WEST TOWN, CHICAGO
Confluence of Craft: Why Mark Legenza Returned to Chicago to Create On Tour Brewing
INTERVIEWED DECEMBER 12, 2016
AT ON TOUR BREWING CO. - WEST TOWN, CHICAGO
There are over 60 breweries within the city limits of Chicago, and that doesn't even count the plethora of options further afoot in the 'burbs. However, unlike many brewing hotbeds around the country, there are less taprooms than might be expected in America's third largest city.
With Chicago's latest brewery taproom opening the first week of 2017, we took the opportunity to catch up with founder Mark Legenza of On Tour Brewing Company to find out what it takes to open a Windy City taproom, in the boom of the industry. The former golf (and disc golf) pro turned homebrewer turned brewery owner gave us an inside perspective on the challenges of building a production brewery complete with a beautiful taproom, and the story of how he returned to his home city of Chicago to complete his passion project.
On Tour is on the verge of opening and things have come together nicely here. What's your inspiration behind the look and feel of this taproom?
Leading up to opening this place, I visited a tremendous amount of breweries. While I was there, I was taking notes on things I liked and things I didn't. I hope this places is a good example of a lot of things that I thought people were doing really well in one space.
We've never seen a brewery that feels as exposed as this one. Everything is on display, front and center.
Having your brew house on display like ours is, you're responsible to do a nice job of how it looks and showcase the traits that were involved to make it happen. For example, from where we're sitting, we can see a lot of the valves for our steam system for our boil kettle. It's right in your face. This is an opportunity to do something great or to do something sloppy.
You've obviously taken a lot of inspiration from other breweries but what did you see in your travels that you definitely wanted to avoid?
That's a tough question. I think having gone through the process myself, I understand now that fantasy and reality are two different things and they compete against each other often. There's a lot of people who come into the industry as a brewer and understand that side of the business, but the tasting room side is something that's a means to an end.
And you're coming from a different angle?
I was fortunate to be coming at this from more of a hospitality background. So for me, the experience was really important. I love going to breweries and I love going to tasting rooms. My wife and I love traveling. From the time we started dating to now, we've checked out brewery tasting rooms everywhere we go. I'm sure you're all the same.
No doubt about that.
You can tell when a professional team came in and decorated or constructed the place, or the brewer was working nights and weekends building tables and working on finishes. Within that there's a ton of variety. I can't say there's a lot of things I didn't like, because you find something beautiful about all of them. If anything, I was finding little pieces I liked about all of them. I had to figure out how I could put those pieces together.
Just how important is a taproom in Chicago? There are so many breweries where it seems little more than an afterthought.
Yea, and you can easily understand why that might happen. Coming at this from a homebrew background when I lived in Colorado, that was something I was very passionate about. I was able to find some success and awards for my homebrews. But I've always been in hospitality, operations management, and business, so wedding the two just felt natural to me. Bringing on our headbrewer, Mark Poffenberger, was a no-brainer. He's helping take our vision to an elevated level from what I could do as a homebrewer.
You mentioned homebrewing. What were you doing to pay the bills during that time and how did that bring you to this point?
I've been in the golf industry my whole life. I'm a PGA member and I worked at country clubs. I grew up working at Medinah Country Club as a caddy.
So you're from Chicago?
I was born at Ravenswood Hospital, which is no longer there. My wife and I lived in Bucktown. After college, I went to Winona State (MN) and got into the golf industry a little bit further. From there, I started working toward being a PGA member. I've been teaching golf forever, and that really taught me the people side of business — helping people be successful and be happy doing something they love.
And you filled the rest of your time with homebrewing?
Yea, while I was living out in Colorado, I started homebrewing. I had a friend who wanted to get into it, and then just fell in love. I had a good job, and my wife and I had a nice home in Denver. I got to build a little mini brewery in my garage. It had some nice bells and whistles that you kind of geek out on. I was the homebrew geek with all the tools and gear.
That must have come in handy when building out this place.
I'm a handy guy to begin with so a lot of the stuff in here was built by me. Homebrewing allowed me to build things in addition to making things you could share with people. If you know a homebrewer, the joy of it is sharing with your friends. In 2013, I set a goal to enter some competitions, and my friends kept saying, "This is the best beer you've ever made." I swear they all kind of got together and said, "Let's keep supporting him so he keeps giving us free beer." I think the turning point was building a fermentation chamber for the garage so I could control fermentation temperatures. That's when the beer really started taking off.
Do you still have that system?
I still have a lot of it in my garage. It's going to be on Cragslist in the near future as I realize its purpose has been served.
What landed you in Denver in the first place?
Just a sense of adventure. I knew, based on my experience in golf, that if I moved I'd land on my feet somewhere out there. We're hardcore skiers and outdoor enthusiasts. It was a great fit. I still miss it today but Chicago is home. We're happy to be here.
Is that what drew you back?
Well, we never moved out to Denver for our entire lives. We were in our mid-20's and just decided to go out there and have some fun. We were out there for eight years. I've been at this (the brewery) now for three years plus a year of construction to be where we're at today. At that time, it started to become real. What does our life look like owning a business? We have a small child now and being close to home is important. It just made more sense. We'll always have a connection to Colorado and people out there.
Any Colorado collaborations on deck?
I think so, it's just a matter of finding the time to go out there.
Were there any breweries there that specifically inspired you?
We used to go to Great Divide when they were still small and had a little tasting room. You couldn't really even buy beer. They'd give you a sample of beer and that was it. Then they started charging for the plastic cups and all that money went to charity. It was a true tasting room in the sense they were a manufacturer and they were opening their doors so you could sample. Now it's just enormous. I've always liked what they do from a branding standpoint.
Why "On Tour?"
In high school and college, and even still today, me and my close friends would travel around the country following bands. It was awesome.
Phish is the one we followed, but also other bands that would come through our region. The nice part about Phish is you can plan out a summer and go to ten shows and camp along the way. We took our friend's conversion van. We put a lot of miles on that thing and just had a great time. It was the best time of my life. Even still today, we go to a ton of shows together and it's just a great core group of friends.
What does On Tour mean to you, aside from simply a reference to travel?
For me, it's about taking something I'm really passionate about, that I can share with my friends through travel. Maybe for you, it might be riding your bike, or going to breweries when you're traveling. Anything that's a passion that involves travel. Around the space, you'll see little details that incorporate transportation. Soon you'll see some details that bring in the music as well. Tap handles are one of them — we have different stained wood to match beer color, so the stout will be black.
On Tour is blocks from a host of other breweries. Was that planned?
Yea, that's a big thing that attracted us to this neighborhood. We wanted to try and get some synergy. If you were to come visit me while I lived in Denver and wanted to do a brewery tour, there's a "horseshoe" there. We'd start at the top, and go down one side or the other. You could walk to eight breweries and then uber home. For as great a city that Chicago is, there isn't that experience available. With All Rise, Forbidden Root, us, Goose Island, Great Central opening their tasting room sometime soon, and I think Like Minds has plans to have a tasting room, there's great density here. I'm sure there are others in the works as well.
What's your relationship like with the other breweries in the neighborhood?
It's really good. Everyone is busy so it's not like we're getting together for lunch every week. For a while, we were meeting one month and talking about the neighborhood. We're bringing a lot of people to West Town who aren't familiar with it, so we had some discussions on how we can get the word out about what we have here and the unique density of breweries. We're keeping the dialogue open and trying to make this neighborhood great.
There are certainly a few pockets of breweries, but you're right, there isn't that density of taprooms in one area of the city just yet.
It's hard to open a brewery in the city. I hope that changes, I think we need more breweries. There are other cities with a lot more breweries and a lot smaller population. That's good for all of us. It's just a tough place to do it. I don't think it's purposefully difficult, I just don't think there are definitions within the city's building code that clearly identify what is and what isn't allowed for this style of operation.
We hear about the challenges of dealing with the city all the time. Why is that?
There aren't a lot of tasting room manufacturing breweries here. There's a lot of brewpub restaurant styles. I think Chicago understands restaurants as well as any city in the world. But when you take the food out, you get treated like a full on manufacturing site. Our building is zoned so we could be smelting iron ore in the back, and have a nail salon or yoga studio in the front. That's how we are set up.
Is zoning the reason there's a lack of Chicago taprooms or is it just breweries aren't thinking taproom right out of the gate?
We're not zoned for commercial. We're zoned for manufacturing. There's a lot of parts to your question. Within our zone, we could be a restaurant, we could be a nightclub, we could be a gas station, we could be a church, or we could be a manufacturing plant for beer. There are benefits to having a commercial zone like Revolution or Haymarket. You can have big events that don't require a permit. Maybe it's a little bit easier to get licensed. Luckily we don't have any issue with residential being a problem. You mix alcohol with residential and it could be a major problem. We're hoping that more breweries open. We're hoping that as the city learns more about this particular model of tasting room and brewery, it will start to understand that it shouldn't be considered as industrial caliber zoning.
You've hired on headbrewer Mark Poffenberger to lead the brewery. How did you two come together?
He's friends with Pete Crowley over at Haymarket. Mark was in Portland at Fat Head's and was looking to get back to the Midwest, so reached out to him. Mark is great, this is his first headbrewer job but he was scouted by other breweries. He turned down a lot of headbrewer opportunities in Portland. I was seeking out the exact experience he has. I know how to make beer, I've won awards, and I feel like I know what I'm doing as far as recipe formulation. But doing everything just isn't a realistic dream.
Was it hard to come to terms with that?
Oh, it's so hard. Everyday it's hard to realize that, you know, someone is "dating your sister." But, you know, the guy who's dating my sister is an upstanding gentleman. But it's impossibly difficult. I was recruiting for a very specific background. Sour and barrel-aging experience was a must. Mark has plenty of that. He won some awards at Sun King for Stupid Sexy Flanders, which is a popular Flanders Brown. We're hoping to do something in that style.
What else caught your eye?
Production brewing and pub brewing are two different skill sets. If you're brewing a different beer every week in a pub setting, that's a lot different to shift brewing the same beer for an entire year. There's something beautiful about both of those experiences. Making the same exact beer for 12 months every time you brew is extremely difficult. When you're brewing one-offs, you can do whatever you want. If you miss your gravity, or your pH is a little high or low, you're not going to be dumping that beer. Mark has both those experiences. So if we have some success here or in the market, then we have the guy for the job.
What are you drinking when you're not building a brewery?
I love wine, so at night I usually drink that. Especially now when it's cold and it warms me up. In the house now I have 2014 Bourbon County, Coffee, Barleywine, and Original. I have a Sam Adams 12-pack of four different IPAs. I think I have some Polish beers in there as well. I bounce around a lot though. I get into themes where I'm drinking IPA's all the time or I'm drinking stouts. You drink beer a lot for work, sometimes you want something different.
Still have time to play golf?
No, not very much. It just takes a long time. I took the sport as far as I could take it. I taught over 5000 lessons in three years. It was awesome, I got to play a shit load of golf.
We heard you're a competitive disc golf player.
Yes, balls and chains man! You've gotta bang the chains and you've gotta hit the ball. But you can't really make money doing it. The highest level I made it to is advanced amateur. It's the next level below pro. I still play today.
Sounds like a great summer outing, beer in hand.
Photography by Nick Costa.
Cheers to Mark for stepping away from putting the finishing touches on his creation to tell us his story. On Tour's tasting room is open in West Town, Wednesday through Sunday. Stop in to check out the beautiful new space and be sure to get Mark's advice on the latest and greatest disc golf equipment.