Let’s face it, the suburbs aren’t cool. Une Annee founder and head brewer Jerry Nelson didn’t move his brewery from Chicago’s industrial Fulton Market area 20 miles northwest to suburban Niles to be near the village’s idiosyncratic local landmark, the Leaning Tower of Niles. He did so for the same reason that many families migrate from cities to the suburbs: You get more for your money in the suburbs.
For roughly the same rent Nelson was paying for a modest warehouse space in Chicago, he is renting a retail location with ample parking that enables him to operate a taproom while doubling his brewing output this year. He even has the room to triple his 700-barrel production in the future. Moreover, Niles lacks Chicago’s stringent codes and regulations, which meant that Nelson could open his brewery in January –at least a year earlier than it would have taken him to open his doors had he located in the city.
Of course, it’s the suburbs, and so it shouldn’t be surprising the taproom is located in the most suburban of retail locations – a strip mall, which Une Annee shares with a Korean barbecue restaurant and an Indian movie theater.
“I know, it’s odd,” Nelson says. While an urban setting enabled a brewery like Half Acre to open in a space with a 50-foot frontage on a major street, those kinds of properties don’t exist in the suburbs. In the suburbs, you have to use the available real estate. And a strip mall is where you can get a small space with a 25- or 50-foot frontage.
As the craft beer boom matures, a number of burgeoning breweries are outgrowing their urban settings and following the path worn by families for decades: moving to the suburbs. But does that change the way the breweries operate? Or how they think about their lineup?
“Not at all,” Nelson says. After all, for breweries that have devoted followings, like Une Annee or Mikerphone, there are plenty of people who will make the trek from the city – or other suburbs – to visit the breweries’ taprooms. For instance, on Mikerphone’s opening day on March 18, the first people arrived at brewery around 8:45 or so even though the brewery’s tap room and bottle shop didn’t open until noon. While there had been chatter on BeerAdvocate about the opening, Mikerphone Brewing founder and head brewer Mike Pallen didn’t fully understand the reaction they would receive. “It was insane,” he says.
Pallen located Mikerphone near his house in suburban Park Ridge, Ill. so that he’d have a shorter commute. Pallen, who had brewed his beers at Une Annee, was tired of a commute that could take 45 minutes to an hour and a half. “I’d get up at 4:45 to beat traffic,” he says. “But I got sick of planning my life around traffic.” Now, with his brewery in an industrial park in Elk Grove Village, Ill., his drive is about 15 minutes.
However, there are some costs to locating a brewery in the suburbs, Nelson says. While Une Annee’s taproom makes up about a quarter of the brewery’s business, he thinks the percentage would be higher had he opened a taproom in a congested, public transportation-friendly neighborhood in Chicago, such as the city’s so-called Ravenswood Brewery Corridor that’s home to a half dozen breweries.
It didn’t take long to realize that there’s nothing out here. People were thirsty for it.”
Pallen takes a different perspective, believing his location is an advantage. Mikerphone is the lone brewery in Elk Grove Village, a community that’s minutes from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Rosemont’s Allstate Arena that’s home to the AHL’s Chicago Wolves and DePaul Blue Demons, and Schaumburg’s colossal Woodfield Mall that’s the largest shopping mall in the state.
“As soon as we started building out the brewery, we’d get knocks on the door with people asking, ‘Are you putting a brewery here?’” he says. “There are a lot of people, including a lot of young families, that live out here. If we were way out there I think it might be different. But we’re tucked in between Chicago and the immediate suburbs.”
That wasn’t Pallen’s plan. He located the brewery where he wanted it. But, “it didn’t take long to realize that there’s nothing out here,” he says. “People were thirsty for it.”
Since Mikerphone’s opening weekend, the taproom has had a steady of flow of business, including a number of people unfamiliar with Mikerphone’s distinct style of big-flavored, bold beers, such as Dynamite with a Laserbeam, a saison aged in wine puncheons on cherries, blueberries and raspberries. Or the appropriately named Rockin’ The Suburbs, a double IPA brewed with El Dorado and Galaxy hops.
That’s fine with Pallen. He wants the brewery to have broad appeal for families by having high chairs, installing changing tables and selling kid-friendly snacks and for people who are looking for “something light,” Pallen says.
“I’ve learned to dedicate a certain percentage of beers to fit that crowd,” he says. “I want to make sure that we have something like a kolsch so that we have something to offer people who aren’t beer geeks. We want to be a place where everyone is welcome and can come in and work or hold a lunch meeting.”
Given that Mikerphone’s facility enables the brewery to have a threefold increase in production, Pallen figures he can brew more of his idiosyncratic beers while, at the same time, making some less adventurous beers. Business is business after all. And perhaps, in time, he can draw them into more adventurous beers.
Une Annee, which specializes in fruited sours, takes a different tack. While Une Annee’s sister brand Hubbard’s Cave focuses on American-style IPAs and stouts, Nelson only dedicates – at most – four of the taproom’s 12 tap handles to the line. Hubbard’s Cave beers account for about a quarter of the brewery’s output and, a few months after opening, those more familiar beers don’t sell any better than the brewery’s sours. “I don’t see IPAs moving faster than our Belgian-style beers,” he says. “People come in looking for what known for and that’s Belgian ales.”
The reason both Une Annee and Mikerphone moved, of course, was to increase their production. They are, after all, production breweries looking to expand into new markets to get new people into their beers. And both believe that sticking to what they know is the best way to do so.
But just as countless families have found, the suburbs also offer some benefits. “Everything is so much simpler here,” Nelson says. “In the city, every single thing was a chore. No truck wanted to come down my alley. Unloading grain and bottles was a pain. Now, trucks pull right up behind the brewery and unload. That stuff helps.”
Maybe the suburbs aren’t so bad after all.