One of the great benefits of owning a brewery, most owners will tell you, is the diverse cross section of people who walk through the doors and sit down for a beer. Genuine friendships can be forged over pints and shared passion, and now and again there's even an occasion for a collaboration.
This is the story of Dovetail Brewery in Chicago, regular customer Joe Daniel-who works in produce logistics-and a kriek that was released earlier this week, in what the brewery calls a "city first."
Dovetail's co-owners, Chicago natives Hagen Dost and Bill Wesselink, met in brewing school in Munich and bonded over a shared appreciation of the traditional methods in classic European beers. "Not because we think they are cool or anything but because they are the path to the highest-quality beers," says Dost. "Our favorite breweries still use those traditions at least in one way or another."
When Dovetail opened its doors in 2016, it gave more of a bow than a nod to those traditional breweries. This, of course, means the brewery contains a coolship. "From the beginning, we planned to do spontaneously fermented beer in the style of lambic," says Dost. "To be absolutely clear: these spontaneous beers are not lambic because lambic can be made only in Belgium. We're producing a beer in the style."
They do a turbid mash of 60 percent Pilsner malt and 40 percent raw wheat, let the resulting wort hit 13-14° Plato, and then let it rest for up to eighteen hours in the coolship. The brewery, which is located in the northern part of the city in a 90-year-old building, has a lot of microbes to work with, but Dost and Wesselink also like to think they get some help from the Chicago Transit Authority.
"We're using whatever the Brown Line brings us," says Dost in a reference to the "L" train that is nearly adjacent to the three-story brewery.
From the coolship, the wort is pumped into barrels, and anywhere from a day to two weeks later, fermentation starts and continues for two or three years. That's what makes this kriek newsworthy.
Even before they opened their doors, the brewers were talking about this beer. Dost made a kriek back in his basement homebrewing days, but rather than using the more common Montmorency cherry (what he refers to as "cough-syrup cherry"), he opted for the Balaton cherry, native to Hungary, that is slightly larger and known for a tart yet slightly sweet taste.
"I had the most delicious jam made with those cherries, so it seemed like the right fruit for the beer," he says. "If it makes great jam, it'll make great other things, too."
During its first coolship season, Dovetail had five batches. Around this time last year, the brewery went through and selected sixteen barrels that would become kriek but ran into a problem. Balaton cherries grow in the Leelanau Peninsula in northern Michigan but are somewhat difficult to source without a good connection.
Enter taproom-regular Joe Daniel.
"He found the farmer," recalls Dost. "There aren't too many, and it would have been impossible for us to find a grower." Not only did Daniel secure the 2,300 pounds of cherries the brewery needed, but he also drove the rental truck up to the farm to pick up the produce, then turned around and came back the same day.
"I am a huge fan of the brewery as I like continental European beers so they had an immediate lifetime customer in me, once I saw the copper still from Weistephan,the sacks of grain from Bamberg, Germany, and the water filter system that helps simulate the water found in Bavaria and Bohemia I knew this wasn't just a run of the mill place, and was truly special," recalled Daniel in an email.
After Daniel returned to the brewery with the fruit cargo, a de-stemming party was held, the spontaneously fermented ale was mixed with the cherries and transferred to food-grade IBC totes because "it's really hard to get cherries out of a barrel, and while we'd love to do it in a foeder, we're not sitting on a pile of money." After a year, the result was bottled in brown 500ml bottles and made available for purchase.
Their patience seems to have paid off: Travel, beer, and spirits columnist Josh Noel of the Chicago Tribune called the kriek "just marvelous: tart and complex, rife with earthy notes of rich fruit that veer from ripe cherry to plump strawberry and back again."
For Daniel, the beer offered new perspective from his long career in produce logistics.
"I work in an industry where I never see the people or products I move," he says. "Almost my entire day is spent behind a computer screen and on the phone. It brings me a lot of pride and happiness to see an actual product I played a role in it's creation. Even more so it's something people enjoy and it makes them happy."
For the brewers, patience and trust are the two lessons they are taking from this experience, Wesselink says, and they are important qualities for anyone who wants to brew spontaneously fermented beers.
"The idea [behind the brewery] was these lambic brewers in Belgium and what they do. They trust in nature, they trust that nature will give them something delicious to drink, and one of the things about Chicago is that it's known as The City in a Garden," says Wesselink. "So, we thought we have similar weather [to Belgium] and a good selection of microbes here, so we have to trust nature here and produce something of our own, something that is delicious and comes from that trust."
Following the success of the kriek, the brewery got seventeen coolship days earlier this spring and a new batch of cherries will be making its way to the city in a few weeks, ready for a release next year. And there's lots else to do in the meantime.
"The raspberries are coming in Monday," says Wesselink.