In July 2008, at the second annual AleFest Chicago at Soldier Field, I came across a bearded man serving beer from a jockey box made from a double-decker Craftsman toolbox. Bearded men weren’t in short supply at the event, but the Craftsman box was new to me, and so was the beer. In fact, it was new to everyone: Metropolitan Brewing, owned and run by Doug (the bearded man) and Tracy Hurst, didn’t even technically exist yet. Its Ravenswood facility was still under construction. When it began selling beer six months later, it would be the first new brewery in Chicago in ten years.
In the article I wrote about Metropolitan, I described AleFest as “a who’s who of area brewers: Goose Island, Two Brothers, Flossmoor Station, Piece, Rock Bottom, Mickey Finn’s, and America’s Brewing Company.” Meager as that list is, it’s mostly suburban: the only production brewery in Chicago at the time was Goose Island. There were also three brewpubs in the city—Piece, Moonshine (RIP), and Rock Bottom—and Half Acre had been contract brewing in Wisconsin for a couple of years (it began production at its brewery on Lincoln Avenue shortly after Metropolitan launched). But the brewing scene in Chicago at the time was still practically nonexistent.
Now, as Metropolitan celebrates its ten-year anniversary, Chicago has more breweries than any other city in the U.S., according to the Brewers Association. The report, released in December, includes the entire Chicago metro area and tallies the total at 167 breweries; the Hop Review puts the count for breweries within city limits at 67. When I interviewed Tracy and Doug back in 2008, they both said they hoped that more people would start breweries in Chicago—and they’ve certainly gotten their wish.
“I don’t think any of us saw what was coming,” Tracy says now. “Our financial plan showed that you had to have at least a 15-barrel system in order to make your numbers work. The whole nanobrewery thing, I did not see that coming.” At the time they opened Metropolitan, though, the potential success of any type of brewery in Chicago seemed questionable at best. “I think there was a perception, at least among the old-school beer nerds in the city, that breweries didn’t last in the city, they couldn’t survive,” Doug says. “I felt that that perception was incorrect—and it turns out it was.”
The Hursts remember a meeting of the new Chicago brewers in 2010 at the Hopleaf, where they were joined by Gabriel Magliaro of Half Acre and Josh Deth of Revolution. “Michael [Roper, owner of the Hopleaf] walked by and said, ‘Whoa, the entire Chicago beer scene is sitting at one table,'” Tracy says. And Metropolitan has helped develop the rest of Chicago’s beer scene: John Laffler and Dave Bleitner of Off Color, Gary Gulley of Alarmist, and Kevin Lilly and Dave Dahl of Lo Rez all interned at Metropolitan before starting their own breweries.
A lot has changed for Metropolitan since the beginning: the Craftsman jockey box has been replaced at beer events by a pair of robots (Oscar and Mabel) with taps for hands; the brewery has moved from its original 4,500-square-foot building to a 30,000-square-foot space in Avondale with a large taproom overlooking the river; and the Hursts, now divorced, employ 11 people (they started out with no employees except themselves). What hasn’t changed—much—is the beer. Doug and Tracy started out with a commitment to brew lagers (rather than ales, which don’t take as long to make) and German-inspired beers, and they’ve never wavered. The three beers Metropolitan launched with—Krankshaft Kölsch style beer, Dynamo copper lager, and Flywheel pilsner—still make up the brewery’s core lineup, now joined by Magnetron schwarzbier and a half-dozen seasonal brews.
It’s been a slow process, Tracy says. “Making lagers takes twice as long, takes careful attention, and our whole business has reflected that over the last ten years. It takes us longer to make money, longer to grow, longer to hire people.”
But while it’s taken a while, they’ve certainly grown, and now they’re ready to celebrate their anniversary. “We’re throwing a big house party to celebrate all this hard work, and we’re bringing in friends to do everything,” Tracy says. Ten Years Lager, which takes place at the taproom on January 19, will include robot fights, interactive art installations, food from the Radler and Three Legged Tacos, Metropolis coffee, a DJ and a band, and of course, lots of beer. In addition to the regular taproom lineup—which includes two coffee-infused beers on nitro—there will be a few barrel-aged offerings (one is cherry-infused Generator Doppelbock) and several firkins of Metropolitan’s regular beers infused with spices or fruit.
Doug and his brewing team have also created a tenth-anniversary beer for the event brewed in the style of a California common. “We have self-imposed restrictions that we make lagers and German-inspired beers, so I think that forces creativity,” he says. “I thought, what if we ferment [lager yeast] warm? That’s like a California common, which is a beer that German immigrants brewed in California when they had the same yeast they always used but not much refrigeration.” The result is an amber-colored beer made with lager yeast, German malts, and “American hybrid versions of German-grown hops, like Liberty and Mount Hood.”
As for what’s next for Metropolitan, Tracy says that the new bigger space will allow them to do more. “When we were in Ravenswood we were too cramped, so we couldn’t fit one-off [collaboration] brews. We’ll do more collabs here now that we have the space. We’ll expand [distribution] this year into some neighboring states,” she says.
And now that they’ve gotten their wish for more breweries in Chicago, has the field become too competitive? Both Tracy and Doug say no. “We all know each other; when someone has a problem they can reach out and get help from others in the area in the industry. We share our yeast, sometimes someone needs hops or grain,” Doug says. Tracy adds, “Beer seems to be one of those industries that’s unusually friendly with each other.” v