By Brenden Miranda and Yaricza Flores
Posted: Monday, Dec. 17, 2018
In the bustling city of Chicago lives a quaint establishment, nestled away in a small industrial district of the city’s West Town neighborhood. Emblazoned on the side of the building reads, “On Tour Brewing Company”, although a passerby could easily miss it if not paying attention.
On Tour is just one of the many craft breweries to pop up within the city recently, which already boasts more than 200 breweries in the metropolitan and suburban areas combined.
Craft breweries, sometimes referred to as microbreweries, were first discovered in the United Kingdom back in the 1970s but has since taken to international fame, creating an entirely new market that cities such as Chicago have taken to en masse.
There’s no surprise that Chicagoans are ecstatic about new brews in the area — the city has shared a multi-decade camaraderie with names like Old Style and Goose Island. However, this new shift to the brewing industry — one that amounts to more than 7.8 percent of the market — leaves many wondering how these breweries attempt to differentiate themselves, and whether or not this trend of craft breweries has any long-term substance.
“I had to wear a lot of hats opening this business,” said Mark Legenza, founder and master brewer at On Tour. “In the very beginning, I had to write a business plan that was 42 pages long and covered a lot of topics I wasn’t necessarily an expert in.”
Legenza launched On Tour Brewing Company early last year to massive fanfare. The opening was met with local excitement and received a large amount of media attention from critically-acclaimed food blog Eater amongst others, yet certain Chicagoland publications, such as Chicago Magazine, were quick to point out how it can begin to feel difficult to distinguish from the ever-expanding array of breweries this city has.
When asked about what sets his brewery apart from the rest, Legenza said “our goal has never been to be different.” He added that the idea stems from a “love with spending time at tasting rooms with friends over many years” and that competition isn’t “always a bad thing.”
“People who are attracted to our brand may have an emotional attachment to it that separates us from other[s],” he said.
It’s no secret that whatever it is these craft breweries are doing, it's impacting local economies in a big way. According to data from the Brewers Association, a trade group for small and independent craft brewers, Illinois craft breweries alone are contributing more than $2.6 billion in economic impact, and are producing over 385,000 barrels of craft beer per year. Another one of Chicago’s craft breweries that has left a massive footprint is Revolution Brewing.
Revolution Brewing, which is located in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood, was founded in 2010 by Josh Deth, a former cellerman at Goose Island, and has since received multiple awards as well as local and national recognition.
Revolution Brewing currently brews 22 different beers alongside a collection of 10 new "barrel-aged" beers that are still currently being released. Revolution, which is featured everywhere from your local grocery store to the big screen, claims that “a commitment to quality” plays a big role in their success.
“We’re currently distributed in eight states and do around 90,000 barrels of beer annually,” said John Carruthers, communications manager for Revolution. “Trends come and go, but a commitment to quality endears you to beer drinkers in a way that goes beyond being the flavor of the week.”
Carruthers is referring to the relationship the breweries have with their communities, and that the expansion of craft breweries is incredibly vital to not only the success of these craft breweries now, but also their continued success.
When asked about how they saw their businesses scaling in the future, Legenza and Carruthers responded similarly. Legenza hopes to see On Tour increase productions in 2019, by investing in more tank capacity. Carruthers noted that Revolution will continue to play into their “strengths in our home state,” citing industry growth isn’t what it used to be. Both Legenza and Carruthers actually hope to see more craft breweries begin to spawn in the Chicagoland area.
On Tour's West Town neighborhood is also home to Goose Island, which has cemented a name in the city. With advertisements on multiple platforms, and their products served in nearly every establishment, beer drinkers are hard-pressed not to find a Goose Island in a Chicago hangout.
Founded in 1988 in the Lincoln Park neighborhood and eventually cementing a brewery in West Town by 1999, Goose Island turned a single local brewery into a distribution empire, allowing their beers to be represented in countries such as China, South Korea, London among others.
While a licensing agreement signed to beer conglomerate Anheuser-Busch helped accelerate the brand’s progress, the company’s continued success is still an undisputed testament to the craft and care Goose Island creates their products with.
In November, thousands of eager consumers were waiting at their turn to purchase Goose Island’s annual Bourbon County Stout — a beer that typically sells out within hours after its release.
Bart Watson, Ph.D, the Chief Economist of the Brewers Association, said he believes that “as the number of breweries increases and competition increases with it as well, most breweries still see the growth of ‘better beer’ as helping the industry ... a study of breweries in metro areas found that the best predictor of where a brewery locates is the presence of an existing brewery.”
Breweries are continuing to take over major cities en masse as well as branch into small-town markets. In a 2018 New York Times article, brewers are renting commercial real estate in “sleepy commercial” districts, and are willing to pay a pretty penny to do so. The article mentioned a small brewery in Middletown, New York, where patrons were traveling from other states just to get the select brews.
Watson was asked how he sees the future of the breweries and the competition in this ever-evolving industry, he posed a question in response.
“Who does your brewery appeal to, and how are you marketing and staying relevant to that community?" he asked. "If it’s the same market as everyone else, it’s pretty crowded.”
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