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Welcome to the World of Ørkenoy, Chicago’s Weird and Whimsical Brewery

September 25, 2020

By Sarah Freeman, September 25, 2020

I spend most of my days lately dreaming about hopping on a plane to faraway land filled with expotic spoils. Instead of cruising for cheap flight deals, I open a bottle of wine or a can of beer and let the liquid, in a way, give me a taste of somewhere that’s located outside the four walls of my apartment. Ørkenoy, a new brewery and creative gathering space in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, offers its own means of escape from these monotonous days.

To call the project a whimsical one would be an understatement. Having devised a fictional land known as the Ø Verse, the Ørkenoy team worked with illustrator Katie Lukes to make a map of territories, each filled with critters and creatures that share their names with the brewery’s beers. For now, the team is exploring Humble Park alongside new friends like Stupendous Gustav, a camera-toting frog that lends its name to a Catharina-style sour, a kettle sour fruit beer, brewed with pink guava and prickly pear. Each season, the team will introduce a new territory inhabited by new creatures inspired by the seasonal brews.

“I’m a nerd for mythological, medieval, mystical kinds of stories,” co-owner, head brewer, and guitarist for indie-rock band The Kickback Johnny Ifergan tells me about the origin of the name and its affiliated wonderland. Ifergan was drawn to the name, which is a rough combination of two Danish words “ørken” meaning desert and “ø” meaning island, because of how it sounded. “[It] was important to me because I came from a background of a lot of different languages. I also loved the fact that there was nothing attached to it.”

Jim Vondruska

The name also takes a cue from Nordic influences that are woven throughout the beer and food menu as well as some of the space’s design elements. “Johnny had always been intrigued by farmhouse ales and the Nordic traditions,” says co-founder and executive chef Ryan Sanders. “It started there and with a love of mid-century modern and those design aesthetics. Something minimal but still warm was what we were going for—those were the two beginning points of it.”

Working with the same design team behind Hopewell’s minimalist look, the taproom channels “Oslo meets Palm Springs,” according to Sanders. A teal and pale pink color palette garlands the warehouse-like space: on the walls, speckled in the terrazzo tables, and in the murals painted outside the brick building. A large bar takes up most of the interior, with socially distanced tables filling the remainder. Although there’s no outdoor seating, the team has added a walk-up window for carryout service.

Opening soon next door is Dayglow, a coffee shop overseen by Ifergan’s brother. It’s worth noting that they are both located in the Kimball Arts Center, near the popular elevated Bloomingdale Trail. Because of this,the Ørkenoy team has committed to regularly host neighborhood outreach and arts programs such as classes and food drives. The brewery, which is closed on Tuesday, will also make its space available to nonprofits and community groups free of charge. “I wanted to do something arts-focused and community-oriented, ideally in a build that is already doing the same thing,” Ifergan says.

Jim Vondruska

With all of this happening under one roof, it can be a challenge to wrap your head around all that is Ørkenoy. “It’s really about creating this space as one unit where everything feels intentional: the food, the cocktail program, the wine list is just as important as the other thing, so the beer nerd can come in and bring their friend who only drinks cocktails or just come in for a nice meal,” Sanders says.

For the food menu, Sanders created a Danish-style spread that consists mostly of open-faced sandwiches, or smørrebrød. “It sounds weird when you say the word ‘smørrebrød’, but it’s just stuff on bread,” Sanders says. His take on this “stuff” is local, heirloom tomato and goat cheese or fried spam, gochujang aioli, egg jam, and kimchi. Even the bar snacks take on a Scandinavian twist in the form of popcorn dusted with anchovies and garlic.

The team is hardly limited by their Scandinavian inspiration and is already hosting pop-ups that explore other regional cuisines. Prior to its official opening weekend, Ørkenoy offered up jianbing, a Chinese crepe, with a side of house-made chili crisp. And while the beer program is rooted in traditional Nordic farmhouse ales, Ifergan’s multicultural background equally influences what ends up on tap.

“It all comes down to my love of cereal. [I was] born in Mexico with tortillas and maize. My family is from Morocco and France, so baguette, croissant—everything is just bread, bread, bread. With beer, I got really excited because it was all these different grains,” Ifergan says. “The smell of mashing in was catharsis—it’s the same feeling I get when I’m playing shows.” After working at Lagunitas and Whiner during the height of the hop craze, Ifergan wanted his brewery to be more malt-focused.

To help bring his cereal-inspired vision to life, Ifergan worked with Sugar Creek Malt to secure raw ingredients that are not only high-quality and local, but also unlike anything else in the country. Last year, the family-owned malthouse constructed a såinnhus in an old barn on its property in Indiana. This centuries-old technique involves laying malt over a bare floor, turning the grains by hand, and then drying them over a wood fire.

One beer on Ørkenoy’s opening menu that showcases this special malt is Pierre Boon. The Hornindal-style maltøl raw ale, or Noewegian farmhouse ale, is named after a tomcat that used to roam the fields around Sugar Creek Malt. The funky, herbal brew quickly became a bestseller at the week-old brewery. For the less adventurous drinker, there’s Budgie Powderhorn, a bright and crispy dry-hopped Appalachian maize ale. “It’s using yeast, techniques, herbs, stuff that you would find in the Nordic and Estonian regions, but also trying to make things a lot more drinkable, and delicate, and nuanced, and not so in-your-face,” Ifergan explains.

You won’t find an IPA on the menu, and that’s just one of the many ways that Ørkenoy is different from all of the other breweries in the city. Everything, from the color of the bar, to the fact that you can order an MLT (mushroom, lettuce, tomato) alongside maize ale, the classes hosted by local artists are a cues that Ørkenoy is carving out its place in the community by offering a welcoming space for everybody.

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