Despite challenges and delays, craft brewery debuts in Lake Villa

  • Harbor Brewing Company converted a long vacant former auto dealership on Cedar Avenue in Lake Villa. The brewery debuted last weekend. A public grand opening is planned for Jan. 14.

    Harbor Brewing Company converted a long vacant former auto dealership on Cedar Avenue in Lake Villa. The brewery debuted last weekend. A public grand opening is planned for Jan. 14. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Harbor Brewing Company partner Joe VanHeirseele gets ready for the business's opening in Lake Villa.

    Harbor Brewing Company partner Joe VanHeirseele gets ready for the business's opening in Lake Villa. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Harbor Brewing Company had a soft opening last weekend in a long-vacant former auto dealership in Lake Villa.

    Harbor Brewing Company had a soft opening last weekend in a long-vacant former auto dealership in Lake Villa. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Harbor Brewing Company co-owner Kyle Wenzel readies for the debut of a new location in downtown Lake Villa.

    Harbor Brewing Company co-owner Kyle Wenzel readies for the debut of a new location in downtown Lake Villa. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Harbor Brewing Company in Lake Villa has 12 beers on tap with room for other brewers who want to contract space.

    Harbor Brewing Company in Lake Villa has 12 beers on tap with room for other brewers who want to contract space. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Lake Villa Village Administrator Karl Warwick, left, with Kyle Wenzel, partner in Harbor Brewing Company, check the building progress last June.

    Lake Villa Village Administrator Karl Warwick, left, with Kyle Wenzel, partner in Harbor Brewing Company, check the building progress last June. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer, 2021

 
 
Updated 1/10/2022 6:01 AM

After what seemed like an eternity to the business partners and host community, craft beer has finally begun to flow at Harbor Brewing Company in Lake Villa.

Envisioned more than two years ago, the conversion of a 112-year-old former car dealership faced many challenges that delayed the anticipated October opening.

 

But the wait ended this past Friday with a dozen ales, IPAs and other in-house creations flowing for a VIP crowd. A public grand opening is set for Jan. 14.

The soaring space is punctuated by the original roof trusses and terrazzo flooring where a showroom once was located.

Toward the back of the room, a section of concrete floor was grinded and clear-coated to reveal the original character. A 60-foot, L-shaped bar made of butcher block is a focal point of an industrial-style decor.

Gleaming new fermenting tanks and other equipment occupy the rear of the public space. Up front, a wall of windows affords a clear view of Cedar Avenue, the village's traditional downtown district.

"I think we ended up with a nice finished product," said Kyle Wenzel, co-owner and head brewer. "We're happy the way it turned out and happy to be in Lake Villa."

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Wenzel opened Harbor Brewing Company in a small space in Winthrop Harbor in spring 2018 and soon planned to expand and relocate the production brewing operation.

By then, Lake Villa officials had spent years looking for someone to reuse the prominently located building. Situated in walking distance of the Metra train station and Lehmann Park on Cedar Lake, the location is a key piece in an ongoing effort to revive the area and attract residents and visitors.

The Busy Brains Childrens Museum received the building, which had been vacant and in disrepair for decades, as a gift and planned to convert the space.

The roof was replaced and trusses repaired. But costs exceeded available funds and the building was put up for sale in the fall of 2019. It caught the eye of Wenzel and partner Joe VanHeirseele.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

At 14,471 square feet, the former Chrysler dealership is about 10 times the size of the Winthrop Harbor operation, and it needed a lot of work. But the village was a willing partner.

"They've been unbelievable supporters of us," VanHeirseele said.

The village provided $175,000 toward the building purchase and $200,000 for renovations.

"We looked forward to having this building used for a really long time," said Village Administrator Karl Warwick. "It was necessary to make this happen."

Originally, the incentive agreement called for the brewery to be up and running last October. But there were many challenges as the building was completely gutted. Unexpected repairs, like having to install a new sewer line, surfaced and material costs soared.

"You bought a building with no HVAC, no plumbing, no electrical, lead paint and asbestos," Warwick quipped to VanHeirseele.

COVID-19 and other factors made financing time-consuming and difficult to secure. Some materials, like a glass garage door that will open to outdoor dining in warmer weather, was ordered six months ago but hasn't been delivered.

The main space is up and running, but the entire project is about 40% complete, Wenzel said. An indoor wedding/event space and beer garden are to come.

Harbor Brewing has 12 beers on tap with room for other brewers who want to contract space. Brewing is typically done twice a week with one new brew introduced each week, Wenzel said.

Harbor Brewing isn't licensed to serve food, but patrons can bring their own, or order from nearby restaurants or food trucks to eat inside. Live music will be a staple.

"We're all about beer and music," Wenzel said.

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