Good Beer Hunting

Sightlines — Chicago's Squeeze is Illinois' Juice — Solemn Oath Partners with Heartland for Statewide in 2017

After completing their expansion, 8 months in the making, Solemn Oath Brewery* in Naperville, Illinois launched their first canned beers into the Chicago market last month. On the back of that launch, they’ve signed on with Heartland Beverage, a small start-up distributor in Chicago, to send their kegged beer into farther counties of the state including cities like Rockford, Peoria, Champaign/Urbana, and Bloomington/Normal by the end of August. Their approach will mimic their launch into Chicago in 2012, going keg-only. Their current distributor, Windy City Distributing, will continue to serve the city and suburbs. 

As the city of Chicago and its suburbs continues to grow more dense with competition, breweries in an expansion phase are for defensibility at home, and looking to nearby markets for growth. Half Acre, another Chicagoland brewery who recently completed a major expansion of their own, also chose to reach further into Illinois. For their own part, Solemn Oath initially looked to Wisconsin in 2014 before pulling out of that market when the expansion was slowed. 

“We want to start seeding these markets,” says Solemn Oath co-founder John Barley. “It’s a natural progression for us. Even counties just west of us couldn’t get our beer. Every week we open new points of distributing with Windy City in Chicagoland. This is casting a wider net into places we see as a core part of the future of our business in Illinois and for craft overall. Some are cutting edge accounts, and some we’ll go after and open their eyes to craft for the first time. That’s part of our job too. Our longer term ambition is to be one of the biggest breweries in Illinois, not just size-for-size, but in selling a lot of beer here at home. And a place like Rockford is just as far away from the brewery as the Northshore suburbs. We hope to be statewide by the end of 2017.”

Solemn Oath will be leading with their IPA, Butterfly Flashmob, currently the only beer they make enough of to satisfy both Chicagoland and other areas of the state. It will be followed by small amounts of seasonals. “We don’t make enough of anything else to have it leave Chicagoland,” says Barley. 

Other breweries looking outside of Chicagoland include Haymarket, who recently built a production brewery in SW Michigan, Metropolitan, who entered the Wisconsin market ahead of their major expansion project, and Off Color who sends a large portion of their production across the country into specialty markets with 12 Percent Imports. 

So while many suburban, downstate, and national brands continue to seek shelf and tap space in the city of Chicago, its resident breweries are venturing elsewhere with a variety of strategies. This trend should prove that while Chicago remains one of the most distributed-to markets in the country, its former ease of access to outsiders is getting far more challenging.

For Heartland Beverage, bringing on Solemn Oath is a big win in its earliest days as an independent start-up. They most notably distribute Central State* out of Indianapolis into Chicagoland, and Pollyanna Brewing* — their largest brand in terms of Heartland sales, due partly to their availability at U.S. Cellular Field. 

"It’s exciting to see everything Brian’s built so far, says Barley. "They’re exceptionally hands-on and used to working with craft brands. He’s a member of our Old Order program and we’ve been friends for awhile. And it's smart being on their early edge for who we think will be a major player for Illinois. My favorite part is that [owner] Brian Kerby loads the trucks each morning and still runs a truck route."

*These breweries have previously been, or currently are, clients of GBH in a brand strategy and design capacity. 

— Michael Kiser