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Inside the Tank | Alarmist Brewing

Mike Zoller

Whenever I thought of Alarmist Brewing, its Entrenched IPA can stuck out. It’s probably the brewery’s most highly available beer and is distributed in the city. Located in the Sauganash neighborhood of Chicago – an area I typically don’t visit often, I had never been to the brewery before.

When we arrived, we were immediately brought into a warm, local taproom, which was surprisingly full for a Monday night. Most of those guests were drinking what I came to find out are some of Chicago’s best hazy beers.

It’s clear that Alarmist is so much more than Entrenched IPA, and, during my conversation with Chief Alarmist Gary Gulley and Head Brewer Aaron Dahl, I got to learn more about the brewery, their background and their thoughts on the craft beer industry in general.

Aaron (left) and Gary (right) left their corporate jobs to pursue their passion. Photo by Eric Dirksen

How did you get into beer?

Aaron Dahl: I was kind of always interested. Not in brewing or anything, but before I turned 21, I remember my dad drinking Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and then I turned 21 and I hated it. I thought it was garbage. And then I eventually had a friend who referred me to Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA, and I’ll always bring that beer up in these stories because that was the moment where I was like “Holy shit, what is this?” That led me down the path to trying everything I could. Eventually, one of my brother’s friends was home brewing and said we should try this out one weekend – it sounded fun. It kind of spiraled out of control from there. It was always interesting to me, and the more I was home brewing, the more I realized I liked doing that more than anything else. More than any other career I had ever had.

Photo by Eric Dirksen

Gary Gulley: Well I’m older than Aaron by a year or two. When I went to college I was in a shall we say a male social organization I don’t normally talk about.

AD: Don’t they have another name for those organizations?

GG: Yeah, it’s called a bunch of assholes. We would have parties, and these parties would have whatever beer and I hated it. I hated drinking beer. I never cared about beer one way or the other. I got out of college and went down to Texas for a job. I worked with this guy, and he was into beer. There was a bar in Fort Worth called The Pig & Whistle, and I hope it’s still there. That’s where I had my first Sierra Nevada. This would have been in 1990 or 1991. Celis Brewing was also around then, and I had a Celis White. Sierra Nevada taught me about hops. I had never smelled hops before, and then Celis White taught me how amazing beers can be.

My favorite beer on planet Earth will be Celis White as I remember it from the 90s. The same guy also started home brewing which I never even knew you could do. I didn’t know anything about it and had no interest in it. He started making beer and kept talking about it. I thought it sounded cool and then I got sucked into it. I call it the vortex know. You run into people that say they’re going to start home brewing and I always say, “Welcome to the vortex.” This is what can happen, watch out. That’s how most of the breweries you have now started, It’s all from home brewing. You need to be careful. Those are the ones you have to watch out for. Someone wants to make some money, so they open a brewery and hire a brewer. If you don’t have that passion for it, it won’t work.

How did we get to Alarmist?

GG: I never fit in well with corporate America. I was always a square peg. I don’t like people telling me what to do, and it’s a very tough environment for me to be in that world. People who do well in that world don’t care, they just want to succeed, and it’s just not my thing. I waited until I was married with kids and a mortgage to quit my job and start a brewery. In 2011 my wife got breast cancer (totally fine now by the way). I got fired from my job by Orbitz – the travel company. And they knew that she was about to go into surgery and they fired me. And after that, I told her that when you’re well, and we knew she was going to be ok, I’m going to get this business plan and get this thing open. Once I opened this brewery, I’m never going to work for anyone ever again. I’m going to do what I want to do. So now I’m poor. But it’s way more fun.

The Alarmist mascot sits next to their barrels. Photo by Eric Dirksen

We were Panic Brewing, that was my first name. And actually if I was smarter I could have had the trademark but I didn’t know a lot of that shit. Another brewery in Sacramento came out with Panic IPA and they trademarked it. By the time I went for a trademark they already had it so I had to switch it. I didn’t really give a shit anymore.

The name and the whole idea is about being afraid. You’re afraid of everything, and you get paralyzed to do anything. It’s sort of this idea that you don’t need to be alarmed about everything and you can actually do what you want to do and not worry about it. It’s anyone who wants to do what they want to do in life and it can be anything. If you want to go into porn that’s fine. Go into porn; you can do it. I think the biggest problem with people doing what they want to do in their lives, is that first step you’re afraid, and you can’t get there. You come up with all the reasons why you can’t do it, and I had a friend of mine tell me to stop saying why you can’t do it and say why you can do it. That is a lesson that has changed my life, and it’s something that I teach my kids all the time.

AD: Not as traumatic as Gary’s experience. I was working in a really corporate job for over 5 years.

GG: Hyatt Regency! The nice thing is that hotel now sells a lot of our beer, so we’re very grateful.

AD: I was doing IT work. I liked the work. I liked what I did, but I hated the environment. It was so rigid. I didn’t see myself continuing down that path. When am I happiest? I’m happiest every weekend when I’m brewing with my brother. I’m obsessed with craft beer and I thought I would do very well in this industry. I would be willing to do that. I met Gary randomly at a home brewing trade at Square Kegs. This was a long time ago, when [Alarmist] was probably just an idea in your head. Then I was following your story as you were opening this brewery and that really inspired me. I volunteered a couple of times here, and I didn’t think anything of it. I just wanted to help out, and I was honored to be at a real brewery. Eventually, they offered me a job, and I jumped. Everyone asked me what the fuck I was doing. “You’re leaving your career?” I didn’t even think twice about it. I knew I had to do it because I knew that I would be so much happier and that’s what I wanted to pursue. That was in May of 2015, and I’ve been here ever since

Talk about your relationship with the local community.

GG: There are so many reasons why it’s so important for us to be close with the community. Originally, it was to get people in here, because we needed to make some money. I’m just being honest. Now, it’s taken on a life of its own, and it’s been really great. We get to meet all these great people who do all of this great stuff.. My wife works at WTTW, and they just did a day of service at this place called Cradles to Crayons. This place is amazing and she told me about it, so I contacted them, and we have this thing now where if you go to our Christmas tree and pick out an ornament, it will give you a sheet that tells you what these kids want and, if you go out buy a toy and bring the toy back, we’ll give you beer for free. For however many items you buy, we’ll give you a free beer. It’s part of our liberal thinking of how we view the world. It’s a big part of how we do things here.

AD: Being in this neighborhood has been really important. It’s been incredible. I’ve always thought that we’ve been very fortunate to do this and it’s cool to support causes that we believe in. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a really good thing to engage with people. We’re spreading our wings and engaging with as many people as we can and supporting as many people as we can.

GG: Now it’s become part of what we are, which is what we want. We got so much stuff going on with existing places that we work with and new places it’s awesome. I hate to use that horrible fucking word, but it is a synergy. But a real one, not that corporate bullshit one. It’s real. People come in here and they learn about us. Maybe we can sell more beer and at the same time we support a charity and guess what, more people know about us and they buy more beer and then we can support more charities. It ends up building on itself. It’s a perfect relationship. It’s been awesome. We have a lot more stuff lined up for 2018 which we’re excited about.

There are 12 beers on tap, but you make a lot of hazy NE-style IPAs. Why?

AD: It’s a piece of the puzzle, our puzzle. Having 12 taps means we can do a lot. I really like having the variety, for me this style I just fell in love with it after hating it for so long. I was the guy yelling at people online saying that it wasn’t real brewing, frankly because I didn’t understand it. I was misinformed. I thought it was just sloppy brewing and a passing trend until I had one that was really good. It took me back to that original craft beer moment that I described earlier about 90 Minute. It was Corridor’s Juice Box. As soon as it clicked, I knew I wanted to make one. Gary kind of pushed me, too, because he had had that moment before I did. He came to me and said that maybe we should brew one of these because it could be fun.

Photo by Eric Dirksen

GG: This is a crazy competitive market in the city. We’re just barely making a profit. We’re right on the edge, depends on the month. It’s a very expensive industry, very expensive thing to do. I started panicking a little bit this year and then I tried Mikerphone’s Check 1,2 and I thought it was amazing. We thought it was lazy brewing. You’re not giving it time to cold crash and you left all this shit in your beer, and that’s not it at all. BJ Pichman – formerly of Forbidden Root  – sort of guided us a little bit.

I talked to Aaron and we were both super resistant, and then I embraced it first and then we talked and we had to figure out what are we as a brewery? Do we follow trends? If you follow trends are you being true to what you do? My first thought is that I need to survive as a brewery. The taproom has been great, but I’ve racked up a lot of debt that I’m trying to get through.

Photo by Eric Dirksen

It’s kind of a proven model as far as breweries go, but now it’s changed my fucking taste. I’m having a hard time drinking a non-hazy IPA. Just drinking a normal IPA, I don’t enjoy it as much. This goes into the chemistry and the biotransformation in the beer, and it gives it that juice which everyone talks about. I hated that. When everyone was talking about the juice, I was just like “shut the fuck up” about this juice thing. But now we’re like ahhhhhh; we get it. That’s what it is. It’s just ridiculous, and now I love it, and I can’t get enough of it.

We get people coming in here who aren’t super into craft beer, and they tell us they don’t want anything hoppy. We give them one of these and boom – they love it and suck it down. It’s crazy. Even more beyond that, it’s a whole new black box. Aaron is figuring shit out all the time. We’ve learned some shit that a lot of people don’t know which is pretty cool. It’s going really well for us, and they are by far are biggest selling beers and next year is going to be a big year for us. We’re going to start canning these beers and only selling them here and a very few select retail outlets.

What’s been the biggest surprise in craft beer in 2017?

AD: The NE-style IPA. It’s totally revolutionizing craft beer. For me it’s not that craft beer was getting stale, but it’s like throwing away everything you, or at least I, knew about beer and throwing it out the window.

GG: Everyone thinks the haze is about it just being hazy and that’s not it at all. The haze is created by the flavor compounds that are created. Think of the five or six things that you were never supposed to do while brewing – bullshit. There’s 20 years of my home brewing out the window.

AD: For as much as I was resistant, I really like it. It’s kind of like a punk rock thing because we’re going against everything that I’ve always been told not to do. I think that’s what craft should be. That’s originally what craft was. Going back to Sierra Nevada think about that. At that time people were saying that beer shouldn’t be that hoppy, no one thought people would want to drink that. Everyone was drinking light lagers, and look what happened with that. It’s almost like that.

This is another huge chapter in craft beer. It’s weird how much time we spend talking about it. People ask if it’s a trend, and I’m like absolutely not. We’re witnessing something totally different right now, literally sweeping not the entire country, but the entire world where you see other breweries in South America and all over trying to make this. If it was a trend it wouldn’t have that big of a reach. I can already think of other trends that have come and gone.

GG: Watermelon flavored beer.

AD: Right. That was a thing. Session beers, too. You might still see them from time to time, but do they have this power? This, to me, isn’t going away.

Craft breweries are continuing to get bought up by bigger breweries. Is this good or bad for the industry?

AD:  This is a loaded question. I get it from a business perspective. I think it’s bad for the industry, though. When certain players all of a sudden have all this capital and power, and they start taking over the market, they’re basically becoming big beer again where you see certain brands everywhere. Those brands are able to sell their beer cheaper to their accounts and give them free beer which is incredibly illegal, but it happens all the time. But they’ll deny it, but they have the resources to do that, and some accounts play ball like that. And we do not. We can’t play ball like that being a small independent brewery.

I don’t think it’s good for the industry and it’s not good for the consumer because they’ll walk into a bar and there’s only a couple of handles of certain brands that happen to be owned by the bigger guys. How is this good for the consumer? You only have a couple of shitty IPAs. It’s a new wave of big beer, but it happens to have hops in it.

Photo by Eric Dirksen

GG: I look at it from two angles. As a pure business person I totally get it. If InBev came to me with a billion dollars, and by the way I’m for sale for a billion dollars, we’d do it, but it’s not going to happen. I totally understand it, anyone who sells their brewery, that’s what it’s all about. This happens in every business out there. It’s just the way it works.

The problem I see with AB and all these other guys buying these breweries is that they haven’t figured out and they still don’t understand it, it’s all about mostly people wanting to connect to a local business. They can’t figure it out. You can buy Ballast Point for a billion dollars, you have missed the entire fucking point of what this industry is.

I had a sales rep come to me not too long ago and he was trying to sell a large local brewery that has large facilities here as well in California, and he was trying to get a handle for them. He told me that he couldn’t get a handle for them no matter what he did. I asked why not. I wasn’t too sympathetic. He said that people like guys like you. He said the IPA he had was really good and I asked him if it was really good, or if it was just one that people know about. As the economy churns, and I’m a big free market person, I believe that the market will sort itself out as long as everyone plays fairly.

AD: That’s the thing these guys aren’t playing fairly.

GG: That’s the key. You go into a place and you see a bunch of tap handles from a particular place, and you see a bunch of tap handles from the brands they own, I can tell you right now you know what’s going on.

We’ve had people ask us to do this. We’re telling people, and this is how we’re always going to do this, our beer is worth every penny that you spend on it. If I give you a free keg, not only is it illegal, but it undervalues our brand and what we are. We put our heart and souls into this beer and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give it to you for free. Unless you want to buy my grain and pay for my electrical bill and all that, fine, even though it’s illegal. Fuck off. If I give you a free keg, are you going to give it away for free in your bar – no. It’s a quandary. I’m not really worried about the big guys, they can’t buy every brewery and they don’t understand the market.

What’s your favorite Alarmist beer, favorite style of beer and if you’re not drinking Alarmist, what are you drinking?

GG: Whatever Charlize Theron is drinking.

AD: My favorite Alarmist beer honestly changes every day. 

Recently I’ve been drinking Big Muff almost exclusively. I’m really proud of that beer. I drink all of our beers, typically I’m drinking that or even our American blond ale, Golden Shower, I love to chuckle, that beer was inspired by Firestone 805. I had that beer in Texas, and I was like holy shit, it’s incredible for being a blonde ale, and I wanted to make something like it.

For style, again it changes. For two years of my life, I only drank Belgium beer. I was so into that world, and now it’s pilsners and hazy beers – easy drinking. I hate that term, but I’m not the guy drinking big beers, unless I’ll have only a little bit. Given where I live, I drink a lot of Revolution and Metropolitan. They both have great taprooms by me, and they make incredible beer, so I’m there often.

GG: Style, I suppose I like IPAs like a lot of people. Personally, right now I like our hazy beers, but that’s not just me fucking say that. Every time I go pour myself a beer that’s what I grab. Today I had Cosmic Juice Box from Corridor that was really good. My favorite Alarmist beer is Big Muff right now. My favorite brewery, other than ours is New Glarus. They can throw anything at me, and I’ll drink it. Bubbler, their hefeweizen, god damn that’s a good beer. I love that beer – I’ll drink it whenever. Here in Chicago, I love Off Color, Metropolitian, Revolution, Half Acre – they all have great beers.

What does 2018 hold for Alarmist?

AD: We’re always busy, but I think next year will particularly busy. We have a space in the back that we want to put in a beer garden, a nice summer outdoor space. We’re going to start canning our hazy beers. Hopefully, we’ll have some small barrel-aged releases, which we’ve never done.

Photo by Eric Dirksen

GG: Aaron has been keeping an eye on those barrels and there are a couple of ones that are pretty damn good. We are not going to release beers just to release them. There are a few barrels back there that will never see the light of day – they’re awful. I’d also love to have a little lambic thing going on in those barrels. Personally, we just don’t have time right now. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in business, there’s only so many things you can do and focus on at once. You simply can’t do everything and that goes for any industry, not just beer.

For us, doing a barrel program, that takes a lot of time, knowledge and expertise that we simply don’t have right now. We can develop that expertise, I’m very confident, but opening the taproom has sort of taken over our lives, which is a great thing. It’s been awesome for us. As we grow, we will have a very nice barrel program that people will love, but we’re not ready. We got some good barrels and some good prices but we probably jumped the gun a bit.

AD: That’s how this whole thing has been. That’s the biggest thing we’ve learned is to take it one step at a time. This taproom was a major hurdle and now we can look to the next step and see what else we can do.


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