This week sees the re-launch of another pioneering brand in Chicago’s craft beer history.
Golden Prairie Fermentations, which first appeared in 1990, debuts at Sheffield’s Beer & Wine Garden on Saturday, August 25. Golden Prairie’s founder, Ted Furman, will present his Golden Prairie Ale, Honey Ginger and Doppel Alt, plus a special brew available only at the launch.
The re-release party take place at 3 - 6 pm. Sheffield's is at 3258 N. Sheffield Ave., Chicago.
Furman was the first homebrewer to open a production brewery in Chicago. Among the people who worked at Golden Prairie was Nic Floyd (Three Floyds), Jules Roels (Lunar Brewing), Greg Brown (Mickey Finn’s), Josh Deth (Revolution Brewing), Ron Extract (Jester King, Austin, TX; now at Garden Path Fermentation in Washington), and Steve Mazylewski (Crown Brewing).
I got a chance to talk to Furman, and he ran down some interesting highlights in Golden Prairie’s history.
“I started out at Sieben’s River North brewery in 1987,” he said. “I started brewing Golden Prairie in 1990, although 1992 is when we actually got the license.
“My original brewery was at 1820 Webster. It turned out we had a neighbor in the building who was making counterfeit detergent. He’d be mixing up his stuff, and refilling empty bottles of Tide or whatever, and re-sell them. And he wanted my space. He’d do things like cut power to the elevator, so I’d have to carry kegs downstairs by myself. Eventually I had to get the ATF (the old Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) involved, because they determined he was preventing me from collecting sales taxes. He agreed to buy out my lease, and we moved to a site at Elston and Webster, which was once the home of the Michael Brand Brewery.” Note: Brand became United States Brewing after Prohibition, and operated until 1955.
I asked Ted why he got out of brewing. Was it the general drop off in craft beer?
“We were breaking even, but everyone’s problem at the time was distribution. The distributors just didn’t know how to handle the small, local brewers. And I’m a brewer, but I’m not a good salesman; I don’t think I could sell beer to a thirsty drunk.
“I’d take my beer to local tastings, and people really liked it, and they were blown away by the fact that it was being made ‘right down the street.’ But then they figured since it was made right nearby, we should be able to sell it for less. It was hard to explain that we just didn’t have the economy of scale to bring out a 6-pack for $5.99. When I started out, I was selling half-barrels for $99, which was about the same as Anchor Steam. But after a few years, I was able to get it down to about $59.”
In 1999, Furman sold his bottling line to Two Brothers, and contracted with them to brew Golden Prairie. “It went on until about 2001, but eventually they kind of forgot about the beer.”
What was he doing after he quit brewing?
“I was making furniture and performing experimental electronic improvised jazz, anything to stay busy. The beer business must’ve left a bad taste in my mouth because there was a time when I couldn’t even walk into a bar with the smell of beer and Pine-Sol, without getting sick.
“Sometime around 2009, the market started opening up again. I remember Nic Floyd, who had been my brewer for three years before he started Three Floyds; he had been having trouble making ends meet until raised his prices. So people were getting used to the idea of paying a little more for a good beer. And then Chuck Wagner, manager of Lunar Brewing in St. Charles, needed a brewer. So I came on to work on their little 1½ barrel system. Jules Roels, who founded Lunar, had also worked for me. I’d concentrate on making their beers, but once in a while, I’d get to experiment with my Golden Prairie recipes and put them on tap, the Honey Ginger, Alt and Maple Stout.”
In 2016, John Freyer, President of Argus Brewery, brought Ted on as Brewmaster. Ted said that the plan from the start was to reintroduce Golden Prairie beers, brewed at the Pullman brewery, but they were concentrating first on a rebranding for Argus Brewery “Now it’s Golden Prairie’s turn. It seems that the distributors are all on board with us this time.”
One way Golden Prairie seemed different at that time was that its flagship Golden Prairie Ale was in fact a German Altbier, a regional style brewed with ale yeast then fermented at cooler temperatures. “I just called it an ale, though it was really a lagered ale. From there I went on to do a Doppel, or Sticke Alt. That was meant for a Beer of the Month type club selection, which meant orders for it kept coming back after the rest of Golden Prairie has slowed down.” Both of those beers will be on tap at Sheffield’s this weekend, along with the reintroduction of Golden Prairie Maple Stout, which could be considered the first “breakfast beer.”
Another project that Furman hopes to revive has been a Golden Prairie single malt whiskey. “About 5 years ago, I had an idea to use my ale as a base for distilling a whiskey. I ran some batches in 2015 with Quincy Street Distillery in Riverside. We did one or two test batches, making it the first single malt produced in Illinois since Prohibition. But the system at Lunar could only produce a limited supply of wort. Now Argus is perfectly sized to provide malt for distilling. It’s my Golden Prairie fermented with distiller’s yeast. We’re hoping to have the first bottles available by Christmas.”
It seems that after 20 years, one of Chicago’s craft brewing pioneers will finally be getting his due in the current craft beer renaissance.
“Part of me says there’s a reason for this brand to exist, and here I am, bringing it back.”