Ballast Point Finally Takes on Chicago Business Barriers, Opens Taproom in Constellation's Backyard

Austin Ray

THE GIST
Further bolstering its presence away from the sunny shores of its home turf, Ballast Point is headed to Chicago. The San Diego brewery announced late last week its plans to build out a 3-BBL research and development brewery, restaurant, and bar inside a 12,000-square foot space in the Fulton Market District, making the company the newest resident in an increasingly competitive beer market.
 
“We’re thrilled to bring the San Diego spirit of Ballast Point to such a great beer-drinking city like Chicago,” company president Marty Birkel wrote in a press statement. “The entire team is looking forward to sharing some of our new innovations and passion for great beer and food with Chicagoans.”
 
The company currently operates six tasting rooms in its home state of California, which maxes out its licensing in the state, as well as a tasting room and soon-to-open brewery in Virginia.

WHY IT MATTERS
Though this is the company’s first outpost in the Midwest, the city of Chicago already serves as a second home of sorts to the company. That’s because Constellation Brands—which acquired Ballast Point for a whopping $1 billion back in 2015—operates its beer division headquarters out of the city. Speaking with GBH, a source close to the matter referred to Constellation’s presence as one of the driving forces behind the move, connecting the dots between San Diego brewery and it's corporate headquarters—a city with considerable manpower on the ground for the brand already.

This isn’t the first time Ballast Point has looked at Chicago as a retail outreach location, however. The city had previously been high on its consideration list for a brewpub, but it didn’t pull the trigger until now, according to our source, because of certain red tape and business barriers in place there, saying at the time "the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze." 

Finding the right retail location and the funds helped get them over the hump. 

“We are still in the early stages of planning for construction and permitting,” Ballast Point VP of Marketing Hilary Cocalis adds. “As we’ve done with all of our locations, we will work closely with local and state officials to navigate the process.”
 
The company itself declined to address directly any past efforts to establish a retail presence in Chicago, saying only the move “presents a great opportunity for us to introduce more people to our brand firsthand through our R&D brewery/tasting room model in one of our key markets.”
 
With the addition of Ballast Point, too, Chicago itself seems to emerge as one of the—if not the pre-eminent—nation’s headquarters for corporate-owned craft beer, as Heineken-owned Lagunitas and AB InBev-owned Goose Island also operate there. And on that note, the Chicago announcement comes just five months after a group of political activists in the city organized in an attempt to boycott Ballast Point over Constellation’s political contributions, which ultimately fizzled out as a weird, opportunistic political campaign without any real lasting effects.
 
Hospitality and finding a way to create a “local” presence seems top-of-mind for corporate-backed craft beer in general with AB InBev pushing into retail with Goose Island’s international brewpub rollout and 10 Barrel’s brewpubs in, coincidentally, Ballast Point’s backyard of San Diego, Plus there's Golden Road, who is currently battling local pushback in Oakland for a brewpub space. Lagunitas and Heineken also entered San Diego with a “community room” taproom for social events, as well as South Carolina, the latter of which is currently on hold.
 
With so much talk about corporate-owned breweries taking up shelf space, the real push seem to be on the literal streets as these national and increasingly international craft brands look for local relevance to complement their product and operational prowess.
 
—Dave Eisenberg