If you drive west on Diversey Avenue in Chicago, you might be looking for the on-ramp to the Kennedy. And as you madly look around trying to figure out where on earth the actual lanes are, you might clap your eyes upon a low brick building, nestled against the embankment shoring up the sides of an old train track that used to run at this same place. Once upon a time, it was a station for the trains that used to chug through. At one point, it was an auto parts store. And now it houses Ale Syndicate, a lovely little craft brewer here in Chicago, founded by brothers Jesse and Samuel Evans.
I know, I know. You hear “syndicate” in association with Chicago, and your mind goes all Al Capone. Mine certainly did, and I blunderingly asked Samuel about the name. He looked a little pained at the question, and rightfully so. He began to explain that it had nothing to do with mafia stuff at all, and was in reference to a syndicate being a collection of people working together to create something, and then had to run off to chat with one of the collection of people he and his brother are working with. Which was likely the best definition of their name I could have gotten.
I showed up late in the morning at their brand new space on Diversey. They have been brewing for a while, but always in other locations, using other people’s equipment, but as of June they now have their own space with shiny new fermenters (and a slightly older mash tun they used a lot of elbow grease on to get into shape for their brews.) They have been brewing for about a week in this new space, a space filled with air and light, which is something I have not experienced in a brewery yet. Samuel pointed out the walls of windows and how golden light would pour in both morning and evening, the best of both worlds. Jesse broadly swept an arm out to a bank of windows, showing me where they plan to put in a tap room. I imagined sipping their glorious Van de Velde beer in that golden evening light they spoke of. It seems blissful. But I digress.
When I first arrived, before I even asked the question about the derivation of the name, Jesse and Samuel were meeting with a couple of restauranteurs, discussing future plans, I believe this was regarding the future tap room space and possible food options. Walking in the door, I was swiftly introduced to Bryan, the head brewer, who was working on a collaboration brew with a Welsh brewery, a double IPA to be dubbed Seven Flowers I greatly anticipate tasting. He then talked about another brew they were working on, a collaboration creating a Thai Belgian ale. You heard me. Thai Belgian. I think my eyes bulged a little, because he and Abigail (the marketing manager who was kindly letting me hang out with her for the day) started listing the ingredients. I think I drifted off dreaming about a mellow malty brew scented with kaffir lime leaves. So even before I saw any of their usual line of beers hanging about, there were collaborators, members of the syndicate, abounding, with delicious ideas being slung about.
Bryan was even so kind as to pull me a small taste of the first beer they brewed here straight out of the fermenting tank (but pre-carbonation.) Even without the bubbles, it had a mellow malty quality that spoke to the soft beams of light permeating the space. Or maybe I’m just projecting. Either way, it was a tasty little sample.
After tooling around their new space, Abigail took me with her to Lakeshore Beverage, one of the big beverage distributors in the Chicago area, and she talked about all the complexities of distributing craft beer when you are still on a small scale in this market. She had to grab a few cases of beer for a truffle tasting later that evening (and we will get to that part later.) Even something as simple as a couple of kegs involves a process of logging and paperwork. For any who think craft brewers have a rockin’ job just hanging out and brewing all day, let me disabuse you of this notion. These people work hard and non-stop. There is a mind-boggling array of paperwork and laws and licensing that they have to slog through on a daily basis. Enough that would bring me to my knees weeping in a matter of days. And they do it every day. It’s part of the syndicate. The folks at Lakeshore Beverage appear to deal with a ton of local craft brewers, or so it appeared as I peeked at a small section of their massive warehouse with over 200,000 cases of beer stacked high over my head. And for as huge as they are, there was personable chatter, they knew what was going on. And Abigail chatted with him about another bit of syndicate business, how to transport two kegs for yet another collaboration, this time with Bad Apple, a local gastro-pub that commissioned many local brewers to create a custom brew to celebrate their year anniversary next week. The caveat? All the beer had to be brewed using cardamom as an ingredient. I have to say, I am intrigued.
Having picked up the cases of Ale Syndicate beer she needed for an event that evening, Abigail and I went to CH Distillery, a great local distillery that has been around for about a year, and another member of this syndicate which I swear exists for the sole purpose of surprising tastebuds in the most delicious way. It turns out that both Jesse from Ale Syndicate and Tremaine from CH Distillery are enormous geeks (a term I use with great admiration) over their craft from both a creative and scientific standpoint.
Tremaine had just finished distilling four half-barrels of the DuSable Saison, and Abigail was there to work with him on mixing together the heads, hearts, and tails to see what sort of liqueur arose from this experiment. The back room of CH Distillery is white boards covered in equations from the non-stop experimenting they engage in. Tremaine carefully measured out the various components of the distillation and whipped out his iPhone to do a calculation of the proportions to try, all the while explaining the process he was following. He and Abigail tested the first round, decided it was a little too “burny,” remeasured a different proportion, tested the alcohol content as it stood, then the whole mix was poured into a waiting barrel to age. The alcohol content was carefully noted on a spot on the array of whiteboards. They are not positive that it will be wonderful, but if you do not try, how do you know?
Funny thing about the barrel; Abigail asked if they could have it afterwards so they could age some of the DuSable beer in it, just to see what it did. When I was at the Ale Syndicate brewery, there were a couple of barrels lying in wait to have beer aged in them. One of them was a rum barrel from Tail Winds Distillery, and before they had used it, it had belonged to FEW Distillery. The syndicate does a swift trade in barrels so they can experiment with the mingling of flavors, and having recently had a beer from Half Acre aged in a gin barrel, I really have to advocate for this part of the syndicate’s experimentation.
The day of the syndicate had not ended, though. Not yet. There was one more stop to bring the day all together. Katherine Anne Confectioners. She has a long history of using local ingredients and working with folks to create amazing pairings, and that evening was her monthly truffle tasting, where everything was paired with a ridiculously delicious cocktail from CH Distillery using their peppercorn vodka, a rosemary-infused simple syrup, and a bit of soda. And of course, Ale Syndicate was there. Believe you me, beer absolutely pairs with chocolate. Craft beer, I should say. They had their Municipal and Sunday Sessions out to try, and you have not lived until you have paired a hoppy ale with a dark chocolate truffle infused with bourbon, lemon, and honey. Or an IPA paired with a luminous lemon-poppyseed marshmallow. I am sure there are better pairings than my concoctions borne of excited chocolate and beer overload, but that one totally worked for me.
At the end of the day, I thought back and felt more than a little sheepish about my question regarding the name Ale Syndicate. This is all about collaboration, about working within the community to create great beers. Jesse and Samuel clearly love what they do, and love doing it in Chicago, as is evidenced by a quote you see posted in their brewery from Daniel Burnham, one of the great architects and whose grand plan Chicago is pretty much designed around.
“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.”
There are no little plans here.
(more photos can be found here, should you be so inclined.)