Based in the narrow industrial corridor of Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood, Metropolitan Brewing lead by co-founders Tracy Hurst and Doug Hurst, were one of the city's first-in craft breweries back in 2008.
Known for making only lagers, this crew stayed dedicated to their vision, despite the clear trendiness and market preference for hoppy American ales that fueled almost every other brewery in the US, including those that now surround Metro on Chicago's north side. Breweries like Half Acre, founded in the same year, took off like a shot. Revolution just added 750 barrel tanks. There's seemingly no roof on the new wave of American styles. But the U.S. Craft market has a way of maintaining diversity, even in the face of an IPA craze. As Brewbound reported a couple weeks ago, pale pilsners are growing at a rapid clip, up 127% this year. Is this the moment for lagers? Are the trend winds finally in Metro's favor? Well, it might have finally got their well-deserved bank loan approved for expansion. But don’t call it a comeback.
“It took us a little longer to get our money because of our lagers,” explains Hurst. “We make them the way they’re supposed to be brewed, but we don’t charge more — we can’t. Trying to explain why you should pay more for lagers is tough. So we absorb that at home, so everything for us happens a little bit slower."
No one believes that lagers are going to take over the IPA-driven market for craft, but it's nice to see them gaining a foothold as a craft style, rather than being associated only with down-market macro versions. For craft producers, they're more expensive, take longer, and require a high level of technical skill to pull off compared to ale production. And while the future looks bright for Metro's styles — they just expanded into Wisconsin this year — it's really a continuation of what they've been doing for almost seven years now.
“We’ve always had a growth plan and this is it. If people are making lagers and we’re overlapping them, that’s fine, more power to them. This is what we do. Traditional German lagers have been making people happy for centuries, and they're worth having and sharing with people in the Midwest. We’re going to explore other styles like Bocks, Helles, maybe a wheat beer. We have our eyes on our own map, doing what we do, and showing people the magic of a traditionally brewed German style beer."
The new expansion will move the brewery from their Ravenswood location to a major redevelopment near Rockwell and Barry led by Paul Levy, the developer behind the Bridgeport Art Center. This new space is a collection of industrial buildings with its back up against the North Branch of the Chicago River. In fact, the brewery plans to take full advantage of that bit of green space for the future taproom, and a good bit of cleanup and beautifying is part of the overall development project meant to focus Chicago’s food and beverage fans on a group of businesses that share a similar ethos. Food innovation labs, a coffee roaster (Metropolis), and numerous other food and beverage companies (word is a distiller and a chocolate company) are all part of the plans.
For Metro’s final build out, they’ll be transitioning from a 15bbl two-vessel brewhouse to a 30bbl three-vessel brewhouse with an end-game capacity of about 45 thousand barrels a year (it’ll be a long while before they utilize that capacity fully), which more than doubles their current production capabilities on the hot side alone. “This will be our final move,” says Hurst, “We’re setting up to grow inside that 20-thousand square foot space. We can add vessels to increase efficiency and the number of tanks we’ll eventually have will get us to the end of our business plan.” While the new capacity will be freeing in may ways, the constraints they’ve been working under have pushed the team to be better and more efficient — a characteristic Hurst plans on bringing with them to the new digs.
“Constraint on a small business is good because it teaches to you to work within your parameters,” says Hurst. “It forces you to be creative and inventive in how you solve problems. If you have cash, you can throw it at your problems.” Indeed, while getting a bank loan seems like a new day for Metropolitan, it’s not “fuck off money.” They’ll still be working inside of a conservative financial model, and working hard to continue focusing on process and efficiencies to keep them on top of their game.
"I’m proud of our team. They focus on being efficient, improving our process, and while the beer is always on-point, they’re always coming up with new ways of doing the same things. These constraints taught us well, and attracted the kind of people to our team who were willing to face that challenge. Now we’re going to a new space, and that cash will have been spent. We’ll be as tight as ever, and our entire team is motivated. We have a great sense of pride solving problems with intelligence and not money. We’ll have immediate relief to hire help — I work 12-14 hours a day, every day. so it’ll certainly help a lot. Maybe I’ll lead a normal life at some point, but I’m not holding my breath."
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