Pete Crowley’s been a craft brewer all his adult life, but he was weaned on Milwaukee’s Best Light and Keystone Light. In college, he says, “I thought Spaten Oktoberfest was craft beer. That was the special beer I would drink when I wasn’t drinking garbage.”
After graduating from South Carolina State in 1993, he hitched a ride with a friend to Colorado, “just to do it.” For their first outing in Aspen they picked Flying Dog Brewpub out of the Yellow Pages because they thought the name was funny. “I’d never had a hoppy beer, I’d never had a craft beer,” says Crowley. “I had no idea, and I was blown away. I absolutely fell in love with it.”
He wasn’t planning to stay in Colorado, but then he befriended the bar manager at Flying Dog, who gave him a job as a bartender and waiter. Soon Crowley was helping out in the brewery, cleaning out the mash tun, carrying bags of grain, and finally actually making beer. He didn’t leave Aspen until 1997, when he took a job at Broadway Brewing Company in Denver. Less than 24 hours later he was offered an assistant brewing position at the Rock Bottom Brewery in downtown Denver; from there he moved to the Cleveland location as head brewer, and then to the downtown Chicago location, where he’s spent the past ten years as senior brewer.
His last day there will be May 1. Crowley’s in the process of launching his own place, Haymarket Pub and Brewing, in the West Loop. The 250-seat brewpub, in the former Bar Louie space at 741 W. Randolph, will include a bar, a beer garden, a dining area, an open kitchen, an open brewery, and an events space that will be the new home of the Drinking & Writing Brewery, a currently itinerant theatrical group.
Crowley and John Neurauter, his friend and partner in the venture, had been searching for the right space for more than two years. When they toured the Randolph Street location, “it just clicked that it was also part of the old Haymarket Square,” Crowley says. “The whole labor movement and fair labor practices started there . . . and the wives of a couple of the martyrs became very famous civil rights activists. The history of the square is so rich that it really made the location and the space fit perfectly.”
In keeping with that history, Crowley and Neurauter plan to serve “food for the working classes.” There’ll be pizza, rotisserie chicken, and sausage, plus plenty of vegetarian options. “We want to be the casual hangout pub where you get off of work, and whether you dug holes all day or worked in the financial district, you go and sit and have a pint and be relaxed,” Crowley says.
As for the beer, they’ll be serving about 12 of their own brews, focusing on classic Belgian and contemporary American styles as well as hybrids of the two. About a decade ago Crowley traveled to Belgium and became fascinated by the beers there. “They’re very delicate, very complex . . . the use of spices, the use of candy sugars, the use of odd, fun things that you can put in beer is really interesting. A lot of lager yeasts and ale yeasts are just kind of straightforward neutral; the malt and the hops contribute the flavor to the beer. Most Belgian yeasts contribute a lot of flavor, a lot of aroma, so it makes the beer really complex.”
After he came back he began experimenting with the style. “And then as I became comfortable with Belgians, I started falling in love with hops,” he says. “I’ve never made more IPAs in a year than I did in 2009.” Belgian beers, which tend to be light and yeasty, aren’t traditionally heavy on the hops, but Crowley has started combining the two styles to make hoppy Belgian ales. He likes the way that, for example, the bitter hops balance out the citrusy yeast in the Crow and the Sparrow, a beer currently on tap at Rock Bottom that he’ll be taking with him to Haymarket.
Crowley’s creations for Rock Bottom have won top honors at national and international beer festivals, and he bristles at any suggestion that because it’s a chain it might be inferior to smaller breweries. He recalls a recent discussion on Beer Advocate‘s Web site: “Someone didn’t like an IPA that Brian Shimkos from Flossmoor Station had made. And they said, ‘What do you expect from an ex-Rock Bottom brewer?’ I said, ‘That’s funny, because the two top-rated breweries on the Web site are Surly and Three Floyds, and they’re both run by ex-Rock Bottom brewers. It was like, dude, you’re not making any sense.”
Crowley, who currently serves as president of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild, is passionate not only about Rock Bottom’s products but also other local beers. In fact, at Haymarket he’s planning to have about eight “guest taps” to spotlight other area brews. “There’s a lot of local beer now,” he says, “and it’s good. So I don’t want to have ten beers on tap from overseas when there’s great beer right here.”
“Right here” increasingly means the city of Chicago rather than the suburbs. The last two years have seen the launch of Metropolitan Brewing in Ravenswood, Half Acre in North Center (which contract-brewed in Wisconsin for about two years before building a facility in town), and Logan Square’s new Revolution Brewing; a brewer called Pipeworks is looking at locations in Garfield Park and hopes to start selling beer in the next six to nine months.
Crowley thinks that’s just the beginning. Partly, he says, the recent surge is due to the recession: declining rents and property values have made it feasible to build in the city. Brewing equipment takes up a lot of room, and square footage in Chicago hasn’t always come cheap. But more than that he sees a general upswing of interest in craft brewing: “Craft beer was really the only part of the entire beverage segment that showed growth in 2009. Craft beer is hot.”
Crowley and Neurauter plan to expand their brewpub into a brewing and bottling facility, the way Goose Island has. But about a third of their 8,000-square-foot space is already devoted to the brewery, and there’s no room to grow. So if and when it gets to that point, they’ll have to find another location for the production arm.
They’re also scouting locations for another brewery and restaurant, this one in a LEED-certified building that uses reclaimed and recycled materials. The place will be “much more driven by zero waste, green building, ecofriendly practices—everything from composting all the food waste and grains to reusing the gray water for other functions in the restaurant,” Crowley says. “But that’s down the road.”