Chicago Bred: From the Source with Dave Dahl & Kevin Lilly of Lo-Rez Brewing
INTERVIEWED JANUARY 10, 2017
AT LO-REZ BREWING COMPANY - PILSEN, CHICAGO
While Chicago has always been a town closely tied to its drinking culture, it's only within the last decade that the city's brewing industry has recovered from the devastation brought on by Prohibition. Before we were lucky enough to be home to 60+ breweries just within city limits, Chicago drinkers looked abroad for their fix of any beer that wasn't light and fizzy.
It was here, in Chicago, that Dave Dahl and Kevin Lilly met and discovered their passion for craft beer. Over drinks at old city standbys Hopleaf, Map Room, and countless dive bars, the two decided to turn a career in computer engineering into the foundations of what would become Lo-Rez Brewing. With their taproom nearly complete and kegs already distributing throughout the city, we stopped in to check on their progress, why they chose Pilsen as a home, and discovered the Belgian inspiration for Chicago's newest brewery.
We've heard you got your start in the industry at Metropolitan. Is that right?
Kevin Lilly: Yea, probably about two or three years ago we started doing that... maybe even longer. We were volunteering a day a month — packaging, or assistant brewing. After I finished Siebel, I got an internship with 5 Rabbit for six months.
What did you do there?
KL: Primarily cellaring.
Dave Dahl: I did about a year of volunteering at Metropolitan. Before that, I did BJCP, Siebel, and we're both Certified Cicerones.
KL: And both long time homebrewers.
And both from Chicago?
KL: I'm from Chicago, yes.
DD: I moved to Chicago close to twenty years ago.
DD: I grew in Ohio, first job in Nashville, then Chicago in '94ish.
So you met at Metropolitan and then...
KL: Oh no, we go way back to '96 or '97 in our previous career doing websites. He's hired me, I've hired him, we've worked for each other, and we've worked alongside each other – on and off – for a few years. Then starting about nine years ago, we started homebrewing together.
1996 websites huh? Those were the days.
KL: Oh yea, we've done a Roger Ebert website for the Sun Times. We were digitizing all his old reviews. It was cutting edge.
DD: It was easy to call them websites, but they were heavy transaction-based systems. We did the first Cars.com. After we left the job we were at, us and a bunch of our cronies went to Orbitz where we were the first engineering team there. So we're "engi-nerds" at heart and don't have any lack of confidence.
That's quite the leap from engineering to beer. How did that come about?
DD: So after we started homebrewing, just like everybody that does, we'd get hammered and talk about going pro. Then we'd talk about it when we were sober. I threw some numbers together to figure out how you'd make a business out of it. Part of our background is not just the engineer part, it's also startups. With small companies, how do you go from nothing to revenue? We have a lot of that in our DNA. We were sitting in the Map Room and we're like, "This is doable, let's do it."
What year was this?
KL: I think it was four years ago when we got serious. The plan was baked enough where we felt like we could execute it and figure out our next steps. Raising funding and finding real estate took a while.
This is a great space with a lot of character. How did you find yourselves here?
KL: We looked all over the North Side for about a year and a half while we were raising money. We went through two real estate agents and were on our third. We'd been looking up way past Foster Ave., west, anywhere on the North Side, but he said, "Things are starting to happen down in Pilsen."
And was that your impression, too?
KL: He just gave us a list of buildings. People have been saying Pilsen is going to be hot since about '98. I lived in Bucktown back in the early '90s and people were saying it was going to be the next Bucktown. Well, it never was. So we walked around this area and liked it. It reminded me of Bucktown back then. The fabric of the neighborhood is very similar. The fact that we have this little industrial pocket in the southeast corner, right next to the neighborhood – three blocks off 18th Street. When we finally got into the buildings, this is the one we fell in love with.
DD: Yea, we were walking out of this building, trying not to get too excited, but thinking, "These are some cool ass bones."
How bare bones? Was it just a blank slate?
DD: No, in fact there were offices along one wall and most of the space was packed to the rafters with warehoused crates three or four levels high.
KL: It was just storage essentially. The landlord said if we liked the space, he'd get them out. But yea, we just loved it. The taproom has natural light on three sides, the ceilings are high, and we've got outdoor space. Out of 90 or so properties we saw, there might have been four or five that had any usable outdoor space. That was huge for us.
It definitely has a unique vibe compared to other spaces in Chicago.
DD: Yea, I think so. Pilsen is a blast and we love being down here and getting to know the local restaurants and bars...
KL: ...And the characters on the street.
DD: Oh yea, it's good to know the locals. We want to make a space where people can come talk. We're not going to have live music – a place where anybody can come to. We'll always have an inexpensive beer of some sort. We'll have options for different people.
Cheap beer – made by you or a guest?
KL: No, ours.
What are you thinking for that?
KL: Probably a Pilsner.
It's Pilsen. Gotta have a Pilsner.
DD: Some kind of gateway beer.
KL: Something that's easy. There's an auto-body shop across the street and there's a bunch of old neighborhood dudes that work there. They're really friendly and they always stop by and say they want cerveza. We want something where when they roll in here, they're not going to be put off by a 9% imperial stout or a crazy Belgian beer. We want to make sure there's something for everyone.
DD: Moody Tongue's space down the street is gorgeous and I think we're complementary. I think we've all seen when you get beer bars and taprooms next to each other, it helps everyone.
Yea, just two blocks from your space here – that's great.
DD: And The Barrel over on Damen.
KL: Oh yea, that's a great local-beer-only bar.
DD: If you take a shitty old man and put a bunch of awesome Chicago-only beer in there, that's The Barrel. I love those guys, it's my kinda bar.
KL: We love drinking in Chicago. We love dive bars and the character each one has. We want to replicate some of that here.
DD: He's doing god's work over there (Barrel owner, George Spiratos). He's got old men drinking gin and tonics and he's pushing craft beer on them.
So, Lo Rez beer. What's in the market?
KL: We've got six batches in kegs and Dave's out selling them all. I think probably at least five have been picked up so far.
DD: We've got five floating around in 10-12 accounts.
Your site shows beer in bottles. That's in the plan for the future then?
KL: We kind of went the Pipeworks/Maplewood, DIY bottling line route. We'll start with bombers for some limited releases — the Imperial Stout first. The goal is to have a canning line in a year or two. We love 16oz cans, so probably 4-packs of those.
DD: One of the things that's so great about Whiner, is I love the idea of Belgian beer in cans. There's something awesome about that that we want to be part of.
We just spoke to Whiner and they mentioned they want Belgian beer to be approachable. Is that the case here?
DD: Exactly. Throw it in your car, throw it in your backpack, pop it open on the train.
KL: They've got the same idea we've always had, it's just a little too expensive to start with.
What other breweries have you drawn inspiration from?
KL: In Chicago I love Off Color — they're my brewery crush. They're so yeast-forward. They started with some weird esoteric recipes and I think they've just gone into more traditional Belgian beers. They've got a great strong golden, a Saison, and the Apex series is great.
KL: And obviously we love Metro's beers. Doug [Hurst] brews great lagers. They've set an example that you can succeed without following the IPA craze. Similarly with 5 Rabbit, they brew beers unlike anything we'll ever brew. But I love the craft that goes into it, and I love the tasting that goes into how they build out their ingredients. There's a lot locally that's inspirational.
Each week, there's new beer entering the market. What's going to separate Lo-Rez?
KL: Well, we brew a little less than half-Belgian, a little less than half-malty, and then we have a couple of odd balls that fall in like the pale ale and the steam beer. Our philosophy is: we like clean beers. You'll notice on the Belgians we're trying today, we like a dry beer. I don't like the cloyingly sweet finish on those beers. Similarly on the pale ale, we don't want something that will hit you over the head with a ton of bitterness. We want flavor, but we want it to clean up really well.
DD: Back in the homebrew days, we did all kinds of nasty shitty beers, like everybody does. But then we got more serious about our perspective and how we want to represent ourselves and make them as clean as we can. Part of what I talk to people about when I'm selling is we want to give you a bunch of fantastic flavor, then allow it to clean up. We want you to say, "I'm going to have another pint of that." You can see that across the board with all our beers. We're driven a little more holistically about how we're looking at ingredients. We don't want to grab the latest hop, cram it into a bottle, and see what happens. Hops are part of the whole thing. Hops, water, yeast, and malt all need to work together nicely.
You mentioned Whiner – so, any plans for putting your beer in barrels?
KL: We're going to stay away from that for a while. Not forever — for a while. We're going to get our feet under us from an operations standpoint and then we'll move into that for sure. We've always been inspired by a lot of the Belgian beers. In our early days of drinking in Chicago, Hopleaf was importing all those beers.
DD: And we'd go to Quenchers because that was the only place you get some of these beers.
KL: That's how we learned beer initially, through a lot of imports. We got our love of Belgian beers, that includes some of the things like Rodenbach and Orval, that are sours but not quite the American sours. I like that balance and we learned a lot from that.
You guys have really witnessed the change in the Chicago beer scene.
KL: Yea, I wasn't of drinking age, but I remember when Goose Island Clybourn opened. My Dad hated going downtown. Well, he had to go there with my aunt and uncle for a dinner date, and it was to try Goose Island.
DD: Right when they opened, I was in college at Purdue. I still can't remember how I used to hear about things without the internet, but somehow we heard there was this place that opened up that makes their own beer in Chicago. We used to run up here from Purdue to go to Cubs games. We'd stop at Goose Island back when it was a shit hole over there. We were drinking awesome beer, thinking, "What in the hell is this? And they made it right here? How do you do that?" It wasn't long after that I started my first homebrew.
We're suckers for Chicago's drinking past. Where else did you go for those first craft brews?
DD: When Kevin and I met, we used to work at a place that was right near North Avenue and Paulina. There was this awesome little neighborhood bar right down the street called the Artful Dodger. It's now since torn down. I remember going there all the time. In the front, they had what we now call a craft beer bar — now we just call them "bars." In the back, they would spin vinyl and a disco ball, it was really weird. But that was our first experience with Delirium Tremens. I'm like, "What the fuck is this beer?" It was so delicious and different. That's one of my favorite beer memories.
Are you going to name one of your beers "The Artful Dodger?"
KL: Ha no, but we're going to name our fermentors after all our favorite beer bars that have closed down.
Plans for food trucks out front?
KL: Yea, we'll have food tucks here on Friday or Saturday. Right in front we have a perfect parking spot for a food truck. This area is great as it's light industrial. There's no parking until about 2:30, then people start going home. The taproom opens, stay for a beer, grab some tacos, then go home. Then in the evenings it's pretty easy for parking.
What are you drinking at home?
DD: Well I can tell you precisely what I have, because there's only one left. It's Ad Astra from Middle Brow. It's one of the most unique beers I've ever had.
KL: I pretty much always have a couple of Off Color. My wife loves them as much or more than I love them. I go for Bourbon and Rye sometimes, but mostly beer. I have some High Life, I just had a party. That's my cheap beer of choice.
What's the most difficult thing for two people trying to open a brewery?
DD: Doing everything.
KL: It's a lot easier doing it with two than one. We're working buddies with Garry Gulley from Alarmist. For a long time, he was doing it all on his own, and we're thinking, "How could he be doing this all on his own?" I'm glad Dave has taken some of it on his plate, and the rest is on mine. There's been challenges all along and having a partner at least let's you commiserate when shits going bad and celebrate the triumphs when it goes well. We know two people aren't going to scale. The taproom is going to teach us that. We've got two businesses right now — brewing operations and sales/distribution. Once the third business is open, we're going to learn pretty quickly where the biggest pain points are. We've planned for that.
DD: Like anything, there's great days and less great days. This is an absolute frikin' blast. Even the shittiest days have been fantastic. I think the hardest part is probably when you have a million things to do, and 500,000 of those things are started projects, it can be overwhelming. I think what has gotten us this far is a lot of the startup work we did. You get up in the morning expecting to do these four things before you leave, and then there's three things that come in that you have to take care of, and a fire you have to put out. You just learn to prioritize on the fly and still make progress.
Photography by Nick Costa.
Thank you to Dave and Kevin for showing us around their very soon-to-be taproom. Look for updates on the opening date of the Lo-Rez space on the brewery's Facebook page and check out their website for the best places around town to sample their beer.