From a humble storefront in Lake Zurich, Illinois, Roaring Table Brewing is accomplishing a feat that seems almost impossible in today’s crowded beer landscape: standing out as generalists. It’s not “the sour brewery.” It’s not “the stout brewery.” It’s not “the hazy IPA brewery”—that would be neighboring Phase Three. Roaring Table is all of the above—with a dash of saisons, lagers, English bitters, and more in the mix.
Co-owners and husband-and-wife team Lane Fearing and Beth May acknowledge this lack of a stylistic niche might have kept them from becoming a national name—so far. But four years since opening Roaring Table, the across-the-board quality of their beers is finally turning heads.
“A lot of people told us we should just hit on a few things, but I’m stubborn about not wanting to do that,” Fearing says. “I like the idea that I can jump from a Kölsch to a Brett saison to a nice German pils. I don’t want to be stuck in a peg of, ‘Here’s the four beers that we do every single week.’”
Fearing’s background helps to explain his aversion to brewing himself into a corner. After graduating from Siebel’s brewing program in Chicago, he worked for almost a decade at Mickey Finn’s, a brewpub in Libertyville, Illinois. More so than taprooms, brewpubs need to offer something for everyone—in terms of both food and beer. Fearing and May live in the neighboring suburb of Barrington, so they’re attuned to the local need for a gathering place that’s welcoming to savvy craft enthusiasts and newcomers alike. To them, offering a variety of styles to please all palates was paramount.
Also, given the prevailing trend toward hyperspecialized breweries, Roaring Table’s contrarian, broadly appealing approach sets it apart.
“Roaring Table is one of those breweries that I would feel comfortable taking anyone to, regardless of their [beer] enthusiasm level,” says Austin Harvey, co-owner and curator of the Beermiscuous beer bar and bottle shop in Chicago. “They’re able to stand astride several approaches to being a craft brewery. While it costs them, perhaps, a niche, it does mean they’re a brewery for all seasons.”
To stand out as a brewery in a suburban strip mall—one that’s bordered by a Petco, a Trader Joe’s, and an OfficeMax—Roaring Table didn’t want its taproom to hew to the industrial-garage model visitors might expect. May is a graphic designer, and she had a more elegant vision for the space than the modern standard. With an architect, she chose interior details such as frosted-glass windows, tufted black banquettes, and lace-like patterned wallpaper.
May isn’t shy about her intent to create a taproom that feels romantic, even feminine. They are happy to be front-of-mind for date night. “We also felt very strongly that if we could make it a destination for couples, that we could remove the stigma of going to a brewery being a sole male focus,” May says. “We wanted the place to feel like families could feel comfortable, and women without their partners.”
May uses her personal experiences at taprooms to inform small areas where Roaring Table can shine. For example, she has discouraged Fearing from ordering multiple rounds at concrete-floored, industrial taprooms because the bare floors were making her feet uncomfortably cold. Roaring Table, in contrast, has a fireplace. It’s those touches that the couple hopes endear the brewery to new drinkers who might initially care more about the atmosphere and design than the draft list.
It’s paying off. Some of the brewery’s regular customers have commented on how unusual—and refreshing—it is to see Roaring Table’s long communal tables filled entirely with women.
While May designs the taproom, labels, and marketing materials to look sophisticated and even glamorous, Fearing says his current areas of brewing obsession are anything but sexy. He brags about his brite tanks’ dissolved oxygen (DO) readings the way other brewers might brag about pounds of hops per barrel: His DO levels were once in the 50s, but lately they’ve been in the single digits.
“I feel like I can taste it in the beer. I really do,” he says. “I like focusing on things that get lost in the shuffle; they’re so important.”
Dialing in water chemistry—what Fearing calls “water recipes”—has also made a marked improvement in his beer quality. Lake Zurich’s municipal water is bicarbonate-heavy, so Fearing uses a reverse-osmosis system to strip the water down, then builds its mineral content from scratch, tailored to each beer recipe. “If you want to make a good hazy, you have to have control over your water, or you’re never going to be able to get that smooth, round, creamy, unharsh bitterness,” he says. “Alkalinity just destroys those beers.”
Water is an ingredient that’s fascinated and vexed Fearing since he made his first batch of homebrew in 2006. The early pale ales he brewed were disappointing to him, despite all his research on malt and hops. After he installed a reverse-osmosis system at home, however, his pale ales immediately improved in quality.
That was the lightbulb moment, and it continues to inform Fearing’s brewing to this day. Especially when it comes to Roaring Table’s hazy IPAs and other hoppy styles, Fearing says water chemistry is what separates a good beer from a great one.
Proof of Concept
The attention to detail that May and Fearing invest in their brewery is what sets Roaring Table apart. Being plugged in to the details of their brewing and their business, they sometimes forget to step back and admire what they’ve built. When they receive a compliment—something Fearing says he’s not very good at doing—it almost seems to catch them by surprise.
“Our heads have been down in the weeds for so long,” he says. “Sometimes you finally look up, and it’s nice to get a little validation because you can run for a long stretch of time without any sense of that.”
Lately, those compliments have taken the tangible form of larger beer orders from retailers in Chicago. Roaring Table distributes its own beer, and the team has watched orders climb from 50 cases in one run to quadruple that number. One retailer recently called the brewery to ask when the next delivery of lagers would arrive because customers had been asking for them.
“They are a brewery that is absolutely worth paying attention to,” says Harvey at Beermiscuous. “They are able to do classic styles, including lagers and English and Belgian styles, as well as being able to do some of the things that your buzzy American craft brewers are also doing.”
One of Roaring Table’s more contemporary, buzzier beers is called Whirlycaster, a sour IPA whose additional ingredients change with each batch. A past iteration included blackberries, peaches, hibiscus, lactose, and vanilla; another was brewed with raspberry, blackberry, Meyer lemon, rose hips, lactose, and vanilla.
At his shop, Harvey says he knows he can always recommend the latest Whirlycaster to customers looking for something unique and fun, but he also admires how the beer is technically sound. “Whirlycaster shows there are ways to do stuff like this with adjuncts, with lactose, with fruit, and still make the beer taste good—not just like it has a whole bunch of stuff in it,” he says.
Gradually, Fearing is beginning to accept compliments like that—and he’ll have to, because Roaring Table likely has more accolades in store.
“When I’m struggling with something, I think, ‘You know what? This is worth it in the end because there are people telling me the very thing I set out to do is happening.’”