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Empirical Brewery's Taproom Opens Friday, Opinionated Drinkers Wanted

By Patty Wetli | October 29, 2015 5:42am
 The Empirical team: Brewer Nevin McCown; owner Bill Hurley; taproom manager Steve Milford; brewer Peter Anderson; and head of operations Jim Ruffatto.
The Empirical team: Brewer Nevin McCown; owner Bill Hurley; taproom manager Steve Milford; brewer Peter Anderson; and head of operations Jim Ruffatto.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

RAVENSWOOD — Empirical Brewery's new taproom still needs a few finishing touches — like more tables and chairs — but owner Bill Hurley figures customers won't mind the Spartan decor when the taproom opens its doors on Friday.

"Most of our effort went toward beer," Hurley said.

A sneak peek of the taproom revealed communal tables — "Beer is obviously a very social drink," Hurley said — industrial-style hanging light bulbs and a prominent 32-foot-long bar, made from dark wood planks.

"I picture it being like how everyone congregates in the kitchen," Hurley said of the bar.

The kitchen metaphor only extends so far — there's no actual capability to cook food on site. Instead, staff has been sampling a variety of snacking options (Hurley accidentally munched on a lime-flavored beef jerky that had been tossed into the reject pile) and patrons will be encouraged "beyond belief" to bring their own food or order delivery.

For Friday's grand opening, set for 4:30 p.m. at 1801 W. Foster Ave., the Slide Ride food truck will be slinging burgers specially made for the occasion with an Empirical porter.

Patty Wetli says they want to hear from beer rookies and snobs alike:

Steve Milford, whom some might recognize as the former owner of Uptown's Crew Bar & Grill, is on board as taproom manager.

"I stalked them," Milford said of nabbing the gig.

Why leave one bar for another?

"This is a different game," he said. "I'm excited to learn the [brewing] process. It's such a booming industry."

But the most important feature of the taproom, which has a capacity of 99 people, won't be visible to customers.

Empirical's custom-built pilot system, consisting of five 40-gallon tanks, sits on the other side of the taproom's west wall. The gleaming steel containers — each named after a planet featured in "Star Wars" — will hold the small-batch experimental beers that Empirical's brewing team of Nevin McCown and Peter Anderson are continuously concocting.

"They never stop," Milford said. "I'll never be able to say I know all the beers."

In Hurley's vision for Empirical, the pilot system doesn't so much serve the taproom as the taproom exists to serve the pilot system or, in his words, the taproom's purpose is "to burn through experimental product."

Here's how it will work: Taproom customers can order a standard Empirical beer, like Infinity IPA or Chromatic Red Imperial Red Ale, or they can take their chances on an experimental flight.

For ease of explanation: Imagine ordering an IPA experiment. The hypothetical flight will include two test IPAs (differing in type of yeast, hops or some other variable) along with Empirical's Infinity and another locally made IPA as control beers.

The brewers were quick to assuage any fears that the sample beers might be utter swill.

"It has to pass the first test, which is our mouths," McCown said.

Feedback will be collected from patrons — exactly how is still TBD — and based on indicated preferences, McCown and Peterson will tweak their recipes until the beer is no longer speculative.

"We'll keep going til we've got it. What it comes down to is what do people want to drink," said Hurley. "I want people to come in and be very open about their opinions. We have no ego."

He offered the PBS series "America's Test Kitchen" as a handy comparison for the Empirical model.

"That show was one of those things that inspired me," Hurley said. "Did you see the episode where they cooked hard-boiled eggs? They tried it a thousand times. They do it and do it."

He credited McCown and Anderson for embracing the unusual approach wholeheartedly, while for their part, the brewers praised Hurley for giving them loads of autonomy.

If they want to throw out an entire batch, they do, with Hurley's blessing, Anderson said.

"Bill owns it and we make all the beer decisions," said Anderson. "It's very freeing."

Now, four years after he conceived of what would become Empirical, Hurley is about to find out whether Chicago's beer drinkers will take to his concept as readily as his brewers have.

Empirical, which just started bottling in April, may be gaining a distribution foothold in stores like Jewel and Binny's, but for Hurley, it's always been about the taproom.

"The company I envisioned in 2011 will only come to fruition on Friday," he said.

Empirical's taproom hours will be: noon -10 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays; noon-midnight Fridays and Saturdays.

The taproom's decor is still a work in progress. [All photos DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

Empirical's very looooong bar.

Empirical's custom-built pilot system. The tanks are named after planets in the "Star Wars" universe.

OK "Star Wars" fans, name that planet.

Empirical's tap handles spell out the brewery's mission.

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