- Alarmist founder Gary Gulley gets into the Beer and Metal spirit. That hydrometer jar should really be the skull of a fallen enemy, but I don’t think he has any enemies.
Two years ago, when I talked to John Laffler of Off Color and Jess Straka of Revolution Brewing (then of Metropolitan) as part of the Reader‘s Chicago Craft Beer Week coverage, the conversation turned to emerging brewers who had business plans robust enough to help them survive increasing competition for shelf space and tap handles.
“Gary Gulley of Panic is taking his time,” said Straka. (Gulley’s Alarmist Brewing was called Panic until Sacramento’s Track 7 intervened—they make a Panic IPA.) “He’s a home brewer associated with Square Kegs in Lincoln Square. He interned for Metropolitan last winter.”
“Good brewer,” interjected Laffler.
“Solid. Has a family. Is putting everything on the line for his dream,” said Straka.
It was the first time I’d heard Gulley’s name, and what I didn’t know then was that he’d already been working on Alarmist for nearly two years. He has a troubleshooting mind—he graduated from Purdue in 1990 with a civil engineering degree—and to build his brewery he’s put his plans and processes through uncountable rounds of iteration and revision (what laypersons call “trial and error”). Since October 2011 he’s shared candid, detailed reports of his slow but steady progress on the Alarmist blog, where in December 2012 he headlined a post “What’s Faster, Me or a Glacier?” Helpfully, he added a photo of a glacier. “Once I kick this guy’s ass in the 1,000,000 year hurdle,” reads the caption, “I’m going to boil him and make beer.”
Last week Gulley, 47, finally finished the first batch of his first commercially brewed beer, Pantsless Pale Ale, and he’s as busy, exhausted, and happy as he’s ever been. Pantsless should start showing up on tap around Chicago any day now, if it hasn’t already. (Alarmist plans to hold several launch events, but Gulley hasn’t nailed down the details. I’ll update as they arrive.)
Gulley started home brewing in 1991 in Fort Worth, Texas, while working his first job out of college—consulting for a nuclear power company. He kept at it for three or four years, then put it aside; he didn’t get back into brewing till 2008.
Before I go further, I should say that for this story I’m drawing not just on my own interviews with Gulley but also on a podcast conversation he had in late February with his friend Michael Kiser of the excellent Good Beer Hunting. You should definitely give it a listen—though I quote the podcast several times below, Gulley’s personality, especially his resilient sense of humor, comes through much better when you can hear his voice.
- Gulley insisted on hanging up that bright-tank hose. I guess that way an idiot wandering around with his face glued to a camera won’t trip on it.
Gulley says that the turning point for him—the moment he decided he could pursue brewing as a business—was when he attended the 2010 Craft Brewers Conference in Chicago. That same year, he enrolled in the American Brewers Guild in Vermont, beginning a DVD correspondence course. But in 2011 another turning point arrived: Gulley’s wife, Bridget Dehl, was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time he worked for a large online travel agency, and the couple had two boys and a mortgage. Gulley tried explaining to his bosses that, with Dehl weeks away from surgery, he might not be entirely mentally present at work. With the characteristic sensitivity of upper management, they laid him off.
Today Gulley calls the firing “the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” something he can say because his wife’s cancer is now in remission—and because he soon found another job in tech with the Tribune. But at first he panicked, in the process giving his incipient brewery its original name. The Alarmist logo, designed by Kim Leshinski of Hail to the Ale, is a fermentation vessel dropping out of the sky like a bomb.
- A small lesson in the folly of attaching a date to anything when you’re trying to open a brewery in Chicago
In part because his family’s crisis made his fear of tanking as a professional brewer seem almost trivial by comparison, Gulley found the resolve to double down on his new career. To him brewing meant “getting the fuck out of corporate America and doing whatever I want,” an aspiration no doubt shared by everyone in corporate America except the most obscenely overpaid suits.
He spent the final week of the ABG program getting hands-on experience at Harpoon Brewery’s facility in Windsor, Vermont, and in late 2011 and early 2012 he put in a five-week internship at Metropolitan Brewing. “The people I knew back then all have breweries now, and they’ve been going for a long time,” Gulley says, mentioning Begyle, Spiteful, and Une Annee. But in 2012 he still had a full-time job, and it would take him many months to refine Alarmist’s business plan to his satisfaction. He comes as close to bragging as I’ve heard him get when he talks about that plan—he says people have told him it’s the best they’ve ever seen.
Gulley has nothing but kind words for Metropolitan founders Doug and Tracy Hurst, who’ve given a leg up to a busload of Chicago brewers since 2009. (John Laffler and Off Color’s “other guy,” Dave Bleitner, both interned there too, as did Jay Eychaner at Arcade, Brian Davis at Lagunitas, and many more.) “Doug and Tracy are just the best,” he says. “They’re what craft beer is about. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them and all the help.”
Metropolitan hosted Alarmist’s first fund-raising meeting in late 2012, setting up folding chairs for 80 or so potential investors and letting Gulley use the brew-house deck as a stage to give his presentation. The minimum buy-in was $10,000 at that point, and today Alarmist has just shy of two dozen investors. “I spent a lot of time telling people not to invest, because that’s how I am,” Gulley remembers. “Don’t give me any money that you can’t lose.”
- Plenty of room for expansion at Alarmist. If it weren’t for those big red support beams, you could play racquetball in here.
While I was visiting Alarmist’s 11,000-square-foot northwest-side facility in early March, Doug Hurst showed up to help transfer the first batch of Pantsless Pale Ale from the fermenter to the bright tank. Because my conversation with Gulley hadn’t exactly followed a straight line, we were still talking when Hurst arrived, and he sat in. The two brewers joked about the obsessions they’d developed that had sucked them into making beer for a living. “Welcome to the vortex,” Gulley said.
“There’s only two ways out of this,” Hurst added. “One is permanent insanity. Two is death.”
- Gulley and Doug Hurst of Metropolitan Brewing contemplate the vortex. That’s a keg washer in the left foreground.
Gulley is Alarmist’s only employee. (He split amicably with his business partner, Nathan Barth, in May 2013.) Because his perfectionism costs time and money, it can frustrate anyone who works with him. But he knows he needs help—someone just as prepared as he is to tackle any aspect of the brewery’s operation.
Gulley’s wife has taken a job at WTTW after ten years as a stay-at-home mom, but her “sweet, sweet public-television money,” as he puts it, doesn’t make up for the loss of his tech salary. He helps out by taking the boys to school and to karate classes, and the family has all but stopped eating at restaurants. “If this thing goes under, I’ve lost my house,” Gulley says. “This is all or nothing for me.”
Construction and architecture (and the thorny Chicago permitting process) have been the biggest headaches so far. Gulley began leasing the Alarmist space in January 2014, but he misjudged how long it would take to slog through the red tape and actually occupy it—and during those wasted months he still had to pay rent. He’s used part of his Small Business Administration loan to meet Alarmist’s operational expenses—which include loan payments. “You’re using the bank loan to pay the bank loan at a certain point,” he says. “Which is sort of silly.”
Gulley urgently wants a tap room in his brewery for the high-margin revenue it will provide. (Revolution and Half Acre have grown so fast in part because they’ve got those profit centers built into their business models.) He says 39th Ward alderman Margaret Laurino is 100 percent behind an Alarmist tap room, but the problem of funds remains. With any luck he’ll have it open by the end of 2015.
The heavy stainless currently on the floor at Alarmist consists of a 20-barrel two-vessel brew house from Marks Design & Metalworks in Vancouver, Washington, three 40-barrel fermenters, one 40-barrel bright tank, and a 40-barrel hot-liquor tank. Gulley guesses he could reach 1,500 barrels of beer annually with this setup, but he’s starting slow until he knows what he can sell.
A few weeks ago Gulley dumped what would’ve been the first batch of Pantsless Pale Ale—during Chicago’s unusually cold February, he’d had trouble keeping its fermentation temperature from falling, and the beer didn’t meet his standards. Gulley says he probably could’ve sold it, since there are lousier pale ales on the market, but he knows he has to demonstrate a commitment to quality to compete at the level he wants. The two hand-bottled samples of Pantsless that he delivered to me came from a batch he’d fermented in a tank shrouded in a loose jacket of heavy translucent plastic sheeting—that way he could pump the output of a portable heater directly into the plastic instead of struggling to keep the whole brewery warm.
Pantsless is an American pale, just under 5 percent alcohol, brewed with English yeast and plenty of caramel malts. Gulley uses a tiny dose of bittering hops, with copious late hopping and dry hopping (Chinook, Columbus, and Motueka) for plenty of delicious aromas.
Pale ales and IPAs are by far the most popular styles in craft beer, but as a direct consequence, the category is also the most crowded and competitive. (Witness Lagunitas’s abortive attempt to slap a legal whammy on Sierra Nevada’s Hop Hunter.) It’s pretty gutsy for Alarmist to launch with a pale as its sole offering—and even gutsier to do it selling nothing but kegs, which have the lowest margin in the business. At least Gulley can take heart from the example of Solemn Oath, which also started as a keg-only brewery.
On to the beer itself, then. Is Pantsless Pale Ale good enough to elbow its way into that scrum and hold its ground?
It’s a beautiful color—rather than being crystal clear, it has a kind of amber pearlescence that scatters soft light. I should say that this could change a bit in the final product—the beer I got was a hair short of completely carbonated (it was maybe 80 percent done, according to Gulley), and the clarifying process tends to happen at the same time. For the same reason, the head on my glass was a little stingy.
The smell is a home run, hitting all the bases that an APA should: sliced peaches with honey, ripe mango, ruby red grapefruit juice, new green pine needles, and a soft caramel just out of the waxed paper. All the notes mesh in perfect harmony, with nothing barging out in front.
On the palate Pantsless is dry and clean. I get peach and mango again, plus apricot, pineapple, toffee, and toasted biscuit. Gentle tartness and subtle astringency (the grapefruit here is more like pith than juice) help keep the beer from registering as sticky or syrupy, despite its extravagantly juicy flavor. There’s almost no bitterness in the well-attenuated finish, which lets the graceful twining of fruity, floral, piney hops and silky caramel malts hang around as your last impression—and that leaves you ready to take another pull right away. A six-pack of this stuff, were such a thing to exist, wouldn’t last 20 minutes around the nerds I hang out with.
Alarmist is distributed by Chicago Beverage Systems in portions of the city; Gulley is working on additional contracts to cover the rest of town and the suburbs. The first batch of Pantsless yielded about 30 kegs (Gulley figures he can get 36 out of a topped-off tank), and the next one is already fermenting. As soon as I know where to find this beer, I’ll add that information in the comments.
- The back room at Alarmist. That’s the cooler at far left and the air compressor against the right-hand wall.
Gulley figures he might do a quickie IPA sometime soon, and he intends to eventually make a Belgian-style single. But he wants Alarmist to take after his favorite brewery, New Glarus, with a core lineup of solid, accessible beers rather than a crazy portfolio full of half-developed stunts.
He’s also working on new beer names with his son Gavin—like “Pantsless,” they’re all going to be about awkward, embarrassing, or alarming situations. (They’ll be family friendly, though, because there’s an 11-year-old involved.) Two examples on the drawing board are “Dud Parachute” and “Lost Cobra.” As long as Lost Cobra isn’t a malt liquor, I think we’re cool.
Now, when I quoted Doug Hurst from Metropolitan up there, his words might’ve rung a bell. In May 1985, ABC’s 20/20 ran an episode called “The Devil Worshippers,” buying into the appalling fictions that fanned the flames of the era’s groundless “satanic panic.” The program quoted police chief Dale Griffis of Tiffin, Ohio, who spoke on the subject of alleged satanic cults: “When you get into one of these groups, there’s only a couple ways you can get out,” he said. “One is death. The other is mental institutions.”
Why do I bring this up? Because this is Beer and Metal, and those words are the first sound on Electric Wizard’s 2000 album, Dopethrone, kicking off “Vinum Sabbathi.” A slightly longer version of the same sample occurs at the end of “Saturn Dethroned,” the final song on the band’s newest record, last year’s Time to Die. I know I posted a track from the Wizard last month, when I wrote about Illuminated Brew Works, but I don’t feel like apologizing for being excited about their show. Only two and a half more weeks!
“Now I’m a slave to the black drug / Forced to serve this black god.” Preach it, Jus.