The craft-beer boom has accommodated all sorts of business models: Madison-based MobCraft, for instance, uses crowdsourced recipes voted on by nerds across the country (in 2013 RateBeer named it the best new brewer in Wisconsin). And of course for years craft breweries—perhaps most famously Samuel Adams and Stone—have been rewarding the winners of their home-brewing contests by bottling the champion beers.
A new Chicago operation called the Middle Brow Beer Company splits the difference. If all goes according to plan, half its recipes will come from themed home-brewing contests (coffee beers, winter warmers, Belgian yeasts). Middle Brow intends to alternate contest winners (in bombers) with its own beers (in four-packs of 12-ounce bottles). Batches are small—usually 15 or 30 barrels, split between kegs and bottles—and for the time being Middle Brow contract brews at Big Chicago in Zion, Illinois.
Middle Brow also plans to donate a chunk of its profits to charity—for the home-brewers’ beers, the portion will be 50 percent (the rest will go to pay the brewer, run the contests, and award second- and third-place prizes, among other things). For the house beers, it’ll be 25 to 30 percent. This ought to mean that Middle Brow breaks even on the former and earns its operating expenses on the latter. The brewery’s principals, Nick Burica and Bryan Grohnke, both work day jobs (the former is an electrical engineer, the latter works in business analytics), so they don’t have to rely on Middle Brow to make their rent. (Third partner Peter Ternes, who’s now in San Francisco but will return to Chicago shortly, is a former lawyer who holds up the business end.)
Currently the charity in question is Chicago-based Cure Violence, which Burica and Grohnke chose after seeing the documentary The Interrupters. But that can change—Middle Brow wants to be responsive to causes that are dear to its winning home brewers.
Middle Brow has existed for almost a year and a half—it’s already held four home-brewing contests—but its first beer has only just come out. A dark saison called the Life Pursuit, conditioned with vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks, it won the brewery’s inaugural contest, which was devoted to winter warmers. Middle Brow posted a call for entries on November 20, 2012, and judging went down in January 2013. The beer was released on tap about a month ago, and bottles started hitting shelves early in March.
Last Thursday night Middle Brow tapped the Life Pursuit at Northdown, giving patrons the chance to augment the beer with a coffee Randall (a Randall is basically an infusing chamber attached to a draft line) or a homemade sour mango-raspberry syrup. The Middle Brow guys can’t make many different beers—I did mention their day jobs—so they like to mess with each one in lots of ways, in order to bring out a variety of flavors. (Feel free to take this as an encouragement to seek out future Middle Brow tapping events.)
The Life Pursuit was originally brewed by Matt Holley, who grew up in Waterford, Michigan, and has lived in Chicago since 2007; he started home brewing shortly after moving here. The Life Pursuit owes its origin to “A Saison for Every Season,” a 2008 article by Drew Beechum in the American Homebrewers Association magazine Zymurgy.
“In 2012 I decided to brew a different saison for each of the four seasons using the Zymurgy article as a reference,” says Holley. “I ended up with an orange-hued wheat saison for spring, a lighter-colored more traditional saison for the summer, an amber saison for the fall that I aged on oak chips for a month, and then this saison for the winter.” Then he saw an ad for the Middle Brow contest at the Brew & Grow on Kedzie. “Traditionally, winter warmers are a little boozier than this beer and more malty, but I figured it would still enter because of the light toasted malt character and the cinnamon-vanilla spicing.”
The Life Pursuit is 6.6 percent alcohol, with a fleeting ivory head that recedes to a persistent layer of thin, silky foam. You can definitely smell the vanilla and cinnamon—the aroma is a little like gingerbread cake, with molasses, chocolate, and a hint of toasted black bread to cut the sweetness and spice. The dominant note is a bloom of fruity yeast, like stewed black plums and cherries.
This beer has a wonderful creamy texture, light and frothy like a meringue. The taste largely follows the smell, though the spiciness comes further forward here—the prickly cinnamon heat, in tandem with the roasted malts, sometimes suggests cumin or black pepper. The fruitiness adds dried apricot to the plum and cherry, and there’s a touch of caramel too. The Life Pursuit has the spicy-sweet balance typical of winter warmers, and its richly bready malts are cut by a gentle tartness like peach or grape. I generally have little interest in the style, but this is a lovely beer.
I paid $7.49 for my bomber at Binny’s, and the Life Pursuit has also shipped to Bottles and Cans, the Beer Temple, the Beer Cellar, Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, and Ardmore Station in Villa Park, among other places. (On the subject of the Beer Temple—it’s celebrating its first birthday with a ludicrously great tap list on Sunday, March 23.) At least as of late last week, the Life Pursuit was available on draft at the Monkey’s Paw, Monk’s Pub, Maria’s (again), the Bad Apple, the Bar on Buena, Links Taproom, and Three Aces.
Middle Brow has six more home brews in the pipeline, despite having held only four contests—it’s going to make a few runners up too. They include a saison brewed with Sorachi Ace hops, grains of paradise, lemongrass, limes, and lemons (by Dustin Wakeman), a big hopped-up coffee stout (by Frank Constanzo “and friends,” the brewery says), and a strong winter warmer made with cinnamon, ginger, vanilla, and 400 pounds of butternut squash (by Mark Gres). That winter warmer was also an entry in Middle Brow’s first contest, alongside the Life Pursuit, and though it’ll probably be brewed soon—Burica and Grohnke have already bought the squash—it won’t be released till it’s seasonally appropriate again. (They might barrel age all or part of the batch in the meantime.)
Middle Brow’s own recipes will favor sessionable beers—in May it plans to put out a Kölsch-style wheat beer with brettanomyces, followed by a version that replaces the brett with conventional yeast and adds mint and lemon. Coming in the fall or winter are a smoked porter and a salted caramel ale.
The brewery’s more distant plans include a facility of its own, unsurprisingly—but not around these parts. Burica and Grohnke are interested in spontaneous fermentation, sours, and oak aging, and they hope to find a farmhouse in southern Illinois, away from Chicago’s air pollution, where they can install a koelschip and explore that sort of thing. (Middle Brow beers that don’t employ such tricky microorganisms will still be made at Big Chicago.) They’ve both worked with wild yeasts during their years as home brewers, but they know they don’t have the expertise to handle them on this scale—they’ll be hiring a master brewer.
And now for the metal! I’m not going to work especially hard to find a way to connect the Life Pursuit to a particular band or song, because I want to call attention to an album that comes out tomorrow—Coffinworm’s IV.I.VIII. I reviewed it for a recent Reader record roundup, in the process failing to resolve a question about its subgenre. You say “tomato,” I say “monstrous, hateful engine of death from beyond time.”
At least “A Death Sentence Called Life” has the word “life” in it.