Inside the Tank: Half Acre Beer Company’s Matt Young
Half Acre Beer Company is a mainstay for any Chicago craft beer enthusiast. A consistent array of year-round, seasonal and special-release beers make one of the oldest craft breweries in the city a fan favorite. Matt Young just officially became the head brewer for Half Acre last year, however, he’s been at the brewery since 2010. I met up with Matt at Half Acre’s new facility just north of the existing Lincoln Ave location to talk about Half Acre and his take on the beer industry.
How did you get into beer and brewing?
I got into beer and brewing about 10 years ago when I was still in college. Goose Island IPA was the first hoppy non-Keystone Light beer that I tasted that really knocked me back. I hated it, but then I really wanted another one to check-in on what that was that I just had. That really got me started on craft beer.
I did a lot of home brewing in college and I took a couple of classes that were upper level biology courses, but they were basically about home brewing. That was a great opportunity to get some tutoring in that area. Then I moved up to Chicago to go to grad school and I was in bio-medical research as my background, so molecular biology and molecular genetics are my former specialties.
Obviously from that I really enjoyed all the science behind fermentation and brewing. I was really super hooked on home brewing and absorbing everything I could about it. I read every book I could, got into my graduate program and everything was great for a while and then I sort of started switching gears in my mind. I decided I wanted to get a career in brewing using my science background. Whether that was working at a lab in a brewery or something else, I wasn’t sure what I could do at the time.
This was in 2010 in Chicago and there wasn’t the number of breweries that we have today so there weren’t a lot of options. So Half Acre was a great option and I actually responded to a Twitter post Half Acre had sent out. I just biked over to Half Acre and started working here cleaning tanks, doing all the dirty work and learning a lot. This is the only brewery gig I’ve ever had professionaly. I’ve gone through all the different roles of production to my current role as Head Brewer. It’s the most rewarding and awesome job that I could have ever imagined after starting as a Deck Hand in 2010.
Last year you brewed the first batch of beer in the new location. How does this new space shape the future for Half Acre?
I think that it allows us to fulfill the brewing expectations that we sort of put in place in Chicago and beyond. It’s been nice – we were in our other facility brewing at about the same maxed out capacity for the last couple of years. We couldn’t make more beer but we could have sold more beer if we could have made more beer.
We decided to hold off on the new space for a bit so we could learn how to make beer as well as we could – really tighten things up and then make the leap into growing our production a little bit. Now we’ve started opening up more accounts and growing distribution. This new space sort of allowed us to do that. We definitely don’t have a “take over the world” mentality – that’s not who we are. It allows us to get comfortable in the Chicagoland area and the state of Illinois really. We’re starting to send beer statewide and to a couple of other locations on the East coast.
Our production now doesn’t have to just be certain beers. We can flex our muscles in a different way. A lot of the beers we brew at the old location are beers that we never brewed before and we’re trying to be as adventurous as we can be. We’re sort of easing into other non-traditional brewing approaches and other ideas that we had that we couldn’t do before because we couldn’t sacrifice the tank space.
Would you call the old location more of a science lab?
Yes and no. I wouldn’t necessarily call the Lincoln location a science lab. We actually have a science lab in the new space which I’m also really excited about based on my background. But we’re brewing new styles to us, they’re probably not new styles to the rest of the world, but there are a few things that we are diving into over at the Lincoln location that are a little more unique and uncharted territory for us.
Things liked mix fermentation or creating sour wort in the kettle and then using that to create beers. Whether that’s used to blend beers or make a beer all on its own – these things take a lot of time. We honestly don’t expect to have any drinkable results for months or years to come. One of these days we will learn how to do it well and it will taste awesome. We won’t rush it and that’s the beauty of the old location, we can just let things happen the way they need to happen.
Are there plans to open the new location to the public?
Yes absolutely. There’s no timetable on when we would do that. But the plan is to have this new location open to the public at some point.
Half Acre is one of the oldest breweries in the city. How has the industry changed since Half Acre opened?
Obviously there are a few more breweries around these days. There’s so many more that it’s hard to keep up with and I think that’s great. I think it’s great for everyone. The big thing is that the margin for error is less today than when Half Acre was starting in 2007 or even when I started at Half Acre in 2010. We were definitely still learning on the job, actively making mistakes and correcting those mistakes. Where as today if you’re going to join the Chicago beer scene as a new brewery then you have to pretty much already know a lot about what you’re trying to accomplish. You have to have a vision and know how to set your self apart from all the other breweries that are trying to do the exact same thing.
How does Half Acre stay relevant?
I think to me it happens because it’s not forced. It’s not something that we try to overthink. From day one when Gabriel and Matt came together and started the brewery and the culture it was because of the people they were and the visuals they were into and the approach they wanted to take. They wanted to brew aggressive rustic American beers that naturally created the culture and reputation that Half Acre has.
We don’t try to be someone that we’re not. I think our culture within the workplace is a big driving force behind all of this. I hope that people think that we have a good time here, but we work really hard too. We think more about making sure that everyone as employees are being treated well and have a good place to come to work and feel good about their job, as much as we think about the beers and making those as best as they can be. That just translates into good vibes and those good vibes get passed along to the people drinking the beer.
Lines for beer are becoming more common. Half Acre has them for Big Hugs and Galactic Double Daisy Cutter. What goes through your mind when you see people lining up for the beers Half Acre makes?
I hope that people don’t wait too long in lines. It’s extremely humbling that with all of the options people have for beer in the city, whether they are locally produced or not, it’s humbling that people take the time to come out for these specific beers that we are making. A lot of it has to do with the experience that we provide them when they come stand in that long line. We try to treat everyone really well and make it worth their wait by greeting them with a smile and being grateful that they came out. We want people to leave that line after waiting for an hour and not think it was that bad.
What is your favorite Half Acre Beer and when you’re not drinking Half Acre what are you drinking?
My favorite style is dry-hoppy and lower alcohol beers. My favorite beer that we make is Pony Pilsner because we commit a lot of time to that beer and we do it because we really love it. It takes about three times longer to make a batch of Pony than it does to make a batch of Daisy Cutter. We’ve been committed to being patient to making that style of beer now for a few years because we all love it so much.
If I’m not drinking Half Acre it’s probably something else that I’m trying out of curiosity to keep up with the Chicago beer scene. Off Color, Spiteful or Metropolitan – those kind of guys, just checking-in and seeing what’s going on. I love drinking all the delicious beers that are made in the city.
What are some issues the craft beer industry will face in the future?
There’s a lot to be said about that and I’m definitely no expert on the craft beer industry but in just casually reading stories it seems like the definition of craft beer is evolving away from an independent entity and more to what kind of beer are you making regardless of the ownership structure. I don’t know how that plays into the bubble bursting or not but I think as breweries continue to grow and become legit businesses it becomes more challenging to remain independent.
In terms of small breweries, where you see a lot of those numbers growing is in nano-breweries. Personally I don’t see an end to that, there are plenty of parts of this country that aren’t saturated with these types of breweries…yet.
I think that when issues will arise it will be because of people getting into the business before they are fully informed on how to make quality beer. I think you can make delicious beer, but you need to make sure you are taking the necessary precautions to always make it consistently great and high quality all the time. You really don’t want to try to turn someone on to a new craft brewery and have their first beer be something that is contaminated or not produced in a quality way.
Breweries are being acquired pretty regularly now. What is your thought on this trend?
Again I’m no expert on the industry but I think it’s interesting to see what’s happening now. It’s this new wave that started with Goose Island, but so many great breweries seem to have the same approach and same business strategy and I don’t think you can fault them for that. Every business owner has some plan in mind beyond running a brewery for the rest of their lives and they have to decide what makes sense to continue the success of their business.
Time will tell if quality, approach, process, ingredients or anything else changes in these breweries after they get acquired. I think as long as the people that are in charge are doing good honest business and treating their employees properly, playing by all the rules and continuing the pursuit of quality in all of those beers then we should all just embrace good beer – no matter the source. It’s important that they don’t just try to make a cheaper version of the same beer.
Where do you come up with the idea for new beers?
It’s really constant curiosity and allowing everyone to contribute ideas. It’s not just me sitting in a room trying to write a new recipe and throwing it into a pile. It’s growing our past successes and modifying those beers into different ideas. It’s giving everyone that works for the company a chance to go through the recipe concept process with the Lincoln brewhouse and produce a beer that they visualize in their mind.
If you could serve a Half Acre beer to any famous person living or dead who would it be?
I’d like to serve a beer to an older scientist. Maybe someone like Linus Pauling, he was a molecular biologist in the 40s, 50s and 60s. That’s just because I’d be curious to talk science with him.
What’s the future for Half Acre?
I don’t know what the future holds. We’re trying to get this new place under our belt. We’re trying to figure out how to consistently, but not in an overwhelming way, grow Half Acre. We want to responsibly grow and take care of all of the employees here and keep what’s important at the forefront. The biggest concern when we did decide to move over here is maintaining the great culture in our work place. I really think that translates into our beer. That’s as big of a focus as making our beer. We want to make sure that everyone here is having a great time and is taken care of.
Mike Zoller is the Chicago Editor for PorchDrinking.com. Follow him on Instagram: @chicagobeer and PorchDrinking Chicago’s Twitter feed: @porchdrinkchi