BACK OF THE YARDS, CHICAGO
Sustainably Brewed: Crafting Green Beer with Brian Taylor & Ria Neri of Whiner Beer Co.
INTERVIEWED JANUARY 9, 2017
AT WHINER BEER CO. - BACK OF THE YARDS, CHICAGO
While the craft beer landscape has never been so vibrant, there's no doubt the seemingly endless stream of new brewery openings often falls into the "same old" category. After all, how many breweries have you been to recently that feature the same four to five opening day styles in a generic looking taproom?
Straying far from the beaten path is Whiner Beer Co. in Chicago's Back Of The Yards neighborhood. Seconds upon arrival, it's clear there's something special happening at this South Side brewery. Located in The Plant, undoubtedly Chicago's greenest collection of businesses under one roof, founders Brian Taylor and Ria Neri are at the helm of the city's most unique brewery. Built on sustainable zero waste practices, the brewery serves up barrel focused beers in their beautiful taproom and through distribution across the city. We sat down with Brian and Ria to find out how the two came together, their brewery's quirky look, and why they've chosen to do everything the hard way.
Brian, what was it that lead you to start Whiner?
Brian Taylor: I didn't get into brewing like the normal homebrewer. I was actually in college getting a biology degree, and I worked part time for Flying Dog out in Denver on their bottling line.
That sounds better than the average college gig. What led you there?
BT: It was clearly just for free booze at the time. But I was really into it, too. I was 21 working for Flying Dog–and that was super cool.
And relevant to your degree.
BT: Yea, they kind of got me into the science part of brewing. I was already into biology, so it was kind of a perfect fit for me.
And you stuck with it after graduation?
BT: That was when I decided to go to Siebel. I had never been to Chicago–but I liked the idea of it–so I applied for the scholarship. Eric Warner, the old Brewmaster at Flying Dog, wrote this awesome letter for me–Eric is a badass in our industry. Siebel gave me the scholarship, it was totally random. It was just like, "Ok, I guess I'm doing this now." I wouldn't have done it if I didn't get the scholarship. I just didn't have the money.
What would you have done?
BT: I might have tried UC Davis if I could have found the money somewhere. I would have probably just kept being an apprentice.
Do you think we would be having this conversation, here in your taproom, if you'd gone that route?
BT: Well, maybe... I think experience is just as equal to education. Even at Siebel at that time, it was more about macro production than craft beer. Eighty percent of them were from companies like Interbrew and AmBev — the big South American, Belgian, and Chinese brewers. It was a much different setup at Siebel back then. But there were a few kids into craft beer in my class. A lot of them were homebrewers looking to get in who hadn't worked in a brewery before. They knew all the stuff on paper, but had none of the experience. It held them back. I was glad I had that job at Flying Dog where I could at least piece together what they were talking about. I would hear "manifold," and I knew what that was!
So now you have a shiny new degree from Siebel. What was next?
BT: I left Flying Dog right after Siebel and went to Boulevard in Kansas City. I worked for them from '04-'07.
What were you doing there?
BT: I started as a brewer and then became a lab tech. It was kind of a new gig we did where I was a middle man between the brewers and the lab. It was just basic sampling, stuff like that. Steven Pauwels is their Brewmaster, and he's like my idol. I love him to death. He's this Belgian guy who worked at Stella Artois way back in the day. He's the smartest guy in the industry. I followed him every day and just watched him. Brewing is a lot of the same thing every day when you're at a huge brewery like Boulevard. So it was a change of pace for me to go into the lab.
And after that, you moved on to Goose Island?
BT: I got in with Goose Island as a lab tech and then moved to the head cellaring position when Phil Wymore left to start Perennial.
How much did your time in the cellar at Goose influence your brewing preferences today, at Whiner?
BT: A lot. We learned with Saison-Brett at Boulevard, but I didn't know much about Brettanomyces at all back then. We were still so scared of it. Then, when I got to Goose, Mary [then lab leader at Goose Island] was the 'Brett queen.' She had done Matilda, knew the differences in strains, got me into Kombucha way back then, and showed me it was the same wild yeast and bacteria that we used for our projects in the brewery. That totally entrenched me into the wild and bacteria side of beer...
Ria, how did you decide you, too, wanted to start a brewery?
Ria Neri: I used to homebrew. It was just a hobby that I did every weekend but I really liked it. When I immerse myself in something, I really focus on it. So I'd read about beer without any other notion of doing it later on. I decided to take a couple classes at Siebel—like Master of Beer Styles—no brewing classes though, I couldn't afford them. A friend of mine who I was homebrewing with said, "Hey, I'm starting up a bar. We should start a brewery!" And I said, "Who's gonna brew?" He's like, "Well you are because you're taking all these classes." Yea, but my beers sucked, so there's no way I was doing that. Their project eventually became a beer bar—Bangers & Lace.
Oh, just a small little beer bar in the city. And you ended up running the beer program, correct?
RN: I had never run a bar before. This is how naive I was to this whole process—I had no idea how distribution worked. I actually had to search, "How do you get beer?" I remember meeting with the distributors with my list of beers. It was beers like Lost Abbey Duck Duck Gooze, and other stuff like that. They looked at me like, "There were only two kegs of this, and that was two years ago." Oh...so that's how that works. But I think they were a little intrigued by me. I really didn't have a clue, I just ordered what I wanted to taste.
BT: She's a sales rep's dream. She finds and buys all the rare stuff.
RN: Oh yea, I was just so naive. The bar owners would call me out on the cost of some of them. I remember getting beers from Italy that were $500 a barrel. But that was great, because then I could get Cantillon. People would just give me stuff. I thought that was because they liked me, but it was just because it was good for their pockets.
BT: You sold the Sisters [Goose Island Sour Sisters], before many bars bought those.
RN: Yea, I would always have BCS on tap. I didn't even have to ask for it. It was just, "Ria, take this."
So you're a beer buyer at Bangers & Lace. Brian's a cellarman at Goose. How did you two connect?
RN: We met at Bangers & Lace, through Phil Wymore. He said to me, "I know a guy who wants to start a brewery..."
BT: Ria and I just hit it off. That was in 2010. We didn't come here, to The Plant, until 2013.
RN: And we both liked saisons, Belgian styles, and sours.
So what were you doing from 2010 to 2013?
BT: Raising money. It's totally organic how it happened. It wasn't like we decided we were going to build a brewery one day in 2010. We kind of hung out, we homebrewed together...
RN: Ha, it was so funny! I had this 10-gallon pilot system.
BT: It was the best pilot system I'd ever seen in my life.
RN: I used to start with malt extract, then I decided to do the cooler thing–with the all grain. Then I moved up to this pilot system. It was in my friend's kitchen.
Where the heck was he living where he could fit a system like that in his kitchen?
BT: On the South Side. You can do anything on the South Side.
RN: It was so funny though. We were going to brew this thing together and when it came down to it, he said, "How do you do this?"
BT: Oh, I had no idea. I'd never homebrewed in my life. Never once. I've brewed 150-barrel batches at a time, but I had no idea on this scale.
Let's talk about this building, known as The Plant. Was it always the plan to have a brewery in this space?
BT: Yea, Ale Syndicate, who just shut down, were looking here–but at the time they were called 'New Chicago Brewing' I think.
Yup, I recall they were first slotted to brew here. They were our first Chicago interview on The Hop Review, back in 2012.
BT: We have people thinking we're that brewery all the time. They didn't do anything here, they just had wanted to move here, and that was it. I think they had a few articles written about them before they even raised a dollar. When we started doing our thing, people just assumed that's who we were.
So The Plant folks must have been pretty happy when you approached them.
BT: John [Edel, owner of The Plant] wanted a brewery in here obviously. We got along with John, and we liked the sustainability part. Breweries are super wasteful and I don't like it. I actually loved that about Goose Island. They hired Ian Hughes, who's a 'green guru' for brewing. I would be mad at him for the first year because doing that takes time and changes. You have to find places to hold stuff while you're waiting to figure out where the malt or yeast goes, rather than just dump it down the drain which is what we always used to do. So it was a learning experience for me but I appreciated it. When I heard John was doing this, he had an anaerobic digester, and we could be zero waste, that was really cool to me.
Now you're part of The Plant, how has that affected your plans as 'Whiner?'
BT: Well we have zero waste. For instance, spent grain—as much as breweries want to tell you it goes to farmers, most small breweries don't do that. It goes in the garbage. Few farmers are going to pick up such a small amount in the city. Our spent grain right now goes into soil production to make more vegetables and fruits. Our anaerobic digester is already built out there. Once we get the inside part of it done, the turbine and all of that, we can actually create our own energy off our own waste. Yeast, troob, spent hops—all of that can go in it.
How does the anaerobic digester work?
BT: A dump truck literally dumps organic waste into a pit. An auger pushes it in, and then it sits in the tube. Over time, it creates methane gas. The gas is pushed into a bubble, where it can be stored. It just waits there until it needs to be used.
And that powers anything in the building?
BT: For now, it's for powering the boiler to make more beer and heat in the building. They're working on a master plan of creating energy off a turbine. So gas gets pushed through a turbine, it spins, and that creates energy to put on our own grid so we can have our own energy.
How far does that go here? Does it include the taproom?
RN: It's mostly about being aware of it. I remember starting here and thinking, where am I going to put this piece of plastic? I'm going to have to take it home, I don't know where to put it!
BT: Oh yea, we have compost piles so you have to separate your food from whatever plate you're using before you put it away.
RN: Everyone is working toward the zero waste goal.
BT: The bigger picture is—is what we all produce here, whether it's beer, coffee, kombucha—are we creating a product for someone else within the building? Ria has a lot of waste from her coffee...
RN: I also have a coffee roaster in the building–Four Letter Word.
BT: ...that's then used to create mushrooms for someone else.
RN: So instead of me throwing out the waste, I don't have to. My burlap bags get used by the microgreens place.
We've been chatting for a while now and haven't even mentioned the beer. You're focused on barrel-aged wild fermentation here—certainly not the easiest way to do things. Was that the plan from the beginning?
BT: Yea, literally from the beginning. We both love the style. What you can do with barrels...it completes the brewery in my mind. It takes a lot of time, patience, and everything smells so much better in a barrel. I just like playing with them. I like putting the same beer in five different oak barrels, putting a little bit of different wild yeast or bacteria in each one, and seeing what happens with these five different beers.
It sounds like you're steering clear of the 'expected' styles.
BT: Correct. Well, I don't want to say that 100%. But we're not into that stuff, and there are so many breweries who do a much better job than I could. I'd rather they do it. I'm not a hops guy and never was. I like aroma hops—I'm as big a fan of Citra as anyone else. I've never liked the crazy high IPA stuff. I've always liked the sours. Miaou is about 27 IBU's...that's enough for me.
Your saison, Le Tub is your flagship in the market and the first beer we saw from you. Describe that to someone who's never had it.
BT: It's a beast of a beer to make because we blend our house saison with our kettle sour saison. Then we add our barrel-aged saison into that. It's a process. It's takes three days to brew one batch. That being said, we wanted a beer that was sour but approachable at the same time and to define what we are. But it's still in a can and available to the masses.
RN: Especially with us being so new.
BT: We wanted a crushable sour too. With all our beers, I feel like we strive to make beers that are drinkable and approachable. Even if they're sour, they're not super intense sours. Not to say we won't go that route in the future, but as our first flagship beer, that's what we were shooting for. A good sour for everyone.
You have an incredibly distinct art style on your cans. What's the story there?
BT: We wanted it to be this French-American onslaught combo thing. People could see Le Tub and be able to pronounce it.
RN: It's a highbrow/lowbrow thing.
BT: We try to make them dumbed down French names. We're Whiner Beer. People are already wondering, "What the fuck? Whiner Beer?" Ria did the artwork for them, and it's just so us.
RN: We're going for the 1970's French comic look.
BT: Breweries usually hire out design. We didn't have anyone telling us, "Ok, this is what you should do." Ria was just drawing shit.
And the name Whiner?
RN: Well, we age our beers in wine barrels, so hence Whiner. We were actually trying to figure out a name and someone said, "Man, you're whining too much!"
BT: Then we wanted something that was ours. Something that wasn't like "Hops & Barley" that everyone comes up with. [The name] was still kind of a mystery to people.
RN: It really grew on me.
We have to ask. Who's that character on the tap handles?
RN: It's a peeking aardvark! You always see him looking at you.
Is he on every label, too?
RN: All except the Rubrique-A-Brac. But he'll be on there eventually.
Tell us about your community here, Back of the Yards.
BT: We have a neighborhood right here, and they're super into beer.
RN: Yea they come here regularly. They say how glad they are that we're here, because they don't have anything like this down here.
BT: The markets here are on Saturday. The best part of that is it attracts all the locals. They see our taproom and how lively it is, and then I see them the next Thursday during our next open hours. I've been surprised, to be honest, how we've had decent business on Thursday nights.
Is there an education process to explaining to people exactly what it is you're making here?
BT: Yea, there's an education process.
RN: They're very open, that's for sure.
BT: I put on Et La Tête!, our Kölsch, which is a little strayed from what I do. But I thought for the taproom, it would be a good beer for locals who maybe haven't had a sour beer ever. But, getting them in the door, and then teaching them about the rest is how you do it.
RN: And the fact we make it right here in the neighborhood, that's important.
Where do you see this going in a few years, from a sustainability perspective, but also in the larger Chicago picture?
BT: Our next step is water, because breweries use a lot of it. With the anaerobic digester, we'll need organic waste. We don't have enough of it.
RN: Yea, it needs 30 tons.
BT: I've been talking to Goose Island, I've been talking to Half Acre, to take their spent grain as well. That's our sustainability plan for the next couple years. We're pretty excited about 2017. We just had our yearly review with our distributor and everyone is pretty happy. We have some plans to leave Illinois and go out to the east coast to a few cities. Nothing crazy yet though.
How big could you get in this space before you reached capacity?
BT: Once we get a decent canning line, it's going to take up a lot of space in there. We have a lot of space available downstairs, but it would get kind of weird canning down there. We'd probably end up having our barrel system downstairs. We also have the first right of refusal to the farm, so we can build a new facility on site. It's five acres, so it's plenty of space to do it.
Do you think you might act as something of a missing link to bring more breweries southward?
RN: Those will bring more people down here, too.
What are you drinking at home?
BT: I have a lot of Boulevard right now. Then I probably have about eight cases of the [Sour] Sisters lying around.
RN: I don't have too much. When I used to work at Bangers, I'd get tons of samples and I'd just flood my fridge with it. So, I have some stuff that I opened but I couldn't drink myself that's just sitting there. The other day I had to dump out a 750 mL of a Bruery beer...so that's what's in my fridge—old beer.
Well that's just sad. We won't be dumping any of this beer. Cheers!
Photography by Nick Costa.
Thank you to Mark and Ria for staying late at the brewery on their night off to tell their story. Cheers also to Head Brewer Jacob Nelson for playing matchmaker with our busy schedules. Check out Whiner Brewing's beautiful taproom Thursday through Sunday and while you're there, be sure to explore the other businesses in The Plant along with their on-site farm.