To this day, former Goose Island brewers are adrift like dandelion seeds in the breeze. And they always seem to land on fertile ground. John Laffler of Off Color Brewing, and Jared Rueben of Moody Tongue are among the newest re-planted, each charting a unique trajectory according to their own approach to brewing. Most of these independent endeavors begin as quiet conversations at the bar, or while standing around watching a kettle boil inside the production brewery at Fulton and Wood. But what begins as a spark eventually turns to flame, and before long, that inspiration becomes too much to contain for the brewer who wants to build his or her own.
In 2010, Goose’s young innovation brewer, Tom Korder, showed up to a Goose Island beer dinner at Tiny Lounge in place of Greg Hall, the brewery’s leader. Eric Hobbs, a sales and marketing lead at the time, was disappointed by the last-minute swap. This young, quiet brewer certainly wasn’t going to have the presence of the family heir to Goose. There’s no way he would light up a room full of craft beer fans. But Hobbs was soon converted. “In a packed room, Tom came in and gave as good, or better a beer dinner than I’d ever seen,” recalls Hobbs. "It was very conversational, it was fun, light hearted. He shared a tremendous amount of information and I was really impressed by this young brewer that came in unannounced and owned a room for two hours.”
Hobbs had been building a brewery in his mind for some time before Korder surprised him that night. He knew the business, the market, sales and distribution. But he didn’t know brewing — not first-hand beyond homebrewing at least. He’d been lucky enough to work for one of the country’s top craft producers, with labels like Bourbon County Stout and the “Sisters” line of barrel aged sours. Producing beers at that level seemed like an impossible dream. But the more he got to know Korder, the more the new brewery seemed inevitable.
“It’s not surprising that a Goose Island brewer would be thinking of opening his own brewery,” jokes Hobbs. "So I poked and prodded to see what kind of things Tom would be interested in, or any projects he was working on. All off the cuff. But then I asked him to go to lunch at Goose Clybourn and I put the idea in front of him. I needed a partner. I’d already presented it to a very interested investor, but I knew it’d only work if I had a partner. So I wanted to know what it would look like to Tom. I wanted it to be a collaboration. He came back with a plan for lower abv, sessionable Belgian beers, a wild program — it was all music to my ears."
Since that time in 2010, the pair kept their plans hush-hush, even as they saw one brewery after another open in the city and the suburbs, some similarly positioning themselves as “Belgian Inspired.” Maintaining the emotional energy required for a long-term project is a common challenge for new business owners, but in a scaling start-up environment, which brewing has become, that emotional energy is attacked almost daily. Fresh brands are announced, new doors swing open, and expanding breweries move in and change markets — making your own project seem as slow as a run-off without a rake motor in the lauter tun. In other words, a project like this requires faith.
“It was frustrating at times,” recalls Korder. "But the hardest part was not being able to talk about it, not being able to bounce ideas off our friends and co-workers. Every few days another brewery would pop up. We had to keep telling ourselves to focus on the end game.” For all his anxiety, Korder was the straight-man in the operation. “Tom had to calm me down a lot,” explains Hobbs. "I was always the one getting more frustrated and he’d talk me off the ledge. Watching other people go ahead of you makes you feel like you’re losing sometimes.”
About 15 minutes away in Naperville, another Belgian-inspired brewery was launching, almost under the cover of night. "We’re tight with the crew at Solemn Oath now," says Hobbs. "But at the time, that was the biggest surprise when they opened. They were out here like us, they were doing Belgian-inspired, they were talking about barrels. Honest to god, some of the events they pulled off right away, like the dinners at Heritage Farms where we were buying some of our ingredients — seriously, it was like they had a copy of our business plan. But I’ve come to know John and Joe from Solemn and realize that we’re very different people with very different visions, and we express them very differently.”
The beer itself, while being belgian inspired, couldn’t be more different than Solemn Oath’s. SOB tends to produce higher abv beers (although not monsters), often with aggressive American hop profiles and clever names like Axe Scar Pig and Kidnapped by Vikings, while Penrose is aiming for more sessionable, clean, yeast-forward Belgian profiles that are both familiar and refreshing with names that evoke their European roots, like Navette, and Proto Gradus. SOB is housed in a light industrial park on the edge of town, while Penrose is walkable from the center of downtown Geneva and right off the Metra train from Chicago. SOB features Bosch-like scenes of apocalyptic torment, while Penrose focuses on the beautiful patterns and architecture of the penrose tile shape from the early 20th century. It's fascinating that two breweries could be so similar in their business approach, both highly ambitious, and yet so different in their execution.
From day-one, Korder built a make-shift lab to isolate and propagate yeast strains that he plans to incorporate into beers immediately. With the barrel program already underway, wilds, sours, and brett beers will be a core part of the operation at Penrose. This approach is uncommon so early in a brewery's trajectory, but Korder's experiences at Goose, four years at Anheuser-Busch, as well as a background in engineering, have helped create a meticulous, almost scientific brewer. With a 1-to-1 ratio in brewhouse to tank space (40bbl brewhouse, 40bbl fermenters) there won't be a lot of blending, which most brewers rely on to produce consistent recipes. Korder will have to get it right the first time, and every time, until he has more vessels to blend post-fermentation. This means most of Penrose's beers will have slight variances from batch to batch, which in the Belgian tradition are both welcome, and encouraged, to a point.
According to Korder, it was some of the larger goals they had in mind that enabled them to stay focused during the long buildout. “Yeah, guess what, we’re not the first brewery to do Belgian-inspired beer. But we shared a desire for a sense of community, building a culture, and focusing on education. We wanted to open more people’s eyes. We want to help like-minded people come together. Even in our building stage, we had a lot of people coming together — from our designer, to the caterer across the street, to the guy who built our bar, investors, the bars and restaurants that have supported us. It’s all people with a similar mindset moving towards the goal of producing hand-crafted things that we have a connection to."
That community aspect is a tangible reason why Penrose Brewing settled into a neighborhood in Geneva, Illinois, about an hour west of Chicago. With a used 40bbl copper brewhouse and a productive anxiety to get things going, the taproom was the focus for Hobbs, because he knew that the way they welcomed people into the brewery on day-one would define their role in the community going forward. “These people are drawn to locally made, handcrafted, small businesses,” explains Hobbs. "We want this to feel like a worthy cause. When they come in the front door, they should be meeting the right kind of people, a welcoming staff with knowledge, and have a great beer experience. That’s how they’ll come back with more people to share that experience with."
Even as they reached the end of the buildout, the team looked for any excuse to start brewing. I joined them on their first weekend as they put themselves and their equipment through its paces — Korder briskly jumping up and down the stairs, back and forth between the grain mill and the mash, into the tank room and back again. For now, he’s a one-man brew team, and he’s working 20 hours days to keep the tanks filled during their first month. More tanks are coming, the rake motor is finally installed, barrels are getting filled. And through it all, Korder keeps his composure, even as the newly opened taproom drains his tanks.
“Man, our biggest challenge right now is making enough beer,” says Korder. “We foresaw these struggles, but we thought they’d be a few months down the road. Keeping up with beer for our taproom — we wanted it to be that place where you can try new styles you can’t get anywhere else, our experimentals, the new fun beers from our one barrel system, and they’re flying.” Despite the early attention and struggles keeping up with demand, Penrose’s approach to market is hardly broad. “We can barely get to 50 accounts in Chicagoland right now,” explains Hobbs. “And there’s about 12,000 out there. We’re trying to meet even the smallest amount of demand right now. A lot of people think we’re in the rapid growth mode because we ordered more tanks, but that was always part of the plan, the original build-out. We barely have any fermentation space right now. People hear that we’re ordering more tanks and they think ‘whoa, isn’t that kind of bold?’ — But I don’t think it is at all. We’re just trying to get in front of the plan right now rather than be reactive. There’s far too much reactive planning in brewing these days."
With great brewing friends like Perennial, Half Acre and Solemn Oath out in front of them, and their experiences at Goose Island behind them, the Penrose crew is in the sweet-spot in terms of leading examples to model themselves after. “Some of the things Greg Hall and John Laffler passed on to me,” explains Korder “helped me understand how new beers are created. There should always be a purpose behind what you do, adding ingredients to beer. Greg would always tell us there’s no bad ideas because we’d learn from it. So Laffler and I would try anything, different fruit additions, different pitch rates on the yeast, developing new beers. We’re doing that with our small batch beers on our one barrel system now, and serving those in the taproom.” On the sales and marketing side, Hobbs had his own takeaways. “There was always a lot of detail on the brand development side, with Greg Hall and Adam Lilly doing incredible things to tell stories about those beers at Goose. That’s how I learned about what a beer experience was. I don’t even think of myself as a salesman anymore. I just go share stories and sample beer. And if that story is inspiring, and that beer is good, then that buyer is going to want it, and share the experience too.”
After a week of launch events in Geneva, Penrose launched into the city through GBH Studio last week, bringing Navette, P2, and Proto Gradus along to share with industry friends and a crowd of GBH fans. Navette, their Belgian black has a subtle herbal quality, some roast and coffee flavors, with a spicy Ardennes yeast nose. P-2, their Belgian Pale, is a clean, crisp, tropical pale with a solid, but light malt balance. And Proto Gradus, perhaps my favorite of the group, is completely crushable at 4% with a light, bready body, citrus flavors, and a super clean, thrist-quenching finish. This will be a go-to beer all summer. Watch out for a session sour to hit this summer, and a wet-hopped harvest saison this fall.
“I love the lateral flexibility that Belgian-inspired gives us,” explains Korder. "Not just a dubbel, triple, blondes and lambics. We’re painting with a broad brush. But you can expect a nice yeast characteristic, either fruity or phenolic. We’re going to use different spicings and methods. And we’ll be incorporating the barrel aging for wilds. We just filled our first barrels last week.”