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I Solemnly Swear Not To Make Sh!tty Beer

By Paul Schneider in Food on Feb 20, 2012 5:00PM

From left: Joe Barley, Tim Marshall, and John Barley of Solemn Oath Brewery // Photo: Paul Schneider

It seems brewers have taken a cue from rats and mosquitoes. This year, Chicago will be their breeding ground, only they will give us creative new local beer rather than disease and the creeps.

Pipeworks was the first new brewery in town to put water to grain in 2012, but several of their up-and-coming brewing brethren are not far behind.

Many of these breweries have been loud and proud about their plans, but one caught our attention because they have been intriguingly tight-lipped until recently. We sat down with the partners behind Solemn Oath Brewery, brothers John and Joe Barley—yes, that's really their last name—and head brewer Tim Marshall to learn more about their project. John comes from a marketing background, Joe from sales, and Marshall by way of Rock Bottom in Lombard. Their roles at the brewery reflect their individual experience and add up to a unique and refreshing vision of what a production brewery can and should be: full of dozens of styles of beer, stacked to the ceiling with barrels upon barrels.

Chicagoist: Tell us your story. How did this all start in motion?

John Barley: Solemn Oath began as a concept about 18 months ago with what was originally just a simple five year budget plan. I had reached out to several owners of new breweries across the country asking questions and eventually many of them just handed over their business plans. From there it was speaking with people here locally within the industry and crafting a more specific plan that was viable, brought something new to market, and met our long term goals of what I was looking to build.

Towards the end of January 2011, we compiled a very small list of brewers within the Chicagoland market that we felt would make a good fit with the the Solemn Oath concept and started taking meetings over the next several months. Through that process Tim [Marshall] really stood out and was brought on early in the summer as our head brewer. August 1st was really the date where we began operations as a company and from there until even today it's been an inch at a time.

Around the same time back in January I began the process working with the City of Naperville, who from the very beginning was receptive and supportive. So supportive, in fact, that we worked with them to create a local liquor classification and license that allowed us to do what we were hoping to do with our storefront.

C: So where are you now and what's ahead?

Joe Barley: Right now we're entering the final phase of our buildout. The epoxy floors are down, walls in the taproom are painted and the bar is getting framed out. We have all our tanks already and we're set to receive our 15-barrel Premier Stainless brewhouse the week of March 19. Licensing should hit mid- to late-March, so realistically we're looking to be brewing shortly after that with beer in customers' hands three to four weeks later. The next few months are our most vital.

John B: We have stayed fairly quiet, but Solemn Oath has been a long time coming and we can't wait to get to market. Chicago is privileged to have some exceptional craft-focused, distributors as well as the opportunity for a brewery our size to be able to self-distribute. As buildout comes to a close the direction of our brewery is becoming clear and we're really only concerned about two things: making great beer and deciding on the best path to get it in front of people. With our launch around the corner, we also expect to make some decisions on distribution in the coming weeks.

C: Tell us about your entry strategy and your thinking behind it.

Tim Marshall: We're looking to do 20-25 styles in our first year including traditional and experimental styles, small-batch spiced beers conducive to food pairing, wood-aged and seasonal beers. The goal is to let sales decide which beers we brew more of and how often we brew them. We have a good idea of what those beers will be, but we don't want to miss an opportunity to cultivate a following.

Wood- and barrel-aged beer is—and should be—a large part of Chicago's craft beer culture. We hope to contribute to that by making a variety of unique wood-aged beers on a regular basis.

John B: So many killer breweries in the area are doing great things, from Half Acre to Three Floyds to Two Brothers to Haymarket, so we wanted to bring something new to the area. We don't really want to lock into any particular style, but our Belgo-American influenced focus is a market we think is underdeveloped in the Midwest and the Chicagoland area. Joe and I have always been huge fans of what a lot of the Southern California breweries bring to the table, from the big guys like the Bruery, Stone or Pizza Port to the lesser known spots like Iron Fist out of Vista.

Joe B: Our tasting room is something we are really excited about. It will give our customers the opportunity to come see and experience the brewery directly. We're in an industrial park and the taproom is about 1,000 square-feet, directly off a 14-foot overhead door that we'll be able to kick open in the warmer months. There will basically be nothing between you and our equipment except a four-foot half wall. People sitting at the bar will be about 10 feet from our hot liquor tank and maybe 15 feet from the mash tun. With our local liquor license, people will be able to come to the taproom and have three beers and then grab a growler to bring home with them. It'll also give customers the chance to interact with and get to know us at the brewery on a personal level. Even as we grow and add more people or part-time folks helping out in the taproom, on Thursday nights it is always going to be John, Tim and I working behind the bar.

John B: Our goal has never been to open a bar. To start, the taproom will be open Thursday through Sunday and shut down about 9 p.m. Our vision was that people would come out to the brewery, have the experience and then head out to support their local establishments for the rest of the night and have [our beer] and some other great local breweries on tap.

C: What are your thoughts on the Chicago beer scene? There are a dozen or two new breweries in planning right now and proven breweries like Two Brothers, Goose Island, and Half Acre are expanding up against capacity. Where's this all headed and how long can we sustain this growth?

TM: The Chicagoland market has a ridiculous amount of potential to be one of the nation's most respected beer destinations. There are plenty of craft beer lovers with plenty of style preferences. Where else can an esoteric idea like "bringing Latin culture to the delicious world of craft beer" come to life and succeed? Breweries like Two Brothers, Half Acre, Three Floyds, Metropolitan and Goose [Island] have proven that there is a very real demand for local craft beer. The more great breweries that Chicagoland can claim as their own, the better reputation we gain as a craft beer mecca like San Diego, Denver, or Portland.

Joe B: Chicagoland is a perfect place for growth and it's headed in a great direction. We have a large enough population that we're not close to being saturated with breweries and we need these new breweries to help fill the gaps of the existing craft beer scene.

John B: With such a large market, there is a lot of growth left before the area even begins to saturate. The Chicagoland market is more than triple the size of metropolitan San Diego and they have more than 40 breweries, and probably a similar number joining up in 2012-13. Growth in Chicago's craft beer market share alone makes room, and it should be noted that it isn't like there are twenty-plus 50,000-barrel-a-year breweries that are starting this year. It's strange to me that people are concerned with too many breweries being in town but nobody ever thinks there are too many wineries in Napa.