When Chicagoan Anna Blessing was doing research for her book, "Locally Grown: Portraits of Artisinal Farms from America's Heartland," she discovered that Midwestern chefs weren't the only ones taking advantage of local produce.
"I profiled 20 farms and started seeing this connection between farmers and brewers and chefs and brewers and it led me to want to tell the story of brewers," she said. "With the major explosion of craft beer, it was a natural subject."
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She followed up her first book, released in 2012, with "Locally Brewed: Portraits of Craft Brewers from America's Heartland." The book uses photos and interviews to profile 20 Midwestern breweries, including Two Brothers in Warrenville.
"I wanted to create a cross-section of what brewing is today," Blessing said. "I wanted to feature a range of different types with geographic location and size of the brewery. I wanted to focus on the places that have a niche. Metropolitan in Chicago only does lager. 5 Rabbit is doing beers inspired by Latin American cultures rather than just style."
As she researched "Locally Brewed," Blessing found that many of the brewers had gone to the same schools and worked at more established breweries together. That connection resulted in a strong sense of community, even though the businesses would seem to be competing for drinkers.
"These guys and gals are already connected and interested in sharing with each other and collaborating," she said. "It's in their interest to create a craft beer world that's strong across the board. It's not about competition. These are just people who want to hang out and have a good beer with each other. It's such a community it kind of makes the Midwest seem smaller."
Blessing has deep ties to brewing. Her great-great-great-grandfather owned Stenger Brewery in Naperville, which made German lager in the 1800s. Many of the book's profiled breweries, including Chicago's Metropolitan Brewing and Warrenville's Two Brothers Brewing Company, also found inspiration from European beers.
"There's so much history in beer that's coming from Europe and so much of our roots in this county comes from immigrants coming in and doing breweries," she said. "My own great-great-great grandfather was in Naperville doing just that. It's neat that these brewers have these histories to draw on."
Even though the beer might have old roots, Blessing said breweries are constantly looking to innovate.
"Beer is so much art and science," she said. "You need the lab work to make it this quality, quality product but you can't make good beer without being an artist because it's so much about the flavor and the balance. These guys are just relentless. They want to make these neat beers that we haven't had before."
The other challenge facing many craft brewers is how to keep up with increasing demand for their product.
"I felt like every brewery I went to was adding tanks or adding a whole new barrel aging room," Blessing said. "It felt like every brewery was expanding. The breweries could not keep up with the demand for production. A lot of breweries had to reign in their distribution to better serve their community."
Once again her research has given her a spark of inspiration for another book. "Locally Brewed" features Michigan's Virtue Cider, which was launched by the former brewmaster of Chicago's Goose Island Brewing Co.
"I debated whether or not to include Virtue because it's not a brewery, but I did because it was Greg Hall and he played such a role in the craft beer revolution," she said. "I think eventually I'll be able to do another book about cider because there are these small craft cider companies using local apples. I think it's part of this trend of local makers making really fresh, innovative, creative products."
You can meet Blessing, pick up a copy of "Locally Brewed" and try some of the beers mentioned in the book at a free launch party from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 16, at Piece Brewery and Pizzeria in Chicago
"I got excited about doing it at Piece," Blessing said. "It was the only brewery in the book that doesn't bottle or distribute so I wanted to bring people in to try it."