Kane County's bar scene gets crafty

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 1:55 p.m. CDT

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Chicago has long been a city of beer-lovers – and drinkers. With the craft beer trend overflowing beyond city limits, the suburbs have been reaping the benefits of foamy, flavor-forward brews the past few years. With new gastropubs popping up in the area – and an increase in stocked microbrews on the shelves of stores, restaurants and bars – Kane County appears to be going “craft.”

There is no better time to drink beer in the U.S. than right now, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association website, www.brewersassociation.org. The Brewers Association is billed as the nation’s largest organization of craft brewers.

As of July 2012, there were more than 2,000 operating U.S. craft breweries – up from about 1,900 in 2011, according to the website.

The number of anticipated brewery openings in Illinois for 2013 shows similar trending.

At the moment, the state has 45 licensed brewers, and an anticipated 25 to 30 new brewpubs and breweries will be opening in the Chicagoland area this year, according to Justin Maynard, executive director of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild – a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the development and expansion of the craft beer industry in Illinois.

“Craft beer is growing at an exponential rate in Illinois because beer consumers are becoming more educated in the brewing process,” Maynard stated in an email.

On par with national and state trending, the Tri-Cities area has also seen a recent uptick in craft beer-related business.

The Tap House Bar and Grill in St. Charles recently underwent a complete remodel that allowed for 41 beers (mostly craft) on tap as well as 1,500 square feet of extra space. In November of last year, the Spotted Fox Ale house – with 30 craft beers on tap – opened across the street from Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles.

Also in St. Charles, a restaurant space that is part of the First Street development in the downtown area underwent a year-long makeover and reopened in June 2012 as the gastropub Wild Monk, which features about 72 brews. The Gammon Coach House, operating under the slogan “Comfort Food and Craft Beer,” opened in Batavia in 2011.

Craft beer is steadily changing the bar and restaurant scene in Kane County, making way for local, hand-crafted brews.

“Kane County has had a whole new perspective on craft beer over the last six months,” said Sugar Grove resident Mike Cohoon, who co-owns the family-run Chicago Beer Company with his brother. “Two years ago, no one would even talk to me [in the area] regarding craft beer, and I was from St. Charles. Kane County is behind, but definitely catching up.”

Still relatively new to the game, the Chicago Beer Company was established in 2010 by Mike and Kevin Cohoon. The duo have since created three hand-crafted brews, Chi-Town Windy City Wheat, Lakeshore Lager and Pier Pale Ale, which can be found at the White Sox’s U.S. Cellular Field as well as retailers such as Jewel-Osco, Dominick’s, Trader Joe’s, Target, Binny’s Beverage Depot and Woodman’s Markets. Currently, the brothers are riding the tide of the trend, and are in the process of opening a brewery in the West Loop of Chicago, as well as concocting a fourth brew this spring called 1871 – an IPA commemorating the year of the Great Chicago Fire.

“We can grow as fast or subtract as fast as we want, and that’s the beauty of the craft market trend,” Cohoon said.

A Kane County veteran to the craft-beer subculture is Stockholm’s in Geneva, which currently stands as the sole micro-brewery in the Tri-Cities. Owner and brewer Michael Oleson opened Stockholm’s nearly 11 years ago, and last year, Oleson said he saw an 18 percent increase in production.

“We’ve seen [production numbers] go up every year,” Oleson said, adding that his bar sales for macro-brews – or traditional domestics – such as Miller and Budweiser products are down.

“When we first opened, it was hard to get people out of their comfort zone,” he said. “People are finally receptive, but we’ve only just begun to reach everybody.”

In an effort to do just that, Oleson teaches a three-session, craft-beer education class, “Beer Drinking for the Connoisseur” at Stockholm’s. The class is offered through Waubonsee Community College for $45.

“The class introduces major beer styles that are out there; it’s a general intro into the world of beer,” he said.

Another seasoned player – or the “granddaddy” of local micro-breweries, as co-owner Jason Ebel likes to put it, is Two Brothers Brewing Co. in Warrenville.

After living in France, brothers Jason Ebel of Geneva and Jim Ebel of North Aurora formed a fondness for flavorful European beers, and in response to the lack of specialty beers back home, decided to create their own.

“We got into this because we love flavor-forward beers,” Jason Ebel said. “If it was just about the money, we would have quit 20 times by now.”

The brewery has been in operation since 1996, concocting 32 types of beer in 2012. The Ebel brothers recently expanded their empire further west, opening a second brewpub – Two Brothers Roundhouse – in Aurora roughly 18 months ago.

“Business is going quite well nowadays, but it was a struggle at first,” Jason Ebel said. “It has been steadily increasing.”

Unlike Stockholm’s, where Oleson “gladly serves domestics,” Two Brothers solely serves a selection of its own craft brews as well as local and European guest craft beer out of its new 70,000-square-foot facility.

Similar to Two Brothers’ exclusivity to craft beer, The House Pub in St. Charles shares a similar philosophy.

“We were the first bar in the area doing solely craft beer,” said House Pub co-owner Tom Wojcik, who opened the bar with Steve Erd in 2008 during one of the country’s worst economic downturns in decades.

“It was tough,” Wojcik admits. But in the face of ridicule and a recession, the pair still stuck by their mission.

“When we talked about opening a bar, we wanted to do something completely different. So, when we decided to open a craft-beer bar, we got laughed at by other bar owners – especially in [St. Charles.] They were saying, ‘It’s just a fad; it’s never going to take off,’” Wojcik said, adding, “If it IS a fad, it’s a fantastic fad.”

Wojcik said customers who were new to craft beer were a tough sell in the beginning, and reeducation of what beer is and can be was crucial to The House Pub’s success.

“We decided to no longer carry Bud Light or any of the major (macrobrew) brands on tap, and it has been fantastic since then.”

House Pub initially had 60 to 70 different craft brews in stock, and now, it carries more than 200.

Since The House Pub’s humble beginnings, Wojcik said business has picked up, and he’s happy to be at the forefront of the trend and helping spearhead the craft beer movement.

Craft-beer ceiling

The recession continues to wage war on the pocketbooks of the masses, but the craft beer revolution rages on despite being less economical. So, why is “craft” culling sales from less expensive macrobrews?

Craft beer generally has a higher ABV – alcohol by volume – percentage than macrobrews, but it also comes at a higher price than its less potent counterparts. For example, a 12-ounce bottle of Bud light may cost $3.50 on average and have an ABV percentage of 4.2, but a bottle of Two Brothers Domaine DuPage at House Pub will cost $4.50 and has an ABV percentage of 5.9. A 10-ounce pour of Bell’s Expedition Stout at House Pub will cost $8, but packs a powerful 10.5 ABV percentage.

“Craft beer lasts longer because it has more alcohol, and it is more complex,” Cohoon said. “Now people will spend an extra dollar or two for better beer.”

Maynard agreed, adding that people will also spend more money on beer produced locally.

“[Craft beer] is an affordable luxury,” Jason Ebel said, adding that craft beer also is becoming more popular because of its rich flavor profiles, which allow for food-pairings.

With craft beer’s rise in popularity and a limited population to serve in the Kane County area, the question of whether there is enough business to go around is raised.

Eventually there will be a “shakeout,” Ebel said.

Oleson agreed.

“Craft beer is not immune to the laws of economics,” he said. “Right now, it’s growing and a whole bunch of people are jumping in, but not everybody is going to succeed.”

Tom Seefurth and his wife, Athena, found success in craft beer – or “culinary beer” as they call it – out of necessity. In 2006, the Campton Hills couple, through homebrewing in their garage, created the quirky Mamma Mia Pizza Beer – an ale with typical ingredients in addition to real tomato, garlic, basil and oregano. While their Pizza Beer started taking off, the housing market – in which Tom and Athena Seefurth both worked – began to plummet, causing the family to nearly lose their home.

“[The Pizza Beer] was a means of survival for my family,” Tom Seefurth said.

Before long, the couple’s Pizza Beer was winning competitions and found enough success to land their creative concoction in an array of newspapers, on TV in England and even on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”

“A part of being successful is you have to be different,” Tom Seefurth said. “Craft beer is here to stay, but as a victim of the real estate business … when things grow too fast, and when there are so many duplicate styles of beer, eventually, the bubble will burst.”

County-wide beer tasting (to name a few)

Gammon Coach House in Batavia has its hand in craft-beer educational opportunities and events such as beer dinners once a month and tap takeovers, which feature new brews from around the country.

North Aurora’s family-owned Raimondo’s Pizza and Pub sporadically hosts themed-beer tastings, which feature international imported beers and include a pizza pairing and Powerpoint presentation.

“We talk culture, we talk geography, and we talk history,” said beer-enthusiast and Raimondo’s owner Michael Treve of the presentation.

Treve, who hand-selects the 75 to 80 varieties of beer his pub has in stock, is also a part of the Headhunters Homebrew Club, which serves the Kane County area. The group meets at Raimondo’s the third Friday of every month. Meetings are open to the public.

Information
• House Pub, 16 S. Riverside Drive, St. Charles – 630-945-3479
• Two Brothers Roundhouse, 205 N. Broadway, Aurora – 630-264-2739
• Stockholm’s, 306 W. State St., Geneva – 630-208-7070
• Tap House Grill, 3341 W. Main St., St. Charles – 630-443-1664
• Gammon Coach House, 3 S. Batavia Ave., Batavia – 630-482-3663
• Raimondo’s Pizza & Pub, 1033 Kilbery Lane, North Aurora – 630-301-7727
• Spotted Fox Ale House, 3615 E. Main St., St. Charles – 630-584-2239
• Wild Monk, 51 S. First St., St. Charles – 630-549-6657
• Mamma Mia Pizza Beer: www.mammamiapizzabeer.com
• Chicago Beer Company: www.chicagobeerco.com.