Signifiers

Getting Real — Chicago’s Present Tense Fine Ales

Ten years ago, the idea of a brewery focusing strictly on English Cask Ales wouldn’t have seemed like a stretch. But with today’s reliance on “extreme” brewing techniques—aggressive hopping, barrel-aging, yeast sourced from beards, etc.—that generate hype, there’s a niche to be filled, as absurd as it may sound.

English Cask Ale is older than the U.S. And yet, bringing it to life in the States feels indicative of just how weird things have gotten in the world of beer. What happens when old school becomes new school, a novelty all over again? How do you reinvent something that technically can’t be reinvented? The two men opening Present Tense Fine Ales in Chicago will live with these questions as they make progress on becoming the city’s only brewery to focus strictly on “real English ale.” 

Growing up in Kansas City, Tyler Jackson graduated from the University of Missouri with an engineering degree and found himself in Columbus, Ohio for a job not long after. It was at that time that he became interested in homebrewing, splitting a kit and some equipment with a roommate and making a Hefeweizen that was drinkable but maybe only just. From there, he became obsessed, growing his knowledge alongside his equipment, often becoming distracted, but always coming back to his kit in the quest for better results. Four years in, he relocated to Chicago. 

"I got a job at a consulting firm,” Jackson says. “The job was a good job, it was very comfortable and allowed me a lot of time outside of work to focus on [brewing]. My realization came when I was sitting at work and my mind was just focused on the brewery. I couldn’t focus on my job."

Thomas Thorpe grew up in Flint, Michigan, coming to Chicago to attend the Moody Bible Institute downtown. After graduating, he became a pastor, leading a congregation in the city’s far Northwest suburb of Bartlett. The commute from city to suburbs was a challenge that quickly wore thin while he balanced his career, his family, and his ever-growing interest in homebrewing. He made the difficult decision to leave his job and now cleans windows in Chicago proper. His work now central to the city, he could focus more of his free time on brewing. But it would take more than an increased focus on brewing for Thorpe to realize he needed to go pro.

"There was one afternoon we had a summer barbecue here,” he remembers. “It was probably the third or fourth time we had ever casked a beer, an English Mild. Tyler and I showed up separately and had the beer separately. We weren’t together when we tried it. So when we saw each other after each having had the beer, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, did we really brew this beer? Did it really come out of our garage?' We brewed it, we casked it, we cellared it, we tapped it, and it’s amazing. It was one of the best beers I had ever had."

Present Tense began with a simple introduction at church: "Tyler, meet Thomas. Thomas, meet Tyler. Both of you brew beer." The two were left alone to stare at each other as their mutual friend walked away, having said nothing more. But they became fast friends, realizing early on that a brewery would be in their plans, even if they weren’t sure of the logistics. At the time, they settled for building a small brewing system in the garage behind their pastor’s home in the The Windy City’s Ukrainian Village.

Jackson’s engineering background led to a custom control panel that regulated temperature, converted kegs that functioned as a liquor tun, and a mash tun and boil kettle complete with pumps for transferring. A few spare refrigerators became temperature-controlled fermenters, while a freezer stored hops and grain. Add in a kegerator with three taps and a dozen corny kegs, and just like that, Jackson and Thorpe had a system capable of brewing 10 gallons every week. So that’s what they did, working on weekends around full-time jobs. They’ve been doing it for three years now.

While English Ales aren’t exactly trendy in Chicago, Jackson and Thorpe were inspired by friends and family that drank their beer. They set up a homebrew club—a beer CSA, of sorts—that allowed interested parties to sign up and choose a monthly allotment of beer. As more people began to sign up for the club, it made the idea of going professional much more attractive.

"We’ve gotten a lot of mixed feedback, in terms of whether they think it’s a feasible business model,” Thorpe says of the industry conversations he and Jackson have had. “‘Yes it will work, no it won’t, it could work.’ But a couple things everybody says is that it's a really unique and great business model. They want to see us succeed and they want to help in any way they can. That’s near 100% of what we hear from people: ‘It’s unique, interesting, we want this in our city.’”

Everybody says it’s a really great business model. They want to see us succeed and they want to help in any way they can. That’s near 100% of what we hear from people: ‘It’s unique, interesting, we want this in our city.’

The most significant factor for Present Tense’s potential success will hinge on a demand that appears to be swinging, like a pendulum, back towards more balanced, sessionable beer. They’ve tasked themselves with making the unfashionable fashionable again—or at least commercially viable.

Present Tense’s vision comes straight from England—a brewhouse and taproom that serves each of their beers on cask. While there are several breweries that serve Cask Ales throughout Chicago and across the country, Thorpe and Jackson feel they lack the attention to detail that serving a proper pint deserves. And they’re not alone.

"Proper cask ale is 'alive' and needs to be drunk fresh and not 'kept on' for days as the beer goes off fairly quickly," says John Hannafan, the Director of Education at Chicago's Siebel Institute. "The challenge is to educate people and bar staff on exactly what cask ale is and how the cask and ale within should be maintained and served, which is no short order."  

"There is no one exclusively only doing cask ales [like] Present Tense," Hannafan continues. "There are some doing special casks for events or one-off specials, but not on the scale which Thomas and Tyler are envisioning."

Thorpe says Present Tense beers will stand out because of their dedication to tradition. “I think a lot of breweries in the states, in terms of English-style beers, they get their beer 70% of the way there and call it good, because to get it the other 30%, it’s going to take twice as much time,” he says. “So in terms of economics, spending double the amount of time to only get 30% more out of your product doesn’t make sense, but we want to do that. We want to go that extra 30%, take the time to make it spot on.”

Authenticity will be their top priority, from brewing with ingredients sourced from England, to handling, conditioning, and serving. As for the beer itself, they’ll have to transcend what beer drinkers think they know about English Ales or it won’t attract discerning, experienced consumers. "What's special about English Ales is the subtle complexity,” Jackson says. “I think between the two of us, we can create that subtle complexity in beer and that’s what’s lacking in most current craft breweries interpretation of English Ales."

To capture this authenticity, Jackson quit his day job and dedicated himself to learning what it meant to brew and serve legitimate English Ale. He spent three months in the UK, working at Roosters Brewing Company, a brewery that’s prided itself on bringing hop-forward, U.S.-inspired Pale Ales to the UK since 1993. There, he started his days at 6:30am, cleaning equipment, filling casks, and occasionally helping with the brewing and canning process. During his time in Yorkshire, he realized how much influence the American craft movement had changed the product in Europe.

"All of their focus is on America and what American craft beer is doing,” Jackson says. “So craft beer in the UK is defined by the focus on American hops and American ingredients. Even in the home of cask beer, where we are looking to for inspiration and the standards, it’s kind of a dying art there. It’s shocking that even there it’s dwindling and not as popular."

Jackson had romanticized this storybook vision of England and its pubs, its beers and its time-honored traditions, only to come to the realization that the Old World had also evolved. He had two choices: lament the experience for not living up to expectations, or enjoy the experience while seeking the origins of English Ale. It was in this light bulb moment that the name “Present Tense” was born.

With limited space, no license, and a plenty of red tape to cut through in the coming months, they’ve started to consider life outside of the garage, but it's been difficult to make headway with an incomplete business plan and lack of a drinkable product. As they draw up a business plan, the first people they need to convince are their investors, who need to feel confident that uniqueness alone is a strong enough business model to survive in one of the country’s most beer-centric cities.

"We're meeting with investors and people in finance and just trying to find money, and trying to get our capital raised,” Thorpe says. “That’s our big goal. We’ve looked at doing some intermediate steps, like getting a retail space, a space where we could actually brew and maybe get license on a small system and just get some beer in the market. We haven’t abandoned that idea, but we feel we’re so close to actually just pulling in some investors."

At the moment, time is something that Tyler and Thomas are willing to compromise in exchange for express entry to the market. “In terms of infrastructure build out and actually instilling proper ventilation and water and drainage [in a temporary location], it’s a waste of time and money,” Thorpe says. “That time and money is better spent finishing the financial model and getting in front of investors. There’s a lot easier way to overcome those barriers of entry. Tenant brewing is something that we’ve looked into. For the time being, our immediate need is not necessarily to get on the shelves or in bars.”

While the ability to brew and distribute seems far in the future, the two seem optimistic. The prospect of brewing beer for a living is the dream of many homebrewers—one that doesn't always include grandiose plans to become the next big craft brewer.

“As time goes on and we’ve successfully accomplished what we want to do in a taproom and we have a high quality product that we can do consistently, we’d like to see the growth of cask beer throughout Chicago and the Midwest,” Jackson says. “That’s hopefully what’s going to follow, but we’re not hedging our bets on that. We want to be successful on a small scale and achieve this experience that you can’t get anywhere else in America.”

“It’s avant-garde," Thorpe adds. “To come in with traditional English Ales and serve them on cask? People are blown away by this 'new idea' that’s hundreds of years old.”

Words and Photos
by Stephanie Byce

Stephanie Byce

Stephanie is a writer and photographer focused on Midwestern beer. She found her way to Chicago from Northern Wisconsin. When not hiding behind a camera lens or hunched over a laptop working on her blog, The Girl and Her Beer, she often finds herself in Montreal—or on the back stairwell of her apartment building, drinking with her cat.

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