Ed Marszewski is a modern day P.T. Barnum — a comparison as complex and debatable as the men themselves. Part political agent, part showman, part benefactor, small business owner, community organizer, gallerist, rabble rouser, publisher, radio broadcaster — the list goes on. But most recently, he added brewery owner to that long list of sometimes-integrated, often-disparate endeavors. He’s also the unofficial barker for the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago, or as he’s been known to call it, "the community of the future.” He tends to put his money exactly where his mouth is.
Edmar’s first venture into Chicago beer started a few years ago when he helped his brother Mike re-invent the small neighborhood bar his mother Maria had run since 1987. A salvaged-wood-vibe, taxidermy, hand-chalked signage, and some low-wattage lighting transformed the knock-around Southside bar into an attraction for the neighborhood, but more importantly, it was repulsive to the rougher elements that were holding the community back. They also established Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar as a place to get some of the best beer available in the city of Chicago, and that had a direct effect on Edmar hatching a plan for his own brewery.
"Seeing how Maria’s became a catalyst for interesting change down here led us to believe that creating a brewery would have a similar multiplier effect, really. Maria’s has all the access to the best beer on earth. We’ve had every single thing that’s available in the city to drink. We’ve traveled, we’ve been inspired by our friends in Holland, in Louisville, in different breweries across the country."
Another platform that Edmar used in his ramp to brewery ownership was Mash Tun, a sort-of-academic journal devoted to beer culture, past and present. Every quarter, Edmar would channel some of the best stories he could scrounge up from his friends and industry leaders (including GBH) to stitch together a tapestry of lessons-learned, prognostications, and musings on the business of brewing. It’s the kind of dialog that every would-be-brewer desperately seeks out in their earliest days, and Edmar was nearly drowning in it.
Expectations for what would become Marz Community Brewing varied wildly. We all knew it would be interesting — Edmar’s projects are nothing if not entertaining, creative, clever, and community building. But his model invited some healthy skepticism about the beer itself. In an age when the business of craft beer is calling for high quality brewing from experienced, well-trained technicians, and fundraising that includes cash for taprooms, laboratories, and sales people from day-one, Edmar decided to leverage a bench of homebrewing friends, a Psychobrew system in the back of a barely-converted office/storage area on Halsted Street, and jumped in to sour beer making right away. This is the part where I try to explain why you shouldn’t hate on concepts, rather, we should judge the execution alone. Everything is still possible.
"We didn’t have a lot of capital or investment and we all kind of met at Maria’s,” explains Edmar. "All these different brewers, some from the CHAOS club. We met Al Robertson at a Mash Tun Fest. This community formed around the bar. All these freaks and weirdos. These miscreants. These 'lumpens.'"
Once Edmar recognized the power of that small, passionate community, it was time, like so many of his other projects, be it a magazine, radio station, gallery, or brewery, to channel their energy into something tangible. And finding a space was critical.
"We looked all over Bridgeport at different garages and spaces that may or may not have worked. Everyone was crazy, or I was crazy, thinking that I should have been able to lease or purchase a building at a different price. I wasn’t prepared for the sticker shock of buying a 16,000 square foot factory space for $1.5 million. I believe this place we’re in now was a chicken shack 30 years ago. And then it became this weirdo security company, which is why you see this smoked glass and really shitty weirdo wood trim. There were cubicles down there, so some artists lived here. Actually, Eric, our head brewer, lived here. We couldn’t fulfill our major blue sky dreams. We settled on being practical and starting small, which is why we found this place. When this place was open I was like 'Hey, we’re either going to keep talking about this or doing this, so let’s get going.'"
Marz is making some of the most exciting, creative beer in Chicago, and it's clean beyond any reasonable expectation. No, I’m not putting it under a scope, or a dissolved oxygen reader — but judging on aroma, taste, and mouthfeel alone, it’s hitting high marks. And that seems nearly unprecedented when we’re talking about a Pho-inspired beer that tastes like a savory broth of a beer, and keeps you coming back for more. At best, that sounds like a taster in a homebrewer’s basement where you politely say “interesting” and move on. But in practice, it’s a real winner of a beer. Or a berlinerweiss-inspired series of Bubbly Creeks, aka “Southside Sours,” with somewhat-obscure fruit additions like yuzu. Their pale ale, The Machine, was an early favorite with a melange of American hops supporting a punch of Nelson Sauvignon created by Tim Lange. "Tim is the one who brings everyone's beers to life," says Edmar.
At the Lupulin Carnival hosted by 4 Hands Brewing in St. Louis this Spring, I stood by and watched as a few risk-takers grabbed a sample of their rooibos tea-infused pale wheat, Jungle Boogie. Eyes widened even as they smelled it, with a huge candy-like aroma, a soda-like mouthfeel, and a dry, herbaceous finish. Within the hour, a line formed organically by word of mouth, and every bottle was emptied. These days, I can get a bit jaded as I see festival-goers burst through the gates and flood to the most-hyped beer on the list. It was heartwarming to see a humble pebble like Marz create a new current in that rushing stream.
There’s a reason Marz is having such success out of the gate with challenging recipes, and it has a lot to do with its homebrewer bench.
"Our hypothesis,” explains Edmar, "was that everyone would bring their favorite recipes and we would try them out, and we would start scaling those up.” Some of these recipes, like Eli Espinoza’s “tea beer” and Al Robertson’s isolated lactobacillus strain, have been tweaked countless times over the year. So what Marz is really doing is unleashing years of pent-up, perfection-seeking, homebrew recipes, and giving everyone a shot at the next one.
"The best thing about the group,” Edmar says as he glances over his shoulder, "is that everyone is like a baby competitive little fucker. So they all want to make the best beer. And they’re all critical of each others' stuff. So everyone is hating on everyone’s shit constantly and trying to perfect each others' recipes. But everyone gets an at bat. So that’s the thing. The more at bats you get, the better chance you have to hit a home run."
With Marz, it’ll never just be about the beer. There’s too much fun to be had with the naming, the branding, the inspiration for it all. Edmar and his crew have a healthy-sized chip on their shoulders, whether it’s north vs. south side trash-talk, political commentary, or making fun of the beer industry itself — every beer is a chance to slip in some irreverent behavior. It’s not a schtick, really: it's more of a positively-channeled cynicism toward a corrupt city or over-earnest industry that has myriad ways to get you down. The Machine Pale Ale, for example, is meant to “buy your vote,” and advises, "Don’t make no waves. Don’t back no losers.” The Bubbly Creek sours recall the off-gassing described by Upton Sinclair, that occurred in the south fork of the Chicago river when meat-packing plants would dump carcasses in the water, and the decomposition of blood and entrails would literally bubble at the surface. You know, the good ol’ days. And one of their newest beers, The Duchess de Bridgeport, pays homage to Edmar’s mother, Maria, in the fashion of the famous flanders red beer, Duchesse De Bourgogne. In almost everything they do, there's an intelligent wink that rewards a close read and an awareness of the world you inhabit, both past and present.
In the end, the aesthetics, the inside jokes, the historical references — that’s all for Edmar. The other guys, like so much of the industry, are just here to make fantastic beer. But Edmar's made a life out of caring more about obscure details and aesthetics than he could ever expect others to notice, let alone cherish them like he does.
"No one else really knows why any of this is cool for me," he says. "You know? No one understands how to speak about aesthetics or the value of type or fonts or kerning. They don’t fucking get it. That drives me bonkers. I just have to lay two things down next to each other and go, 'What looks better to you? Now, do you know why?' You have to go through it like a workshop and experiment with why this looks like shit and why this might be interesting. We’re working with some of the best humans on earth, like our Creative Director Michael Freimuth of Franklyn, Jeremiah Chiu of Plural, and a bunch of different artists — it's a lot easier when you have professionals."
That’s what it takes to essentially Moneyball the brewing game. You’ve got a neurotic stable of ambitious homebrewers, some of the country’s best visual artists, and serious constraints that force the group to be inventive laborers, with a slightly less flamboyant Ring Master waving his finger around, yelling about typefaces, Chicago political history, and texting like an eighth grader on Snapchat to keep all his other creative projects moving forward.
"I don’t even know anymore," Edmar says. "I have no idea what time is like anymore. I live in a vortex, there’s no weekends, there’s no weekdays. I’m sure you know what I mean."