Nothing ever goes as planned when you’re opening a brewery. With so many moving parts and variables in play, perhaps that’s not surprising. Brewers often find themselves retooling their operation and trajectory, which, in turn, sets off a chain reaction of events that reshapes their future vision of what their business will become. Clint Bautz of Lake Effect Brewing in Chicago found this to be especially true when opening his small production facility in the Portage Park neighborhood in 2011. In fact, he essentially had to relearn how to brew and establish a barrel program that developed much sooner than he had planned.
Walking into the small space Lake Effect occupies is a testament to the unpredictability that owning and operating a brewery presents. It had been about a year since my last visit for a beer release and four years since Lake Effect had begun production. At the time, there were lights strung on the limited barrels against the back wall, a few small tanks, and room to move around. This time, space was at a premium. Tanks filled the room, creating few walkways. Barrels were everywhere. Bautz was buried behind it all in a small, makeshift office in a corner, peeking over file cabinets and barrels. Clearly, Bautz has made some headway. Jackhammers were pounding and dust was flying as I rode my bike up the alley to their entrance. I would soon learn that they were mid-demo to solve the space crunch, creating a new room that would be dedicated strictly to housing their growing collection of barrels that would allow more space for brewing their flagship beers in the main room. I had known about a handful of the wild ales that Lake Effect had made until that point, but had little knowledge of just how much of their focus had been shifted to brewing these wild ales.
The plan from the beginning was to have a small brewery. With an aversion toward loans, Bautz relied on family and friends to fund Lake Effect, opting for an organic approach. Starting out with a four-barrel system, the idea was to brew part-time, slowly pruning hours spent at his day job as an urban planner while growing the business slowly, and eventually ease into brewing full-time. He wanted to brew German-style beers, a flavor profile that he loved and had grown up drinking. Those dreams were quickly brought back to reality when the tanks Lake Effect were scheduled to receive were delayed by six months. They were ready to go with a license to brew, but nothing to brew with.
An immediate search for equipment resulted in the purchase of four uninsulated tanks from Michigan’s Greenbush Brewing that would instantly up their output to 28 barrels. The need for tanks was filled, but the lack of insulation would force the beer to ferment at temperatures much higher than anticipated. Brewing German beer was no longer possible, and while Bautz has always intended to return to it down the road, he was forced to put Lagers on the backburner while the brewery changed paths again.
"The focus was now on high-temperature fermentation, especially in summer,” Bautz says. “An IPA would not work. Any kind of Stout, English Ale, especially a German beer? Forget about it. We had to relearn brewing and focus on the Saison and the Wit. That was really the main challenge, how to use these uninsulated tanks.”
Lake Effect turned to sour-flavor profiles, a style that lends itself to warmer fermentation temperatures. “It's something we always wanted to do and knew we were always going to go there,” Bautz says. “It just happened a lot faster than we thought. In essence, it's just more capacity. I can buy four port barrels for $400 and [they have] the same capacity as a $7,000 tank.”
It started with one tank that was dedicated to brewing beer using Brettanomyces and experimenting with fruit. He initially created a base beer, adding raspberry, then another with grapefruit. After a year of dealing with unpredictable temperatures and figuring out how to use their tanks, Bautz decided it was time to more deliberately focus his attention on developing a barrel program.
It was right around this time that Omega, a yeast lab headed by Lance Shaner, a Ph.D. in molecular biology and molecular genetics, moved into the same building that Lake Effect occupied. Omega Yeast Lab’s arrival had a big influence on the direction that Lake Effect would take from that point, determining what yeast strains to use and helping to dispel myths about Brett and sour beers.
“It was pretty much random that we ended up in the same building as them, but once we knew we were going to be moving in, we let Clint know and started talking yeast right away,” Shaner says.
Omega began by propping up Lake Effect’s preferred strains and influenced a switch from their house strain to one that drops clear faster and also suggested strains that didn’t require such intense temperature monitoring. “They definitely started doing more sour and wild beers when we started bringing them test batches using different Brett strains that we isolated,” Shaner adds.
It started with a few barrels being allocated towards a small series of beers, followed by a Blonde Ale that was tested with a few different strains of Brett during secondary fermentation. It eventually lead to the Inland Sea series, a collection that includes several sour ales in addition to other barrel-aged beers to honor the Great Lakes region. And once the experimentation began, it was hard to stop. There was a watermelon phase, then grapefruit, raspberry, and cherry.
“It's a bit of an addiction for me, because it's fun and the flavors that we get are really interesting and just so wonderful,” Bautz says. “Right now, we're working with a lot of grape. We're looking to enhance the wine flavors from fermenting them with Brett in wine barrels. We're in that zone right now, because it transfers so well to brewing. I really love the flavors from it. They're so complex. There's a lot of nurturing in it. It's really satisfying to see your baby growing up and going out the door.”
Brett has an incredible bandwidth for what it can do in beer, and Bautz has enjoyed playing with different ways to get the flavors he wants. In addition to wild fermentations aged in barrels for extended periods of time, he kettle sours some of his beers, adding Lactobacillus to the wort to get the flavors he’s looking for faster. There has only been one Lake Effect Inland Sea beer that was purely kettle soured with Lacto, a blueberry Berliner Weisse that’s fittingly-if-not-imaginitively called Blueberry Berliner Weisse. Everything else that’s soured during the boil has been used as a blending agent to either tighten up the flavor profile of an aged beer coming out of a barrel or to make the final flavors more complex.
While the payoff to playing with Brett results in some distinct and fun beers, a downside exists, mostly in timing. “It takes us a really long time to achieve some of the flavors we want,” Bautz admits. “It's one of the hardest things to plan for a beer that will be ready in a year from now, or two years from now. Understanding that you need to take care of what's in front of you to maintain your budget and your sales. That’s the hardest thing—the foresight. It forces you to look a lot more into the future.”
In addition to the uncertainty and unpredictability of barrel aging, there’s the high risk of loss. With 50 barrels sitting in Lake Effect’s facility, Bautz suspects about five of them may have issues. One of them he’s certain has turned to pure vinegar.
“We're looking at different ways to correct what goes wrong,” he says. “By and large, everything is on track but you do take a little bit of a risk.”
“We get a certain level of income from the flagship stuff,” Bautz says. “Then the sours come in and there’s a big bounce in sales.”
That uptick in sales proves there’s big demand for Lake Effect’s sour beers, but their decision to self-distribute is meant to grow the brewery at a rate that makes sense for their organic approach. There’s a big focus on serving local markets first, with regular accounts all within a few miles of the brewery. With a balancing act in place, there’s often a hard decision to be made when they see the potential for a developing account. It often comes in the form of pulling back on craft-centric bars that only offer a tap a few times a year to give a regular supply to an establishment that essentially end up paying their bills.
At any given time, Lake Effect can handle servicing 10 accounts on regular supply and even that has a balancing act of its own.
“It's always in flux based on what's happening at the brewery,” Bautz says. “Sometimes we're bottling really heavily and other times we're mostly draft. We're trying to figure out how to be more regular with the bottling. But I think we're off-kilter due to the barrel program. We underestimated how ridiculously hard it was going to be to fill all those barrels!”
There are other incentives that contribute to Bautz’s decision to stay local. Sales in the city tend to do better than the suburbs, with the determining factor being a lack of knowledge about what sour beers are. “Any time we do tastings in the suburbs they sell well, so I know it's about knowledge,” he says. “People just don't know what it is, so they walk past it.”
For that reason, distribution that initially saw itself as far as the far Western suburbs has undergone a geographical restructuring to refocus on hyper-local accounts. That effort is slowly beginning to expand outward again as production becomes more predictable.
For now, the plan is to continue to work towards the 7,500 barrels/year limit necessary to continue to self-distribute, while gradually learning to navigate the changing landscape. With new trends popping up and competition getting stiffer, it’s more important than ever for small operations like Lake Effect to make sure that everything they put on the shelf is special.
“I was splitting time between the brewery and my full-time job for about four months, gradually reducing my hours from 40 to 30 to 20 hours a week, then I left and lived the next few months off of tax returns,” Bautz says. “My job called me back in because I had a negative vacation balance, so I had to go back for two weeks. In the middle of all of that, My wife was expecting our first child. There was so much uncertainty but somehow it started to work out.”