I took yet another little stroll out to the Beer Bistro after work on June 6. My last visit there was last August, to be among the first to try the new Hopothesis IPA. And once again I'm headed there to meet the brewer of a new beer, making its world-wide debut.
Big Shoulders has been one of those beer makers that posted an ambitious-looking web site a few years ago, and then offered very few updates until one day the skies opened and a tap was poured. Rich Szydlo is the head of Big Shoulders, whose first offering is Hopapalooza, an India Pale Ale with a mostly American hop profile and thus plenty of hophead bitterness. Later on the summer, we should see Crosstown Wheat, a summertime wheat ale with coriander and lemongrass.
I asked Rich the obvious question: how did he get started on this brewing venture?
"It's been about three years. The Wheat beer was brewed for my sister's engagement party. I did the recipe, I put their faces on the label, and people really liked it. So I looked into brewing."
Szydlo said he liked the model followed by Half Acre and other brewers: "I saw how Half Acre had contract-brewed first, before they got their facility. So I went with that approach, to kind of build it up and go from there. But we just couldn't find a contract brewer. The big places wanted 100 barrel batches which I couldn't guarantee, and the smaller places were pretty much full with their own craft beer. So we tried to find some middle ground. We had some possibilities with places in Milwaukee, Michigan, Indiana, Denver, California, just about everybody, all over. Nothing fell into place until this came around."
How it could be economically feasible to have beer made all the way out in California?
"In California, it would not have been economical to brew a regular beer in six-packs, but the economics were still there if we had gone with bombers. Those would work with the imperial styles, where we could charge a little more."
Finally, Szydlo found a contractor in Big Chicago, the new brewery in Zion that grew out of the former Flatlanders brewpub. While Big Chicago is still building out, he found an interim brewer in Church Street Brewing of Itasca, to get Hopapalooza out for the summer.
"The wheat beer will be coming out with a little lemongrass in it, so we needed formula approval and all that stuff. And we wanted to get this one (the IPA) out first. Packaging will come along sometime in August, once we're brewing full-time at the contract site."
The Beer Bistro event was the debut for Big Shoulders, because, "We did not have a beer out in time for (Chicago Craft Beer Week). Hoopapalooza was being kegged just that week. I was going to try to get to that last event at the French Market (the West Loop Craft Beer Fest), but we just were not ready right at that time."
In Rich's own description for Hopapalooza: "There a little bit of influence from the English styles, I've got some Maris Otter malt in there, and I wanted to give it a bigger malt body to kind of balance the hops. Those are Glacier, dry-hopped with Mt. Hood and Cascade in the finish. It comes in between 75 and 80 IBUs, and 6% alcohol. So the goal is to be a sessionable, friendly, more drinkable type of IPA. You want to be able to have it with dinner, pair it with a nice steak, be able to watch the game when you've got three hours of drinking ahead."
Hopapalooza is also on tap at Howells & Hood in the Tribune Tower, where Szydlo works as a bartender. His plan is to work with Big Shoulders for at least a year before deciding to build a brewery of his own.
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