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Chicago's Craft Beer Market Not Tapped Out Yet, Brewers Say

By Quinn Ford | May 4, 2014 10:14am | Updated on May 4, 2014 4:24pm
 Craft brew lovers came to Bridgeport Saturday afternoon for the Mash Tun "New Wave" beer festival.
Mash Tun Festival
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BRIDGEPORT — To anyone who says Chicago's craft beer scene is too crowded for newcomers, Ed Marszewski has a succinct response:

"I think that's a bunch of bull----."

Marszewski, co-owner of Bridgeport's Maria's Community Bar and publisher of Public Media Institute, knows craft beer.

On Saturday, he hosted the New Wave Brewers Bash to mark the release of the fifth edition of Mash Tun Journal, a craft beer magazine. The event celebrated the city's "new generation" of brewers, smaller operations that have opened in recent years.

The demand for craft beers continues to rise. In 2013, craft brewing sales made up about 7.8 percent of the total volume of beer sold in the United States, an 18 percent increase from 2012, according to the national Brewers Association.

 Craft brew lovers came to Bridgeport Saturday afternoon for the Mash Tun "New Wave" beer festival.
Craft brew lovers came to Bridgeport Saturday afternoon for the Mash Tun "New Wave" beer festival.
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DNAinfo/Quinn Ford

Casey Cora joins DNAinfo Radio to discuss Chicago's place in the craft beer scene:

Currently, there are more than 70 breweries in Illinois, most of which opened in the past three years, and another 40 or so reportedly planning to open, according to Justin Maynard who heads the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild.

Jerry Nelson, founder and owner of West Town's Une Année, said the sheer number of brewers in the city means competition is tough.

"Not only do you have a lot of local breweries, every other brewery that's really good in the county is here," Nelson said. "This is probably the most competitive market in the country."

Nelson, who began brewing back in 1995 when he was serving in the Marines in California, said he opened Une Année in 2012 after three years of research. In a market like Chicago, identity is key, Nelson said, so he opted to focus on Belgian- and French-style beers.

Adam Halon, of Off Color Brewing, echoed that idea. The Logan Square brewery, which opened in May, has tried to carve out a niche brewing unique beer styles.

"Our whole mantra was we wanted to brew beers that were a little bit harder to brew," Halon said. "I feel like every brewery has an angle. We have an angle, and it's nice because we've been very welcomed."

Halon said part of that welcome is thanks to the city's beer culture.

"Honestly, I've traveled far and wide for beer. I think [Chicago] is one of the best beer towns," he said. "Chicago's very thirsty. They like beer and are more than willing to support their neighborhood breweries."

Marszewski also said he believes Chicagoans have and will continue to embrace the recent explosion of breweries in the city. He said the current beer scene mirrors the city at the turn of the century, when there were a couple breweries in every neighborhood.

"How many hot dog stands are there? How many hamburger stands are there?" he said. "If people want whatever the product is, you're not oversaturated."

But Marszewski acknowledges the market is competitive in Chicago, at least in terms of gaining brand recognition. In the end though, all craft breweries are still competing against the industry giants though, sort of like "a unified rebel force versus the empire," Marszewski said in a nod to "Star Wars."

"So maybe we're on the planet of Hoth...and we're getting attacked by the large brands," he said. "The InBevs of the world are taking over our flagship breweries one at a time, but there's still a lot of rebels out there, a bunch of Ewoks of brewing."

Steve Miller, founder of Slap Shot Brewing located in Little Village, agreed the craft beer community has been very supportive since he opened last year.

"Without the community we have in Chicago as far as brewers, I wouldn't be open," Miller said at Saturday's event. "Every brewer in this room has helped me in some way."

Like many brewers at the Mash Tun Fest, craft beer is a second career for Miller, who left a "corporate America job" about three years ago to brew beer. He opened Slap Shot with his brother and two friends.

Miller said they decided on the name because they all played hockey growing up, but since then the 1977 movie has inspired some names of their beers, like "Leather Leisure Suit" in honor of Paul Newman's outfits or their upcoming "Putting On the Foil" a reference to the brawling Hanson brothers.

Also featured at Saturday's event were 18th Street Brewery from Gary, Indiana; Lansing's One Trick Pony; Lakeview's Dryhop Brewers; Lincoln Park's Atlas Brewing and Lake Effect Brewing; Lyons' BuckleDown Brewing; Beverly's Horse Thief Hollow; Geneva's Penrose Brewing Company; and Zion's Middle Brow Beer Co.  Three others — Cahoots Brewing, Ale Syndicate and Forbidden Root — do not have permanent homes yet.

Saturday also featured Marszewski's nanobrewery, Marz Brewing, a collaboration by bartenders and patrons of Maria's.

The term nanobrewery means the operation, located at 33rd and Halsted, is currently under brew pub size, which typically features a seven-to-15 barrel brew house, Marszewski said. Marz, by comparison, is currently a five-barrel operation.

Marszewski said he hopes Marz begins selling its beers later this summer, but the brewery is still waiting on its license, a sobering process.

"Like opening up any business in Chicagoland, it's very difficult," Marszewski said, citing bureaucratic "rigmarole."

"But despite how horrible it is to make a business in Chicago, if you work hard here, you can do anything you want."