NEAR WEST SIDE, CHICAGO
Under Contract: Collaborative Brewing with David Avram & Conor McFerran of Great Central Brewing Co.
INTERVIEWED FEBRUARY 13, 2017
AT GREAT CENTRAL BREWING CO. — NEAR WEST SIDE, CHICAGO
With over 5,000 breweries now operating in the United States, the question often facing many a small brewer is how to take that next step. Usually the answer boils down to time, space, equipment, and most importantly a whole lot of money. With the barrier for entry into expanded distribution often being steep, many growing breweries have turned to third party contracts to meet demand. With off-site, often hands-off brewing becoming the norm, contracting has developed a negative stigma for consumers.
Enter Great Central Brewing Company, Chicago's answer to contract brewing now open on the west side in a massive new facility. Focused on brewing and cost efficiencies, collaboration, and most importantly customer service, Founders David Avram and Conor McFerran are working with clients near and far to prove contracted brewing is a viable solution for growing breweries. We stopped by the cavernous production facility and still in progress tap room to discuss how the pair have built a unique take on a tired concept in the brewing industry.
This is a completely unique concept in Chicago. How did this all come about?
David Avram: I had a good family friend that wanted to start a brewpub and he asked if I could help on the real estate side. Throughout the process, he couldn't really afford to pay me so asked if I wanted a piece of the company. I thought it would be kind of cool to donate some time and effort as part of the brewery. Beer is one of my favorite things! I introduced him to Conor, and said his expertise can really help shape the direction of your brand, define the market, and really help hone your concept.
This is certainly not a brewpub. How did that change?
DA: During that time, we settled on doing a production brewery rather than a brewpub. In that vain, I said why don't we start out brewing on contract, focus on the brand and quality of the product, and not worry about investing in tons of equipment — just really sink our teeth into the recipes, branding, and distribution chains. So we started exploring contract relationships.
What year was this?
Conor McFerran: Probably about five years ago.
So you didn't want to invest in much equipment. Have you been in your brewery lately?
DA: [Laughs] Yea, Conor came on board and the more we sunk our teeth into the production brewing concept and exploring contract brewing, we saw the options that were available at the time were either totally maxed out capacity wise, or it would take you three weeks to get hold of them. I remember calling one of them over and over again every day multiple times a day and finally got the guy on the phone. I asked, "We're new to this. How do you guarantee production volume, how do you get on a calendar, are there deposits?" He's like, "Why don't you come back to me when you're ready. At the end of the day, here's how you plan your business. If you make two bucks a case out the door, good luck to you." I was like, that was the worst customer service I've experienced in my life!
That couldn't have been encouraging to hear.
DA: Well I think it was just those guys were so busy. They didn't have any empty space so who cares if they miss a phone call or two?
How is the approach at GCBC different?
DA: We both come from client focused backgrounds. So we said, what if we switch gears here and try something different? We could build a facility that's dedicated to solving all the problems we're having right now and all the problems we're hearing from other people in the brewing industry. I think we realized, after we got into it, there was a minimum level of quality and control over the product that we wanted. As we built this idea more and more, it became clear to us that we had to invest at a certain level in order to be able to provide the right level of automation and dependability of equipment. We felt there was a correct way to do it.
We've read the name is a nod to the old Great Central station in Chicago. Where was that located?
CM: Not too far south of here near Randolph. That goes back to the overall concept, the idea of Great Central being this crossroads of ideas, clients, and consumers, all coming together in one place and exchanging ideas. We flipped the model from us making our own product and squeezing you in, to fully being dedicated to your needs as our clients. It changes that whole viewpoint and says we're here as this exchange venue.
DA: And the name is beautifully neutral too. Having so many clients here, it helps focus the attention on them versus us.
Are you primarily working with clients from out of town trying to hit the Midwest or clients already here looking for a boost?
CM: It's interesting. We've had a lot of word of mouth referral stuff. It's still a small world, people talk about each other quite a bit. If you're grateful enough to benefit from quality relationships with people, then your name gets passed around in a good way. We've had clients come to us that have said Kevin Cary [Founder, Begyle Brewing] told us about you. That speaks volumes and it's something we take very seriously because we're not only trying to represent Kevin and his beer, but his reputation's on the line too. I don't know if we've really spent time specifically targeting people.
DA: A big logistical advantage is cutting down transit time, and we've had a couple of clients from further afield contact us. We have breweries as far west as Utah. We have breweries down near Arkansas/Louisiana and as far north as Minnesota. Everyone is either trying to get into Chicago or they're trying to bridge a gap in a direction they're growing. For the Utah group, it's Mississipi east. For the Arkansas guys, they have the southeast covered, but they need our help covering the Great Lakes area. I think we're exploring four relationships right now that are out of state.
How many brewers do you have on the roster already?
DA: We have seven and we have a number of active conversations going on right now.
How many beers can you make at one time right now?
CM: We can have nine different beers active at the same time.
And you have seven clients, so how does that work?
CM: Some clients have multiple SKU's with us. Other clients have one. It kind of depends on the frequency of how they want to brew. We're doing our best to plan the brew schedule out at a minimum of 30 days and pushing them to 60 days. These guys know what their sales are and can see where they're going, so we've been able to get a couple of our clients on a standard rotation. We're already starting an expansion process that will probably come on-line at the end of the summer or early fall. We want to be up front with everybody about what's available and when new stuff is coming out. We try to preach to everybody to help us help you. Give us as much information as you can beforehand so we can forecast what we need to do.
DA: And that's not just for us. I think there's an even greater value for the clients — to be able to know that if we can get them beer every sixty days, then they can sell every sixty days.
So a brewery approaches you and wants to brew their beer here. What's the process to get them on board?
CM: We get everything down from an operations standpoint. What's your volume? What's your timing? Do you have your paperwork? What are you looking to do? What we don't want to do is get anybody in over their head. If you're coming to us and saying, "I want 100,000 barrels," do you really? Can you sell it? Where are you selling it? Let's think this through all the way so we're not wasting your time and money. Once we figure out which SKU's we're going to brew, we get into tasting alignment.
The fun part. What does that involve?
CM: Our brew team comes together with their brewers. We go to their place to figure out their process and we document everything, top to bottom. Then we bring it back here and we translate it. If they're trying to hit a particular metric, how do we hit that here? Our kitchen is slightly different than their kitchen. Once we align on the metrics that everyone is trying to hit, we make sure you have your labels TTB approved, they're ready to go to print, and then we brew. Once we're brewing and the labels come back printed, they come together in beautiful harmony.
Chicago has just seen the introduction of Iowa's Toppling Goliath and their Florida contract brewed cans. The general consensus is these don't taste the same. How do you guarantee your contracts, Maplewood's Charlatan for example, taste exactly the same as the original?
CM: We always start by sitting down and tasting the beer with the client and ask what they get out of it.
DA: Both our brewers are Cicerones so they know exactly how to analyze it. Laura is our quality control lead, has a PhD in microbiology from Vanderbilt, and was a brewer at Tennessee Brew Works. There are dimensions of flavor and complexity she knows about that escape every single consumer. Andreas, our brewmaster, grew up in the traditional german apprenticeship program. We go with those two to the brewery and drink beer with them and talk through it. We ask them to describe the beer to us to see if the words they're using to describe that particular beer seem to really resonate with what we're tasting. If not, we'll bring it up and have a really fruitful discussion about it. As the beer is being brewed, we like our clients to come in and taste our beer in various stages of fermentation.
And if it's off?
DA: If it's off, we run a whole series of different tests on it. We make sure we're getting spec on the front, from starting gravity to terminal gravity. We get the IBU's tested. We're matching up colors. We're doing a sensory analysis, everything from aroma through flavors. Then we talk it out. It's kind of a give and take process between us and the other brewer.
What's the reception been so far? Has that process of dialing in each beer been difficult?
DA: I think what we're finding is we're all learning from each other, which is exactly what Conor and I wanted to have happen when we got this thing happening. We're learning something new from our staff everyday, but brewer to brewer I think Andreas and Laura have been really good resources for our clients. Because everybody is doing something a little bit different, it's cool because it constantly gives us a different perspective on how things can be done. The biggest compliment for us is to get a repeat brewer.
CM: That's what we're always aiming for. Those things start to average out over a longer relationship. If we brew a batch one time, we're only using that yeast once, we only figured out what we did once, and there's no going back to refine, collaborate, and be a partner. Where as with the partners that we've brewed with three or four times, now we know when to tweak something to make it taste just right.
Let's be honest, contract brewing has a negative connotation to many drinkers. How do you and your brewing partners approach that with consumers?
CM: I think people are just more excited to have more of it. There's never a conversation about how we can be misleading or anything like that. Everybody is being very upfront with what they're doing and the reason why I think some of them have come on slower than others is they're trying to be clear with their customers, whether that's on their website or showing part of a canning run on their Instagram page. I think everybody is taking pride in the fact this facility is in Chicago and the beer is still being made ten minutes down the street. Other than the fact that the equipment is here to make their beer, they're being involved start to finish.
DA: The way we're looking at is that we're not replacing your brewery. We're just a satellite expansion for your brewery. Let's say you have a small brewery in Northcenter, and you find a piece of land on the west side and build a brewery there. It's essentially the same conceptual thing. It's a whole new facility, it's new equipment, it's new water, it's new distance. It's all the same variables, except you happen to own the title of the land. Whereas here, we happen to own the title.
CM: Kevin [Cary]'s fingerprint are on every single [Begyle] beer that goes out of this place from a recipe standpoint. Every step we take, they know about. It's their product and they're genuinely concerned about it. I think the reason why it's going so well is because we're genuinely concerned about it as well. Over time as this grows, this tasting room opens, and we give tours here, we'll happily talk about everything that's happening here as if it's our own.
Let's talk about this neighborhood. Why here?
CM: We actually originally started looking a bit farther east. But I think with the expansion of the Chicago real estate market in certain neighborhoods, it gets a little nasty out there. We picked this neighborhood because the PMD, which is the Planned Manufacturing District of the Kinzie Corridor, is an industrial zone so the entitlements are in place for a brewery or distillery. We had two neighbors we thought very highly of in Like Minds and Goose. Even though Goose is not necessarily the original Goose anymore, the people who are running that facility have been there forever. They've been an incredible neighbor. To some extent they've been like a big brother to a lot of businesses in this neighborhood.
There's certainly a cluster of breweries around here. Having those licenses in place must make all this much easier.
CM: Oh yea, and the buildings department is inundated with permits. So just trying to get a project like this off the ground, the easier you can make it the better. I would say one of the first big selling points for me other than the neighbors, was the ICNC — the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago. When we went under contract on this property, the first thing the gentleman we purchased from said was go talk to the ICNC. We went down there and met with them, and they've been awesome. They're a huge advocate for small businesses all over Chicago. Within the Kinzie corridor from a manufacturing standpoint, having a cheerleader like that, and somebody that's as organized and dedicated to preserving the integrity of this neighborhood was a huge win for us. We wanted to be here for the central location, resources like the ICNC, and neighbors that are actually involved and really care about the neighborhood.
DA: I think for just the density of breweries in particular, it made sense. You've got multiple companies all coming together to mutually support each other. It also creates really cool efficiencies. Our grain gets picked up by the same farmer who takes Goose Island's grain. For a brewery that's just starting up like us, until our brew schedule is pumping out 20-40 thousand pounds of malt every single week like clockwork, finding a farmer that's going to be able to spend the resources to drive into the middle of Chicago, get loaded up, and drive 3 hours to his farm, that's a lot of time and effort for those guys. For them to make one phone call to help us out is great. And it's something we can feel good about. How many times do you get to affect change in an area so close to the nucleus of a major city? All these businesses are owned by people who are very active politically and environmentally.
Obviously you still have work to do on this taproom, but what can we expect here?
CM: We'll feature client beers and we'll do GCBC stuff too, just for fun.
DA: We'll have 24 taps.
What kind of beers will you be making under GCBC?
CM: We'll have a Weizenbock that we'll have on tap when we open. We'd like to have our Helles on tap year-round just to have a nice lager. We're always throwing around ideas. A lot of stuff will be traditional classic styles.
It's a near blank slate right now, but give us an idea of what it will look like when it opens.
DA: We want to reflect what's in the neighborhood and bring in the German beer hall mentality in terms of seating. We want to capitalize on that crossroads mentality. We want you to sit down next to someone you don't know, have a conversation, and try a different beer. This is an educational opportunity. As the consumer begins to become more educated, I think that starts to fight against the stigma of contract brewing.
What's in your fridge at home?
CM: I've got Great Lakes Conway's Irish Ale right now.
DA: I've got some New Glarus in mine.
Photography by Nick Costa.
A big thank you to David and Conor for showing us around the cavernous brewspace and still in progress taproom. Cheers also to Nina Foley for helping coordinate. Watch for updates on the upcoming GCBC taproom, opening later this year.