LOGAN SQUARE — For Jesse Evans, Chicago always has been a magical place.
He grew up in downstate Champaign, but visited the big city often with his parents and younger brother, Samuel, to see the museums, shop at Marshall Field's and marvel at the wonders of the Chicago skyline.
“For me, Chicago was one of the most fascinating places. Those visits at a very young age really put Chicago in my blood,” Evans said.
So much that he studied up on Chicago history as a teenager.
“I got interested in all the early politics in Chicago, the idea of architecture from a historical point of view and the idea of rebuilding a city after the Great Chicago Fire,” Evans said. “Just the audacity of this city, where so many gutsy things get done that aren’t replicated across the country and definitely not in the Midwest. For me, Chicago was a place that wasn’t afraid of anything.”
After college, Evans moved to Chicago — trying his hand as a photojournalist at the Naperville Sun — but he didn’t stay long. He scored a job at a tiny newspaper in Sonoma, Calif., where he told so many stories about winemakers that he wanted to be one of them.
And for a while, he and Samuel made small batches of wine until they discovered that you could make way more tasty craft beer — the stuff that California wine makers drank when no one was looking — in a shorter amount of time.
“We went from 15 batches of wine to about 500 batches of beer. … and we really got into the craft,” Jesse Evans said.
Their home-brew operation grew into a real company, Lucky Hand brewery, which became so successful a larger brewer bought them out.
And it was then — in about 2008 — that Jesse Evans, 34, knew it was time to come back to Chicago.
“California is a great place to take a vacation, but the city of Chicago is where we wanted to live,” he said. “California taught us to have an open mind in new creative ways, but there’s a certain work ethic that’s purely Chicago. And with that in mind we decided that we wanted to come back.”
So the brothers returned to Chicago — Jesse settled in Lincoln Park and Samuel, 30, lives in Logan Square — to brew beer with a city-centric mission.
“We wanted to make a good beer that’s good for the city of Chicago,” Jesse said. “We’re not asking to be Chicago’s brewer, but we definitely want to be a brewer that’s for Chicago. We’re still learning what it means to have that mission.”
And they take it very seriously.
Everything about their Logan Square-based Ale Syndicate brewery — the kind of beers they make, the names they give them and the drinking spirit they try to capture — has a tie to Chicago history.
Take their Van de Velde Belgio-American Ale — a hearty beer made with Belgium yeast and American hops that’s sweet, smooth and a little spicy — that Evans says is a tribute to the Belgian immigrants who settled in Logan Square in the late 19th Century.
They even named it after a little-known Belgian-born priest who became the second Catholic bishop of Chicago.
The late Bishop James Oliver Van de Velde led Chicago’s Catholic Church from 1849 to 1853. During that time he helped found Mercy Hospital, helped expand the city’s Catholic school system and in 1853 laid the cornerstone of Old St. Patrick’s Church, the city’s oldest church building to survive the Great Chicago Fire.
“It’s a great example of how Chicago history is part of what we do from beginning to end. From the melding of ingredients to the community were we brew our beer,” Evans said. “Chicago is an international city and those elements all come together to solidify our commitment to being about Chicago and making good beer.”
Ale Syndicate beers have been on tap in Chicago beer bars — between 50 and 100 taverns on any given night — for about a year.
And now, you’ll be able to score six packs at Ale Syndicate brews — including the Van de Velde Belgio-American Ale, an easy-drinking brew called Sunday Session and ultra-hoppy Municipal IPA — at Binny’s Beverage Depot, Whole Foods and independent liquor stores including West Lakeview Liquors and Capone’s Liquor in Old Irving Park.
It’s an exciting expansion, but it’s not part of an effort to get their brews to craft beer drinkers in faraway locales.
“We believe that craft beer should be local. We don’t filter or pasteurize our beer. Our distributor delivers it in refrigerated trucks,” Evans said. “Our goal is not to have our beer sold across the nation. This is our beer for Chicago, not some place else.”