I must confess, as a craft beer geek and a journalist, that there are aspects of the Great American Beer Fest I find unavoidably frustrating. Aside from the obvious issues of logistics (navigating the crowds), it’s a gathering that reminds you of some of the less desirable aspects of beer geekdom—especially the tendency to ignore breweries without hype in favor of the prestigious names. I hate seeing brewery booths with zero lines, with the brewers looking wistfully down at the Three Floyds or Russian River line snaking its way down the center of the aisle. I often advocate for the term “geek” over “snob,” but snobbery really does make its presence felt here sometimes.
And so, one of the things I’ve become most passionate about at GABF is exploring small breweries I’ve never sampled (or even read about) before. Conducting short interviews with these brewers produced a collection of mini-profiles last year, and this year I’ve returned to that well again, with one change: I focused on even younger breweries, who by and large need the press more than anyone else. None of these four breweries opened before 2014, and several have only been open for a few months. But they’re all doing fascinating things in craft beer, operating with vastly different philosophies, brewing styles and design aesthetics.
All Rise Brewing Co.
The first thing I marveled at regarding All Rise Brewing Co. was its location. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and have many times driven across the city on Ashland Ave., one of the streets that travels practically its entire length, from the taquerias of Pilsen, through Wrigleyville and practically all the way to Evanston. Along that route, there was always one business sign that always popped out at me—the Cobra Lounge. I didn’t know that it was an “underground rock” venue. Quite honestly, I always half thought it was a strip club—does that not seem at least partially what the old sign suggested ? But no, it’s a music venue … and now it’s also the site of a brewery.
All Rise continues a trend in Chicago breweries of southward expansion. A few years back, they were congregated tightly on the city’s north side, but as time goes by, more and more continue to be developed further west and south. This one is only a stone’s throw from the Goose Island Fulton brewpub, which is fitting when one finds out that brewmaster Tommy Nicely formerly brewed at that GI location. That’s another trend—it often seems like every other midwestern brewery is helmed by a former Goose Island brewer.
Nicely, despite the gangster movie-sounding name, is a nice, down-to-earth guy with quite the brewing history. Working in the industry since the late ’90s, he’s been with Harpoon in Boston and Lagunitas in California in addition to Goose Island, and was also the first brewer at Half Acre, which has always been my favorite Chicago brewery. He has the feather in his cap of being the man to design the first recipe for Half Acre’s iconic Daisy Cutter pale ale, and with All Rise he wants to create more classic recipes in classic styles.
“The philosophy is just to do whatever I want, you know?” Nicely said. “We have 12 taps, and we try to keep it simple and balanced. I haven’t done any cucumber beers or anything—not yet, anyway. I’ll get with the barrel-aging stuff later, but I like making pilsners and stuff, man. I try to keep it all within the guidelines, not because I’m a stickler for them but because I have respect for the way styles were made historically.”
The beers of All Rise, then, are largely inspired by classic British and German styles—pale ale, IPA, porter, witbier, ESB, kolsch, hefe, etc—but brewed unmistakably in the American mode of those styles. They’re uniformly solid, which they need to be—to succeed with say, another robust porter in a city full of great porters, you’ll never make headway if your new one isn’t at least of equal quality if not better. The one oddball beer is the “Three Orange Wit,” whimsically inspired by a classic scene from The Blues Brothers featuring John Candy, who also graces the label. The extra-strength witbier is completely orange-infused and features striking artwork that the owners say was approved by a “family friend” of John Candy’s estate.
Ultimately, the iconography was one of the things that drew me over to the All Rise table in the first place. Owner Sean McKeough, one of the co-founders of Chicago’s popular Riot Fest, clearly has an eye for branding that pops. It’s a factor in a young brewery’s success that can’t be overlooked.
City: Carson, CA
Phantom Carriage might be the closest I’ve ever come to finding a brewery that seems designed specifically to suit my interests. It’s a classic horror and German Expressionism-themed brewery that names its barrel-aged sours and Belgian farmhouse ales after long-dead horror icons such as Donald Pleasence, Peter Cushing and Bela Lugosi. When I first heard of this brewery, I felt like the idea had been stolen directly out of my subconscious. It was a “Well, if I ever start a brewery, there goes the theme I would have used” moment.
Still, none of that matters if the beer isn’t good, and I’m happy to report that the beer is both unique and excellent in execution. Longtime homebrewer Simon Ford is essentially making his “professional debut” with Phantom Carriage, which grew out of a local homebrew club to create “classic, old-style beers, Belgian-style wild beers with our own spin on them.” The process involves first developing recipes and completed beers before reverse-engineering them into the theme.
“We’ll pull a beer and take a sip, and then we run in our minds through all the options of these iconic actors to determine who really fits that beer,” said Ford, sipping on “Cushing,” an 11.1% ABV blonde, oak-aged wild ale cultured with a mix of brettanomyces, lactobacillus and pediococcus. “You’d actually be surprised how many of these actors were beer representatives back in the day. I know Bela Lugosi was a pitch man for beer; there’s pictures of him with frothy mugs of brew.” (I looked this up, you can see Lugosi in ads for Acme Beer.)
In a dark, largely wooden taproom festooned with “lots of skeletons and scythes and sickles,” Ford pours wild ales that often experiment with dry-hopping and fruit additions, as well as blending. Some of their blended beers evoke favorable comparisons to say, the great blended sours from Firestone Walker. There were several times while sampling Phantom Carriage brews that my mind drifted to Firestone Walker’s Feral One, a medal winner at this year’s festival.
“I’d say my baby is Pleasence, our lambic-style beer,” Ford said. “That’s my favorite style, and it’s one we’ve been working on for quite some time. As a homebrewer I was trying to tweak it for years and years, and now we’ve got it where I’ve always wanted it. I’ve been cultivating this slurry of a bunch of different wild yeasts from our favorite commercial bottles, combined with primary blends of wild yeast.”
Phantom Carriage intends to start bottling soon, and has hired a full-time graphic designer for the task, making me almost delirious with anticipation to see the classic horror labels they’ll have worked up. There is, of course, a benefit to using old films for this purpose, according to Ford: “Public domain images definitely help.”
MacLeod Ale Brewing Co.
City: Van Nuys, CA
I have a random redditor to thank for the heads up to check out MacLeod, a unique California brewery focusing on classic British beer styles with an intensity of passion and focus you rarely if ever see applied to British-style craft beer in America. There, I was met by mutton-chopped head brewer Andy Black, who actually bristled a bit at the description of their British-style ales as “traditional.” Although the styles may be classical, the MacLeod brewing team believes the techniques and brewing practice should be thoroughly modern.
“They are traditional styles, but what it comes down to is that there are other breweries that have opened in the U.S. trying to do British beer, and they might have British brewers and owners, but a lot of them suck,” he said. “And a lot of the problem is that instead of following quality and modernization, they pass off a lack of quality by excusing it as traditional. The way things have always been done, that may not be the best way. I was trained at a British brewery, yes, but it was a progressive, hop-forward brewery. If you could import their beers to American in the quality they’re produced there, they would blow peoples’ minds.”
What that means for the MacLeod draft list is modern takes on British pub classics such as ordinary bitter, brown porter, English pale ale, Scottish ale, dark mild and others. They can’t help but stand out in stark contrast to the norm, given their setting north of L.A. They chose, after all, to open a session beer-heavy British brewery in the heart of American IPA country, and the challenges are obviously apparent.
“It’s a challenge introducing those beers, but we aim toward being a bit of a brewer’s brewery,” Black said. “They’re usually not styles to set the world on fire, but people who really appreciate great beer, that’s our market. They’re beers that everyone thinks they understand but don’t—they may think they know what a bitter is like, but they’ve never had a great bitter because there aren’t very many of them!”
This is a brewery that rails against common perceptions of British-style beer from American craft beer geeks—that high diacetyl is okay or unavoidable, or that excessive sweetness or caramelization should be expected. Their flagship ordinary bitter, The Session Gap, sits at 3.5% and was one of the most enjoyable session beers I tasted during GABF—rounded, malty and flavorful, with earthy hops that “peak over the hedge of malt,” as the beer eloquently cites in its description. This concept of a good British bitter is something Black has slaved over.
“A great ordinary bitter is all about drinkability,” he said. “Not that it’s ‘lawnmower beer,’ nigh-on just about water. It’s about ‘I can have infinite pints of this beer and I still find complexity in it.’ It’s a lovely, refreshing beer style. At pint three, four, five, you’re still finding things in the flavor profile that keep you going back and not getting tired of it.”
City: Longmont, CO
Wibby is the newest brewery on the list, celebrating their grand opening over Labor Day weekend of this year, only a few weeks before I met owner Ted Risk at GABF. They’re immediately set apart in one way in particular—they’re a lager-only brewery in a hophead’s market.
Ryan Wibby, head brewer, studied the art in Germany, where he understandably developed an appreciation for great lager. He returned to Colorado with plans to open a brewery with Risk in the great beer town of Boulder, but was unexpectedly drawn up the highway to Longmont instead—a smaller city between Boulder and Ft. Collins, but already a craft beer destination with several breweries, including the nationally prominent Left Hand Brewing Co. I should know—I visited all of them in a five-day Colorado beer trip, with Left Hand sticking in my mind as the “most western” of the Rocky Mountain taprooms.
“When we started looking at the towns and cities in the community, we visited Longmont, walked up and down Main Street, and something just clicked,” Risk said. “It felt right. You have a beer culture that already exists there because of Left Hand and the other breweries.”
Selling only lagers, however, offers its own challenges, as Risk even noted about the company’s booth at GABF—“some people walk up, see the sign says lagers and keep walking.” But Wibby and Risk believe in the positives of lager more than any potential disadvantages.
“When Ryan was brewing at Deschutes, he realized there was a market being underserved, and that’s lager-appreciating drinkers,” Risk said. “With more people starting to experience the craft industry and step over from the macros, craft lagers are a perfect transition. The helles is like our gateway beer, very approachable and clean, but it can appeal equally to those people who are already immersed in craft beer culture and just enjoy a really crisp, clean lager.”
The goal, then, is to continue educating drinkers about the diversity that a brewery can present while only brewing lagers. To that end, the young brewery’s three year-rounders each hit a different niche. There’s the aforementioned kolsch, because every brewery needs something like and crisp. There’s the toasty, lightly roasted but dangerously drinkable dunkel, a style I’ve always enjoyed and felt was underserved (along with schwarzbier). And for the hopheads, there’s the India pale lager, packing a five-hop combo of crystal, centennial, cascade, simcoe and the much sought-after mosaic hop. It’s a crisp, amber IPL with plenty of juicy, fruit-forward hop character. It’s also Risk’s favorite.
“I’m a hophead, and to me the Wibby IPL is a transformation of the expected hoppy beer experience,” he said. “I think it serves the same niche as an IPA, but in a different way. It shows people that you can experience something hoppy up front but not have the same kind of end that you’re used to.”
That’s the experience Wibby Brewing is pursuing with an intent focus—a diversity of flavors that expand the average drinker’s conception of what “lager” can mean.
“The variation is something a lot of people don’t know about just yet—that you can have all these profiles while still retaining the crisp, clean finish,” Risk said. “We always come back to the helles. It’s the most approachable beer I’ve ever had. Everything about a helles is supposed to be easy, and that beer is just easy to enjoy.”
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he hopes some new readers will check out these young breweries. You can follow him on Twitter.