An Interview Over Lager with Tracy Hurst of Metropolitan Brewing
INTERVIEWED DECEMBER 12, 2017
AT METROPOLITAN BREWING - AVONDALE, CHICAGO
It's easy to forget that less than ten years ago, the Chicago brewing scene was a shadow of what it is today. Before we were approaching nearly 200 area breweries, there were only a few pioneers brewing in a city obsessed with beer from anywhere and everywhere else.
One of the earliest adopters to this modern movement was Metropolitan Brewing. Founded by then husband and wife Doug and Tracy Hurst, the brewery established itself in a niche few others ventured – traditional lagers. More than a decade later, little has changed on the beer front. Metro continues to put out some of the best respected, consistent, lagered beers in the Midwest. What has changed is the setting. Spawned by the incredible reception from drinkers and an unwavering dedication to the style, the brewery opened a stunningly beautiful riverfront taproom in the Avondale neighborhood late last year.
Over several pints of lager, we sat down with Tracy to find out how her small team sticks to their guns in a constantly changing industry, how their new space came to be, and if she sees herself as a role model for women in a male dominated industry.
Can we start by saying we love the new taproom? The vibe here is completely unique.
I'm glad you like it. I think about how it feels in here every day.
When you started the brewery over on Ravenswood Ave. in 2007, you've said it wasn't a goal to open a taproom, but you grew into wanting it. Why the wait?
Well, we did research in the Pacific Northwest 10-15 years ago. Taprooms are a thing out there. There are a lot of breweries and they all have taprooms. But the laws here at the time allowed you to be a brewery or a brewpub. We didn't want to do food so we got the brewer's license. Honestly, it was just Doug and I doing everything so we wouldn't have done this right anyway.
How long was it just the two of you?
Well, Brandon [Baker] came on board around 2009. So about a year, we did everything, along with our volunteers. Brandon and Logan [Lippencott], the two people who have been with us the longest, came to us as volunteers.
What made you realize, "Hey, it's time for a new space?"
We figured it out right around the time Half Acre opened Lincoln Avenue. When they opened their retail location, you could do that with the city of Chicago license but you still couldn't do a taproom. Then things changed. Gabe [Magliaro, Co-Founder] and I talk whenever we can. He was telling me about how they built their business. I knew I needed a bigger brewery.
Did you ever plan on having a public space at Ravenswood?
No. We thought about it for a minute but it's tucked too tightly into that neighborhood. The kind of crowds we draw would have caused us a lot more trouble. We thought it was going to be super quaint to put a brewery in a residential area. Won't everyone love us, because breweries are great! No, we definitely had some haters. It's because we were doing manufacturing.
And none of those issues here.
That's the glorious part about being here, in an industrial area. We talked to the Alderman, we talked to other business owners around here, and that was it. We all work together. So it kind of happened to us instead of us going for it. We needed a bigger place and a spot where people could hang.
The buildout took some time. How was the wait while it all came together?
I was anxious to grow. I was anxious about cash, but that never changes. But working as a divorced couple, we each have our own purview, and we're each very responsible about that. We've always both had our head in the game about what we're doing and how we want to be a part of Chicago. Anxiousness and all of that...I guess the cacophonous noise of all the hard work just drowned it out.
What was here before Metro?
In the 1800's, this building was a tannery. When the stock yards were in operation, hides and waste material came north up the river to the tanneries and leather makers set up along the riverfront. When we found this building, it was basically unoccupied. The goal was to try and maintain as much of the 120-year-old infrastructure as possible while turning it into a contemporary manufacturing space. Where we're sitting right now used to be a corrugated metal lean-to where kids would hold raves. Respect, because I bet a rave on the river is awesome.
Why set up shop here? There are probably "easier" spots around town.
I'm a Northsider and a lot of us who work here are Northsiders. In terms of matching with the builders and developers in this area, the Alderman and landlord are all about Chicago business. We kind of spoke the same language. It was more of a dating relationship than anything—finding people who would work with us to do the things we want.
There can't be a major city's river front that's less utilized than the Chicago River north branch.
This is a resource we all have. A lot of people don't know about it unless they're riding their bike across a bridge. We don't pay attention to it. It's not because we're ignorant, it's just a feature the city needs to focus on. We need more public space on the river so you can bring your meetings here, bring your families. See, Chicago isn't just running from bullets. We make things here.
If we ever realize our pipedream of owning a boat, will we be able to bring it here?
Well, we are putting up a dock! We're in talks with a couple different boating companies. The thing is, some of the stuff that goes on the lake is too big to come up here. But there are other smaller outfits that can make it. We'll get a lot of kayaks and canoes.
You graduated with a psychology degree, but then took to photography?
Yea, I had a photography studio out of my home. I did mostly portraits like actors, artists, dancers, performers, that type of thing. That all kind of came to an end. I also worked...and not a lot of people know this...as a professional Middle Eastern dancer for six years.
That's an usual career path — Psych, to photography, to belly dancing...
Yea, it's a bohemian thing. It's always been my quest to not have a proper job.
You founded the brewery with your then-husband Doug [Hurst]. How did this all get started?
We've been divorced for five years, so we were still together when the brewery started. He went to Siebel and started working on a business plan. He actually went to Goose Island when he came back and tried to get a job. They paid shit and there were no benefits. He was a grown ass man and needed that. I had already written a bit of a business plan so we worked on that together. We formed the company in April of '07, spent the year getting investors, and got Ravenswood in June 2008. I wasn't even going to be a part of it but he said, "I don't know shit about running a business, I just want to make a beer." Like a lot of geniuses, which he is, he is really good at making beer... period. I'm a little more flighty and good at a number of things but not nearly as smart as he is. So I closed the studio, I stopped working on my book, and retired from dance. All of which I was glad for except for the book, and maybe someday I'll get back to it.
There can't be many people who could run a business with someone they were in a relationship with. How have you been able to set that aside?
Actually, it's not uncommon in brewing. Alaskan Brewing is run by a divorced couple. Kim Jordan and her ex-husband are still active at New Belgium. Up at Ale Asylum, one of the founders and the head of marketing are a divorced couple. So it does happen, I don't know if it's a beer thing or a longevity thing.
In terms of us, we've always really respected each other's skills. Even though we're not partners anymore, we're still really good friends. We've known each other for more than 20 years. You get a divorce and all that shit you hate about your spouse that you had to muscle through...now you're divorced. Now you can gripe about it. You can say, "You suck and here's why." The marriage was on the shitter before the brewery even started. But the brewery gave us something to focus us that was bigger than us. I think on some level we knew that. When the brewery grew legs and got stable, that's when we were able to look at each other and say, "Enough is enough."
That has to be a testament to each other that you're both still in brewing.
Well, we both love what we do. And hopefully we're both getting better at what we do. Honestly, if people said, you can run a brewery anyway you want, and here are your choices...if one of those was running Metropolitan Brewing, a german-style brewery with your ex-husband, I'd pick it. It has a lot to do with the beer.
Speaking of the beer, your focus has always been lagers. Why keep to one approach?
I come from a very traditional small business viewpoint. There are a lot of tenets and old time 60's, 70's, and 80's tendencies. Differentiation, filling a niche—these are all basic tenets of doing small business. So when Doug came back from Germany, he was talking about all these beers we have imported here and how the experience is completely different there. It's fresher, it's right there, it hasn't been shipped. This is how German beer should taste. No one was doing it here, and there were a lot good reasons. It takes too long, it requires more resources, they're more expensive, and harder to make. We were going to be the kings and queens of that.
Still, that must have been a challenge. No one was doing it here on such a small scale.
When you're building a business plan, you don't always take the fastest, money making route. You just make your numbers work through things like cross training our staff, keeping things efficient, and not spending money on a lot of bells and whistles. That meant we could make these beers and dedicate ourselves to them. Ultimately, the question was, does Doug have the skills to make these beers consistently? And he sure as shit does. Here's the trick—here in the United States, we think this is so unusual. The minute you step out of the country, people around the world drink lagered beer, for going on 200 years now.
A lot of people brew a lager. Most end up focusing on something hoppy. Why stick to your guns?
Well, whenever someone wants to start a business, I tell them, do your homework. Read about it, read the press, read the history. What's happened where you're setting up shop already. There's a great reason why IPAs are where they are. In the late 70's, Jimmy Carter legalized homebrewing. What was out there at the time was all the macros—pissy thin, over carbonated lager. So if you're opening up shop in contrary to something like that, what are you going to do? Big, juicy, gargantuan beers that are in stark contrast to what you're competing against. But to us, that also meant that's a reactionary move. So, instead of being way out here, what's sort of in the middle of doing beer business. You appeal to the nerds. But where your money is made is from your major demographic. To us, that's German immigrants, people born of German immigrants, the Polish, and others like Indians and Pakistanis. These are all people that drink lager.
And your Milwaukee upbringing coming through...
Oh yes, that too. I'm very Polish.
It seems like we're vanguarding. But really, these are beer styles that have been making people happy for a long time. They're obviously not going anywhere. A pilsner, it's like coffee. It's a thing you have.
But there's still that urge for creativity. Where do you find room to push the boundary within the lager spectrum?
By doing things that are unique to this country. Schwarzbier, for example. Doing our first one seemed like a big deal but the first one was brewed in 1490. But to our market, it's a new cool thing. We'll dig deeper into the German portfolio. We're get more experimental. Peter, our lead brewer, is great at experimental brewing. He did an actual Geuze over three years of blending. Logan, our cellar master, developed Jet Stream, which is kind of the honorary brew for this space. The guys are all into continuing education and continuing to learn, because that's sustainable. We're good, but we could always get better and we're stoked to figure out how.
Are you going to have any taproom-only brews?
Oh yea, experimental stuff. Stuff we want to try out on people, collab stuff we do small batches of, the Haus Helles we brew for the Radler in Logan.
What else is in your fridge? Just lagers there too?
Well, any time a friend puts out a lager, we try it. Around here, we keep Half Acre, Lagunitas, Hopewell, Lo-Rez, Alarmist.... We always try the lagers, but the guys like barrel-aged beers. These are all really beer nerd people. I take myself out of the group because I like beer too but my tastes have transitioned elsewhere. I used to be all across the country collecting badges at all the beer fests. But now, I walk into Half Acre and they just hand me a Pony. I love it, they do such a good job of it. I have my favorites, the guys have theirs. Yuzu Fierce, I love that beer. I demand the first two cases off the line every year. We keep the locals around but honestly, we keep High Life, Hamms, and PBR here too. We seem hypocritical but these are beers we were brought up on.
You must have been excited to see Dovetail jump on the lager train in Chicago?
It's awesome. People who come out of the gate making good lagers automatically get cred with us because we understand how hard it is.
So to stay sane in this environment, what are you doing?
I'm a yogi, I'm a vegan. I take good care of myself. I'm a hedonist, I want to feel awesome all the time. The whole team is pretty dedicated to being strong and healthy.
Is that a new thing for you?
I've always been like that, my whole life. It's just something I've always liked doing. I like feeling able-bodied. I feel like if you keep yourself healthy, you don't wake up with a hangover every morning, and you put good food in your body, you can do your job better. You can be someone to look up to and rely on. They know they can contact me at a certain time and I'll be there to fight for them. Everything is easier when you feel good.
You're certainly a pioneer in the Chicago beer scene but still one of the few women who do what you do. Do you feel any weight on your shoulders to represent that?
That's an interesting question. I feel like my motivations and intent are good. So if I am the face of women and beer in Chicago, I'm not afraid of that and I think I can do it service. But there are a lot of us, more and more.
It's still largely a male dominated industry. Have you ever run into issues with that?
For the first time ever for women in this world, the words falling out of our fucking faces are being paid attention to. So no matter what other social awkwardness we have, it's important to focus on that. The brewing industry is just like the rest of the world — men and women acting stupid to each other. I still want to be able to tell dick jokes. It's just now we have to understand how we can do that and still show each other some respect.
In terms of the beer world itself, yea there's the occasional inappropriateness. More so where you face it is out in the world — people who come up to my table at Mariano's or Whole Foods. I have a lot of tattoos. There are people who barely hide their shock that I have a lot of responsibility. I usually turn it around on them. "Come for the breasts, stay for the beer." But if what I do inspires women in my world, then fuck yea, let's do it.
Photography by Ben Macri.
A huge thank you to Tracy for spending an evening, sharing stories with us over a few pints of lager. Visit Metropolitan's beautiful riverfront taproom to try the beer yourself or find it at many-a-bar around town and throughout the state.