Fellow suburban breweries help tornado-damaged Skeleton Key on long road to reopening
After Skeleton Key Brewery and Taproom in Woodridge took a direct hit from the June 20 tornado, support poured in from what outsiders would see as an unlikely group: their competition.
But members of the nonprofit Illinois Craft Brewing Guild rallied to aid Skeleton Key in the aftermath of the tornado. Woodridge village officials also have been helping by streamlining rebuilding permitting.
"It was really hard for us to accept that overwhelming generosity," said Skeleton Key co-owner Emily Slayton. "We still struggle with it."
Skeleton Key is a family affair. For five years, Downers Grove couple Paul and Emily Slayton have run the brewery with Emily's brother, John Szopa of Westmont. When the tornado hit, Skeleton Key was just weeks into operating its expanded and custom-designed taproom at 8102 Lemont Road.
"Six hundred square feet of the roof was missing. You could see the sky along the whole edge where the roof was, and then a bunch of walls had collapsed," said Emily Slayton, adding that there was also a lot of water damage from subsequent days of torrential rain.
But Skeleton Key was soon inundated with help from more than 20 competing breweries.
Josh Mowry, the founder of Miskatonic Brewing Company in Darien, was out of town during the tornado. Mowry counts the Slaytons and Szopa among his closest industry friends, so he immediately offered assistance.
"I just got on the phone and said, there is no such thing as 'No,'" said Mowry, remembering his orders to Miskatonic staff. "Everyone come in, everyone drop what you're doing. Our workday is going to be about whatever (Skeleton Key) needs."
As the closest brewery geographically to Skeleton Key, Miskatonic offered to store whatever canned beers and kegs that could be salvaged. Six months on, many of Skeleton Key's empty kegs are still in storage at Miskatonic.
Slayton likened the salvage effort to a bucket brigade. Mikerphone Brewing of Elk Grove Village was a significant help. It dispatched a company forklift and truck to move Skeleton Key products to Miskatonic.
Mikerphone social media and special events director Charolette Converse set up a GoFundMe tornado fundraiser for Skeleton Key. To date, more than $145,000 has been raised.
As part of a major fundraiser at Miskatonic, nearly 40 other breweries bought all of Skeleton Key's salable kegs. Many of those breweries put the Skeleton Key beer on tap so proceeds could be donated back. And Slayton said Miskatonic became like a drive-through assembly line to sell Skeleton Key's canned beer.
Slayton also praises Woodridge officials. They have waived Skeleton Key's liquor license renewal fee, expedited construction permitting and re-established occupancy for Skeleton Key workers to get back on site.
"They've made themselves super available to us," said Slayton, grateful to village officials who keep checking in with them.
If dealing with insurance companies and rebuilding contractors wasn't enough, Slayton also has been elected president of the board of directors for the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild, which has more than 300 members statewide. Despite the extra work, Slayton says she is honored to be elected by her peers.
"I have such respect for what they do, and I know how hard they work," Slayton said. "I really want to represent them the best way possible."
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the tornado, Slayton said the tight-knit brewing community was known for helping each other. So Slayton is grateful for all of the assistance to Skeleton Key, which hopes to start brewing beer again in 2022.
"I'm glad that we ultimately leaned in on that help because, at the time, we were like, 'We got this! We got this! We can take care of it!'" Slayton said. "But sometimes you've just got to accept that you need other people's help, and we're so fortunate to have such a helpful community."