Local Brewery Spotlight: Penrose
When Eric Hobbs (Founder, Penrose Brewing) was working for Goose Island Beer Company, he had a brewer back out on a beer dinner. That’s where Tom Korder (Brewmaster, Penrose Brewing) comes in. Korder, then a young brewer for Goose, walked in the door ready to work.
“I was nervous, because he looked like a young kid who was barely old enough to drink,” Hobbs said. “Sure as hell, man, the dude delivered.”
That’s when Hobbs knew he had found his business partner. Penrose began selling their Belgian-inspired ales to a small client base this past March. Located in Geneva, IL, they work out a 14,000 square foot facility, which includes a 2,000 square foot taproom. Their two lead beers, a Belgian Single called Proto Gradus and a Belgian Pale called P-2, have been accepted with open arms (or mouths, you could say).
Longman & Eagle was one of the first restaurants to serve Penrose beer, on tap. Currently featuring Proto Gradus on our draft list, we’ve become big supporters of their food-centric beers.
Recently L&E Bar Manager Phil Olson sat down with Eric Hobbs to chat about the past, present, and future of Penrose. You can read the whole conversation below…
Phil Olson (Bar Manager, Longman & Eagle): So, if you want, let’s start with the origin story -you and Tom (Korder) met, how long ago was that?
Eric Hobbs (Founder, Penrose Brewing): Tom and I go back to his beginning at Goose Island. I really got to know him when I was hosting a beer dinner at Tiny Lounge. Greg Hall (former Goose Island Brewmaster) was scheduled to be my host brewer for the night, but bailed last minute. This young buck walks in, named Tom, to fill in for what was a sold out dinner. Every seat in the place, every bar stool in the place, was filled because it was supposed to be Greg Hall of Goose Island. I was nervous because he looked like a young kid who was barely old enough to drink. Sure as hell, man, the dude delivered. Fast forward a few years when I started thinking about opening Penrose. I was very intent on finding a brewing partner that was very professional, and I really never looked passed Tom. The conversation never went to: “well, here’s my top three,” It was always “Tom is going to be my partner.”
P: Were you still at Goose when Penrose kind of hatched?
E: Yeah, yeah. He was working with John Laffler on the Innovation Team. I was a Key Account Manager. This was pre-buyout. I took him out for lunch twice .He told me he always thought about opening a small brewery, like a homebrew shop with home brewing classes and stuff. After that I took him back to the Clybourn Brewpub, we’re sitting at the bar stools and I mention to him that I got this idea. I got this place and I got this investor who’s already interested. “Here are my thoughts, let me know what you’re thoughts are.” He came back to me with a Belgian inspired and sessionable (concept), pushing barrel and alternative fermentation even further. It was like the stars aligned. Perfect balance for what we both wanted to do and it worked. That was three and a half years prior to us actually opening. We called it official December 2010.
P: December 2010 and you were ready to sell March 2014?
E: Yeah – almost three and a half years.
P: I almost feel like from my conversations with you – we met about a year ago at the Windy City Beer Expo- it almost seemed like it was a deliberate choice to wait. I always look at bars or restaurants that open and think “Man, I wish those dudes had waited another month.” Stuff opens and it’s not quite right. Was that part of the thought process?
E: We always had a vision for what we wanted to be when we started. We never had any pressure from our investors to start generating revenue. We have great, great guys behind us and they truly get it. It was really about seeing the vision come to life the way it was intended. You can’t just roll out with anything anymore, and I feel like a lot of times that’s overlooked. People just push out whatever to say “hey, we’re a brewery now,” and I feel like that’s just so disrespectful for those who came before us. So yeah we wanted to take our time. We got made fun of all the time from friends for taking so long, but look at what we built. Look at what we’re creating and the beers we’re making. It was worth the time, worth the effort, worth the wait, because it came out exactly how we wanted it.
P: I think there’s a lot of pressure on places to get up and running because you need to start recouping. Make some money – some dollars. That’s the reality of things, but if you can wait and make sure the product you’re putting out is the best product possible, then wait. We look at that stuff all the time when it comes to cocktails and to food.
E: Yeah – you only got that one first impression, man.
P: Why Belgian focused?
E: Bottom line: we like to drink those beers. We are making beers we ourselves would go out and drink all the time. Things you could drink four or five of and not feel like you’re being irresponsible. We were looking at it from a business sense, too. These were steps for us to demonstrate Tom’s abilities as a brewer. To deliver on a 4%, extremely well-brewed, very clean Belgian single – that just isn’t very easy to do. I think that there are a lot of folks who won’t take that chance, knowing that if they miss, that miss is going to be right there at the front of the beer. So it’s kind of selfish because we want to drink these beers, but we also feel it’s a good place for us to be amongst an industry that is predominantly driven by IPAs and hop-forward beers.
P: Something that’s important to me when I’m buying beer for the bar is how well it pairs with food. I think that’s one of the biggest things that made me such a fan of yours was that beer dinner we had at Camp Wandawega (Good Beer Hunting), tasting the single and saying: “Hey… doesn’t this beer make you want to take a bite of something?” That’s good beer, that’s what it should do. Was that an important part of your process?
E: I have to give Tom all the credit on that one. I love to go out and do the social discussion of beer, which is fantastic. When Tom goes out to dinners, he loves to sit around a table for hours and drink a lot of good table beers. I think this kind of speaks to the idea of a table beer. Something that you would have served to you that is almost refreshing and makes you want to take another bite because it’s so crisp and pairs well. Tom had a lot of thought about what this would represent at the table while he was designing the single, Proto Gradus. One of our goals was to make sure restaurants got it. Proto – I don’t know if there is a better table beer in our portfolio. I know there isn’t one in our portfolio, but I’m not going to make a bold statement and say there isn’t one in Chicago. It’s a great beer for people to bring to dinner.
P: As a restaurant, we need something we can have on tap from nine in the morning until two in the morning. You know, as you’re winding down or as you’re gearing up. I think all Penrose beers have the potential to do that, but I think Proto Gradus does that best. I always refer to it as a breakfast beer. I could drink this with an omelet every day.
E: I’m still looking forward to when I can take some time off, grab a case of this, and take it with me somewhere to day drink on this beer all day. It’s a beautifully simple beer that can be consumed right alongside a Bloody Mary with a tasty brunch.
P: You mentioned grabbing a case. Is there a plan for packaging?
E: Yes. We’re very pleased with how well things have been received. When we built our space we planned ahead. We’ve already given ourselves the space and infrastructure we need to add capacity and add brewers to help run that capacity. So we’re looking at bottles by the end of June. We’re going to probably starting doing our first bottling test runs at the end of May. By the end of June, have some four pack, 12 ounces rolling out of Proto Gradus and P-2.
P: So Proto and P-2 to start?
E: Yes we’re starting with those two. They serve two very different demographic of drinker, with one being much more hop forward than the other. But both will be four pack, 12 ounce bottles. You will probably pay $8.99 at a Binny’s for it, so it’s really price approachable, too.
P: P-2 (Belgian Pale Ale) is really surprising to me. It’s really hard to do a pale ale that’s still yeast specific, still finishes Belgian.
E: Yeah, it’s very distinctively Belgian. You smell and taste both Proto and P2 and you know you’re drinking a Belgian beer.
P: So many Belgian Pale Ales are Pale Ales that just happen to use Belgian yeast and sugar. But I do think one of the things that’s great is that these beers have come in at a very affordable price point.
E: Don’t get me wrong, we’re a small business and we love to grab every dollar we can. You also you have to look at what the market gives you, and the opportunities within the market at a certain price. That’s never more important than when looking at off-premise. When we target price points in the off-premise, we did it because we looked at what we wanted to be in as far as pack size. I didn’t want to be in a bomber. I just think bombers are so overplayed these days. We looked at four packs as the next best option, and there’s room there with pricing. I can still get a good value on my end but I can still offer beer drinkers a good value as well. It allows us to exist in this area that is mutually beneficial.
P: That’s something we take very seriously here, and again why we’ve been so eager to partner up with you. We have 40 whiskeys on our menu that are $3 a pour. Then we have others that are in the triple digits a pour, and that’s fine. If somebody walks in this bar with $5 in their pockets, they can get a beer and a shot. If they walk in with a Black AmEx, they can get whatever they want as well. It’s important to honor that all consumers are valuable. Having beers of this quality at a very affordable price falls in line with that philosophy. This isn’t just for the beer geeks, it’s not just for the beer snobs.
E: You have to think about expanding the audience, and if you do, you have to be prepared to expand into places you might not like. Like: “I’m going to criticize you for only drinking Bud Light or Miller Light.” If you do that you’re alienating your customer base. Being where we are in Geneva and making the beers that we make, I feel like we’re in a unique position to push boundaries and open people’s eyes to new beer experiences. Beers like Proto Gradus, we have people who literally walk through our door and say, “I don’t drink beer.” We’ll pour them a Proto and for the first time they’re tasting a beer and saying, “I didn’t know beer could taste like this.”
P: That’s interesting you brought up Geneva. Chicago Suburbs kind of have a stereotype – Bud Light, Miller Light drinkers…or Busch Light in some cases. You guys are very deliberately positioned in the suburbs. Why Geneva?
E: I grew up there so I have a sense of connection to the community. Beyond that, the community itself has supported a downtown business district that is so small business friendly. In a time when bulk for less seems to be the mantra, this community has bucked the trend. Even better restaurants are opening up there, people are coming and supporting this community. I feel like l can add value to that, I can bring another group in that’s going to go shop up and down Third Street. Also, we love Chicago, but I don’t think I could have gotten thee brewery I have now in Chicago for the same price. We have 14,000 square feet, a 2,000 square foot taproom, 30 parking spaces, and we’re minutes off the Metra line. There are a lot of little things we focused on too that played a key role in why we chose Geneva.
P: What do you think is the direction of craft beer in general? How do you think Penrose fits into that conversation?
E: I think craft beer is beyond the idea of this bubble people keep wanting to talk about, like this thing could all implode. There are far too many great brewers that have laid a solid foundation for this thing to just all of the sudden stop working. What I could see happening though is there’s going to be like this Apex point where you’re going to see the oversaturation of new brewery entrance. Guys like myself that are opening new breweries now, and there’s just not enough room for everybody. You’re just truly going to have to find yourself in a position to separate and do something different. That’s going to be kind of a detail thing in how do you approach managing your business. To take that step further, I feel like there’s this serious compression in our country. There’s national brands who have planted roots across the county that can continue to sell beer through the country, but I think even regional brands are kind of finding themselves saying: “well I can only sell beer in these markets because I got people there.” For me, I’m trying not to look beyond Chicago right now. I feel like there’s so many other things happening that’s going to make it harder for me to be relevant, so I have to really dig in and make a good home for myself here. The local connection seems to be very important and I like that. It helps me. I don’t know man, I think you’re going to see fewer regionals become nationals, fewer locals become regionals.
P: I think a big issue in beer, or just in any business honestly, but in beer specifically, there’s a lot of people who are afraid to adapt, afraid to be flexible. And that lack of flexibility is hurting some people. You have to know when you change directions.
E: You have to be aware enough to pay attention, too. Watching what’s happening. You don’t know, we’re seven weeks into this thing and it’s hard to say what we know and don’t know from a short bit of history, but we’re still going to continue to plant seeds. I think a lot of it can be driven to buyer education, consumer education, and simply having the right conversations with the right people. Hopefully that kind of have that triple-down, drip effect. We are entering into a very hop-forward market, leading with beers like Proto and P-2, two leading styles like a Belgian Single and Pale. I’m going to bet P-2 is going to outsell Proto three to one wherever we put it because it’s more hop -forward. But I hope more people gravitate towards Proto – Proto actually should do better, it’s more accessible. It’s a reason to not drink Bud Light or Miller Light. And it’s local, man.
P: When we had all four on draft, P-2 flew because we didn’t have an IPA. It’s what consumers want, so I do agree that P-2 is going to outsell, because it did for us, but I’m personally a bigger fan of Proto. I’m going to push that.
E: Look at what you just said – “I’m going to push Proto.” There’s a reason we target accounts to start, and we have relationships with people who we know are influencers. We ourselves have the conversations that we want to with the people we want to, knowing that we are trying to influence.
P: You guys have a lot of beers that you offer in the tap room that I can’t have yet. Do you have a favorite that Penrose has made?
E: That’s a tough question.
P: I know – it’s hard to pick your favorite kid.
E: One of the things we’ve been doing over there at the tap room that you guys haven’t experienced yet is we have this alternative fermentation program. What we’re doing is we’re introducing the elements of a wild ale individually. We’re kind of deconstructing a wild ale. What does that mean? We did a Brett beer to show people “you guys – Brett does not mean sour.” Just because you say you use Brett in your beer does not mean it’s going to be a sour or tart beer. We did a Cherry Brett with Brett Terroir to show people how it is used in a beer. This weekend we put on a barrel fermented Proto and we showed the world what Oak does to beer. By the time we get to our first wild ale, we’ve built this audience in our tap room of educated individuals who can hopefully be able to deconstruct a wild ale. That in our taproom is what I would say is, not necessarily my favorite beer, but my favorite project. It’s too hard to pick a favorite beer. Can’t do it. But If I had to…I’d say Proto. Fuck it.