2601 West Diversey Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647
standing out conspicuously among other industrial constructs on the corridor. Entering through the front door is forbidden. Access requires a detour to the side of the facility, which is marked with glossy insignia. Once inside, a rudimentary outfit contrasts starkly with the polished exterior. Well-circulated air reeks with the must of fermentation and white noise from engines powering five massive fermenters belays the ears—without even a fully functional bathroom, it’s incredibly minimal, but a more practiced eye could imagine the tasty fruits born of such industrial labor. This is the new home of Ale Syndicate.
Walking west on Diversey Avenue toward the Green Exchange, it is difficult not to notice the sleek new building,
pening a brewery in Illinois, a state renowned for its over 83 craft breweries, is ambitious work, but brothers Jesse Edwin Evans and Samuel Evans are up to the challenge and making their mark in Chicago’s craft brewing community. The Evans brothers pride themselves on producing fresh, original takes on traditional beers, with a homespun Chicago feel.
As their beer very much reflects, Jesse and Samuel are Chicagoans to the core, but they got their unlikely start in brewing in another of America’s beer meccas, California. Chasing his dreams out west, Jesse, then 23, landed in Sonoma where he got involved with the wine industry. Jesse readily admits he initially aspired to make wine, “Winemakers that I started befriending when I got out there really made me feel like I wanted to be a winemaker when I grew up, but they were the ones who introduced me to craft beer.” In a region that lives and bleeds wine, the locals need a little something extra to help them kick off their shoes at the end of the day. “When they get off work, they’re popping open west coast double IPAs. Craft beer is the thing that they relax with.”
After their introduction to craft beer, it was love at first sip for the Evans brothers and their obsession took swift hold. They began volunteering at local breweries and seeking out mentorship in the creative, technical and business aspects of the beer industry. Their hard work paid off in 2006 with the launch of Lucky Hand Brewing, a backyard brewing operation-turned contract company. Born out of a partnership with colleagues they met in the wine industry, Lucky Hand produced regionally and historically authentic beers, particularly lagers. “We were making an unfiltered, unpasteurized beer [in California] that was very much what would have been drunk in the saloons if you had been around there prospecting for gold,” Jesse said. The Cali Common lager to which Jesse referred, was a steam beer that went on to win the prestigious bronze medal in the 2012 American Beer Cup.
Bolstered by success and fueled by proceeds from the buyout of Lucky Hand, Jesse and Sam then headed home to pursue their dream of opening a bigger, more successful brewery with a distinct Chicago feel. “We were always separated from Chicago… the [California] lifestyle was really fun but we missed this city,” they said.
Operating under the provisional name, New Chicago Beer Company, they set up shop in “The Plant”, a zero waste, indoor vertical farm located in Chicago’s Back of Yards. They had hoped to be operational by March of 2012 and set the lofty goal of producing 12,000 barrels of beer within their first year. However, due to high starting costs and complications with the building’s constant redevelopment and shifting brand ideology, April 2012 saw them moving their operation out of the plant with no product to show for all of their troubles. When asked about the company’s current stance on sustainability, Jesse now says, “Its incredibly important to us. We want to make sure that we make beer, really excellent beer, and we want to make sure we do right by the environment and right by the people. But its not who we want to be known as and that’s what happened. We got known as the eco-brewer.” Their current outfit, as of 2013, a slightly smaller 10,000 square foot facility in Logan Square, is much more suited to their current needs and is, of course, operational.
“We were always separated from Chicago… the [California] lifestyle was really fun but we missed this city,”
By the time Jesse and Sam began renovating the Diversey building, another of the grueling challenges they faced when getting started, their two-man operation had grown. “We wanted to create an identity that was as true as we are,” and that meant representing the team that had helped them get so far. Of their last and most recent name-change Jesse said “Ale Syndicate is the group of people that make this happen, that are all passionate about beer.” After acquiring the building at the Green Exchange, brewing was not possible right away, so even then the nascent Ale Syndicate had to rely on other friendly brewers to kick-start their operation. The first few batches of beer required offsite brewing at the Chicago Big Brewing Company’s facility in Zion, IL and that of Galena Brewing Company in Galena, IL.
March 18, 2013 marked the triumphant release of Richie Imperial Porter. Powerful, smooth and complex, Richie was named Beer of the Week by the Chicagoist just days after its debut—a sweet success for the rough and tumble brewery. Boasting notes of cherry and chocolate, but drinking less like a meal than your typical 8.0% ABV draft porter, Richie was a hit and rightfully so. The seasonal beer went over so well that, by popular demand, Ale Syndicate celebrated the re-release this past November with a party at Miss Murphy’s Bistro in Irving Park. On draft at the event was a firkin of Richie Imperial Porter steeped with Metropolis coffee beans. When combined with Richie’s cherry-chocolate boldness, the deep, nutty notes of the coffee sent tasters into a toasty nostalgia, reminiscent of fall days in Chicago past.
Another of Ale Syndicate’s ingenious peculiarities is their penchant for creating tiny batches of incredibly unique blends, frequently born out of collaborations with other local Chicago companies. Once the firkin at Miss Murphy’s runs dry, there will be no more coffee bean-soaked Richie in all of Chicago.
Needless to say, Richie’s release set an admirable precedent for what was to become their current “port-folio.” A few months after their inaugural release, Ale Syndicate, which had by then grown to a five-person operation, announced two additional beers: Municipal IPA in Spring 2013 and Sunday Session for summer. Municipal IPA is another of what Sam calls a “traditional style with a twist” and outsells their second most popular beer, Sunday Session. A single hop beer, Municipal packs that distinctively hoppy, IPA punch while maintaining a pleasant, drinkable balance of flavors. Initially, it was brewed using a hop variety called Cascade.
After Cascade became scarce, shortly after the first few batches of Municipal were made, the brothers shifted their tactic, still retaining their dedication to single hop brews, but on a rotating three-month cycle. The hops variety selected for the current batch of Municipal is aromatic and mildly spicy with floral notes. Despite constantly shifting hop varieties, the Evans brothers hope that maintaining consistency in all other elements of brewing will reinforce quality and brand recognition while also educating their audience about beer.
The appropriately named Sunday Session is another of Ale Syndicate’s permanent collection. Falling slightly higher on the spectrum of alcohol content than a traditional session beer, Sunday Session weighs in at 4.8% ABV, making it the lightest beer in the collection. Sunday Session is sweet though not overtly complex-a wheat beer and pale ale hybrid reminiscent of peach juice. “It is the beer we would like to be drinking ourselves,” Jesse said, sharing an apparently popular sentiment. Sunday Session was so well-liked after its release in Summer 2013 that one of the first bars to serve it requested it stay year-round.
Alongside Richie Imperial Porter, Municipal IPA and Sunday Session, Ale Syndicate currently serves Petrillo Pale Ale and Van de Velde Belgo-Pale Ale, as well as boasting an arsenal of specialty beers that rotate seasonally.
Even after initially struggling to establish their brand in Chicago, it still wasn’t always rainbows and hops for Ale Syndicate. “With our previous brewery we did all self-distribution. We knew when we started [Ale Syndicate] we wanted to make a lot more beer, but we had to find a distributor,” Jesse said.
Legislation after prohibition legalized the common practice of brewers selling directly to consumers, resulting in a three-tier system that causes a lot of headaches for small craft breweries. Ale Syndicate luckily has a flexible arrangement enabling them to maintain ownership and control over their product and choice of retailer.
Dedication to community building is another of Ale Syndicate’s priorities, as is demonstrated by their unique relationship with the effortlessly trendy Arcade Brewery. Arcade Brewery operates out of the same building as Ale Syndicate, legally sharing the space through what is called a rotating proprietorship.
Ale Syndicate Brewery is the one of the first in the state to have a legal designation and a license for this unique provision that enables them to host tenant brewers. “When [the tenants] are making beer, they are legally responsible as if they owned the whole place,” Jesse said. Arcade brewery produced their first bottled six-pack this past October, three years and six months since Ale Syndicate and Arcade Brewery struck up their partnership. “For the first year they are getting themselves set up as a brewery and then someone else can come in here and do that. We are building more of a community that way.”
The foreseeable future looks bright for Ale Syndicate. In Spring 2015, they will open their doors to the public with a fully functional taproom. To source the menu, they will work with local chefs and food establishments. Further expansion, however, is not part of their plans. “I would love to be one of the main beers in Chicago,” Jesse said, “But I’m not trying to take over the world.” Ale Syndicate’s dedication to unfiltered, unprocessed and incredibly high quality beer effectively limits distribution to local retailers and enforces a slim shelf life to stay true to the quality over quantity. Beyond that, they are fiercely loyal to their hometown and hope to contribute to Chicago’s culture and appeal as a destination for extraordinary food and drink.
With an in-the-works taproom, partnerships with start-up breweries, a constantly shifting roster of locally-sourced creative collaborations and a headstrong dedication to making only premier quality beer, Ale Syndicate has already set the bar incredibly high for themselves. But if anyone can succeed, it is this ambitious, seasoned group that is carving out their presence in the Chicago craft beer industry.
When asked about motivation for the none-too-easy road ahead, Jesse referenced the quote posted on the doorway of his makeshift office and employee lounge: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Drawing inspiration from the historic Daniel Burnham, city planner for Chicago, Ale Syndicate looks fearlessly toward a bright and tasty future.
For more info, go to http://alesyndicate.com/.