09 May The Beer Drop: Middle Brow Barrel-Aged White Light
We’ve had the opportunity to meet to a lot of people in the craft beer industry while running The Beer Drop for the past year, and have consistently marveled at how socially active its companies and personalities are. This week, we’re proud to feature Middle Brow Beer Co., which takes this attitude a step further. Doing good for the people who fight to improve their communities is as much a part of what soon-to-be Logan Square-based Middle Brow is all about, as experimenting with yeast strains and new beer styles.
I was stoked when Middle Brow co-founder Pete Ternes dropped by our new Wicker Park store a few weeks back to tell his brewery’s story, and even more excited to kick off our relationship with this feature: Barrel-Aged White Light, a gin barrel-aged take on their flagship witbier. Check out this unique, limited-release offering while you can, and read on to hear from Pete about all the good that Middle Brow is up to, both in and out of the brewery.
Tell us about Barrel-Aged White Light!
Barrel-Aged White Light is a Belgian witbier with notes of apricot, stone fruit, oak, wildflowers, juniper and thyme. Best served cold, but not super cold, in a snifter so you don’t miss any of the oak nose. Or the subtle botanicals from the gin barrel. If you’re not getting tons of nose, warm it up in your hand a bit. But if all you got’s a ceramic coffee mug, or a paper cup, I promise you’ll still find things about it that you enjoy. Just not metal camping mugs, plz.
Pair with..Shellfish. Snap pea mushroom salad. Roasted chicken curry. Hiss golden messenger. Sand dunes.
How about Robyn?
Robyn is a saison with abbey yeast. This was our first blended-yeast beer, and the practice of blending yeast strains has come to define us in a way. The saison yeast puts off notes of bubblegum and black pepper, and the abbey yeast drops banana and clove. In the end, this beer represents just about every well-known Belgian fruit and spice. It’s like a greatest hits of all Belgian beers.
And Sells Out 007?
Sells Out 007 started as Sells Out, which was our attempt to make a hazy, juicy NEIPA without forsaking our yeast-driven roots. For the original Sells Out, we blended together four different yeast strains: a British IPA strain, a faux funky strain, a famous Vermont IPA strain and a Wallonian isolate. The yeast play a nice background role, and ultimately drive the uniqueness of the beer. We change the hops for virtually every brew. For this one, we used hops characterized by orange, pine and black tea. 007, Azacca and Mandarina. There’s a light twang on the Sells Out series. See if you can help us pin down a descriptor for it, as we think it’s pretty indescribable.
On Middle Brow
Before we jump to the brewery, when’s the first time you knew you loved craft beer?
When I was 16, after a couple years of crushing Busch Lights in the woods, I stole a honkers ale from my old man’s cache. After that, I always made sure my sister snagged me some Goose when she did beer runs for us.
Tell us a little bit about how Middle Brow got started:
In 2011, one of my partners, Nick Burica, shot me an email about starting a brewery that gives 50% of its profits to local charities. We’d been homebrewing for years, and spending large chunks of our paychecks on beer for just as long. We walked out of one too many beer bars having spent upwards of $50, right past a homeless man and woman using newspapers to stay warm, and thought, “we should really be leveraging this major luxury to improve our community.” Actually, that’s not true. We thought, “this is f*cking bullsh*t”. And then later, when we tried to articulate the immense shame we felt after that self-indulgent dinner, we talked about starting the brewery.
After teaming up with Bryan Grohnke, our third partner, we were off to the races. We made our first batch of beer, a dark saison, with help from our homebrewing community. To our enormous surprise and joy, the batch sold out in just a couple weeks. We made a donation to Cure Violence and got back into the brewhouse right away. After lots of successes, paired with lots and lots of failures, we felt we learned enough to take the next step. We recently signed on a brewpub space and should be opening on Armitage Avenue in Logan Square in late 2018. We’ll continue to brew experimental, European-influenced beers, but we’ll gradually be converting our charitable donations into a social work/employment program focused on at-risk 18-25 year-olds.
How did the name come about?
Craft beer ain’t low brow. And it ain’t high brow. So it’s…middle brow? Also, it’s beer brewed in the middle. Anyway, after naming the company, we discovered that Virginia Woolf used the term to describe cultural works – in her case, mainly literature – that offered the middle classes a platform through which to attain higher status. And we thought: how perfect! That’s exactly the shit we like! Indie rock, popular foreign films, Jonathan Franzen novels. We might listen to WFMT when we’re driving so as to help restrain us from grabbing our bow and arrow and shooting out the tires of the pickup truck terrorizing the Dan Ryan, but we truly love that middle brow shit. To hell with Virginia Woolf’s snobbery and snooze-worthy stories.
What’s the story behind your labels and branding?
The head logo comes from the super pseudoscientific idea that our behavioral impulses emerged from various regions of our head. So people with a protruding low forehead had baser impulses; those with high foreheads were occupied with higher pursuits. The phrenology head is the best representation of this. So we adapted it a bit for our purposes and voila.
How about beer names?
They’re always based on music. Usually we try to connect the beer to a certain musician or album, and, from there, we drill down into what word or phrase feels right.
Where’s home base for the brewery? And you touched on this earlier, but can you share more about your community efforts?
At the moment, we’re a nomadic brewery. But we’re building out a brewpub in the Logan Square neighborhood. As I mentioned, the reason we started the company was to donate 50% of our profits back into the community – a version of TOMS for beer, except we don’t give beers away. That’d be illegal.
To date, we’ve donated over 20K of our admittedly very meager profits, which we’re really excited about. We also try constantly to leverage our beer to help social justice organizations raise money. For instance, if we donate a keg of beer that costs us $120 or so to make, we could help an organization raise $700-$800 by selling 12oz pours for $5. That’s pretty powerful.
There’s a group who does some work in our neighborhood called La Casa Norte. They do some really great work in the homeless services sector. Our new brewpub shares an alley with their offices, so they’re naturally the most recent donee.
What makes Middle Brow special?
I think the most special thing about Middle Brow is that we don’t see beer as a widget. As a way to make money. Or to gain power or renown. Or to gain positive attention from other beer scenesters. Sometimes (though very rarely) that shit happens. It’s naturally a by-product of operating in this industry. But we really don’t seek it out. We focus on two things:
(1) Brewing really unique but still super approachable takes on familiar styles, like our NEIPA that’s fermented with a blend of four different yeast strains; and
(2) Improving the lot of all the stakeholders surrounding our business. Businesses run by the previous generation focused on profit margin at the expense of everything else.
Sadly, we see too many of our compatriots doing the same thing, and ignoring some very obvious and valuable lessons from the 90s and 00s. We believe the financial ethic that has defined corporate behavior for the past 30 years must be countered with an experiential and stakeholder ethic. And since experiential and stakeholder wealth depend on strong communities, we work to strengthen our communities through beer and labor.
How do you measure success?
Well… (1) how many craft beer conversions have we helped to make happen? And (2) how many people have we helped self-actualize, have we helped feel worthy, have we treated like human f’ing beings, have we empathized with?
Hot Hop Takes
Weirdest thing your brewery has ever been tagged in on social media:
A lawsuit? Definitely a lawsuit, where the plaintiff thought I was part of the Illuminati.
Biggest beer pet peeve:
The way that big distributors and macrobreweries throw their weight around for shelf space and tap handles, and manipulate consumers into thinking they’re drinking something that *comes from the community*.
And macro marketing tactics generally. For instance, who made the decision by one of our beloved brewery mentors to focus on their *big*-ness? Weird…
Favorite breweries other than your own:
Allagash, Hill Farmstead, Transmitter, Off Color, Side Project, Maine, New Glarus
Pick a character from history to drink one of your beers with:
I’ll focus on Sells Out 007 for this question – since “historical” can indeed apply to present day people, I’m gonna go with living mans and womans. Will Oldham, because he seems like a weirdo. And this beer is so pleasantly weird. Wendell Berry, because of our fondness for his focus on connecting to a place and the pleasures of good work. Courtney Barnett, because of her talent at adapting timeless styles for the present day. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, because she’s mostly fearless as we always hope to be. John B. Macklemore, because of his attention to detail. OK… two folks from history: Ida B Wells and Pete Seeger.
Biggest beer fad right now:
How can pastry stouts last much longer? The solid version of pastries is just so, so, so much better than the liquid version. The liquid version sorta grosses us out for the most part. And it seems like their major appeal is their relative rarity. When that goes, the trend will go with it. NEIPAs, though, are fucking delicious. And the principles underlying them will stick around forever (though we hope the *hazy* part finds the exit door soon).
Next big beer trend:
We’ve been waiting for the brut IPA thing to really take off in Chicago. We’ve been working on one, but due to our business model, we can never act quickly on our ideas. And other breweries always get to them before we can. Anyway, we digress. We think that’ll be the next big thing.
Pete – thank you (and Middle Brow) for the fantastic beer and even better conversation. We can’t wait to post up at your new brewpub later this year!