Empirical Brewery — Gathering Evidence of Chicago's Next Great Craft Brew

Last weekend I received an incredible invitation to a private tasting of Empirical’s soon-to-be portfolio of beers thanks to Good Beer Hunting fan and Empirical Brewery social evangelist @julesinchicago

The setting: a beautiful condo in the sky looking down over Soldier Field. The people: a mix of friends and family, and a carefully selected group of beer geeks. Some people fit well into both categories. I brought @justrhein along (friend, coworker and photographer in his own right) as a debrief buddy. Plus, knowing that Empirical was going to offer some IPAs, I knew I needed a hop-head in my mix. 

We were on time, which means we were earlier than expected, which means we got a look at the behind-the-scenes prep for the event. Like any other small enterprise in its first days, these guys were scrambling a bit to get their set-up in order. Impressively, they had built a jockey-box just that morning, and were fine-tuning some of the valves and the CO2 as we arrived. It’s no surprise that throughout the night, pressure was being adjusted, temperatures manually controlled, but most importantly, great beers were getting lovingly poured. 

Early arrivals were greeted with a guest tap of Rock Bottom’s IPA. And we made use of this free time to chat with Empirical’s co-founder and investment banker Bill Hurley. With wrenches and tubes fighting like cats in the background with head brewer Jim Cozzenns, Bill explained the brewery’s growth plan, including production levels, profit sharing, and commitment to experimentation that will be critical in fast-tracking to a regional brewery level. This was the first time I’ve heard a craft brew founder talk about going straight to a regional-size brewery — and he had the details worked out to get there. Hell, he even talked about exporting. These are Chicago-sized ambitions and he’s worked the numbers. 

Bill also described the softer side of the Empirical vision. Giving back to Chicago, supporting and maintaining talent, and advancing the science of beer are all major goals that, in Bill’s mind, rely on hitting the right numbers. 70,000 barrels with a 10% operating profit get him where he needs to be to spread the wealth. Any less and he’s compromising too much. Any more and he’s missing opportunities to invest and grow. 

Empirical is still looking for space in Chicago (either West Loop or Pilsen at the moment) with plans to start production early next summer. And tonight was about getting their portfolio in shape to be ready for that starting line. To that end, they went out of their way to invite a pair of home brewers on the verge of their own brewery-sized operation in Munster, Indiana called Sandy Bottom Brewing. Cy and Rusty have the kind of palates and experience that make any head brewer nervous — but they’re also generous and patient and look for a brewer’s intent rather than contest-style category criticisms. Sitting across the table from these gentlemen was a rare treat. 

So on to the beer. Here’s the high-level summary of the evening.

Kolsch — An instant winner. Slightly sour notes on the back-end, but the entire beer almost evaporates off your tongue the moments it hits. As a session beer, Jim got some unique flavor in there, but also kept it impressively light. And the viscosity had a cold, heavy feel that gave it a remarkable texture. 

IPA — I actually thought I got the Hefeweizen by mistake and this spurred a lot of healthy conversation. Jim wanted to make a less hop-driven IPA, which is a curious idea. The beer itself was delicious, like a slightly pale hefe, but the thought of ordering an IPA, and the expectations that come with that, led us all to agree that it needed more dry hops to at least give the right first impression in the aroma.

Hefeweizen — A solid brew with hints of clove and banana as you might expect, but thinner in the body. Where so many hefe seem to beg for a little acid to break the thick, sugary texture (hence so many orange slices butting in to the experience), this hefe had the mouthfeel and dryness of a lighter golden ale. It almost tasted like the base to the IPA. 

Stout — Incredible. We were all gushing over the dry, roasty flavor that came out of this one. When first poured it zinged you with the flavor of burnt toast. But like any good drinker of a stout, we wanted it to warm up some. After a few minutes of hand-cupping and chatting, we were all ready for another sip — this stout transformed into a coffee liquor-like texture with heady red wine notes underneath. 

Double IPA — Any questions raised about the direction of the standard IPA were put to rest with the double. This beer was so well-balanced, well-hopped and generally well-thought-out. Smooth, pine-y notes ran under the thick, almost oak-like flavors of the double. If this becomes the benchmark for Jim, the revision of the standard will surely find its mark. 

Barleywine — A pleasant, big-sugar-crystal kind of beer, but with a little more balance than a typical barleywine. Bill pitched it as “if you’ve ever had a barleywine and hated it, then this might be the barleywine for you.”

Aged Barleywine — Jim somehow found the will-power to save a couple of 12oz bottles of his year-old barleywine and generously offered them as a bonus round for the evening. He sat down with us beer geeks and we all relished in the nuances of a beer that aged rather well. With more sparkle and finer sugar textures, the aged barleywine left us all feeling a little boozy at the end of the night. 

The tasting (their second ever) was a great success. They nailed an incredible range in their portfolio, and got the feedback they were looking for to really pin down their flavors. And I can hardly wait to hang out with Cy and Rusty again, hopefully at the next Sandy Bottom event, to see what an epic multi-house homebrew operation looks like from the inside. 

Special thanks to @julesinchicago for the heads-up, @justrhein for joining me and taking some great photos mixed into this post (his complete set here), Sumit for hosting such a great event in his home, and of course the Empirical Brewery crew, Bill, Jim and co, for sharing their impressive brews, and their vision, so generously. 

Michael Kiser