When I hung out with the Aquanaut guys in Bowmanville to write last week’s column, we got to talking about the Half Acre facility going in across Damen, and they mentioned another new neighbor—Empirical Brewery, seven blocks away at Foster and Ravenswood. The neighborhood seems to be turning into a sort of brewers’ row; if it weren’t for the Metra tracks, you could pretty much hit Metropolitan with a rock from Empirical’s loading dock. Not that you’d want to, of course!
I’d heard of Empirical, but I had no idea they were only two miles from my apartment. I also didn’t know they were fully licensed and ready to roll. Clearly a visit was in order.
I met Empirical cofounders Sumit Mehta and Bill Hurley at the brewery on Saturday morning, hoping to catch up on their backstory and try their beer. Both in their late 30s, they first brewed together about five years ago in Mehta’s apartment. At that point they were still “working for the man,” as Mehta puts it, but they began planning for Empirical in 2011. It’s been a daunting undertaking, given that they decided to launch with a bigger space (and larger tanks) than most startup brewers—that shit gets expensive fast, so even after lining up a dozen investors, they needed a bank loan to help pay for it all.
Everybody at a fledgling brewery has to wear several hats, at least at first, since such operations tend to employ so few paid staff. But Empirical has adopted a loose division of labor: Hurley serves as CEO, setting strategy and overall direction; Mehta handles sales and marketing; and part-timer Jim Ruffatto helps out with the brewery’s online presence, hauls kegs and signage, and generally ties up loose ends. Of course, Empirical also depends on an informal volunteer labor force when brew days roll around, like every other small brewery I’ve visited.
- Empirical’s 30-barrel Sprinkman brew house and twin 60-barrel fermenters can turn out 3,650 barrels of beer annually at full tilt.
You might’ve noticed that I didn’t mention a brewmaster. That’s because Mehta and Hurley hired one from outside: Wisconsin veteran Art Steinhoff, who earned a stellar reputation (and won an armload of awards) as a home brewer, then went pro in 1999. Most recently he spent six years running the brewery at Flatlander’s in Lincolnshire, which closed in early 2012. Steinhoff has been making beer for 32 years, and he brings with him a portfolio of road-tested recipes more than 50 deep. He also helped design Empirical’s computer-controlled 30-barrel Sprinkman brew house.
- The ceiling here is too low for the big tanks, but once Empirical pulls it down to make room for more, this enormous space could theoretically hold enough equipment to brew 35,000 barrels per year.
The Empirical name arose from Hurley and Mehta’s interest in applying the scientific method to brewing—not just to the chemical processes in the tanks, which require such an approach in any case, but also to the development of their beer lineup. Like pretty much all their peers, they’ll have year-round offerings (categorized as 2πr, for the circumference of a circle) and seasonals (πr/2, for one-quarter the circumference), but they plan to tweak, introduce, and even retire beers based on direct feedback from drinkers.
Some of this feedback—or empirical evidence, to roll with the theme—will come from ratings aggregators such as RateBeer and Beer Advocate, but the Empirical team wants to devise a proprietary system as well, in order to incorporate the opinions of customers in the brewery’s taproom. Mehta promises that any beer whose score drops below 90 points and stays there will get pulled from Empirical’s rotation.
This is all a ways down the road, of course, since the taproom doesn’t yet exist. Hurley and Mehta want to build it on the brewery’s second floor, with glass walls to afford a Lagunitas-style view of the tanks that will with any luck eventually surround it.
Empirical plans to launch a Kickstarter later this month to help fund taproom construction, targeting an opening day in early 2015. What might be up and running sooner, though, are twinned one-barrel pilot systems for brewing two subtly different versions of the same beer—a control batch and an experimental batch, if you will, to allow visitors to taste the effect of, say, a new hop varietal or a bump of a couple degrees in fermentation temperature.
The taproom will also address what Mehta characterizes as a widespread disregard for the proper serving temperatures of various styles—he says that too often, a stout that ought to be enjoyed at 55 degrees is poured at 38, the same temperature at which it’s stored. “There’s a reason you brew black tea at 205 degrees and green tea at 175,” he explains, by way of analogy. The taproom will keep beer in three different temperature “zones” to minimize the time that finicky patrons (guilty!) need to sit on their hands waiting for a glass to warm up.
I’ll make with the crazy adjectives in a second—if you’re a regular reader, you know I’m not letting you go before I review some damn beer. First, though, I want you to scroll back up and look at the Empirical logo at the top of this post, because therein lies a tale. That odd-looking pointy E is a stylized version of the ideogram for “beer” in cuneiform, the written language of the ancient Sumerians—in its original form, it represented an upright jar with a pointed base, and judging from a tablet in the collection of the British Museum, it was in use at least 5,000 years ago, when laborers in Mesopotamia were allocated beer as rations.
I don’t want to sound too biased here, but that is the kind of nerdery I can get behind.
I’ve been talking a lot about what Empirical wants to do, I know, but how about what the brewery is already doing? Its first two production beers are a Pacific northwest wheat called Superluminal (part of the Speed of Light series of session beers) and an IPA called IBU Overload (part of the Infinity series of IPAs). Mehta and Hurley shared a glass of each with me on Saturday.
Superliminal (4.2 percent alcohol) is a Steinhoff recipe of perhaps 30 years’ vintage. It’s a crystal clear American-style wheat beer, with a brilliant sunshiny color and a clean, uncomplicated aroma like clover-blossom honey, caramel, and violets. Take a sip, though, and it opens up surprisingly, with a complex fruitiness that I couldn’t find in the nose—honeydew, papaya, and white grape. The malts add a touch of honey to the flavor too, but the beer finishes dry and light, with a lick of minerality and a nice exclamation point of toasty, peppery bitterness.
Empirical’s newest recipe, IBU Overload (6.5 percent alcohol), earned a spot in my headline today mostly because it’s so self-consciously audacious I’m tempted to call it “gonzo.” As far as Mehta and Hurley are aware, it’s the only single IPA to reach 105 International Bittering Units, near the practical upper limit of the scale—roughly the same count as Stone’s Ruination, Avery’s Maharaja, Lagunitas’s Hop Stoopid, and other famous double IPAs. (Plenty of beers claim to have far more IBUs, but humans can’t taste anything beyond maybe 120, so the really big numbers are basically marketing gimmicks.)
IBU Overload has an intensely herbal hop profile, entirely from Centennial and Chinook—I’m sure other reviewers will say it smells like weed, but I’d feel like a fraud doing that because I don’t partake. Instead I’ll mention juniper, oregano, pineapple, cedar, toffee, and maybe some cantaloupe and raspberry. Is there a kind of weed that smells like that?
The taste adds browned biscuit and caramel from the malts, and the hops acquire an extra layer of fruity funk once they’re in your mouth, with pine resin, mango, and a little honey. The bitterness is sharp and powerful, and it lingers long enough that you’re still wrangling with it when the sweeter notes recede and the unexpectedly thin, dry finish arrives. That finish makes it impossible to mistake IBU Overload for a double IPA, even with so many other olfactory cues telling you it has to be one. The beer’s light body also makes its tangle of over-the-top flavors—a three-way tug-of-war between herbal bitterness, malty sweetness, and floral fruitiness—unusually nonfatiguing.
This is a truly freaky IPA, and it certainly won’t please everybody. I’m sure it will register as “wrong” or “off” to some folks, because it tastes like one thing and feels like another. But it’s not necessarily unbalanced, just unusual. And of all the beers I know that deliver this kind of crazy hop fix, IBU Overload might be the easiest to keep drinking.
Empirical shipped kegs of Superluminal and IBU Overload to its distributor last week (within the city limits, the brewery uses Chicago Beverage Systems, which also handles Half Acre and Revolution), and the beers should start turning up on tap in seven to ten days.
Next up is a version of the brewery’s Atomic Amber called Honey Hypothesis; one 30-barrel batch uses 100 pounds of honey, harvested from Steinhoff’s own apiaries. Empirical hopes to start selling beer in bottles by the end of 2014—perhaps by leasing a bottling line, which on off days it can rent out to other breweries—and Hurley and Mehta think they might start off with a smoked chocolate-cherry porter called Cold Fusion.
Given that Mehta has a 23-year-old Motorhead tattoo (he also showed me a photo of himself with the band’s current drummer, Mikkey Dee, who’s pointing at the ink), I didn’t have to stretch to come up with a metal song to post. This is a relatively recent performance of Motorhead’s 1979 classic “Overkill,” from the album of the same name. That’s close enough to “Overload” for horseshoes, I reckon.
As it turned out, my visit to Empirical was only the start of a busy Beer and Metal Saturday. Five hours, one flat tire, and one Girls Rock! Chicago end-of-camp extravaganza later, I went to the 15th-anniversary celebration for Goose Island’s Wrigleyville brewpub—which was not only a beer festival and Gunthorp Farms pig roast but also a benefit for Bodhi Wyzkiewicz, the six-year-old son of a former Goose Island brewer. He’s been fighting a form of brain cancer called medulloblastoma since May 2013.
Goose Island’s Raisin in the Sun, an imperial rye stout aged in bourbon barrels with golden raisins, sounds pretty unappetizing on paper. But it’s an unreasonably good beer—something I discovered in May at the brewery’s 26th-anniversary party—and I was happy for the chance to have another taste. If you were to force me to pick a favorite among the beers that were new to me on Saturday (bearing in mind that Perennial’s Savant Blanc kicked at 6:30 PM, before I managed to find it), I’d vote for Illuminated Brew Works’ Orange Sunshine, an American citrus saison. It’s brewed at Une Annee, since IBW doesn’t have all its papers in order just yet—but I think I’ll be looking for a reason to say more about those folks soon.
Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.