A few things come to mind when talking about Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, located just south of the downtown Loop. Rough around the edges, industrial, and sparse, for starters. Until the 1970s, the area was home to the Union Stock Yards, an infamous meatpacking district that Upton Sinclair wrote about in The Jungle. It earned Chicago a memorable nickname: Hog Butcher for the World.
It’s also the neighborhood that Whiner Beer Company calls home. The brewery is housed in a building known as The Plant, a former factory that has since had an urban-decay-chic makeover: think exposed brick and concrete, futuristic neon lights, and dimly lit hallways. From grim industrial origins, the space has become an ecologically minded, zero-waste facility, and Whiner is its flagship tenant.
The location may not have seemed initially obvious, but it offered Whiner co-founders Brian Taylor and Ria Neri a fitting venue to explore their vision of creating curiously unique beer in an environmentally responsible way. Once they heard more about founder John Edel’s plans to turn The Plant into a self-sustaining, closed-loop economy, they officially decided to move in. Three years after Taylor and Neri set up shop, their vision is finally taking clear shape.
“One of our goals was to be a little bit different,” Taylor says. “Maybe there’s something similar in other cities, but as far as Chicago is concerned, there’s nothing like our brewery.”
Neri and Taylor both logged years in the Chicago beer scene before they pursued a brewery of their own. Neri’s hospitality-industry background eventually grew into a homebrewing hobby. From there, she began reading up on beer, became a certified Cicerone, and opened up Bangers & Lace, a bar specializing in craft beer and sausages, in 2010. Her business partner, Kevin Heisner tasked her with running the beer program.
“I asked him, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘You just make the beer list—you curate it,’” says Neri. “I remember getting on Google and wondering where I could find beer in Chicago. Eventually I found Windy City Distributors.”
Neri showed them her list, which included Lost Abbey, Cantillon, Bourbon County Stout, and a handful of other whales. Windy City took one look and told her none of her selections were available, but they were intrigued. They hadn’t seen requests like hers before.
“I assume they thought I had no idea what I was doing,” she laughs. “I got yelled at a couple of times because I didn’t know how to cost things out or how expensive they would be. There’s no school for that.”
Neri’s experience at Bangers & Lace led her to similar work at Pub Royale and Lone Wolf before venturing out to begin other projects.
Meanwhile, Taylor’s 15-year brewing career began at Flying Dog Brewery in Colorado. Following a stop at Boulevard Brewing Company in Missouri, he eventually landed at Goose Island. There, he worked alongside Mary Pellettieri, former Goose quality manager, who introduced him to wild and mixed fermentation. Taylor was hooked, and went on to help develop their barrel-aging program.
During his stint at Goose Island, Taylor often found himself in Neri’s bar for events. The two became good friends, and chatter about starting a brewery together began to get serious. Neri and Taylor discovered they both had an affinity for Belgian-style beer; their initial goal, they decided, was to make both barrel-aged and non-aged beer, and to experiment with blending. Enter their core range: Le Tub, a blended Saison aged in cabernet wine barrels, and Rubrique-a-brac, a dry-hopped, Brett-fermented Bière de Garde. Miaou, a dry-hopped, sour wheat beer, soon followed.
“I love Le Tub. It says who we are. It’s training people to like sours and then guiding them into our other stuff,” says Taylor. “Rubrique-a-brac is how we maintain our mixed-fermentation theory of everything somewhat having wild yeast with ale yeast.”
One of the striking things about Whiner’s beers is their accessibility. By blending barrel-aged, mixed-fermentation beers and putting them into cans plastered with cartoon cats instead of 750s, their shelf presence shouts suitability for everyday drinking and not just special occasions. Each of their offerings is highly drinkable—"crushable,” most might say—and it’s all by design.
“None of our beers are overdone,” Taylor says. “Ria and I have both been in the beer industry a long time. The one thing we don’t like is over-the-top shit you can have one of and never drink again.”
Brian and Ria first toured The Plant in 2011. At the time, another local brewery, Ale Syndicate, had laid claim to the space, but was never able to get their legs under them. During that tour, Brian noted that there was no indication other than signage that a brewery was moving in.
“We knew the full story. There was never a brewery here,” Brian explains. “They did a bit of jumping the gun and newspapers had followed suit before they had even signed a lease. When we talked to John we told him we want to be the brewery in this space. No other brewery can come in here and use other vacancy in the building. Good or bad, this building became the Whiner Beer location.”
Since Whiner moved into The Plant in 2016, a hyper-local community has grown up around the brewery. Neri is also involved with Four Letter Word, an Istanbul-based coffee roaster that she founded with friend Eylem Ozkaya in 2014, which made The Plant its first stateside location. Not long after, Pleasant House Bakery set up shop on site, and now slings pies, pastries, and freshly baked bread (as well as Neapolitan-style pizza that’s made special for Whiner’s taproom).
These days, The Plant is also home to a chocolatier, a specialty ice maker, a screen printer, Temo’s Tamales, Sitka Salmon Shares, a honey retailer called Bike a Bee—the list of new businesses continues to grow. The Plant also holds a farmers market on the first Saturday of each month; outdoors during the summer months and indoors during the winter months. The basement houses an aquaponic outfit with space for growing microgreens and other assorted plants. Because closed-loop collaboration is at the core of The Plant’s ethos, whatever one business creates as a byproduct, another can use in its production.
“When we first moved in there weren't a lot of businesses. It was a little scary. Ria was starting her coffee company. Between Whiner and Four Letter Word, there were three businesses in here,” Taylor remembers. But a few new arrivals assuaged their concerns. “There were a few places in here that helped us decide to stay. Pleasant House, Kombuchade…aquaponics downstairs. We saw what it could be and decided to do it.”
As the linchpin of the building, Whiner has helped the other tenants thrive, and the community’s approach to sharing has manifested in numerous ways. Bike a Bee’s honey is used in the pizza Pleasant House makes for Whiner’s taproom, and even, occasionally, finds its way into the beer. Pleasant House Bakery uses spent grain to bake bread. Kombuchade supplied kombucha for a one-off beer called Scoby-Deux. Fruit for small-batch brews is sourced from a local grower called Urban Canopy. Call it copacetic.
“There’s some decent businesses moving in. Just Ice is kicking ass. They sell custom cubes to every mixology bar in town. They’ve made some sculptures for us,” Taylor says. “We’ve thought about doing something with Tuanis Chocolate downstairs. It’s super fun. We’re all pretty much friends.”
Their neighbors feel similarly positively about Whiner’s presence.
“It’s been exciting to see Whiner integrate into The Plant. Their wild ales and barrel-aging [are] a natural fit for such a building,” says Pleasant House co-founder Art Jackson. “With neighbors and friends like Whiner Brewery, and the other businesses there that are skillfully growing and cultivating, teaching and inspiring, it makes it really easy to be inspired to do things that make a difference and take small steps closer to our social missions.”
Distribution was the main focus of Whiner’s business plan, and the brewery’s 17,000-square-foot production space was designed primarily to get beer into the market. Because rents are lower outside of the city center, the pressure to sell on-premise doesn't exist the way it does for breweries located in residential neighborhoods. Whiner did eventually open a taproom, but it arrived months down the line.
“The taproom is all icing on the cake. We opened the brewery, and the taproom opened eight months later. Our sales are split about 80% distribution and 20% retail,” Taylor says. “It's much cheaper here than the rest of the population of Chicago breweries. We can probably afford to do a lot of different things rather than paying insane amounts of rent.”
Beyond Chicago and the surrounding areas, Whiner’s beer is now also distributed in Ohio, following a chance visit from a group of reps from Cavalier Distributing. Neri and Taylor were hesitant at first, but research showed that most Ohio breweries weren’t making beers like Whiner’s. In fact, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus were markets worth exploring. So far, distribution has occurred on a trial basis, but it’s been working well.
“The liquid speaks to more than just the sour, funk, wild, tart category,” says Cavalier sales manager Aaron Spoores, who handles Whiner’s account. In addition to the beer, Spoores remembers being impressed by The Plant during his first visit.
“The building is so unbelievably awesome. It truly has character,” he says. “I don’t think that’s something you can buy either. You can have the best interior decorators and buy the coolest stuff, but without that little something extra—that thing that is so much more than hospitality. You just feel welcome.”
From their initial meeting, it was clear to Spoores how invested Taylor and Neri were in the brewery. “Brian was so passionate talking about the beer. It was captivating,” he remembers. “Then Ria, quietly standing there, they both start showing us the artwork and the designs of the cans on the verge of launching. They really wanted us to experience all of Whiner. That’s what separates them from the other breweries. They’ve exceeded our expectations by a long shot.”
Whiner’s been producing beer for nearly two and a half years now, and Taylor and Neri have settled into a nice rhythm. Taylor has shifted from lone brewer to a broader business and operations role. He's assembled a small crew of five, but still finds time to brew, and is still heavily involved in recipe creation. Neri handles the marketing and branding, and is also behind Whiner’s cat-heavy label illustrations and the overall brand aesthetic.
Whiner has the capacity to brew 6,000 barrels per year, and managed to brew just under 3,000 in 2018. There’s no shortage of ideas regarding what goes into the barrels, but the balance between brewing for distribution and keeping tap lines full can limit the ability to play around. That doesn’t mean they haven’t equipped themselves to do so, however.
A small room at the entrance of the The Plant was fitted with a coolship, used for inoculating wort with wild yeasts and bacteria in late 2017. Taylor also sourced a 34-barrel (40-hectoliter) red-wine foeder straight from Italy. It fits in well amidst the racks of barrels, but it isn’t without its faults.
“Foeder Bird was was our first foeder-aged beer. It was leaking from every little crack and crevice,” Taylor remembers.
“I got a new door so it’s not leaking anymore. No more gnats! You get a leaky barrel and just millions of them come in,” he laughs.
The crew has managed to deal with the gnat issue with an electric zapper they call The Executioner. With the leaks and bug issues under control, Taylor and his team of brewers have been able to release a small line-up of large-format, barrel-aged specialty beers as premium offerings. The aforementioned Foeder Bird, a Saison aged with peaches, was the first, followed by two Wild Ales: Ultraviolet (aged on blueberries) and Candy Darling (aged on plums). Then came a couple of Belgian darks: Fur Letter Word (aged on coffee in bourbon barrels) and Woolly (aged on Michigan-grown sour cherries). Another highlight is Pounce, a Kolsch aged with apples in bourbon barrels. Whiner has also released their first foeder aged beer, Coolship Sasha, a coolship blended wild ale with raspberries.
Beyond the beers, the brewery’s innovations also extend to sustainability measures. Whiner is able to produce power from its own waste. Three to four weekly brewing sessions produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 pounds of wet malt, which is then converted into energy. Whiner’s boiler is designed to work with an anaerobic digester, which composts organic waste in the absence of oxygen. The resulting gasses are then used as fuel to to make electricity. The digester isn’t quite up and running yet, but will eventually be a key feature of the building.
As of now, the future looks bright, and Neri and Taylor’s vision is contagiously exciting—even if it seems to stand in contrast with the brewery’s name. “Whiner” was coined in connection with the brewery’s use of wine barrels, but it was first and foremost a nod to their friend labeling the two “fucking whiners” after they expressed some off-hand criticism of the industry.
“In an age where every single beer is judged 24 hours a day, we kind of enjoyed the idea of someone complaining about a ‘Whiner,’” says Taylor. “It’s not a cynical name. We truly named it after ourselves.”