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a most refreshing syndicate

By on Aug 2, 2014 in craft, libations | 0 comments

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...

distilled

By on Apr 28, 2014 in craft, libations | 0 comments

Back in October, Koval Distillery here in Chicago let me come on over, but unlike my other local craft food things, this has become a bigger operation, so I did not have the luxury of hanging out and chatting with the few people there that day (there was a lot of whiskey quietly aging in barrels that day, so not a lot of activity.) But I did get a few pictures, and then promptly forgot to write about them. So my apologies to you and Koval, but I have no write-up, no waxing poetic over the almost mythic sounding combination of “heads, hearts, and tails” that comprise all distilling, that I first learned about at a Koval Distillery tour years ago before they expanded into the operation they are now. No pithy little homage to their way of looking at a grain and saying “I can distill that!”, resulting in whiskeys very specifically based on a single grain, like oat, millet, or rye, each with a distinctly different profile and range of flavors. No sad moment of remembering that bottle of dark millet whiskey that graced my shelf for a while. No mention of the distiller showing me how they take hearts (or was it the tails?) from one round and steep rose hips in them to create their sublime rosehips liqueur. No no, none of that. Just a few pictures of some very shiny stills and some lovely barrels, being disturbed from their rest by a nosy...

shhhhhh… science is happening here

By on Sep 25, 2013 in craft, libations | 0 comments

“If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it…” Long have I been entranced by the entrapments of brewing and distilling, all the gizmos and whirlygigs, bits of tubing glinting in the light as they curl round and round, shiny metal vats holding the promise of future cocktails, all of it making me reference “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Every single time. But never have the lyrics to my favorite song from the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka movie actually popped into my head while gazing at all the equipment. Until now. Enter CH Distillery. Founders Tremaine Atkinson and Mark Lucas were kind enough to let me come into their shining new distillery, the latest entry into the craft spirits world, and hang about. They are brand spanking new, having only been open for a few months. When you first walk by, you see the giant plate glass windows, with the words “Witness the Science of Alcohol” running along just underneath eyeline. If you look up, to the right you can peer directly at the magical copper and stainless steel vessels lined neatly up against the wall, with Kevin McDonald, one of the two distillers, diligently working amidst the tall stills. To the left, you will see their plush bar, and you will want to walk in and sink down into a couch to order vodka, straight, with a side of rye bread and pickles. You will. It’s on the menu. (I should point out this picture of the bar is before they were open for business that day, so the lone figure is Mark, working away.) On a fine Friday afternoon, well before the onslaught of thirsty people in dire need of one of their delicious cocktails, I entered the bar for CH Distillery, greeted warmly by Mark Lucas. He took me around the space, pointing out a fascinating photograph that shows them putting in the stills. They actually had to hire art riggers to install the stills, because the floor of the building could not take the weight of a forklift. They built structural supports under the floor to hold the weight of the stills one in place. “Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.” I’m telling you, it’s really Willy Wonka. But for grown-ups. The stills are so new the shine practically glows. Considering how much effort it takes to keep my few shiny stainless pans spotless, I can only imagine the effort it takes to keep these so utterly beautiful. And they really are beautiful. When I was there, though, it was really about what was on the inside, because as we were all raised to know, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. In this case, vodka and gin. Kevin, the co-distiller alongside Tremaine Atkinson, was monitoring vodka as it went through the final stages of distilling and poured out into a giant vat, eventually destined for bottling. The gentle sound of the vodka and gin as it came pouring out of the last of the stills was soothing, like a pair of 90 proof babbling brooks. He kept checking taste, measuring out bits of it to test for quality and density, all these little things that go into making a fine liquor. The sign on the outside windows “Witness the Science of Alcohol” is no joke. Kevin was explaining the basic process of what everything goes through, gesturing to the stills that towered high above us as the vodka vapour rose and fell, condensing away. I was briefly distracted by the beauty of the stills. These have lights shining into them, so you can see brilliant jeweled splashes as the liquor condenses, then up to the top of the next and back down, increasing in proof with every step. The copper still right in the very front window had a London Dry Gin was burbling away. The curves of this still were particularly voluptuous. Kevin explained how the shape was actually very purposeful, and in some schools of distilling, you hang all the goodies that flavor your gin up top, and as the liquor vapours move up through them, that is where you get the flavor. If I recall, they don’t do it that way. The flavors are right in the mix, burbling away. There was a steady stream of the final product draining out into a steel vat. I got to swipe a finger underneath the stream really quickly to taste it. For the record, I am not a huge gin person. Most people have had bad gin experiences. Does it make you think “clear liquid with overtones of turpentine”? It very well might. This… had citrus. A little later on, juniper and cardamom floated magically across my palate. Nary a nasty bite anywhere. There is an obvious joke in here about how I could just sit under the draining tap and drink, but that would cheapen the experience of sipping this, slowly, closing my eyes to let the various notes played around my tongue. And that is just straight up. Imagine what this gin could do in a well-crafted cocktail. Fortunately, you can. Right there in their bar. They have a simple but intriguing menu of cocktails, including one named “Cease and Desist,” due to a rather humorous story involving them naming the cocktail originally after a certain pharmaceutical drug...

billy goat grilled

By on Sep 22, 2013 in craft, process, sustainability | 4 comments

Behold a sizzling rack of goat ribs. Lovingly marinated in olive oil and a mix of fresh herbs, licked by flames until the surface becomes that beautiful crusty brown that causes an instant salivation for those of us in the human omnivore sect. It does not, by any stretch, taste like chicken. This is not about a recipe for goat ribs.   On a warm dry day on a mesa in Colorado, surrounded by scrub brush and mountain vistas, I was for the first time in my life brought directly into contact with knowing where my meat came from.   Before the ribs arrived on my grill, they were a part of a goat. That seems like a redundant piece of information. Of course ribs came from an animal. But this is the first time I met the animal. This was a goat owned by Ron and Pam Brown, a lovely rancher couple who were generous enough to let me watch the process and carefully explain everything they were doing. These folks raise almost all their own food, down to the meat. It is not some Luddite or hippie commune sort of thing. It is simply the way things used to be done and they still just do, except Pam wields a smartphone from the saddle of her horse. Near the end of the process Ron cut the ribs off and generously gave them to us so we could try them. He said he did not like them as much as pig ribs, but we had to try goat, roasted low and slow. Pam took the rest of the edible parts of the goat, rubbed them with a savory bit of seasoning she calls “Pig Paste,” then slow roasted them until the meat just falls apart, then froze it in small packages for the future. Before the goat was slow roasted into delicious oblivion, the goat hung suspended from a bar on a forklift so they could easily butcher the animal. A faint iron tang of blood hung about from the fresh slaughter, but no other scent (short of the wide open air and juniper lurking about.) Ron and Pam were quickly moving around the goat, cutting it up, removing the insides, with Ron explaining the best process for opening up the body cavity to remove the organs. Some choice bits of liver and heart were set aside for the cats. Pam invited me to pick up and join in with one of the sharp knives. “Don’t be afraid, join on in!” I held tightly to my camera and just kept watching. Goats are pretty small anyway, and I am the definition of inexperience when it comes to butchering anything. Short of chopping up a chicken in the kitchen. I don’t think that counts. My uncle Gene had come along for moral support (I am the city slicker of the family, no one was really sure how well I would deal with this, including me.) He helped to steady the bar the goat was hanging on so Ron could more easily work, and to remove the skin once it was loose enough to come off. Ron was showing me the best places to start cutting to remove it, and explained that it was best to do it as quickly as possible, since it was easier when it was fresh. This may sound strange, but when the skin is on, I kept seeing the animal. With the skin gone, I saw the food. Gene is a very experienced hunter (one of the reasons, along with my Grandma, that I grew up having venison, and also the reason I have had antelope meatloaf,) and he and Ron were discussing the dressing of game in the field. The way they were dressing this goat, was much cleaner than trying to field dress a deer out in the mud. They talked a little about slaughterhouses and those big commercial farms where cows are raised in pens. My uncle had told me about the unbelievable stench of CAFOs years ago, and in recent years I have driven by them a few times and experienced it for myself. It smells wrong. And then Ron said something that caught my attention.   “I worked in a commercial slaughterhouse for a year and a half, and there was a rendering plant out back. Every time I smell meat in the supermarket, it smells like that rendering plant.”   In a word… ew. Meat that doesn’t smell like meat, but the process of separating fat and occasionally blood, fur, and feathers from the rest. Some of this is for stuff like lard, but some of it is for… other things. I have read that some rendering plants have to be pretty remote because the stench is so bad. And that is what Ron smells when he smells supermarket meat. To be fair, I didn’t ask him to clarify the smell. It could have just been the scent of lard. But the way he said it, it did not sound pleasant. It is one of the many reasons they grow and raise almost all their own food. They really do know where it is coming from. Before Pam pulled in with the forklift to hoist the goat so it could be cleanly dressed, it was time to kill the goat. It seems harsh to keep saying “kill,” but if...

a half acre of beer

By on Sep 9, 2013 in craft, libations, love | 0 comments

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. The tanks all have names to help keep it easy to identify, but they won my heart when I noticed the one named Franklin, as in the totally politically incorrect puppet from Arrested Development. 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,...