Good Beer Hunting

Jolly Pumpkin Announces a Taproom/Restaurant for Chicago's Hyde Park Neighborhood

One of the country’s earliest wild ale producers, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, has announced plans to open a taproom and restaurant in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The new establishment will also feature beers, wines, and spirits from its other brands living under the Northern United Brewing Co. name, including Grizzly Peak, North Peak, Nomad cider, Civilized Spirits, and Bonafide Wines. There will also be a small brewing system on-site. Opening is slated for spring/summer 2017. It will be a key tenant in a 12-story University of Chicago office building. 

In our interview from the Shelton Brothers Fest a couple years ago, Jolly Pumpkin founder Ron Jeffries reflected on the tenuous beginnings of his wild ale project. It was an almost unheard-of approach to brewing beer back when he opened in 2004, let alone in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Without Shelton Brothers “domestic importing” model by which they sought out niche producers and took their wares far and wide to fledgling audiences interested in the more esoteric aspects of beer brewing, he wouldn’t have survived at all. 

It’s been slow-but-steady growth since then, even as countless new wild ale producers have come into the market inspired by risk-takers like Jeffries, as well as traditional Belgian brewers. He’s gone on to open cafe-style taprooms around the state of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Dexter, and Traverse City. Between the Shelton Brothers and his direct-sales approach, the brand has recently flourished. Before that, the Jolly Pumpkin brand was also buttressed by more conventional craft beers with his partners at North Peak, which share half the expanded production facility on the “clean side” (no wild yeasts used), and have their own Traverse City pub as well.

It’s safe to say that if he started the business today, there’s no way Jeffries would design the business like this. But after 12 years of cobbling together a diverse business (including wine and spirits), and seizing opportunities to grow the business and express a unique hospitality experience around the beers, he’s been able to do things that require start-up breweries to take on problematic capital to do the same. With patience, diversity, and some luck, Jeffries finally seems poised to enter an entirely new phase of the business for the long haul. 

Chicago has long been a key market for regional/national Michigan craft brands like Bell’s and Founders, but more recently even breweries like Short’s and Odd Side had been forced to look for growth in Chicago. Why some brewers see Chicago as a major opportunity, while others seem to think the window has all but closed, is baffling. But for Jolly Pumpkin’s part, creating their own taproom and restaurant is key for both building the brand and controlling the experience. It’ll likely be welcomed by many Chicago brewers who routinely pay homage to Jeffries, while others kick dirt, having not yet gotten their own city taprooms and wild ale projects off the ground yet. Suddenly having one of the country’s best wild ale producers in the city will raise the bar on the competition, for sure. 

More importantly, there are no breweries and few craft-focused accounts on the Southeast side where Jolly Pumpkin is aiming. Jeffries chose one of Chicago’s most diverse and unique neighborhoods to call home. With 47% white, 31% African American, 12% Asian American, and 6% Hispanic residents, and a median household income of $45,000, Hyde Park is a rare plurality in one of the nation’s most segregated cities. For comparison, North Center, which has become a hub for breweries in the past 5 years, is 77% white with a median household income of $81,000. 

Most brewery projects in Chicago target the largely white, affluent neighborhoods on the North Side or suburbs, cherry-pick gentrifying neighborhoods on the Southside like Pilsen, or head out to much cheaper industrial parks for production facilities. The corridor of 53rd Street just in from the lake shore where Jolly Pumpkin is slated to go is quietly becoming a gravity point for developers. It’s a mix of newly-built corporate chains (Starbucks, 5 Guys, Chipotle) contrasting an eclectic and vibrant college campus culture just blocks away. But with recent additions like the Promontory restaurant and jazz venue, part of the 16-on-Center group, Jolly Pumpkin is joining in a potentially exciting new direction for food and beverage in the area where nearly 15,000 students and 15,000 administrators attend—and where 60% of the faculty call home. 

As for those students at the University of Chicago who will be having some of their first craft beers, I’m insanely jealous that Jolly Pumpkin might be their gateway. What a time to be alive.

—Michael Kiser

Jolly Pumpkin to Open Restaurant and Brewery in Hyde Park, Chicago [Promote Michigan]