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With Bungalow, Middle Brow Is Building a Home for Social Justice

March 04, 2019

By Maggie Hennessy, March 04, 2019

In the early 20th century, the square bungalow became the dominant style of single-family housing in Chicago. Built en masse along the city’s edges to attract an exploding middle class population looking to claim its slice of the American Dream, the detached brick cottages with low-pitched roofs came to be known as Chicago bungalows.

It’s no coincidence that socially conscious Chicago brewery Middle Brow Beer Co. christened its newly opened Logan Square brewpub “Bungalow,” too. The first brick-and-mortar location for this nomadic, experimental contract brewery, it represents a homecoming eight years in the making. On a deeper level, Bungalow portrays a reclamation of the middle class ideal based on a business model that corrects inequality through community investment.

“It’s more than just the zeitgeist of this generation,” says co-founding partner Pete Rock Ternes, a former corporate tax lawyer. “It relates to seeing an imbalance in the world and feeling massive internal anxiety because of it. We want to do what we can to fix it.”

Stephanie Byce, Good Beer Hunting

It’s a misty, gray February day when I sit down with Ternes and partner and brewmaster Bryan Grohnke. Natural light floods the soaring brewpub outfitted in a white marble bar, custom furniture, and tall plants. Three hulking foeders—large wooden vats used for aging wine and mixed-culture beers—preside over the space like guardians.

Ternes—wearing a close-cropped beard, workman pants, and Birkenstocks sandals with socks—tells me early in the conversation that before he became a Manhattan lawyer, he spent some five months volunteering on organic farms around the world through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, totally unplugged and subsisting on dried lentils, Oreos, hand-rolled cigarettes, wine, and bread he made using coconut water.

“It was a true A/B test,” he says. “When I went and worked as a lawyer, and I acquired a lot of money, I realized it didn’t make me any happier than when I had almost nothing.”

Balance is deeply important to how Ternes operates. Since founding Middle Brow in 2011, he, Grohnke and partner Nick Burica have donated more than half their gross profits from every beer release to local social-justice organizations focused on issues like violence prevention and women’s health, totaling roughly $20,000, per Ternes’s estimates.

It’s a model that, he owns, “does not work unless you come from money, which we didn’t.”

Now that they have a physical brewpub and need for upwards of 30 staff, they’re upping the ante on a viable social-justice business model, creating a workforce-training program that provides employment and on-site social work to men and women from at-risk populations on the west side.

Stephanie Byce, Good Beer Hunting

It’s been a long road to get here.

Initially, the trio figured they’d contract brew for a year while they cemented their identity and scouted a physical location. One year turned into seven, brewing across half a dozen Chicago-area breweries while Ternes worked odd jobs to keep them afloat and Grohnke and Burica divided their time between Middle Brow and their then-full-time gigs as a data analyst and electrical engineer, respectively.

Early buy-in from influential restaurants like Lula Cafe and Au Cheval gave them the confidence to push on, growing and honing their lineup of beers that walk the line of likeable and weird, often incorporating multiple yeast strains.

Middle Brow’s longest flagship, Robyn, is a farmhouse blonde ale blending Belgian saison yeast and Belgian abbey yeast to achieve a nose like hefeweizen and palate that starts honey-sweet before giving way to pepper, clove, and quiet funk. The spelt-based 100 percent brettanomyces Check the Charts, dry-hopped with experimental BRU-1 and comet hops, upends preconceptions about brett beers only being sour, with unripe strawberry flavors tinged with earth. The brewery didn’t make an IPA till 2017, when it released the fruity, bitter, and nostalgic B&L in Rainbows, a farmhouse milkshake IPA containing four or five different yeast strains.

“There’s lot of familiarity, but then there’s that one beautiful little nuance, like, ‘What the fuck’s going on in here?’” Grohnke says.

Stephanie Byce, Good Beer Hunting

Enamored with the agrarian aspects of beer-making, the team kicked around the idea of establishing a farmhouse brewery outside the city. But opening a brewpub in a population-dense neighborhood made more financial sense amid increasingly fierce competition in Chicago’s exploding craft beer market.

Bungalow opened in February, in a former camera shop Ternes had been eyeing for five years. Early in the day, it operates a bakery and coffee shop that peddles housemade whole-grain loaves to-go ands toasts with novel toppings like turmeric milk jam and cream cheese. Starting at 3 p.m., the kitchen slings pizzas made from two-day-fermented dough and topped with buttery mushrooms or papas bravas.

House-brewed beer flows all day from 12 taps, including a brilliantly clear namesake house lager that—for the record—goes down dangerously easy with a slice of pizza. The aforementioned foeders will play a key role in small-batch experimental brews Grohnke is cooking up, though he’s tight-lipped about how he’ll use them beyond aging mixed-culture beers. For the time being, Middle Brow will continue to make most of its packaged beer under contract.

Stephanie Byce, Good Beer Hunting

Ternes is first to admit that breweries like Bungalow represent one of numerous gentrifying forces threatening to displace long-held communities on Chicago’s West and South sides. Middle Brow’s solution is to combat that through programming like the workforce training initiative, which will roll out this summer starting with one or two employees. The team has applied for a 501(c)(3) exemption for a separate entity that will manage the work-training program.

“We need to hire people anyway, so why not hire those who have worked their entire lives to avoid some of the traps common in the more underserved neighborhoods in the city?” he says.

He mentions Chicago CRED, which gives jobs to men likely to be perpetrators or victims of shootings, as well as Lawrence Hall, which provides care to abused and neglected youth, among the organizations he’d like to work with. The brewery will also hire an on-site social worker who is well-versed in those communities to oversee the program, a part-time position they’ll pay for in part through crowdfunding.

This month, the brewpub started offering free Saturday breakfast to Chicago Public Schools children in need, which will eventually be weekly. During those days diners also have the option to add $1 to their bill to help feed food-insecure families in the neighborhood.

But much of the rest—which also includes plans for an onsite community garden serving local homeless-services populations—is still just a framework, an ideal. Ternes understands that proving out the social-justice brewpub model depends on plenty of factors, not least of all Middle Brow’s long-term financial viability. From there, effecting lasting change begins with the owners’ collective decision to forgo certain profit centers in favor of a stable middle-class life, their own proverbial Chicago bungalow.

“If we make enough money to pay our investors back and run a sustainable business for a long time, the question becomes how much money do we, the owners, need?” he asks. “Where will that money come from to support that social revolution? From our profits.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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