Big tastes are coming from small-town breweries

 
By Jacky Runice
Daily Herald Correspondent
Posted9/27/2015 1:00 AM
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  • Tim Kovac, founder and brewmaster at Small Town Brewery, stands with some beers in the new tap room in Wauconda. Kovac brews an alcoholic root beer called Not Your Father's Root Beer.

    Tim Kovac, founder and brewmaster at Small Town Brewery, stands with some beers in the new tap room in Wauconda. Kovac brews an alcoholic root beer called Not Your Father's Root Beer. Photo courtesy of Rob Hart

  • Owner and brewmaster Matt Geary of Public Craft Brewing Co. in Kenosha, Wisconsin, sells tasting flights of his beers.

    Owner and brewmaster Matt Geary of Public Craft Brewing Co. in Kenosha, Wisconsin, sells tasting flights of his beers. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • Public Craft Brewing Co. sells brews like "Hop in the Sack" IPA.

    Public Craft Brewing Co. sells brews like "Hop in the Sack" IPA. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • Owner and brewmaster Matt Geary of Public Craft Brewing Co. in Kenosha, Wisconsin, sees his product as a "social lubricant" and his space as the place to talk to others, not merely a bar.

    Owner and brewmaster Matt Geary of Public Craft Brewing Co. in Kenosha, Wisconsin, sees his product as a "social lubricant" and his space as the place to talk to others, not merely a bar. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • Rustic Road operations manager Bob Mitchell says people enjoy the atmosphere of the Kenosha, Wisconsin, brewery.

    Rustic Road operations manager Bob Mitchell says people enjoy the atmosphere of the Kenosha, Wisconsin, brewery. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • A sampling from Rustic Road, a craft brewery in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

    A sampling from Rustic Road, a craft brewery in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • Rustic Road in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is a "nanobrewery," meaning it distributes small quantities to a limited area on Kenosha's main drag.

    Rustic Road in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is a "nanobrewery," meaning it distributes small quantities to a limited area on Kenosha's main drag. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • Offerings from Geneva Lake Brewing Company.

    Offerings from Geneva Lake Brewing Company. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • Plenty of locals and visitors find their way to the tap room at Geneva Lake Brewing Company in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

    Plenty of locals and visitors find their way to the tap room at Geneva Lake Brewing Company in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • Pat McIntosh, owner of Geneva Lake Brewing Company, likes to use local products in his beers, such as Wisconsin cherries and clover honey from a beekeeper down the road.

    Pat McIntosh, owner of Geneva Lake Brewing Company, likes to use local products in his beers, such as Wisconsin cherries and clover honey from a beekeeper down the road. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • A flight of beers at the Forge Brewhouse in Sycamore.

    A flight of beers at the Forge Brewhouse in Sycamore. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • The staff at Forge Brewhouse in Sycamore have been serving craft beer lovers since opening June 1.

    The staff at Forge Brewhouse in Sycamore have been serving craft beer lovers since opening June 1. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • The Forge Brewhouse in Sycamore is also becoming known for its brick-oven cooked pizzas.

    The Forge Brewhouse in Sycamore is also becoming known for its brick-oven cooked pizzas. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • Chain O' Lakes Brewing in McHenry is malt-centric in the brews it creates.

    Chain O' Lakes Brewing in McHenry is malt-centric in the brews it creates. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • Curt Ames, owner of Chain O' Lakes Brewing in McHenry, began home brewing in the 1980s. He started the business after a 30-year career in the Marine Corps.

    Curt Ames, owner of Chain O' Lakes Brewing in McHenry, began home brewing in the 1980s. He started the business after a 30-year career in the Marine Corps. Courtesy of Harold Rail

  • Chain O' Lakes Brewery in McHenry incorporates brewing history and a nod to the military in its decor.

    Chain O' Lakes Brewery in McHenry incorporates brewing history and a nod to the military in its decor. Courtesy of Harold Rail

Among the more than 3,500 breweries in the country, and new spots opening monthly, chances are there's one within 10 miles of your place. Smaller craft breweries are serving as the modern American version of the English pub, a place where locals meet to chew on the news of the day, shake their heads in disbelief at the state of the planet or the Bears' defensive line -- and try the brewer's newest blend.

According to the Beer Association, almost 99 percent of the nation's breweries are small and independent. American craft brewers are now producing about one out of every 10 beers sold in the country.

The big brewers have quit snickering about cute little craft breweries and are acquiring fat stakes in some of the upstarts. That's exactly the dream of many of the brewers who have followed the typical trajectory to the profession: worked an 8-to-8 grind, home brewed as a hobby, pals said "this is rad -- you should sell it" -- and the rest is steeped in suds.

Others do it for the creativity of crafting the ancient adult beverage or they found localizing beer production particularly appealing, not unlike chefs going loco with local produce, meats and dairy. Finally, there are those craft brewers who want to bring back the community camaraderie of the corner tap, where 30 flat screens are not the center of attention, but rather the colorful characters that make a small town shine.

Kenosha, Wisconsin

In what is still very much a shot and a beer town, you'll find two craft breweries just a few blocks from each other in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Locals are downing the citrusy Downtown Double IPA among the half-dozen on tap at the tiny Rustic Road (www.rusticbrewing.com), a nanobrewery (which distributes small quantities to a limited area) on Kenosha's main drag. Other thirst quenchers drink up wine and spirits. Feel free to order a pizza from Kaiser's across the street to nosh while at Rustic Road, which calls itself the oldest operating brewery in Kenosha -- it has been open for 3½ years.

It's an easy stroll to Public Craft Brewing Co. (www.publiccraftbrewing.com), which may have a dog or child or two in the stead of adult patrons who range from millennial to baby boomers. However, there's not a television in sight. Owner/president/brewmaster Matt Geary likes it that way.

"Beer has been around for thousands of years," he explained, "and in a lot of cultures, the pub is where you went to talk about stuff, celebrated things, saw friends and met new ones."

Geary sees his product as a social lubricant and his space as the place to hang out and talk to others, not merely a bar. No shots or televisions but instead fresh craft beer in a conversational environment plus shuffleboard, if you'd like to play. Order food for delivery or bring some in and pair it with any of the eight choices on draft daily. You can't miss with "Hop in the Sack" IPA, which, incidentally, is his wife's favorite since Geary began home brewing while his day job was graphic design (yes, he designs the cool labels on his beer bottles, too).

Although IPA seems to be all the rage these days, the Kenosha brewer encourages sippers to broaden their beery horizons with options like Smashed Imperial Red Ale (great with barbecue or steak) or his Bits & Pieces made with Mosaic hops that are hard for any brewer to get his or her hands on.

"I point people to more balanced beers because they're missing out if they stick to IPAs. Middle-of-the-road beer (in terms of alcohol content) is great for conversation."

Consider Geary's generous $15 flight of eight brew samples along with his root beer when you visit downtown Kenosha, which offers art, live music and the Harbor Market, a European-style mixed market, on weekends.

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

Thank Raugupatis (that would be the God of fermentation) that Pat McIntosh didn't locate his Geneva Lake Brewing Company in the heart of swarming herds of tourists in downtown Lake Geneva. Nonetheless plenty of locals and visitors find their way to the brewery/tap room (genevalakebrewingcompany.com) where McIntosh will be pulling the handle on eight taps of his creations. Flights are three for $7 or six for $12 in the bare-bones space that sees suds fans sipping best seller No Wake IPA and Wisconsin fave Cedar Point Amber Ale.

A wide Cheshire cat grin emerges on the brewer's face when he pours a sample of the unique and highly drinkable Imperial Cherry Stout, "a big and bold winter specialty brew that is sure to warm you up on even the coldest Wisconsin winter day." The Door County tart cherries and 10.6 ABVs (alcohol by volume) could be why.

The Wisconsin native, who worked in manufacturing for 28 years before he realized his aspiration of ale, is all about local brew and a local crew delivering it to thirsty visitors. He even uses clover honey from just a half mile down the road.

Sycamore

A new gem in this sleepy town, The Forge Brewhouse (forgebrewhouse.com) swung open the doors on June 1 and its aim is to be Sycamore's gathering place. Look around and you'll see owner/brewer JD Heinrich's stamp everywhere; the ex-rodeo roper and farrier (that would be a professional horse shoer) designed the space (which was previously a car and motorcycle showroom), handcrafted the tables, constructed the bar, fashioned the prodigious metalwork, built the brick oven and did all the woodwork in the sunny space that features gleaming new tanks.

When Heinrich says "I don't do anything halfway," one expects his beer to be top-notch, too, and it is -- from the heady Porters to tasty Belgian classics. His flights are as reasonably priced as they are satisfying: $2 each ($2.25 for the double IPA).

Then there's the Neapolitan-style, wood-fired pizza emerging from the brick oven that chef Beth Offenbecher concocts from locally sourced ingredients -- from micro greens to sausage made by a neighborhood butcher. Dough is made daily using flour imported from Italy for fantastic pies. In additional to your standard pizzas, Offenbecher's specials range from curry goat to white pizza (sans tomato sauce) featuring caramelized onions, cheese, locally made sausage and just-picked apples diced and stewed in The Forge's DuBelle Belgian beer.

Heinrich and his wife, Lisa, aren't interested in distribution and becoming the next Lagunitas, but rather want to be the place where families, friends and home-brewers exchange ideas and revel in excellent food and beverage.

McHenry

Chain O' Lakes Brewery (chainolakesbrewing.com) is housed in the building that was the McHenry Brewing Co. from 1868 to 1942 -- so it has righteous beer mojo and a deep history.

Owner/brewer Curt Ames likes to tell the story of the tunnel found from the brewery building to the speak-easy that was right across the street during Prohibition.

Ames began home brewing in the 1980s and started the business after 30 years in the Marine Corps. The Johnsburg native realized his dream of creating a comfortable neighborhood venue for friends to connect over tasty handcrafted beer. The space features lots of historical photos of the old brewery, history of the Chain O' Lakes and military paraphernalia. There's also a seasonal beer garden and frequent on-site catering courtesy of local purveyors.

Expect a new beer every Friday among a selection of more than 20 craft beers and the former colonel encourages readers to try a "Route 31 craft beer crawl." "I'm a malt-centric brewhouse; Crystal Lake Brewing is hop-centric; and Scorched Earth in Algonquin is all about yeast, so we're seeing beer fans hit all three to taste the differences," he said.

Bring the family for the brewery's Oktoberfest on Oct. 3, which will include a pie-eating contest and a beer-stein holding competition, plus lots of food, fun and suds. The veteran aims to keep it all in the community. "Craft beer was started in order to give people the chance to drink local and I really don't care about distribution; I just want to take care of the tap room and the new and old friends who stop in for a cold beer."

Wauconda

Tim Kovac ventured into home brewing in 1988 and coincidentally learned that brewing was literally in his blood. "Legend has it that my ancestor was a ship captain and brewer who made gruit ales in the 1600s. Growing up, I had never heard much about my family history until I expressed an interest in making my own beer," he said.

Kovac established Small Town Brewery (smalltownbrewery.com) in his hometown in 2010 and a year later his son, Jake, joined him. Creating root beer was Jake's idea and when they perfected the recipe, Kovacs quit his day job as a creative designer and started brewing full time.

Not Your Father's Root Beer is made with a proprietary blend of spices and flavors that include sarsaparilla, birch bark and Madagascar vanilla beans, lending woody, earthy notes. The beer also includes natural botanical extracts such as oak, ginger, wintergreen, licorice, honey, citrus and mint. Not Your Father's appeals to people who like root beer and those looking for something different in the beer category.

The year-round root beer offers 5.9 percent ABV and the limited edition packs a wallop at 10.7 percent ABV. Look for Small Town Brewery's taproom debut in the next few weeks at 1000 N. Rand Road in Wauconda.

Kovac thinks brewery culture is shifting back toward an era when breweries were largely local and operated as a neighborhood bar or restaurant. "How many neighborhoods in the country could still stand to gain from a high-quality brewpub or micro taproom," he said. "While a return to the per capita ratio of 1873 seems unlikely (that would mean more than 30,000 breweries), the resurgence of American brewing is far from over."

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