Crafted Optimism: Home & Away with Brian Pawola of Pollyanna Brewing Company
INTERVIEWED MARCH 4, 2017
AT POLLYANNA BREWING COMPANY — LEMONT, IL
As city dwellers, we often take for granted the added challenges a brewery in the Chicago suburbs faces when opening. Fighting a battle on two fronts, one in their local market and another in the city, they require entirely different strategies and often completely unique beer.
Brian Pawola, Co-Founder and Head Brewer of Lemont's Pollyanna Brewing Company leads the charge in one of the more successful breweries to tackle this challenge. Leading a "home and away" strategy with their lineup of draft and packaged beers, the brewery has found a home in the southwestern suburb and seen great success filling fridges in Chicago-proper. We took the trip down to Lemont to discover how Brian has been able to craft beer for everybody, from golden ales to brett stouts, and how "crafted optimism" is behind everything they do.
Brian, what's your background? We hear you studied in Germany?
And what led you to enroll there?
Before that, I was in healthcare IT. I traveled around the country and got to drink a lot of beer. Whenever I traveled, I'd go to new breweries that I'd never heard of. Since I was traveling every other week somewhere new, I'd have to drink a lot of beer. In the meantime, I was homebrewing. I got more and more into it and just really started to like it.
How was the beer?
I wasn't making very good beer to be honest. It was average. One day I decided I didn't want to be bitched out by another doctor or nurse for trying to help them. I kind of committed mentally to brewing school because I wanted to get better at what I was doing. I'd always wanted to start something. I figured, I'm ok at brewing, I can get better at it. If I go to school, maybe it will set me up for success in the future. I signed up for Siebel and had to wait for two years before they had a spot open for me to go.
What was your first gig after graduation?
I came back and worked for a brewery called Big Chicago for a little bit.
We know the know but we're not familiar with them.
They're not open anymore. They were a contract brewery only, making mostly Ten Ninety beers. I did that and then met my business partners. We started Pollyanna in 2013.
So the turnaround from brewing school to owning this sounds like it was pretty quick.
Pretty quick, yea. With the education I got and the experience at Big Chicago, I was ready to do everything. You learn everything in brewing school. You learn what it takes to make good consistent beer and you can bring that anywhere.
So you just decided to start Pollyanna?
Well, they actually hired me to be their brewer. Then a couple of the original partners got cold feet and backed out. so I opted to buy in. I just turned into a partner.
That's gotta be a great feeling seeing your success now, knowing you helped build this from the day one.
Sure, this business presents challenges all the time and it's a lot easier to motivate yourself when your entire life is on the line.
So why here? Was Lemont always the goal?
No, at that point we were still looking for spots. Lemont was always at the forefront of where we wanted to be though.
How's Lemont received Pollyanna and craft beer?
Lemont has been very supportive of us. It took a little bit of time to get them on board with craft beer. Before we came they were Blatz and Coors Light drinkers. When we were opening, someone in Lemont told us, "No one is going to pay $6 for a beer here." We were like, "Well we think we're gonna have the concept, the people, and the brand to bring people into Lemont and slowly turn it into a craft beer place." It look a while, but they're happy we're here now.
And proud I'm sure.
Yea, they're super proud. We had more out of towners the first year than "Lemontsters" — that's what we call them. The Lemontsters slowly caught on and now we have a really awesome regular crowd that comes in all the time.
Describe your average Lemontster.
Well it used to be typical drinkers who wanted Coors Light. We knew that going in so that's why we made The Full Lemonty, our golden ale, a staple from day one. We knew that if we were going to transition these people that liked pale lagers, we would have to have a beer that was marketed towards them. That's The Full Lemonty. But we always had the idea of doing a home and away strategy when it came to the beers we make.
As in Lemont vs... Chicago?
The home strategy is obviously getting the people around here in here, drinking the beer, and educating them on craft beer because they're probably not used to it. Over the last couple years, everyone is into craft beer, so it's become a lot easier to have these kind of beers on our menu and sell through them. Two and a half years ago, this beer would have sat here for months and we would have had the same keg on for three months. We knew the people here would probably be drinking different beers than the people in Chicago. Something like this [Norman 1943] beer does way better in Chicago. We understand that. We have them on the menu here because there's a lot of people that travel and brewery hop around here. But the stuff that keeps the lights on in Lemont is our golden ale and our IPA.
Is it difficult to cater to two different audiences?
It was at first, but after a while you just kind of get used to it. Everyone is going through the same thing, especially in the suburbs. It's important for suburban breweries to have a homebase where people can connect with their brand, because they don't have the zip code of Chicago where people can connect with them. If we were in Chicago, people in Lemont would connect with our beer just because it's Chicago. But because we're in Lemont, people from Chicago don't necessarily connect with us like if we were flipped. It's important for us to have a homebase and a strong identity here in Lemont so that we'll grow in the suburbs. This is where we sell a lot of beer. Fifty percent of it is within ten miles of here. The other 50 is in Chicago. Getting people to identify with us here is extremely important and the taproom certainly helps with that.
The Chicagoland beer scene has never been more crowded. Have you found it harder to tap into that connection as more breweries open in the city?
I mean, the number of tap handles are not growing. And this is where distribution comes in and why Heartland has done a great job for us. They've picked the right spots to be in where the customer of the bar or restaurant will grow our brand for us in that spot. We've established ourselves in places that like us and want to keep us on more often. We've quietly and organically built ourselves into someone who can compete with the big guys.
What other area breweries really stick out to you as models for Pollyanna?
Style and brand wise, I've always liked Temperance. I kind of view ourselves as the Temperance of the south. Our packaging looks similar and we've come out with the same kind of beers. Then in Chicago, I've always admired what Off Color does. They know who they are, and that's important when you're learning a business to know who you are. I've always admired what they do because they stick to their guns. They haven't given into the whole, "we have to make an IPA," thing. I completely respect that.
Why should someone give Pollyanna a try?
Everyone can talk about how great their IPA is, but until you try it, you're not going to differentiate yourself from anyone. But for people who don't know who we are, we just tell them we're a suburban brewery that's 25 miles southwest of Chicago and we make beer for everybody. We have great packaging that's available in pretty much every liquor store in your area. We're available in quite a few bars around you. If you can't find us, then someone is doing it wrong. We're in over 500 spots in the Chicago area, so we're everywhere. We ask someone what beer they like, and pretty much every time, we have a beer for that. We're pretty unique in that we make a lot of different beers. The home and away strategy we have gives me that opportunity. I don't think there's another brewery doing what we're doing right now.
Brewing for everybody has to put a lot of pressure on you, the brewer.
There is, but it's fun. It's cool to have that variety.
We've see one IPA from Pollyanna, and we see it everywhere. How were you able to build such a solid base brand, starting with just one beer?
I take a lot of pride in that because everyone wants to try the new IPA — but we've got one. We've made a few different hoppy beers, but no more than five or six in the 2.5 years we've been open. I think we know who buys our beer more so than a lot of breweries.
What do you mean by that?
Well, when the decision came to buy a bottling line or canning line — we thought about did we want to put shrink wraps and labels on cans? No, because who's buying our beer in the suburbs? It's still that non-vocal 90%. The vocal 10% are the ones on Untappd, the ones who read your site, the ones that talk on social media. It's great to be recognized and get those people hyped but the other 90% are not going to buy a 6-pack of a labeled can for $9.99. They want something in a nicely packaged bottle, something that looks good on the shelf, and something they're going to take home. The beers we make suit that packaging versus every other brewery that makes all IPAs. You can sell a shit ton of IPAs in labeled cans, because that vocal 10% is going to buy them.
So to that point, you bottle your Porter, Eleanor. Is the traditional drinker drinking porters out here?
Surprisingly, yes. The traditional drinker is interested in beers like Guinness. When they're starting to get into craft, they go to Binny's and ask if they have anything like Guinness, that's not Guinness. We've found a lot of success with retailers saying, "Pollyanna makes a great porter. If you like Guinness, you will probably like this." There's not a lot of people making a year-round porter in packaging and we're providing that for them. We could make a million New England IPAs, can 'em, put a label on it, and call it a day. But I think it's important to establish our brand as someone that does things professionally. Everything looks good, it tastes good, and we know who's buying it.
Who is Pollyanna?
Pollyanna was a story written about a little girl who was cheerfully optimistic and came into a very pessimistic town. She turned their whole negative viewpoint into happiness and joy. Pollyanna by definition means "irrepressible optimism." It's that feeling of the glass is half-full versus half-empty. We think that optimism does not necessarily have to be naive — it can be a good thing. Pretty much every beer on that menu has a deeper meaning than just the word.
Can you go through a few of them? What about Orenda?
Orenda is the concept of the human will to transform human destiny. So despite what you think you're set out to do, you mentally and physically are able to change. A Series of Fortitudes is named after historical optimistic figures. So Ernest Hemingway [Ernest 1953], even though he killed himself, persevered throughout his career of failure until he wrote Old Man and the Sea and won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Norman Rockwell [Norman 1943] was a very happy optimistic artist. Our next one, which will come out in a few months, is named after Maya Angelou who was a very optimistic figure in society back then. Eleanor Porter actually was the author of Pollyanna, so naming a porter after her was pretty obvious.
It sounds like you have a secret passion for writing.
Well, I'm a lot better at writing than I am at speaking. When we opened, we understood the importance of having a story people could connect to. Sure you can make great beer, but everyone is making great beer. Just naming something after a hop pun is going to sell an IPA, but if you name it something with a deeper meaning, you're going to connect with someone a lot easier. For me, I get to make pretty much any beer I want, then write a cool story about it. I don't really care if most people don't read it, but the ones that do, really like it.
What's in the Pawola family fridge at home?
Pretty much anything that Off Color makes. Then I've really got into Restless Years by Temperance. But anytime I get a chance to grab a growler or anything from Penrose, I drink their stuff. They do a lot of the same things we do, but I think they're unique in they're one of the only ones who do it well — and they do it really well.
You won a bronze medal at GABF last year for your Fruhauf Oktoberfest. What was that experience like?
It was super fun. Obviously winning a medal was a dream come true, and for a beer that really hits home with me. It's one of the most popular lager styles in the world. Does it get the recognition than an IPA does? No....
But it's almost more impressive to win for a traditional style.
That's kind of how I feel. For me, it's cool because I can brag to my brewing school friends and say I just won a medal for a lager. It was really cool to get some recognition for the type of beers I like to make and our business is based off of.
Kind of a validation of what you've been working toward.
Yea, so anytime we brew a lager now, I certainly feel the pressure of proving I won a GABF medal for a lager. I better damn well make a good lager, even if it's not the same style. I think all my lagers are awesome, but that kind of justifies it and it certainly made selling them easier.
Have you seen a sales uptick or an increase of people visiting the brewery?
Right away there was an uptick. It was kind of ironic that we won a medal for the Oktoberfest on the day we tapped our last keg and it was gone right away. The first year we made maybe 45 barrels of it. Last year we made 115. This year we're probably going to make over 300. We're expecting a lot of people will want it.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
Cheers to Brian for coming in on his day off to show us around and share a few of his more creative creations with us. Head out to Lemont to sample through the Pollyanna lineup at their beautiful riverside taproom, or look for bottles and cans at more than 500 locations throughout Chicagoland.