August 2 was National IPA Day. Probably another one of those "fake holidays" invented to sell India Pale Ale greeting cards and hop candy, I'm guessing. But as it happens, I have an appointment to meet someone who's been making IPAs.
From my current work place on W. Adams, I struck north along Franklin. I noticed a line of trailers parked along the street, one of which has a sign that it's "Leased by NBC/Universal." Aha, I say, with the wisdom of a guy who spent a summer as a movie extra. "A TV show is filming here." I asked a security guard who said it was an episode of the new Dick Wolfe drama, "Chicago Fire." Rounding Madison to Wacker Drive, I found what the scene was about. On the median between lanes, where Wacker is closed for rebuilding, an abutment along the sidewalk had a huge something covered in tarpaulin. Just underneath I can spot the top of a police car, and then I noticed the debris of a broken Mars light bar scattered around. Good thing I saw the studio trailers first.
So much for trying to put "context" into my usual Q&A interview piece. This IPA Day, I am meeting up with Ike Orcutt, resident mad scientist of yet another Chicago startup beer maker, Hopothesis Brewing. I first saw the name mentioned in the beer list for the Garfield Park Conservatory's "Beer Under Glass" event, which kicked off Chicago Craft Beer Week on May 17th. All I could turn up on this new brewer was a Twitter account with two tweets, a placeholder web page, and a collective shoulder-shrug from the rest of Chicago's beer community. After after I sent an exploratory Tweet, Ike tweeted me back, and he eventually invited me to his Beer Bistro debut.
I found Ike and his partners in the obligatory logoed Dickies jumpsuits, and lots of their flagship Hopothesis IPA being poured into their handsome branded IPA tulip glasses. I started my chat with Ike by remarking that while other brewers made splashy announcements years in advance, and pushed for Kickstarter funding, his brewery flew in under the radar:
"The story started over the past six years. I was talking to some of my friends (Shaun and Maurad who are now his business partners) about starting a brewpub. 'Let's do it the traditional way,' I said, 'starting small, cobbling a system together with dairy equipment, the usual. We've got the recipes, I've got brewing knowledge, why don't we look into some of the capacity that's out there.' We looked into 'Gypsy Brewing,' that's how we came to be (Gypsy Brewing refers to the practice by some brewers of creating a batch of beer, usually a one-of-a-kind brew, at a cooperating brewery with capacity to stare. Stillwater Artisanal Ales and Mikkeller are among the better known Gypsy brewers). Our vision is to gypsy brew for a year to 18 months, then get a brick-and-mortar place here in Chicago. We're doing this now as a stepping stone to what we really want to be doing, which is having a real brewery in the city."
For the Hopothesis IPA, Orcutt went to Minhas Craft Brewery in Monroe, WI. They're also working with Big Chicago in Zion, which, we learned later, had finally gotten approval from Zion's zoning board to conduct "alcoholic beverage bottling and yeast propagation." "We hope Big Chicago can meet their goal of opening in September, because we plan to make a winter seasonal there. They have a 15 bbl system from their Flatlanders location, with at least 90 bbls of fermenting capacity, and they're looking to bring in new tanks.
"Our 'office' is currently in the West Loop. We are setting our sights for a brewery in West Town, around Ashland and Lake. Ideally, that will start as a production brewery and a tasting room. Our plans are for a 20 bbl brewhouse, with a couple hundred barrels of fermenters. But we are already set up with Miller's chain of distributors to put us into stores. We've already started with a bottling line, but we want to be able to go to 16-ounce cans as soon as possible."
Hopothesis IPA is the "Beer of the month" at Beer Bistro, and at Beer Bistro North, 1415 W. Fullerton Ave., where drafts are going for $4 each, served in their own branded IPA glass tulips. They also may be seen on tap soon at the SmallBar and Paddy Long's. They will be pouring at the Oak Park Microbrew Review on August 18 and at Midwest Brewers' Fest in Plainfield August 25.
Orcutt describes his IPA as British style, with more of a malt profile than big hops, though it uses the more Americanized Centennial and Cascade hops, along with Crystal and darker Vienna malt. "We will have other IPAs coming later. I wanted this IPA to be more balanced and approachable, instead of starting with something with 100 IBU's or 10% alcohol. To me, it should be all about getting more enjoyment out of a beer, instead of a painful experience. We want to push the envelope a little, but we want to make sure people are enjoying our beer.
"Our next beer will be called 'Drafty Window Prairie Ale.' Its name comes from a story about Sir Isaac Newton, which you can read on our web site. The 'Prairie' appellation comes from using locally grown ingredients like corn grist and wheat). It will be a Golden Ale at 4.2% abv.
- Orcutt gave me a homebrewed version of this beer. I found he had avoided the usual corn sweetness of most beers in this style, perhaps with the addition of wheat, or a drier finish. I would hope the commercial version will do just as well.
"We also have some big ideas for German lagers once we get rolling. They are a big challenge because they require a lot of stainless steel (time in the fermenting tank) to do just right."
Within the next nine months, Orcutt plans to have a lineup of three year-round beers; the IPA, Drafty Window, and a stronger American IPA.
"Getting set up have been pretty smooth so far. We've heard horror stories about TTB (the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau), how they're way understaffed so we won't get label approvals for months, but the approval process for us has been pretty seamless. It may be different when it comes to getting Chicago alderman to understand the benefits of having a brew works in their ward. We'll want to play up the angle of getting visitors to the neighborhoods, and hiring local people."
Orcutt likes to bring out the geeky aspect of his product, from the name to the label. "Our label shows the scientist's traditional research tool, the chalkboard covered with formulas. I asked one of my professors to help sketch out some authentic formulas for us. One of those formulas is for Xanthohumol, the molecule found in hops that has shown some cancer-fighting properties. There are also some inside science jokes on the label."
Hopothesis is getting some attention from the beer media, if for nothing else than for BeerPulse.com questioning the claim on their news release that the IPA, at 7.0% alcohol, can be called a session beer. But the world of beer making in Chicago has expanded once again, and the universe is content.