan Square, that say there are a growing number of people who come in not saying they want a Chicago beer, but that they want a Logan Square beer. That's awesome! That is so exciting.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
Thanks to Bill and Hagen for having us by the brewery prior to their grand opening, to hear their story, and taste through some impressively executed European styles. Be sure to try them for yourself in their taproom at the corner of Belle Plaine and Ravenswood, in Northcenter.