Brewery Showcase | Suburban Chicago’s Roaring Table Brewing Company
When Roaring Table Brewery won the 2020 USA Today Readers’ Choice “Best New Brewery” award, it didn’t come because the brewery engaged heavily in a marketing strategies, nor did it come from chasing trends or a producing a series of sexy releases. Beth May and Lane Fearing, married couple and founders of Roaring Table Brewing, created a brewery that at its heart and soul is a neighborhood tavern or pub that just happens to serve some of the best beer in town.
“Beer is more than just a drink; it’s an experience,” said Lane, who serves as Roaring Table head brewer.
May and Fearing’s intense focus on what goes on internally at Roaring Table may have effectively blinded them to their ever-increasing popularity and expanding fan base.
For example, this past Christmas Eve, Roaring Table released its Sunburnt Mirth Pastry Stout. Given the holiday, they expected nothing more than a smattering of people to filter through the doors. So, besides Beth and Lane, the only person working was Tim Joyce, Roaring Table’s taproom manager.
Beth explained with a laugh, “I took a look outside and said to Tim, ‘Wow, Eggshells [the restaurant located next door] has a huge line next to us.’ Tim checked it out and responded, ‘Holy s–t, that’s for us!.’” [laughter]
Beth knew they needed another bartender, so she picked up the phone and called one of their regulars who occasionally worked shifts at Roaring Table. His response, “I’m in line.”
Yet another bartender came in later. By the end of it all, a lot of happy beer fans received their beer and had a great time. The day was a success. And, now, they have a great story to tell. “We were not expecting it all, that was so amazing!” Lane said.
Whether it’s that beer release, the increased social media attention, or awards, Roaring Table’s growth has largely occurred organically. It’s not to say the couple is oblivious to the need to promote their beer, but hospitality and quality beer production take precedence.“The whole premise of this brewery was just to be a family business,” said Beth. “Yeah, we are not trying to be a giant anything,” interjected Lane.
Roaring Table has enjoyed success with a range of beers that might be considered “trendy.” In fact, in scanning social media one might think this is the brewery’s focus. But that is far from the case, as this writer can attest. Indeed, chasing trends is not their main concern. “We don’t want to make just hazies and milkshakes,” Beth commented. “We want to do everything well, almost like a small version of Half Acre.”
Lane quickly interjected while laughing, “A very small version.” But, he went on to say, “No, I really do appreciate Half Acre because they have diversity. They have a broad spectrum of excellent beers. There are already breweries that do [hazies and milkshakes]. I never liked that concept as a homebrewer. I have different moods, and I want different beers, and, I want to do all of them very well…my ambition is always to make the best beer in the world. Obviously, that’s a process. But, I don’t take it lightly.”
The process started nearly thirteen years ago when a family member appealed to his dual love of hobbies and beer by giving him How to Brew by John Palmer. “It’s such a great book,” Lane said. He brewed his first batch a couple of days after Christmas in 2007. By his second batch, he was already saying no to extracts and going all-grain.
“I knew I was falling down the rabbit hole very rapidly,” he said with a chuckle.
Before long Lane attended the famed Siebel Institute. But, rather than move on to Germany like many of his colleagues, he took a position at the locally renowned Micky Finn’s.
I started by cleaning the mold off the bottom of the tanks,” he explained. “Greg [Browne, Mickey Finn’s Brewmaster] would say to me, ‘Take that 5,000 pounds of grain and walk it down the stairs and ten stack it up. And then, clean the tanks, and then it’s grain-out time in half-an-hour, so be done within a half an hour!”
He continued, “Theory is great; it’s important. But there’s more to it than that. It’s not about hops or yeast, or drinking beer all day; that’s the least of what happens when you run a brewery. Opening a brewery is about the mechanical stuff and physicality.”
He stayed at Finn’s for nine years learning about the not-so-glamorous side of brewing. “If I hadn’t worked with Greg for so long, I wouldn’t have had the courage to open a brewery.”
The passion has only grown since those early homebrew days. “It never gets old for me…when I’m doing all the hard work that sucks, I think, ‘pretty soon, I get to drink this!'”
Still, the third anniversary for Roaring Table also ushered in a new era because, for the first time, Lane took a step back and allowed others to brew batches of beer. He is learning that he needs to rely on his assistant brewer, Ryan Walker, and Pete Janus (formerly of Wild Onion), who also helps more as time goes on.
Yet it isn’t easy for him to take his hands off the wheel.
Beth jokingly said: “He’s very anal-retentive.” Lane laughed and agreed. “I think to be a good brewer you have to be a little bit of a control freak. I have that.”
Of course, he has never been alone. Beth spent years in graphic design and otherwise working in the corporate world, albeit mostly as her own boss. But, a few years ago, a career shake-up rattled her.
“I started my design firm in 2007, and it was great for eight years, and then the rug was ripped out from me. The fear it could have it happen again terrified me.”
Next thing you know, they were talking about opening a brewery. A year and half later, they had an SBA loan (which paid for the equipment) and a place to brew beer — although it was not the place they had imagined.
“We did NOT want to be in a strip mall,” said Beth. “We had another place that was really nice, but it didn’t have the infrastructure at all.” Lane found the vacant space in the strip mall and told Beth she just had to see it. With a laugh, Beth said, “I was adamant; I said, ‘No way we are doing that!’”
Well, they did. But with the film on the windows and the way the taproom is designed, it’s as if one opens the doors and wanders into a beer oasis.
And with a loan, a city, and a taproom, they only needed a staff to complete the brewery-opening process. “We still have two employees we started with, including Tim (taproom manager). We have the best staff. So personable.”
Oh, and the beer. You can’t forget the beer, either from the tanks or deftly blended wild ales that include time spent in a foeder. Roaring Table offers an eclectic menu of Porters, Schwarzbiers, wheat beers, a range of IPAs, and an exceptional Pilsner hopped with Hallertauer, Mittelfrueh and Saphir. And don’t forget its Polymorph Saison, wherein “a delicate dose of local, organic basil and thyme adds a subtle, sweet herbal quality,” and “Lithuanian farmhouse yeast, adds notes of lemon zest and fresh cracked black pepper.”
If there’s ever been a time to appreciate the communal aspect of beer drinking, it’s 2020. Even in a socially-distanced world, and with masks a necessary part of our lives, Roaring Table remains dedicated to giving people an opportunity one of life’s simple pleasures. As Lane said:
“Beer has always been a source of community bonding and friendship — the things that make life nice.”
*Feature Image taken from Roaring Table Social Media Channels