Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Only Child Brewing Company Launches in the Northern Chicago Suburbs

This week, I'm turning over the reins to guest writer Dave Ahlman, a craft beer aficionado from the northern suburbs of Chicago. Dave recently visited Only Child Brewing Company, who happens to be launching their beers to the Chicagoland area this week. Words and photos by Dave Ahlman.

Almost every day, it seems, we read reports of the explosion of craft brewers in practically every region of this country, including, happily, our own Chicago area.  Much of the recent brewery growth here has been in the city and in the southern and western suburbs, while the northern suburbs have been a bit less represented.

That's one reason I was so pleased to find Only Child Brewing Company, a new brewer in the village of Northbrook.  Fortunately, there are plenty of other reasons for craft beer enthusiasts to be happy about Only Child Brewing.

Owners Ben and Amanda Rossi are married and have two small children.  Both Ben and Amanda were both raised in the north/northwest suburbs and grew up around business operations.  Ben’s father was a company CEO and Amanda’s family owns a clothing business.  They fully understand the benefits of entrepreneurship for both themselves and the local economy.  While Ben handles the brewing operations, Amanda is in charge of the retail and back-office work.  It is definitely a family business that also includes Ben’s father and Amanda’s brother who regularly participate in the brewing and bottling process.  “It’s brought our family closer together and given us something to get excited about,” said Ben.

While he has been home brewing for years, Ben is also a full-time beer purchaser at The Grafton Pub in Chicago.  A Cicerone Certified Beer Server and self-described “science nerd,” Ben taught himself brewing techniques through “a lot of reading, researching and trial-and-error.”  He had been contemplating a brewing business for a long time when Amanda gave the final push to start after she “got so sick of the bubbling carboys in our bedroom,” said Ben.  “I didn’t have a swamp cooler and our bedroom is right above the garage and always stays about 68 degrees.  I put the carboys in the corners, kind of hidden, and we always went to sleep to sound of bubbling fermenters,” Ben added.  After taking a large portion of their own savings and pooling it with additional investments from his father and a good friend, the brewery was born.

Because they plan to settle their family soon in Northbrook, Ben and Amanda wanted to find a space there to establish the business.  They also perceived that community as a good location niche for a brewery.  They located a small vacancy within an industrial complex near the Edens Spur that worked almost perfectly, needing only a cooling room, which Ben built himself.

One Barrel, Only Child. Ben Rossi stands by his brewhouse.
When I saw his brewing production area, I remarked to Ben that his place was really clean, a point he very much appreciated.  He has been especially diligent on cleanliness after some initial pest issues while brewing there.  “We spend three hours Sunday mornings just on sanitation before we start brewing.  We essentially shut this place down and clean it from floor to ceiling before we mill the grain,” Ben says.  He isn’t about to let carelessness cause a problem with his product in such a small operation.

Ben sees his business from different angles – buyer, enthusiast and brewer – and has also been able to grasp the numbers aspect while developing relationships with many people in the industry.  Using his business sense and purchasing experience, Ben partnered with Brew Camp in Chicago for all of his supplies.  By forming long-term agreements with Brew Camp, he could leverage their buying power and have access to fresh, unique ingredients, while still keeping his own costs down.

Ben’s brewing philosophy is to create highly drinkable beers (5-6% ABV) and to put his own unique takes on well-known styles.  He wants to make his beer appeal to people who want to be able to drink a few during the day, but not compromise on flavor.

“I take a purist mentality when it comes to [brewing].  We hand bottle everything and let it bottle condition at ambient temperatures for about three weeks to carbonate naturally.” – Ben Rossi

Using this longer approach to producing beer takes a toll on Ben’s admitted lack of patience, but he believes it’s the right way.  Ben has tried to incorporate every aspect of the home brewing techniques he learned into his operation because that what he enjoyed about it.

Ben had been using the “Only Child” name for his home brewing. Later, he realized that it was also the most fitting name for his business because being an only child was such an important part of the person he’d become.  The concept also allows him to keep a fun, tongue-in-cheek attitude for his product. Only Child’s beers are cleverly named to read like a glossary of terms in a parenting manual.

Of their three planned year-round releases, two will be available at initial release in mid-September. “Attention Hog” is a pale rye ale and has their lowest alcohol content, making it very easy to drink.  The addition of rye to the grain, plus the use of Kolsch-style yeast for fermentation give this beer a crispness with a unusual combination of flavors.  The second, “Imaginary Friend,” is billed as a dark and hoppy wheat beer and something Ben hopes is a game changer for Only Child.

“I love dark beers, but I kind of feel like I need [a special] occasion for [one].  My goal [was] to do a dark beer that was really smooth and drinkable.  Midwesterners love wheat beers… and I just wanted to manipulate that and put my own unique touch on it.” – Ben Rossi

The third beer is a Saison fermented with a style of hops known for its wine-like characteristics.  Ben’s process adds no spices or other ingredients as in many other Saisons, allowing the hops and yeast to combine and develop their own special profile.  This beer is named “Le Perfectionniste,” a subtle jab to the “beer snobs” of the world.

Ben’s passion for brewing beer is highly evident.  Not only has he developed a vast knowledge of brewing techniques and ingredients, but he holds a great appreciation of beer history as well.  While he considers Three Floyds to be “the best brewery in the universe,” Ben credits Drew Fox of 18th Street Brewing and Gerrit Lewis of Pipeworks Brewing for his inspiration.

“Gerrit started Pipeworks on a very similar sized system [to our own], and looking now at the awesome beers that they’ve put out and seeing how they’ve grown is very cool,” says Ben.  He admires Fox’s work ethic and passion, and considers him to be someone he can “relate to even though I don’t know him personally.”

Ben has also become acquainted with the people at Begyle Brewing and Smylie Brothers Brewing. He’s been very appreciative of the encouragement from other area brewers.  “Never have I been hesitant to ask for help or advice from friends of mine [in the industry].  They’ve answered every question I’ve ever had.  Mike Smylie reached out to me and started asking about my operation, telling me about his.  We talked about collaboration and how he’d like to feature us.  It’s been very cool,” says Ben.

Like many new breweries, Only Child is operating on a relatively small scale, currently producing from a one-barrel system using one-barrel tanks.  While this may seem tiny for commercial beer production, they are capable of growing quickly if necessary.  Ben sees this more conservative approach as an opportunity to keep superior quality, consistency and flexibility in his beer.  He wants Only Child to start small, be local and to grow organically, giving him “the freedom to do as many crazy, one-off small batch beers” as he feels appropriate. Fun experiments and mistakes can then become part of his operation with little risk of crippling it.

Along with staying small, being local is just as important for Only Child as Ben sees it.  Having grown up in the area, Ben wants to able to share the beer about which he is so enthusiastic and passionate with residents close by his business.  Ben and Amanda have already joined the Northbrook Chamber of Commerce and are eager to contribute to the community.  They would also love to work with the local farmers market to hold tastings.

“I would like [Only Child] to be a ‘hidden gem,’ for people in the Northbrook area to be proud of us and [say] ‘we have a cool little brewery.’” – Ben Rossi

Accordingly, Only Child beer will at first be available only in 22 oz. bottles and mainly in Northbrook, including at the nearby Whole Foods store. Ben considers them their most important client and hopes to have their launch event there.  A very limited number of establishments in Chicago will also carry Only Child beer, including the Grafton Pub and Capone’s Liquor Store.

Ben also eventually plans to have a retail section within the brewery where he would sell not only his regular offerings, but also exclusive, “brewery only” releases.  By offering some beers only at the brewery, he feels he can also give back to the community that enables his business.  Supportive of the entire Chicago-area craft beer community, Ben says, “I’d [also] like to feature other local brewery bottles here at our retail shop… hopefully, we can do that.”  He is most often asked about having a taproom, but for now that is only on his “wish” list.

Ben is interested in Only Child collaboration efforts as well, not only with other brewers in the area, but with local businesses in Northbrook.  He has a connection to a nearby chocolatier that he hopes to work with soon to produce an upcoming stout release called “Peek-a-Boo.”  I, for one, am waiting anxiously for this beer to show its face.

Only Child beer is expected to be on shelves the week of September 16th, hopefully by the time you read this.  Follow them on their Facebook page (facebook.com/onlychildbrewing) or on Twitter (@onlychildbeer).

Dave Ahlman is a mostly normal Notre Dame alum and lifelong Chicagoan, who became a craft beer drinker, thinker and enthusiast after finally deciding he'd had enough of "beer commercial" beer.  Besides drinking good beer, Dave likes following Chicago and Notre Dame sports, working on Mac computers, watching TV and animals.  He also loves his wife and hopes to live in a log home in the woods one day, perhaps brewing his own beer.  Follow him on Twitter (@daveahlman).

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