One of the many intriguing beer stories to come out of the ongoing craft brew renaissance in Chicago is Begyle Brewing. Although there are many prospective production breweries, brewpubs and nanobreweries on their way to fruition in the windy city right now, Begyle’s (formerly known as Argyle Brewing) plan for business makes them unique. They intend to model themselves after a CSA organization–which is to say “community-supported agriculture,” except here it’s “community-supported beer.” In return for a membership, patrons of Begyle will be able to fill their growlers on a monthly basis at the brewery with fresh, new beers.
There’s a lot to like here with Begyle, from their hardline stance on building an environmentally conscious brewery from scratch to their desire to integrate their business more fully with their neighborhood than is typical for the industry. I spent a while on the phone with co-owner and brewer Kevin Cary, discussing their plans for the CSA model, their current Kickstarter efforts to raise funding for equipment, and of course, the beer itself.
Kid Carboy: Alright, so you and Matt Ritchey and Brendan Blume are the founders. How did you meet and decide to open a brewery?
Kevin Cary: Matt and I have known each other since we were kids; we went to the same elementary school in Michigan. We ended up as roommates after college, and I had learned to homebrew while I was in school. Matt fell in love with it; he took it even further and wanted to learn every part of the science about it.
Brendan meanwhile operated a pedicab business in Chicago when I met him, and he told me that he had been wanting to start a brewery. This was in the early to mid 2000’s. And now we’re only a month or two from seeing beer on store shelves, although we’ll probably be producing only about 100 barrels this year, tops.
Carboy: How does moss design come in? The person I spoke with from them seemed very invested in the brewery she was helping you design.
Cary: We found out about them through Twitter or Facebook and I found out they were only a block or two from the brewery building in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. Their designer has a very green approach, and we had decided we wanted to be smart with our brewery’s eco-friendly business model right from the very beginning.
Carboy: Begyle beers are very close to making their debut in Chicago now. How does it make you feel to know that your work is that close to being judged by consumers for the first time? Where will they show up first?
Cary: We’re going to be featuring our beers at the Oak Park Micro Brew Review this weekend, and that will actually be our first “public appearance” as a brewery. We hope to officially launch on or around October 1st. We’ve really been laying kind of low while we’ve been in the licensing faze because we didn’t want to take any chances with that. The laws are very strict. As literally interpreted, all homebrew is supposed to be consumed within the household it was brewed, at this point. I hope that the state is headed in a more lenient direction because brewing is all about the social aspect of sharing.
As for which bars will be getting Begyle beers on draft, we’re really going to focus on our neighborhood to start, the Ravenswood/Lincoln Square area. We very much want to be thought of as a local institution in our neighborhood and we want to work ourselves as deeply into the community as we can.
Carboy: Recently, I’ve been frustrated by some prospective breweries that announce plans to open and are happy to give many updates on things like green initiatives or marketing, but seem to want to talk about anything but the beer. With your brewery, I can’t help but notice that there’s no info on the beer on your website, on your Facebook, or on the Kickstarter. Why is that?
Cary: It’s funny you say this now, because we are just about to announce our list for the Oak Park Micro Brew Review, and that will include five different beers, including a few of our production beers and a single one-off.* As for why we haven’t talked about it much until now, it’s kind of complicated. Our Facebook page came out around mid-november, and since that time we’ve heard different opinions about whether it’s a good idea to talk about specific beer products when it comes to licensing and getting approval of beers and labels and all that.
I admit, it’s confusing, especially the definition of if what we’ve brewed is “homebrew” or Begyle beer. Is homebrew Kevin separate from Begyle Brewing’s Kevin? But I can say that we look forward to sharing more information once the business is up and officially running.
*This list is now up on the Begyle Facebook page. The beers are listed thusly:
American Blonde Ale 5.2% ABV dry hopped with Midwest hops.
Begyle van der Hefe 4.5% ABV our take on the German Hefe with a little bit of Belgian spice influence, spiced with coriander.
Crash Landed – American Pale Wheat Ale 7% ABV.
Begyle Pale Ale 5.5% ABV a nod to our friends across the pond this pale ale leans a little english/east-coast, also hopped up with Midwest grown hops from Wisconsin.
The final beer will be exclusive to Oak Park, which we are calling an Imperial Brown Ale (or brown IPA) 6.7% ABV
Carboy: Can you say what your “brewing philosophy” will be, then?
Cary: It’s hard to say because we definitely have a very collaborative environment. My experience has been in making more “out-there” beers that may or may not be on the practical side, trying to bring out unique flavors. Matt’s perspective is more the precision and scientific side. He knows “I need this much of this hop variety at a certain alpha acid to hit the right IBU count” by heart.
As for what we will make, I have to say we’ll make some of everything. I can say that we do want to do some lagers eventually. We’re in a fairly German neighborhood, so doing some of those styles is a natural. But we also enjoy traditional beer with a twist, like our coriander-spiced hefeweizen. It’s distinctly a hefe and not a Belgian wit, despite the coriander. And we’ll be making big American beers as well; we’re planning a big hoppy IPA with all Midwest-grown hops to offer something different. Those include varieties like centennial, cascade, columbus, chinook, fuggle, nugget, galena and glacier.
Carboy: I think a lot of people would like to know how precisely your subscription system will work. How much beer will people get, for what kind of cost? And that service won’t be starting until the winter or later, correct?
Cary: Okay, so we’re modeling this system around a community-supported agriculture model. People who want to get subscriptions can buy in for six months or a year, and that’s paid up-front. Members will be able to fill their growlers for prices that will be significantly lower than the retail price of a growler fill. Buying a larger membership like the 12-month will be a really good deal for people, and there will also be volume breaks as well if you want to be filling multiple growlers each month.
In terms of the number of beers, there will be more than just one a month to choose from. We have the capacity to brew about six beers a month, and they’ll be staggered in rolling releases. Customer feedback will be strongly considered in what we make next. Overall number of members will also be capped at a certain size to ensure there’s enough beer for members. There may even be certain beers specifically available to the CSA members.
In addition to the beer, we’re hoping that our members will be able to receive additional benefits as well for patronizing other businesses in the neighborhood. They might be able to get discounts at local bars and businesses for being a CSA member, for instance. We’re talking to businesses about that now and it’s still being planned. We’re also talking about having a homebrewing class at the brewery that might be free for members.
Carboy: Will the beer you distribute be on draft only?
Cary: We’re definitely not going to bottle right away, but we may do some special release bottles at the brewery down the line. But in general, our beer will be available on drafts in select bars and in growlers from the brewery.
Carboy: What is the purpose of your Kickstarter? It sounds like the main goal is trying to get this “counter-pressure growler filler” that saves on wasted beer. How much beer is really being lost? And have you calculated how much beer you have to make for the money saved to equal the $17,000 spent on getting this growler-filler?
Cary: It’s quite the piece of machinery. This growler filler has 10 options, which means it could fill from 10 different beers at once.
As far as beer loss goes, the industry standard as far as filling growlers is about a 20-percent loss due to foam and spillage. Once that foam goes down, you’re left with empty space in the growler, and they’re overfilled so that it spills over. Ultimately it equals out to about one gallon lost to foam for every five gallon growlers that you buy. This counter-pressure system fills a couple of needs for us. We wanted to be eco-friendly and we thought this was one way we could do that right out of the gate. With this thing working, you lose around three percent only of what you brew.
It doesn’t take too long for that advantage to add up. If we’re going to be making growler fills a huge part of our business then it really makes sense. We’ll be purchasing less ingredients and wasting less of the finished product. It allows us to start smaller and be more careful about how much product we actually waste.
Carboy: Would you say it’s true that the real value of Kickstarter isn’t in raising the money but in creating a sense of ownership and awareness among the local beer geeks?
Cary: That was one of our main objectives. Kickstarter is a really cool tool for crowd-funding, and we thought it was something that, once we were pretty much ready to brew, could be a way to engage consumers who were interested in the project and offer them some cool perks. You can’t discount that sense of ownership and participation either. People are proud that they helped to get a business on its feet.
Carboy: Kickstarter is very popular for brewery projects to use now, obviously. Do you feel there’s such a thing as too many local breweries trying to use it? I have often felt conflicted about certain aspects of Kickstarter and whether it’s “fair” to ask people to support a personal project that has no guarantee of success. If you fail, there’s no legal consequence for not doing what you received the funds to do.
Cary: That’s true. We tossed around the idea of Kickstarter about a year ago, and we didn’t think it was the right time then. We decided to do it now because we’re almost to the point where we can use the equipment now.
With that said, we want to hold ourselves accountable for every bit of investment in us. Making a Kickstarter is taking a risk because you’re asking people to support your dream and you have to believe it’s going to succeed. You’re really putting yourself out there when you do one of these. And I think that as Kickstarter evolves, the market will continue to correct itself there and you’ll have to have better and better concepts in order to get funding for projects like this.
Carboy: How many CSA-type places do you think Chicago could support?
Cary: Multiple ones for sure, I would hope. I would think that in trying out this model, we hope to prove that we can do it successfully and also show that it can be copied. It’s not like it’s an original idea; we’re stealing it from farming. I think the next phase of brewing is going to be hyper-local, and I believe Chicago can sustain a number of those.
Carboy: Finally: Which are your other favorite Chicago breweries?
Cary: The ones I’m most attached to and that inspired me the most are probably Half Acre and Metropolitan because they were busting their chops when I got here to show that Chicago was a place that loved craft beer and was thirsty for more of it.
A lot of the newer breweries as well, it’s hard to name only a few. I love DryHop’s* stuff. From brewpub stance, Piece Pizza is fantastic, and Haymarket has been knocking beers out of the park over there.
*I’ve only recently learned much at all about DryHop, but it seems like an upscale bistro sort of place where the idea of beer and food pairings will be taken very seriously. Coming fall, 2012.
There you have it. I certainly think the “subscription” model is a pretty cool idea, and if I was a resident of Ravenswood or Lincoln Square I would be clamoring to get on the initial list of members, if only to get all the other intangible benefits. Keep an eye out for Begyle beers hitting bars in that area in early October. If you’re lucky, you might even catch them at a festival sometime before that.