OK, not literally a half acre of beer. That would be ludicrous. It would go flat far, far too quickly.
Imagine, if you will, it is a sleepy Saturday morning, and you find yourself strolling around the quiet of Chicago’s Lincoln Square. You round a corner and suddenly come across a crowd buzzing with anticipatory energy. A few more steps and it seems like they are all excited about… a giant garage door. A deep rumble, and the door opens, everyone surging gently forward in anticipation. A gentleman steps out and shouts directions, dependent on if you want the tour or the tap room. You have found Half Acre Brewery.
Gabriel Magliaro and Maurizio Fiore of Half Acre were kind enough to let me come in on two occasions to take in the brewing process. The first time involved the tour of their facilities. While they are bigger than some of the craft brewers around town, this is still a relatively petite facility; the giant fermentation tanks nestled in every available space. You know which ones are fermenting deliciousness by the sight of the buckets filled with water next to them, tubes snaking out of the tank into the bucket to let carbon dioxide out, and no oxygen gets back in.
And of course the tank that actually has its own bling (never did get the story behind that one.)
And the lauter tun has a giant walrus on it.
What’s not to love?
The tour consistently draws a crowd, and while I am sure some are definitely interested in the history of this company, most are probably in it for the beer. If I was counting correctly, there were at least two beers poured per person on this tour. So what if it starts at 11AM? Beer has grain in it. It’s like liquid cereal, right?
But I digress. The tour, led by the highly entertaining Adam, doled out several interesting bits of information, such as:
- Half Acre was one of the first Chicago craft breweries. They originally contracted with a brewery in Wisconsin (of course,) but once they had the ability to bring it all to Chicago, they did.
- They have never paid for an ad. And if you have ever had one of their beers, they do not need to. In fact, their artwork is some of the craziest I’ve seen for a beer, and all of it is done by one fellow, Octophant.
- They are absolutely a neighborhood brewery. Some breweries are off in an industrial complex, but these folks are genuinely plunked down in the middle of the neighborhood, right around the corner from house upon house.
- Apparently the Midwest was slow to catch on to the craft beer movement, but now that we have, we are voracious. Being a native Wisconsin girl, this does not surprise me one bit. (And I am SO GLAD we busted out of the Miller/Budweiser rut.)
- For all the local aspects of their business, the name is definitely not. You can read about the origin here.
- And if you really want to know more, by all means go on the tour. And have a beer. Or two. And then stop in their beautiful tap room and have another, and maybe play a game or two. While you are at it, buy a growler to take home.
I was really there to watch them do the actual brewing, and so on another quiet Thursday morning, I went in to watch as they went about their business. They run almost 24 hours a day, with three shifts of people. While they started with a master brewer, most of the people there have had no formal brewing training. They have learned while being there, and perhaps it is this lack of formal training that leads to some interesting results. Even the founders have no formal beer training. They started with simply a love of the beer and the passion to get it rolling. In talking with a few of the gents on the brew floor, I found that one was a former engineer, one was getting his masters in art history, and yet another had just finished his degree in physiology. And pretty much all just loved working there, and clearly appreciated their beer. All of them were more than happy to explain what was going on at every step of the process, and all were clearly dedicated to doing things neatly and efficiently. Even the hoses were always neatly coiled in figure 8s. Nothing seemed out of place.
I got a chance to chat with the gent setting up brews that morning, carefully weighing out hops for their most popular brew, Daisy Cutter Ale. He let me dip my head in and sniff the individual hops before blending them together, and later on when I drank a Daisy Cutter I swear that led me to have a beer-version moment of that scene in the movie “French Kiss” where Meg Ryan’s character sniffs individual components and can then taste them in the wine (yes, I like that movie, what of it?). He explained how most hops are straight up one variety, but occasionally there are blends, and brewers are at the mercy of the distributors.
One thing they can control is their grain, which is all from Shakopee, MN. Of course somewhere that caused my 11-year old self to be jealous that the grain got to be that close to Valleyfair. I doubt the sacks of grain were riding the rollercoasters, but still.
There was a certain patience to all of the brewers as they watched temperatures rise, spun hydrometers in flasks of test beer, and did innumerable little tests, recording everything on clipboards. There are so many finer points to brewing at this level, it’s either be fastidious or have a lot of unpalatable flat yeasty liquid on your hands.
Perhaps it was the presence of someone hanging about pointing a large camera lens at them, but even when things happened, such as the canning machine… erring, shall we say, no one freaked out. They just took care of it. The canning process was only two guys. And you heard me, canning. Beer cans of today are not the beer cans of yore. They are lined with a food grade lining, so the metal of the can will not mess with the flavor of the beer. This also keeps the beer happily in the dark, so light cannot mess with it. But if you shotgun one of these beers, I will shake my head sadly at you. Total waste of quality beer enjoyment time.
Every time I am near a brewery or distillery, I am besotted with the canning or bottling machines. Looking at the various arrays of tubes and levers, I am always a little in awe of whoever concocted this insanity to begin with. Gravity slowly feeds the cans down a small wire chute (which clearly was inspired by the Mousetrap board game) where they twist about and land under the main machine.
One set of jets gets rid of all the air in the cans, and another set of jets fills the cans at a swift speed before rolling on down the line to have lids gently floated on top.
And then there is the crazy high speed spinning machine, which I am fairly positive is the main reason to wear rubber boots around that place. Somehow in the sealing process it spins so fast, all excess water and beer foam on the top fly in every direction. And occasionally, it crushes the can.
From there one man grabs the cans, weighing to assure they have been properly filled, then swiftly assembles them into sets of four and smacks on the plastic caps to connect them. No classic bird-killing plastic rings of our childhood to worry about here. Then one more guy packs them in cases, seals them up, and stacks them on a palette. Even this larger operation still boils down to a couple of people.
One of the larger things I noted from both the tour and hanging out when they were brewing was how much they appreciate the other craft businesses in town. Katherine Anne Confections, whom I wrote about earlier, uses their Daisy Cutter to make her shandy marshmallows. When I came to shoot on the brew day, they gave me a cup of really tasty coffee from the Dark Matter roasters, with whom they collaborate on a coffee beer. If they run out of some supply (the example given was bottlecaps, even though they do not bottle anymore,) they can call up another craft brewer in town and get some from them, along with a certain amount of guff for running out of something. When I mentioned the joy of the Star Trek theme at Metropolitan, one of the gents immediately asked if I had seen the bathroom there (which does in fact have the Starfleet insignia painted on the mirror,) so clearly they all know each other. While there is definitely competition, since that is the nature of business, it really does not feel like a cutthroat thing, rife with hoppy espionage.
For me beer is a simple and complex pleasure, all at once. I don’t drink the ones that could be considered water. (You know who you are.) A gentleman at my corner liquor store put it best when he said “If you are so concerned about calories, why not drink just one really good beer? Why drink multiple 64 calories of swill?”
And with the modern trend of craft beer, I really do not have to. Do yourself a favor. Go find some Half Acre. Do not, under any circumstances, shotgun it. Drink it. Slowly.
(as per usual, not enough space for all the photos, for a larger gallery, go here.)