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Inside the Tank | Open Outcry Brewing

Inside the Tank | Open Outcry Brewing
Mike Zoller

One day on Twitter I asked our followers which brewery we should visit for the next Inside the Tank. Almost immediately my notifications went off with people telling me to visit Open Outcry Brewing. I’ll admit I had never even heard of the brewery, but the support they got on Twitter got me curious.

Located in the Beverly neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, Open Outcry has only been open six months, but the community has quickly embraced the brewery as its own. The south side typically carries a negative connotation due to the news stories that come out from that part of the city, however, what’s reported on the news and what you’ll actually experience couldn’t be more different.

In the couple of hours we were at the brewery we saw owner John Brand interact with a lot of the people that walked in for a beer and a pizza. It’s a warm and friendly space and the part of Western Avenue it’s on is primed for an economical boom. It’s about 30 minutes from downtown Chicago, but it’s well worth the visit.

Photo by Eric Dirksen.

We sat down with Brand to chat about his brewing experience, how Open Outcry came to be and everything in-between.

How did you get into brewing?

John Brand: It started in maybe 2002 or 2003. I had Founder’s Breakfast Stout and it just blew me away, it blew my mind, I had never had anything like that before. I remember drinking it, my wife and I were living in the South Loop at the time and I told her that I want to make this shit. 

For one of our anniversaries she ended up buying me one of those home-brew classes at BevArt which is about four blocks away from the brewery. So I took a class in 2005 and from there it was just a hobby that got out of hand. All my free time was listening to beer podcasts, watching everything I could on YouTube—I just consumed for 7-8 years. We left the South Loop and came down here and bought a house that had a footprint in the basement that allowed me to almost build a fully functioning brewhouse down there. I was probably brewing once a week for 3-4 years.

Photo by Eric Dirksen.

I was in the futures industry for about 18 years and I loved what I did, but started getting antsy. I wanted to be in beer. I got this entrepreneurial bug and I got sick of working for people. If other people can start businesses I can to. About five years ago I started writing a business plan for Open Outcry and three years ago I started looking for real estate along Western Avenue in this neighborhood.

You do a lot of soul searching when you quit your job that you’ve been doing for 18 years. I told my employer, this might sound crazy but I’m quitting and I’m going to start my own brewery. They thought I was out of my mind. I probably was, but I have a supportive spouse who was actually the one pushing me to do it. So I did it and I jumped. I bootstrapped for about two years and I bought this property in March of 2016. I bought this property because it had 6,000 square feet of space and it had a city of Chicago tavern license. I was still working downtown and doing a gut-rehab on this property. For about two years it was 18-20 hour days. I quit my full-time job last summer.

I home brewed for 12 years, been working on this for five years and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Not just because you’re in beer which is a great industry with great people, but because I’m working for myself, it’s kind of like an eat what you kill scenario. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done but it’s also the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.

Why the south side of Chicago?

So I’m from the south side. I’ve lived here my entire life. Not this specific neighborhood, but my family is from this neighborhood. I’m a south side guy. Like a lot of people you talk to, that south side pride is a very real thing. I did a year or two in Lincoln Park after I graduated from college, but I always knew I’d come back to the south side.

This neighborhood in particular is a very special place. It’s kind of a throw back where everyone knows each other and if your kid is acting like a “jag-off” the neighbor down the street is going to grab your kid and tell you how he’s acting. It’s a close knit community. This area provided me an opportunity to invest in my neighborhood—I live three blocks away—I raise my kids here. That adds to the fulfillment you get.

Photo by Eric Dirksen.

You’re putting all this time effort and money into the space and it’s improving the general area where you live. You have a lot of pride in your community and it feels good. It’s a neat thing. The neighborhood also supports it. The opportunities here to deliver on some fresh and innovative concepts were too great to ignore. I never thought about doing the brewery anywhere else but here in this neighborhood. As soon as I had it in my mind to do this, the only place I looked for real estate was here on Western Ave.

How did the name Open Outcry come about?

So Open Outcry is the name of the style of trading where you’re on the floor and in the pits and there’s yelling and screaming, hand signals, pushing and shoving and that originated and was born in Chicago in the commodities markets.

Photo by Eric Dirksen.

I was in that industry my entire career. I love that industry and the people in it. Like I said earlier, it was tough to leave it—I loved it. I felt like the name told my story. It talked about who I am, where I came from, since it was such a big part of my life. It put me in the position to be able to do this in the first place. I was looking for a futures industry word or phrase that I could use and this one just kept coming back to me. It’s also a great conversation piece. Everyone always asks what does it mean and I get to tell them the story; I get to tell them my story.

You quit your full time job this summer prior to opening in July. What was that feeling like?

It was terrifying. I have a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old and it’s fucking terrifying. I feel like I gained a little self awareness. I do feel like I started to realize, if this doesn’t work out, I’m a smart guy, I could always rotate back into the industry I was in. The one thing I didn’t want to happen was that I get to 60,70,80 years old and I’m just saying “I wish, I wish, I wish.” I didn’t want to have that regret. That’s what my wife pointed out. If you’re all in on something and you give it a 100% and it doesn’t work out, I told myself that I could live with that. It might set you back a couple of years financially and in your career, but you got to. You also can’t half-ass something like this. You have to be here all the time, in the brewery, on the floor, working as long as you have to.

Describe the first six months you’ve been open?

It’s exceeded expectations—it’s been great. This neighborhood has embraced us. People genuinely seem to be walking out of here happy. They’re enjoying the beer they’re enjoying the food, they’re enjoying the space and that is a really fulfilling thing. It’s also really fulfilling to be a part of what seems to be a little momentum on some economic and cultural evolution. Just the economics of it, it’s been good. We’re very happy.

I don’t want to say the south side is behind the curve on craft because it’s not. People down here know their beer and know craft, they just don’t have as many outlets to go and try stuff and explore different styles or be exposed to different things. So that’s been really rewarding to be a place where folks are happy they don’t have to drive up to Lincoln Square to get a beer. They can stop in here, go to Horse Thief (Hollow) and even Blue Island Beer Company is right down the street too. I don’t want to say “Thank God” six months into it, because you’re never good, you can’t get complacent. I’m sleeping better that’s for sure. I’m not in panic mode 100% of the time.

How did your other brewer, Will Golebiewski, get involved with Open Outcry?

Will Golebiewski was the head brewer at Pisgah Brewing in North Carolina and moved to Chicago about 2 years ago. When I first started getting press about the brewery he hit me up on Facebook. I didn’t know who he was. He just said that he dug what I was doing and said if I needed any help he’d be happy to help. We had coffee and I told him that I wasn’t opening for a year and I was just brewing in my basement a few times a week. So Will ended up getting a key to my house and he was brewing at my house when I wasn’t home and I was downtown at work. Everything New England, the IPAs and the pales, these are all his beers. He’s the brains behind them – they’re not mine.

A lot of breweries when they open are BYOF. You have a full kitchen. Why did you go that route?

The number one question we got before we opened was “Are you going to have food?” There’s definitely a need for some more food options down here. The answer was yes, but reluctantly. Not only had I never owned and operated a brewery before, but I had never worked in a restaurant. I don’t know the first damn thing about running a kitchen.

Photo by Eric Dirksen.

I always knew it was going to be pizza and beer. I had two or three friends that were in the pizza business and when I first started talking about this brewery, I also started talking to them. I asked them that if I ever did this would they be interested in doing this with me? I don’t know the first thing about running a kitchen. One of the guys, Chef Lopez, he jumped on it. He was the chef at Fuller House in Hinsdale and they are a Neapolitan pizza place with whiskeys. So he’s been working on a wood-fired pizza oven for years. I knew the guy for a while and I trusted him so I told him to do it. Let me figure out this (brewery) and you figure out the kitchen and he did. He’s making great pie. The feedback on the pie is just as good as the feedback on the beer. The reviews on social are very positive – we’re making great food.

Photo by Eric Dirksen.

Someone hears the name Open Outcry Brewing—what do you want them to think?

I don’t want to narrow the scope about what anyone thinks about this place, but we’re a south side brewery and very proud of that fact. At the same time, I don’t want to be over aggressive with the south side pride stuff. We’re representing it well. We do want to be a place where people from other parts of the city, mainly the Northside, view us as a place to come down and see the south side for themselves and realize it’s not everything you hear on the news and that there’s really, really great things going on here.

Photo by Eric Dirksen.

You have an art community about ready to explode. About 4-5 years ago some people started the Beverly Area Art Alliance and they are doing some really great things. It’s evolving in this neighborhood and I feel like we’re a part of that. I want people to come and check this area out. There’s a ton of great shit going on here. Most people are afraid to come down here, which is unfortunate. There’s a lot of people down here that are generally irritated about the perception of the south side. This neighborhood, this is the most diverse neighborhood in the city. I don’t think we get credit for that down here and that’s one of our strengths.

What are your thoughts as smaller breweries get bought up by larger breweries or conglomerates?

What I did for the last 20 years as a compliance and legal guy pounded the idea of full disclosure in my head. I worked in an industry that was all about free markets. If larger breweries want to start buying up smaller breweries, who the fuck am I to say anything. Fine, buy up small breweries, but the larger percentage of folks who make it a priority to patronize small, privately owned breweries – great—that’s the bread and butter of the craft movement.

As those mid-size breweries get gobbled up, that presents more opportunities for the smaller guys. I don’t necessarily look at it as a negative thing, but full disclosure, if a small brewery gets bought, don’t be deceptive in the way you brand yourself as a brewery. You are no longer independently owned. You’re part of a larger corporation. As long as that recently purchased brewery is genuine about that and fully discloses it, am I going to go there? Maybe. Is the beer good?

I don’t think too much about this. I’m trying to get this thing up and running successfully and making sure we’re making the best beer possible. What’s going on in the market place, we’ll watch it and react to it.

What’s one big trend you think will hit the craft beer industry in 2018?

The exponential growth year over year is definitely going to slow. First off this thing (craft beer) is here to stay. It’s not a fad, it’s not a trend. As consumers tastes changed for more locally sourced, home grown stuff, everything from food to beer to clothes, this is part of a macro consumer trend. It’s not going to go away. You’ll see it slow down and really we’ve already started to see it slow down. It’s already happening.

Photo by Eric Dirksen.

I think the smaller more nimble brewers that are offering solid beer and being genuine to their customers and providing a good experience when you come into their space will be fine. I’m not overly nervous about bubbles bursting. At the end of the day if everyone is making great beer, there’s still room for more breweries. To see the exponential growth of breweries like we’ve seen for the last 10 years, those days are over.

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

Favorite style at the moment, and I don’t want to sound like everyone else, but I’m in a barrel-aged kick just like everyone. Barrel-aged Russians is something I’m drinking a lot of. I’m also drinking more pales than IPAs just because I’m working 18 hours a day. If I drink two IPAs, forget about it, my productivity goes down. We’ve designed some New England-inspired pales that are closer to 5%.

The Open Outcry beer I’m drinking the most is one of our New England pales, either Bang the Close or By Law 1101. I love to end my night with one of those two.

When I leave here, what am I drinking? It’s generally nothing outside of Chicago. There’s so much good beer here, there’s no need to drink anything from outside the city. I’ve also become spoiled and I really want fresh beer. I can tell right away if an IPA is three weeks old. If I’m missing some of that hop vibrancy, I just don’t drink it. Everything I drank in the last six months I think has been local. I’ll name drop Horse Thief Hallow. They’re making a beer called Parallel Universe which is their take on a New England IPA and it’s delicious. 

What does 2018 hold for Open Outcry?

We’re six months old so we’re still servicing the taproom and continue to adjust things and continue to adjust what the neighborhood wants from us to produce not only in beer and food.

We started barrel-aging. We got some barrels from Journeyman and over the next couple of months every 3rd or 4th turn on the brewhouse we’re going to do one of our Russians and just keep filling barrels. You’re going to hopefully see a lot of barrel stuff coming from us in the 2nd half of the year.

Photo by Eric Dirksen.

In six months, we’ve done 23 or 24 different beers. The reason for that is we’re doing something once and we’re getting feedback from people. What people like the best, we’ll start to narrow our portfolio. Everyday I wake up and I feel like I’m out of breath. We’ve only been open six months.

I have no plans to distribute anytime soon. If we’re providing a great experience here in the taproom and were at 100% capacity in the brewhouse and we’re having all we can do just to keep up with demand here, I have no desire to get into distributing. The economics of it aren’t as favorable, it’s a logistical pain in the ass and you lose control over your beer once it leaves your place. I don’t know what people are doing with it, so if I can sell 100% of our beer in here forever, if that’s realistic, I’d love that.


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