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Empirical Brewing Wants You to Tell It How To Make Beer

By Patty Wetli | November 25, 2014 5:41am
 Empirical Brewing is prepping for a taproom that will be one part bar, one part experimental laboratory.
Empirical Has Brewing Down to a Science
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RAVENSWOOD — What's in a brewery's name?

Everything in the case of Ravenswood's Empirical Brewing, 1801 W. Foster Ave.

For founders Bill Hurley and Sumit Mehta, scientific observation is as important to beer-making as the craft itself, which is why their forthcoming taproom — currently raising funds via Indiegogo — is designed to be one part tasting room, one part laboratory.

When Empirical's taproom opens in the spring, customers will be able to belly up to the 32-foot-long bar and order themselves a pint of Honey Hypothesis amber wheat, Spice Amplification white pepper ale or, if they're feeling game, a totally blind experiment.

"The experiment will be a menu item, like a flight," Hurley said.

Empirical Brewing Indiegogo
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Empirical Brewing

Patty Wetli explains the empirical process:

Self-selected guinea pigs will be given unlabeled samples of two small-batch beers, brewed via a twinned one-barrel pilot system, the same in every way except for a single variable — be it the amount of hops or the type of yeast.

Based on feedback, brewers will tweak the recipe or scrap it altogether. Existing Empirical beers will be included in the mix, and if their rating falls below a set number, they'll be eliminated from the brewery's rotation.

"It will be the literal manifestation of the empirical concept," Mehta said. "It's not a great beer until your customer tells you it's a great beer."

Too gimmicky?

Not in the least, Hurley said.

"Sumit and I and our wives have been doing this for years. It really opens up your eyes," he said.

The pilot system will help Empirical stand out among an ever-increasing number of craft breweries, which has topped 3,000 in the U.S. alone, at the same time that craft brews account for only 8 percent of the total amount of beer consumed, according to Mehta.

"There's intense competition for a small market," he said. "That was our first conversation. What's the difference?"

Brewing new beers a single barrel at a time and asking for customer input will not only encourage interaction between Empirical and its drinkers but it will also allow the brewery to turn on a dime, said Mehta.

"We want to remain on the cutting edge," he said. "We don't want to plant our flag in shifting sand," which is one reason he and Hurley have taken their personal preferences out of the equation.

The experimental method also keeps Empirical close to its home-brewing roots, Hurley and Mehta having collaborated on their first beer in 2009, produced in Mehta's kitchen.

"Our friendship began over beer," said Hurley, who, like Mehta, moved to Chicago in the early 2000s and is married to a woman from the East Coast.

These days, the two have handed over primary brewing duties to Nevin McCown and Peter Anderson, who've embraced the Empirical method. (Jim Ruffatto is head of operations.)

"We have no boundaries, no restrictions," said McCown, formerly of Wisconsin's Tyranena Brewery.

"If we want to try something, there's some leeway," added Anderson, who's worked as a sommelier at various Chicago restaurants, including Perennial Virant.

"With the barrel pilot system, we don't have to sell it right away," he said. "We can put it on tap here and see if it makes the cut."

Brewing, they noted, is often as much about failing as succeeding, and both confessed to concocting some truly awful beers at home.

McCown tried using Trix cereal in his mash once ... and never again. The cereal's preservatives suppressed fermentation, he said, and mixing all those multi-colored cereal pellets together created an "extremely odd green-brown color."

The resulting brew looked and tasted "like baby vomit and fruit punch," McCown recalled.

Anderson's biggest debacle?

"I had a stout, and I thought I should put in some chile peppers," he said.

Instead of adding the spice during the boiling phase, he placed slices of pepper into individual bottles. The more time elapsed, the hotter the beer got.

"It hurt you," he said.

At Empirical, those sorts of mistakes won't result in a 30-barrel loss, while at the same time, there's room for happy accidents.

In addition to the taproom's experimental nature, it will also feature four temperature zones aimed at serving each style of beer at its ideal level of warmth or coolness.

Such innovation comes with a hefty price tag, one reason Hurley and Mehta have turned to Indiegogo to help fund the taproom.

Less than two weeks into their monthlong campaign, they've already raised nearly $17,000 of their $50,000 goal, just half of the taproom's likely cost.

It's an investment the partners consider worthwhile, even as cynics predict the eventual bursting of the craft beer bubble.

"I think we're going to go right back to where we were pre-Prohibition when there were no macros — beer was all local," Hurley said. "I think the demand is there, and the supply is just catching up."

Mehta drew an analogy between the craft beer and coffee markets.

"I think a lot about Folgers and Nescafe. You tell me how many people you know who drink Folgers or Nescafe," he said.

"We went from an oligarchy, then you saw the Sam Adams and big boys, and now you're seeing the progression of local, fresh, handcrafted beer," Mehta said. "Ten years ago, if you said 'IPA,' no one would know what you were talking about."

Empirical beers are currently only available on tap at various restaurants and bars, mostly in Andersonville, including Jerry's Sandwiches.

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