Chicago’s Great Central Brewing Co. is Changing Contract Brewing Perceptions
Feature Image: James Nichols, Great Central Brewing Co.
If craft brewers had escaped from their 20th century oppression (on the way to the fermented promised land) with a set of rules on stone tablets, there’s a good chance it would have included the commandment “thou shall not contract brew.” But, are all contract brewers the same? One visit, one conversation with Chicago’s brand new Great Central Brewing Company (GCBC), and it’s likely you’ll realize that perception and reality rarely match. I know, because I did just that a few weeks ago.
GCBC Produces a Substantial Volume of Beer, and It Does So With Meticulous Care
The founders and its entire staff are card-carrying beer geeks. The GCBC philosophy adheres strongly to the craft brewing mantra built on community and quality brewing. With eight clients currently, and a dozen more in the works, GCBC must plan its time accordingly to meet regularly with breweries. David Avram, co-founder of GCBC explained, “With each brew, there is a sensory review taking place involving staff from each brewery. We work closely with each of our client brewers to discuss overall flavor matching, attenuation metrics, VDKs, mash pH and more. I would say the process is ongoing as we’re all working together to improve with each brew.”
Brick and mortar expansion, for many Chicago breweries, often proves to be a physical impossibility, or utterly unaffordable. For breweries that enjoy success to the point where distribution demands create stress, or where expansion is plausible—more time, money and space is needed—GCBC is there to help. The contract brewery that is GCBC isn’t there to endanger a brewery’s success; it’s there to help that brewery on its upward trajectory. Even better, when GCBC handles the brewing of flagships and year-round beers, breweries are better able to create unique recipes (special recipes and seasonals) as well as interact with its customers.
GCBC Also Brews Its Own Beer, and a Tasting Room is on the Way
I can attest to its resounding quality. It is, in fact, delicious. Conor McFerran, co-founder stated, “We started brewing our own beer both out of technical necessity and as proof of capability for our clients. The technical necessity was to test our system and put it through its paces, and proof of capability was to show our clients that we know our stuff and can be trusted with their lifeblood. It turns out, our crack team of Doemens-apprenticed German veterans, Ph.D.s in brewer’s yeast and big-beer-trained packaging experts know a thing or two about putting together recipes and maintaining ridiculously high-quality standards, so we ended up with some well-balanced, classically styled brews that even our clients recommended we do something with. We’ll be sharing them through our tasting room and limited distribution here and there.”
The tasting room, which will open this spring or summer, looks mighty impressive (albeit still under construction). Alongside GCBC beer, patrons can wander in and order a flight of beer from a host of breweries, such as Like Minds, Begyle Brewing, Maplewood Beer and Spirits and Kinslahger, all of which arrive at one’s pint glass from a brewhouse located a stone’s throw from the bar.
The GCBC Team
Conor noted, “Our Brew Crew is second to none. Andreas Miller, our brewmaster, grew up in beer, apprenticing at Doemens from the age of 16. He’s forgotten more about brewing great beer than most people ever learn.”
He added, “Laura Burns, our Quality Control Chief and Head Brewer, has a Ph.D. in brewers’ yeast and can get those little suckers to bend to her will. And her savvy around the brewhouse makes her a multi-threat.”
With a brewery so large, it behooves the staff to include a skilled worker to handle the day-to-day logistical challenges attached to a large brewery. Conor explained, “Andrew Rusinas, our Packaging Chief, comes from an engineering background, and with long-term roles at both Labatt in Canada and Two Brothers in Warrenville, knows the packaging, quality, maintenance and safety challenges of both sides of the industry. ”
The humble founders are quick to provide credit to that staff, and Conor said as much when he stated, “Backing these guys up are a great group of eager multi-taskers who are equally adept at supporting on both the brewing and packaging sides. Under the leadership and tutelage of the manager corps, they’re learning how to run a highly efficient quality focused brewery.”
Can GCBC Change the Way People Think About Contract Brewing?
Early returns, all point to success for GCBC as well as the breweries who have engaged with them. As the business expands, more beer is brewed, more clients are added, and the industry changes; it is reasonable to expect a few bumps in the road. Given the stigma of contract brewing that hangs over the GCBC’s team head, it remains to be seen how the public, or breweries, will react. But, that is a reality for which Conor and David are well aware, and they are happy to handle it. For this writer, the overwhelming lesson learned while there involved one thing: the folks at GCBC follow the most important Craft Brew Commandment, “honor thy neighbouring brewery.”