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“Brew View” Begyle Brewing Co.,Q&A with Bob Benenson

Posted by on August 24, 2012

 Begyle, a new craft brewery that will be open for business soon in Chicago, has drawn attention in the beer world for its “crowd-sourcing” efforts. The young co-owners of the North Side start-up — Brendan Blume, Kevin Cary and Matt Ritchey — are waging a campaign to raise money on the Kickstarter site to buy a high-tech growler filler that they believe is key to their success.

Their efforts are based on the “Community-Supported Agriculture” concept utilized by a number of small farmers, who provide paying subscribers with boxes of seasonal produce. The Begyle guys are offering merchandise, tours and other inducements in exchange for certain levels of donations. (To learn more or participate, visit http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/argylebrewing/begyle-brewing-a-community-supported-brewery).

Once they open, the Begyle team plans to extend its Community-Supported Brewery concept by offering subscriptions that will allow consumers to pre-pay for a contract to receive one, two or four growlers a month.

Behind all this is an interesting back story that involves pedicabs, a small Ohio farm and a turkey fryer. And a name change — from Argyle to Begyle — that resulted from a trademark challenge by an Oregon winery.

All right here, in an excerpted interview conducted at the Begyle brewery on August 16 by veteran journalist Bob Benenson.

Q: Take me back to the start. What did you intend to do when you were going to college?

Cary: Matt and I graduated from high school together in 2002, from Fenton High School just outside Flint, Michigan… I went to Central Michigan University… I like numbers, and I graduated in accounting. While I was there, I learned about craft beer through the local brewpub, Mountain Town Station… Then I accepted a job with Domino’s in Ann Arbor, which is another great craft beer town. I was exposed to a lot of good breweries like Grizzly Peak… I lived in Ypsilanti, which hosts the Michigan Brewers Guild summer beer festival, and going to that, fresh out of college, was a real treat, because you’re exposed to all these different breweries from across Michigan.

Then I came to Chicago and that brings us to where I intersected with Matt. He was out in Boulder, Colorado.

Ritchey: I went to school in Colorado after high school. Got into craft beer while in college like most people. Drank a lot at the Walnut brewery, drank a lot of Left Hand out there. Made my way back to Chicago after I graduated… I ended up meeting up with Kevin, we rekindled our friendship from high school, ended up moving in with him and he taught me how to brew. We brewed the first batches there in the kitchen, on the stove. Shortly after I moved in, we got a turkey fryer.

Cary: I got a turkey fryer for Christmas from my dad. Just a standard, $49 KMart special… Not your standard home-brewing equipment. But that was a big upgrade for us, we could brew on the back deck with a turkey fryer. So we lived together and were brewing a lot. I’d been brewing for a while, I actually learned that in college with my roommate. But I wasn’t really technically proficient, it was more for the love of the game kind of thing. And Matt and I brewed together, and Matt really started picking up on things, and his precision and overall, the quality of the beer kept getting better and better. Eventually, we moved out…

Ritchey: I moved in with my fiancee.

Q: Who got custody of the turkey fryer?

Cary: I did, but we actually ended up having joint custody a couple of times. We both had back decks, which were conducive to brewing, and provided snow for chilling.

Ritchey: We sat a lot of pots in the snow.

Cary: So we had joint custody of a propane tank and the turkey fryer for a while. Then, I met Brendan though pedi-cabbing. Brendan is born and raised in Chicago… Brendan played water polo at Chaminade University out in Hawaii… He did two years there… then he came back to Dayton University and that was when he and his brother started the pedi-cab business here in Chicago… He stayed to open the CSA farm with his friend George. It was a vegetable co-op, monthly CSA, and went to various farmers’ markets…

Brendan one day said, ‘I’ve always wanted to open a brewery and deliver beer by bicycle,’ and I said, ‘Funny you should mention it, I’ve always wanted to open a brewery.’ And we kind of looked at each other like, maybe this is the idea we should go with. We approached Matt and said, ‘What would you think if I said I wanted to open a brewery.’ Matt said, ‘I think you’re going to need funding.’ I said, yeah. It went from there.

Q: What was the inspiration that drove you into brewing at home?

Cary: My roommate, he was a biology major, so he really understood yeast and how that process. I was so amazed by the process of beer… Remembering back to it, it was probably not the best home brew, but it was a flavor we had created ourselves. It’s the pursuit of that flavor…

Q: What was your learning curve like?

Ritchey: There are a lot of really good home brewers in Chicago and in the United States generally… We’re confident we make good beer. Great beer…. But to transition to a commercial scale, there’s a lot more going on than just creating a recipe. There’s a lot of learning curve on that side that’s really interesting.

Cary: Matt’s worked a lot on the commercialization of home brewing, and it’s about making the same beer each time, you want to hit the same percentage every time, you want it to taste the same. We’ve worked a lot on that over the last year and a half…

Ritchey: We’re not too worried about winning medals. We want to brew beer that we like, and we’re confident enough that what we like is what other people like.

Q: What was the decision-making process in deciding to take this next step?

Cary: We came back to the CSA model. We were all very focused on the end goal, which is to brew beer and sell beer in Chicago. It kind of started out very small… We also wanted to be in Ravenswood [a neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side]… It has that old industrial feel that reminds me of Flint or Detroit. Very vibrant…

Once we found out that this entire building is filled with artists, and that’s something we feel very strongly about is arts and music. It was, hey, why don’t we split the space in half? If we split the space in half and lease the unused brewery space to artists, we could make our budget work… And we’ve developed great relationships with each of them…. We have the Ravenswood Art Walk coming up [on Sept. 29 and 30] and we’ll open the building to the public…

Q: What are the biggest obstacles or tripwires that you’ve had to deal with in getting up to speed, and what were you afraid would be a big headache that turned out to be not so much?

Ritchey: The biggest headache we weren’t anticipating full head-on was the different layers of licensing. We researched it a lot, but the timeline associated with that…

As far as the easy side of things we weren’t expecting, I’d say equipment. Partly, companies want to sell to you. That side of the industry is a lot of knowledgeable people… People want to share it. There’s still a sense of community, even though we, one brewery and another brewery are in competition with each other, but the community as a whole, we talk with each other and work with other brewers…

Q: The CSA is one of the most unique aspects of what you’re doing. Walk me through it.

Cary: You take a dedicated group of individuals who want to start a small farm. To succeed, they might not have the best first or second or third year, but they need to make money to stay open…

What they’re looking to do is get an upfront payment so they can start the growing season. The way they reward their customers who have dedicated this cash to the farm is with boxes of vegetables, produce. Depending on how well the growing season goes, you might get more vegetables than you had paid for. You benefit when the farmer benefits but you also take on the risk if there’s a bad year…

Kind of what we’re taking out of the CSA model is the community aspect… We’ll be offering growler subscriptions. A half or full year. What that will mean is a customer can decide do they want one growler a month, two or even four, and do they want it over six or twelve months. Similar to the farm CSA, you get a price break between a half and a full share…

Ritchey: The other side of that risk is we want to take the feedback from the community-supported aspect and build the beer they want to drink. So while we’re coming out of the gate with beers that we enjoy, the recipes may shift a bit based on what the CSA wants…

Q: Given that local craft brewing is integrated into the whole universe of Buy Local, how much of a priority is it for you to find local suppliers?

Ritchey: I’m a firm believer in the money multiplier of local dollars.

Cary: We have looked at sourcing local and we’ve actually bought, the majority of our hops are from Wisconsin and Michigan. We had to buy a couple of varieties that are not available or grown in the Midwest. But from a hops standpoint, we would like to go to the Midwest first for most of our hops.

Ritchey: Anything we can, really.

Cary: We’re actually catering a lot of our beers toward that, knowing that there’s a lot of growth in the brewing industry out of those high-end, what we call those exotic hops, we are looking to stray from that. We don’t want to rely on a particular hops that’s been trademarked because it’s harder to grow and harder to get access to. So what we’d like to do is brew our beer with hops from the Midwest…

If we’re using Midwest hops, we’re contributing to the demand. If the demand is there, you’re going to see a spurt in resources. It goes to grain, too. It’s hard to find a maltster in the Midwest….

Our plan, because we’ve really got a pretty good supply of hops right now and the harvest is coming, our first five beers rely on local hops. We do want to get the exotic IPAs out there and we’ve been fortunate enough to come across a couple of boxes of exotic hops. For the most part, most of our production will be based on what we can do with local hops… If it comes down to someday there is a malt supplier out there, we will address that. In the meantime, we’re certainly going to focus on local spices and honey, the stuff that is readily available.

Q: What styles are you initially focusing on?

Ritchey: Out of the gates, Kevin and I are focusing on five, and they are blonde ale, which is one of my favorites because I like a beer that I can drink all day. As far as craft beer goes, it’s pretty sessionable. Hefeweizen, which we did in a large quantity, those will be our two large volume beers. And we’re going to have a couple rotate in, pale wheat ale, a brown IPA, Kevin mentioned before the idea of throwing stuff into the pot and we’ve been having a little fun, we’ve been so wrapped up in business, just break loose a little bit. And our pale ale…
Cary: The other beer that is the Striped Elephant, it’s going to be one of our main beers. That’s kind of where the inspiration for the brown IPA came from, we’re calling it an American strong ale.

Ritchey: Which doesn’t technically exist.

Cary: It’s based on a Belgian strong ale. What we did was fermented it with standard American ale yeast…

We want to touch on everything from kolsch to porter and stout, we want to do a couple of lagers if we have time for it, a Vienna lager, something like that, and then work our way around, depending on the time of the year, have a really good porter, a stout, Imperial stout, experiment with barrel aging if we have time for it. Try everything…

Q: Could you give me a quick summary of the whole name change so we can get in on record.

Blume: We started with Argyle. A couple of different reasons. Kevin loved argyle socks… My family had a farm in Argyle, Wisconsin, so I had that connection. It was more of the design and how it looked on a beer. We had that argyle design. As the beers changed, we could change the colors within that. What happened was, we went through the whole process of getting a name, probably eight months in. Kevin researched and found Argyle wine in Oregon. But we thought, they’re wine, we’re beer, shouldn’t be a problem. Then we got a letter from them saying cease and desist, this is our name, we paid for it, it’s too close to beer. So we changed and went to Begyle.

Cary: The cease and desist letter was very nice. We were very fortunate in learning a lot about trademark law the particular company that owned the trademark was very cordial, the process was really easy. The hardest part was coming up with the new name… It dawned on us that the word ‘guile’ actually means fermentation. We got to keep that. So what are we going to do, are we going to call it “Ourgyle’ or something like that, but that was too similar. So we started talking about the word ‘beguile…’

We changed the pronunciation from be-GUILE to BE-guile to make the word ours, because one of the things in the trademark process that we learned was the more unique you make a word, the easier it is to trademark…. It really fit what we were looking for. And the definition of ‘beguile’ is to trick, charm or enchant. We think there’s a lot behind that in the whole Shakespearean aspect of it. We want to charm and enchant our customers, we want to establish a great relationship with them… Maybe Argyle was a great name, but Begyle is what we’re going to move forward with and I really enjoy it.

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