Art History Brewing didn’t have the best timing for its grand opening, originally set for March 15, 2020—just in time for a global pandemic. On the other hand, its arrival was perfectly timed for something else: a wave of appreciation for classic lager styles. Such beers have won acclaim for the brewery from industry peers as well as from the general public. (And when the famed Hopleaf bar in Chicago chooses your brewery to make its two house beers, you’re doing something right.)
From the moment they drew up a business plan in 2018, owners Tom and Cindy Rau wanted to focus on European-style lagers—the kinds of beers they missed from their travels abroad. They began a search for a brewer who shared this obsession and found it in veteran Chicago-area brewer Greg Browne, whose long career at the brewpub Mickey Finn’s was known for impeccably made classic styles.
“I asked him what his favorite style was; he said German pils,” Tom Rau says. “I said, ‘Well, that’s my second favorite. I’m a Czech lager fan.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s my second favorite.’ From there, we melded minds.”
Today, three of the brewery’s top four sellers are lagers—and the fourth is a hazy IPA because this is still 2022, after all. Both pale and dark Czech-style lagers are among the brewery’s stalwarts, along with a German-style pilsner and a Munich-style helles. In total, lagers make up half the brewery’s production, though they play an outsized role in earning it widespread respect within the Chicago-area beer industry.
“That’s where Art History stands out: It’s refreshing to have this brewery, alongside Dovetail, that we can point out to our patrons and say, ‘Here’s your rauchbier. Here’s your go-to pilsner, your go-to Baltic lager,” says Danielle Dengel, co-owner of the Beer Shop in Oak Park, Illinois. “And it’s always exactly the beer you’re looking for.”
As Art History plans its second location—a production facility located four blocks from the taproom—it’s making equipment upgrades that will allow Browne and his team even more precision when it comes to lagers. While he’s proud of what Art History has achieved with those beers so far, he has a long list of ways that new equipment could improve his lager-brewing processes—and he’s been compiling it for years.
“We’re doubling down,” Browne says.
Tom Rau pours a Czech-style lager from a Lukr side-pull faucet.
While Art History is a brewery in love with lagers, its brewers work on the same brewhouse setup as most other small breweries in America: a two-vessel, 10-barrel system designed to efficiently brew ales. Wherever he can, Browne strives for Continental authenticity. The brewery uses three different lager yeast strains to brew its Czech lagers, German pils, and Munich helles, overpitching beyond recommended levels and always fermenting cold. (“Every brewery is just a big yeast bank,” Browne says of his collection.) But the team’s biggest obstacle has been the constraints imposed by the existing brewhouse equipment.
“There’s not a whole lot in this brewery that’s lager-centric,” Tom Rau says. Everyone at the brewery is eager for the production facility and its upgrades.
So far, Browne has wrung more complex malt flavor from this setup by using a Hochkurz-type multistep mash, using successive infusions of hot water to hit the different temperatures. (See “Short and High: The Hochkurz Mash,” beerandbrewing.com.) The process took some trial and error—and it’s still not perfect—but Browne credits it with getting more of the character he wants out of imported European malts.
In the new location, Browne is eager to brew on a four-vessel system with a steam-jacketed mash mixer that can achieve precise temperatures at the push of a button. This location also will house six horizontal lagering tanks. The current taproom brewery has eight of these—but to meet production demands, Browne and team mostly use them as serving vessels rather than lagering tanks. For now, most of the fermentation is done in cylindroconical fermentors.
Art History likely won’t be the only brewery to benefit from its new lager-focused production facility. In August, the Raus founded a parent company called Geneva Lager Works. They’ll brew Art History’s beers there, but they’ll also have the capacity to brew on contract for others. With the option to produce 20- and 40-barrel batches, the Raus envision Geneva Lager Works as a way for other companies to add dialed-in lagers to their portfolios.
“Most small breweries aren’t designed to do lagers,” Tom says. “We could handle that quite easily for them without them having to go to larger contract brewers and sign these higher commitments.” According to that vision, the new facility—which they hope will go online this November—would help to usher in the next phase of Chicago’s lager renaissance.
The Quiet Side of Hype
Maybe it’s Art History’s stylistic focus that makes its achievements seem more humble and less glamorous than, say, a brewery known for boundary-pushing double IPAs or over-the-top fruited sours. Ask Browne about his favorite ingredient, and he won’t mention experimental hops or some thiolized yeast strain—he brags about his water. The brewery’s municipal water profile is the main reason Art History was insistent that its new production facility also be located in Geneva, despite the town’s relative lack of warehouse space.
“The whole city of Geneva has [reverse osmosis] water coming out of the taps,” Browne says. “I don’t know if they add some minerals or let some bleed through, but it’s very, very soft water that’s perfect for lager brewing. So, I can’t take all the credit for the beer—the water has a lot to do with it.”
Maybe drinkers aren’t totally clued in to the water chemistry of Art History’s beers, but they’re in demand anyway. For a beer festival that Untappd organized last year in Southern California, Art History took four lagers to pour. Those turned out to be half the total number of lagers poured at the festival—eight, out of 420-plus beers.
“No wonder we had the longest lines,” Browne says.
The brewery currently can’t keep up with the demand from local drinkers, but the new facility will mean expanded packaging capacity as well as a wider distribution footprint. Cindy Rau says her desk is covered with sticky notes with the names of bars that “need our beer today” with a smiley face next to each one. The slower fermentation time for many of Art History’s beers means that, often, it’s not able to meet demand immediately.
“It’s a good problem,” Cindy says. “But it’s still a problem.”
The interest in certain styles still takes the brewery by surprise: Recently, Art History brewed a small batch of ESB and allotted almost all of it to local liquor chain Binny’s Beverage Depot. It sold out almost immediately, and bars from other counties began calling to ask for it. The brewery’s nascent forays into pub ales have also proven unexpectedly popular, prompting Art History to plan adding more firkins of milds and bitters brewed for local bars.
Art History’s success with these beers ought to be of interest to anyone jaded by craft beer’s flash-in-the-pan trends. Like the beers themselves, the brewery’s success is simple, straightforward, and clear.
“Having the best product, that’s your ticket to the dance,” Cindy Rau says. “I feel confident that we’re putting out amazing, world-class beer, and we’re seeing people responding very positively.”