Continued Innovation: South Chicago's Tribes Beer Co.

MOKENA, IL

Continued Innovation: An Interview with Owner Niall Freyne & Head Brewer David Kerns of Tribes Beer Co.

INTERVIEWED APRIL 23RD, 2016
AT TRIBES ALEHOUSE & GRILL — MOKENA

As city dwellers, we keep a close eye on the explosive growth of craft beer outside the city limits from afar. While sometimes overshadowed by more well known breweries inside the city, that growth has certainly not gone unnoticed. Following in the footsteps of pioneers inside Chicago, the 'burbs in all directions have experienced a craft beer renaissance in the last few years that rivals anywhere in the country.

One of the many areas amidst that growth includes Tinley Park and Mokena, located about 45 minutes southwest of downtown. At the forefront of that movement is Tribes Alehouse's longtime proprietor Niall Freyne and, with their recent addition of a brewery at their original Mokena location, David Kerns, the Tribes Beer Company Head Brewer. We made the trek southwest to meet with both of them and find out the history behind the brewpub that led the charge for suburban craft beer and how they continue to innovate.

Tell us about the history of "Tribes". This isn't the original iteration, correct?

Niall: Back in 2005, I opened a place called the Galway Tribes. It was an Irish pub in another town and operated for almost four years. I built it from the ground up. I came from corporate food and beverage. Like every corporate food guy, I wanted my own place, and when we opened it, it was a critical success.

Were you featuring craft beer back in 2005?

It was more of a restaurant with an accent on beer. We did a lot of wine, actually. About two years in, we started carrying some craft. I think Rogue Dead Guy was one of the first beers, followed by Bell's.

What happened to Galway Tribes?

2008. The economy tanked, taxes went through the roof, and it was really hard to operate. I had to close. It was horrible–it was heart wrenching. We basically lost everything.

About six months after we closed, one of our old customers had contacted me and said he could help us reopen. It was a ridiculous feat to open so quickly after closing. We had lost close to $3 million. We were able to sell the old place to another business, who gave us about $2 million, so that money just disappeared and we were in debt for the other million. That killed us for years, but some family and banks forgave the loan. Finally we were able to scratch enough together. This place opened in '09: Tribes Alehouse.

What was your vision when you opened Tribes Alehouse?

The idea was for people, when they walked in, to feel like they were in an old Chicago saloon. I decided to focus on craft beer. We put 40 handles in. Where the cooler is now, the old owner had an office. I eliminated the office, made it my beer cooler, and my office became the seat at the end of the bar.

I had only sandwiches at the time–and the best craft beers I could get my hands on. We became known as the best place for beer in the south 'burbs.

And what was the initial reception from the local crowd?

We took a long time to ramp up because people still didn't want craft beer down here. They wanted a Miller Lite and to watch the Sox game. That's all they cared about. So we had a lot of people that wouldn't come out here because it was craft beer. We were the first place to not have Bud, Miller, and Coors on draft down here. We had some in bottles, which we eventually eliminated. At the beginning we'd buy 40-50 cases of that kind of product. After a year, it was 3-4 cases. It was just amazing to see the transition that we were able to accomplish.

What would you suggest to someone who came in an ordered one of those beers?

To be honest, the beer we were using at that time was Dortmunder Lager from Great Lakes. It's an easy drinking lager and it's easy to transition. Later, people wanted a Pils so I think we ended up going with Victory Pils for a while. We found a lot of success with flavored beers like Lost Coast Tangerine Wheat. We couldn't keep that long enough. As we grew, our customers started to grow in their knowledge. So we started to move away from Lost Coast Tangerine Wheat and started graduating into more Belgian styles. We were trying to find ourselves at that time. There was a point, somewhere around 2010 where I said, "Alright, no more Belgians. We're just going to focus on American craft beer."

They wanted a Miller Lite and to watch the Sox game...we had a lot of people that wouldn’t come out here because it was craft beer.
— Niall Freyne

Was the slow elimination of the macros the plan from the beginning or was it just the way business took you?

Well I don't think it was ever in the business model, but we saw it everyday and I decided, "I've gotta put good beer on the south side again." We tried a few different styles. Victory Golden Monkey was a huge hit for a long time with that estery yeast flavor. North Coast Prankster was another one people started loving. So we were able to put in all this Belgian-style American-made beer. Right now, the only non-American beer is Guinness. And quite frankly, I'm not going to take that off. I'm from Ireland, but that's not why. Guinness is Guinness.

What's the origin of the "Tribes" name?

In the 12-1300's in Ireland, there was a lot of unrest. King George was invading most of Europe and trying to takeover Scotland and England. There were 14 families that populated the west coast of Ireland, the majority of them in Galway. Those 14 families would not budge, fighting back with pitchforks and spears–whatever it took. The invaders would say, "They're like the African tribes, we can't move 'em!" The moniker stuck, so they started using it and calling themselves the 14 Tribes of Ireland. Of all of the family names, my family name [Freyne] came from one of those tribes. When I opened the first pub, I decided to call it the Galway Tribes. When we moved, I didn't want to lose that name so I just called it "Tribes." We're not an Irish pub anymore, we're a craft beer bar now. But we kept Tribes.

David, now that you're brewing here at Tribes, do you keep a beer on tap that appeals to those who aren't yet fully on the craft bandwagon?

David: The Kölsch. I really like to make classic German styles because that's where I went to school and I really love the culture over there. Kölsch is one of my favorite styles of beer. I feel like it's easy for people to get into and it's also faster to make than, say, a Pilsner. We have a regular who usually drank Miller Lite, but he's a craft convert because of that Kölsch.

Niall: When David and I first met, we agreed with no question that we wanted to make hop-forward beers. As a publican, I know all this fancy stuff is great but the people coming in are drinking "beer." A blackberry saison is wonderful for the beer aficionado, or someone who likes drinking wine. But when he said he had a great Kölsch, I really wanted to try that. And we've had great success. It's a light, easy drinking, very fresh Kölsch–served in the proper glass.

There's now a second Tribes a few miles up the road in Tinley Park. What was the stimulus to open that, and how did the brewing portion come to be?

Niall: To be honest, I just needed an office! I would just sit at the bar, and by noon I'd be done with work. But jesus, I couldn't live like that! But really it just seemed like a natural progression. When the space next door to here became available, I had a decision to make. Would I make it an altar to insanely high-end beer? Would I add a bottle shop? Then one of the managers said, "Hey Niall, why don't you make it a brewery?" I thought that was crazy but the more I thought about it, I realized that everyone is carrying craft beer now, so if it isn't 'special' anymore then it doesn't matter. I wanted it to feel special. So we went with the brewery. Before I even met David, I'd bought all the equipment for the brewery. Thus Tribes Beer Company came to be.

David: Yea, before I met Niall, I met the guy who was doing all the consulting for the brewery equipment at Haymarket. That's how I found out originally about the brewer job here. He told me Niall was opening a 7-barrel brewery and I thought, "I could run that." Months later, I was in a place at Haymarket where I felt like I was ready to move on. My buddy John Barley from Solemn Oath kept saying, "You gotta talk to this guy [Niall]..."

I realized that everyone is carrying craft beer now, so if it isn’t ‘special’ anymore then it doesn’t matter. I wanted [the beer] to feel special.
— Niall Freyne

This is the first brewery where you were working by yourself, David, and you helped build it from the ground up. What was the biggest challenge?

David: The recipe formulating I'd already done a lot of Haymarket. Probably about a third of the menu at Haymarket was mine, so I had some coming in. But doing it on my own, on a completely different system, was challenging. But mostly the construction...

Niall: Oh yea, I was just going to interrupt you there. He was so worried about that.

David: I'm not a mechanical guy, I'm a science guy. That's one of the reasons why I hired my assistant Ben [Michaels]. Ben was my motorcycle mechanic for years. His shop closed and he said, "Dude, I don't want to work on motorcycles anymore." I tried to fix our stupid pump twice. Ben got under there and fixed it in no time.

Niall: Making the beer didn't pose a challenge for him. He just wanted to make sure that the first beer he made was going to be okay. I said to him, "Look, if the first few batches suck, we'll pour them down the drain. We're not going to put bad beer out there, I budgeted for that." But his beer came out of the gate solid. But when that construction stuff was going on, he hated it. People were asking him stuff and he'd say, "I dunno man, I'm just the brewer!"

David: I realized in the end that this was going to control my process. So I spent the hours with the plumber, who had never built a brewery. He didn't understand why I needed to have the flow going a certain way so we spent a good amount of time on it. And now I'm friends with all these guys. They're all regulars which is pretty sweet.

It's a good family down here.

Niall, did you ever think about taking on the brewing yourself?

Niall: When we started this, people asked me, "So you're going to brew?" No, I wasn't going to brew–that's crazy. There are other people out there that are going to try to pull that crap off but they aren't going to last too long. What I'm doing is kind of the Trump philosophy — "I don't know what I'm doing, but I'll hire some good guys who do." David had commercial experience in a great brewery with Pete [Crowley]. We have not lost a single batch since we started. Every single beer we've done has worked. Even one we thought was going to fail because one of our tanks lost pressure in the glycol system.

David: A very forgiving yeast!

Tribes has long been known for a great craft selection, but now with the brewery, you have a ton of your own beer on tap. How do you balance the two?

Niall: It's getting hard here, man. In Tinley, it's actually easy. I'm getting about eight or nine handles of Tribes stuff and stop there. I want that to still be a destination for craft beer lovers. In here, we're starting to encroach upon the other draft box. If our beer wasn't good, I wouldn't do that. If our beer was okay, I would probably say, "Let's just focus on 10 of ours." But David's beer has gotten good...better than good.

David: As a brewer, it's hard to go out and drink beer because I'm so used to drinking stuff that's fresh. There's a difference. I just packaged that Kölsch yesterday so it's as fresh as it can be. That's one of the reasons I love going to brewpubs, because you're getting it as fresh as you can. You start to be able to notice that difference.

Niall: Yea, you'll go into your local grocery store, and they'll have a bin of all these great bombers with a sign that says, "$5. Must sell." Oh my god, it's like the Island of Misfit Toys! You've got these great breweries, with sad bottles just sitting there. Don't do that to my beer!

Who is the south suburb craft beer drinker?

David: There are a lot of working class guys down here. A lot of them literally helped us build the brewery.

Niall: Yea, there are a lot of blue collar workers but there are also a lot of people that commute to the city. Tinley Park has a lot more transient drinkers, probably because it's more of a city.

What can you tell us about the local scene outside of Tribes?

David: The Open Bottle has been a big supporter of us. Hailstorm Brewing is doing great stuff nearby and we carry them in both of our stores. We've got Arrowhead Ales–they opened a few days ago. They're still not making beer on-site yet but I wish them the best of the luck. 350 Brewing is doing well in Tinley. Banging Gavel Brewing is out here. We're all a family as far as breweries go.

What are you drinking at home?

David: Whiskey. Bulleit, Angels Envy, Woodford.

In a cocktail?

David: In a cocktail or neat. Maybe an Old Fashioned.

What's your Old Fashioned spot in Chicago? 

David: Bangers & Lace. My buddy works over there and makes a good one.

And what about a go-to non-craft beer?

David: My shitty beer of choice is High Life. You can drink it outside and it doesn't get skunked. Those light stable hops! I'd actually liken it to a patio Kölsch, with the light stable hops.

What about you, Niall?

Niall: Wine mostly. I spent a lot of time in formal restaurants. Don't get me wrong though, I'll get home from work and put down a double IPA or something like that. But when I'm ready to sit down and enjoy the family, relax, and watch a movie–it's wine. I used to be a whiskey guy, but I can't do that anymore.

I want to enjoy what we do. I want to enjoy the creativity. I want to enjoy the artistry. I want to sit down and taste fresh beer. We’ve got a solid team and a pretty good game plan.
— Niall Freyne

Where do you see Tribes in a few years?

Niall: I think we're going to have another location. I don't know what that's going to look like yet. Right now all I care about is that David has the tools to do his job right.

David: He's always been awesome about that.

Niall: I want to make sure that I give him all the support he needs. I want to grow the brand properly. I'm not a marketing expert so everything we do is literally us. There's no one above me. My wife is the accountant, I'm the operator. I deal with the menus, I deal with David, I deal with the GMs. But we'll see what our customers tell us. If they're buying our beer, that'll dictate what we're going to do. Do we have the ability to grow? Yea. We have no intention of being gigantic at all. I want to enjoy what we do. I want to enjoy the creativity. I want to enjoy the artistry. I want to sit down and taste fresh beer. Is there one more store in us? Possibly. I don't know if it will be a brewpub, a brewery, or a store. But right now, we've got a lot going on and I think if we can continue to move beer, we'll see. We've got a solid team and a pretty good game plan.

You've acted as something of a pioneer to the suburban Chicago craft scene. Do you ever get a chance to look back on that?

Niall: I will say that there's a big part of me that never thought we'd be pioneers. The reality is, maybe for the south suburbs we were, but certainly not Illinois-wide. We learned from Chicago. Around here, I think Flossmoor was around, and I think there was a place called Harrison's. When we were just the restaurant, I looked at everyone as competition. We were new, so it was hard. We really came to be when we opened this store and really focused on the beer. I think we risked something, and it worked for us. It also worked for our neighborhood. It's not like we're doing gangbuster business so that I can retire and drive a Rolls Royce. We work everyday and struggle everyday, just like anybody else running a small business. But I have a ton of stories of people coming in and saying, "I had my first craft beer with you–and now I have my own brewery."

That must be rewarding.

Niall: It is, and I guess I probably should have appreciated it more. I would love to be able to call this place the Tribes Beer Company and have no beer other than Tribes. I would love that. But, that's 40 handles to work with...

David: I can do it!

Niall: Haha. But fresh beer is fresh beer. My one rule hasn't changed. If I haven't met you, your beer isn't going to pour here. People say, "You should open in the city." Tribes Chicago would be cool, but we don't need it right now. Right now my kids are 12 and 13. I want them to come in here and start working with David, hosting, and bussing tables.

David: He can be my keg washer!

 

–THR–

We work everyday and struggle everyday, just like anybody else running a small business. But I have a ton of stories of people coming in and saying, “I had my first craft beer with you–and now I have my own brewery.”
— Niall Freyne
 

Photography by Jack Muldowney.

Cheers to Niall and David for walking us through the Mokena brewery and talking shop. If you're looking to visit either Tribes location from the city, consider a ride on Metra's Rock Island District Line from the LaSalle Street station. You'll be wanting to stay for more than a beer or two–we promise.