By Suzanne Deveney, Foodable Contributor
To anyone who grew up on the south side of Chicago, the mention of the Jay’s Potato Chip factory immediately conjures memories of a strong potato chip aroma filling the air.
Today, you’re more likely to smell hops coming from within. Brewing brothers John and Ben Saller have expanded their Atlas Brewing Company business into the old Jay’s warehouse, shuttered since 2007.
The Craft Brew Industry
According to the Brewers Association, the craft brew industry contributed $55.7 billion and more than 420,000 jobs to the U.S. economy in 2014. Of the 10 fastest growing beer brands in the U.S., five are craft breweries, and it’s projected that craft beer will represent nearly 15 percent of the beer industry by 2020. Of the 3,464 breweries in the U.S., 3,418 are considered craft, and include regional craft breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs.
Is there room for one more? “Definitely,” says Ben.
Lifelong Chicagoans John and Ben opened Atlas Brewing Company on Lincoln Avenue in June of 2012, brewing and serving seasonal and unique beers to locals. Their dream of expanding their brews to a larger market became a reality this year when they took over the Jay’s warehouse at 99th Street and Cottage Grove and started brewing for the consumer market.
“There may eventually be a saturation point, but Chicago has a long way to go,” says John. “If you look at the volume of gallons of craft beer produced in Illinois, there is a huge opportunity for the craft brewer.” Illinois currently ranks 13th in production, producing about 400,000 barrels per year, well behind states like Oregon that currently produce more than one million.
“Most people who are starting breweries are thinking small, which is great because that means you can go to any neighborhood and try new beers. If you look at the 107 craft breweries in Illinois, the production of 102 of them are equal to any one of the top five,” says John.
Store shelf space is precious and competition may be more intense when it comes to craft brews. “Where you start to look at saturation, shelf space at supermarkets and retail is more important,” says John.
The Saller brothers have a motto: “Turn beer drinkers into craft beer drinkers.” But they would like to see a time when they can drop the craft beer label and just have more people drinking beer from small breweries. “Craft beer used to be seen as weird or counter-culture,” says John. “Now you’re getting more consistent, widely available products, which is great.”
In addition to what’s offered at the brewpub, they’re producing four year-round beers at the south side location. All named after notable Chicago landmarks or historical references, cans of Diversey Pale Ale, Rookery Rye IPA, Farmhouse Wheat Ale, and Freight Handler Milk Stout, are or will soon be available throughout Chicago and surrounding suburbs.
Because they own a brewpub, they need to move product through a distributer, who plays a key role in obtaining that prized shelf space. Both John and Ben are active in the sales process as well, going around with the sales reps or meeting with the higher ups at grocery or convenience stores. “We show the people making or approving the purchases that we have a sharp looking product that is of high quality,” says Ben.
“And we deliver consistency in terms of product quality and availability,” adds John. “Over and over we hear about frustration with small breweries — regardless of their quality. Some weeks they have beer to deliver and some weeks they don’t.”
For most small breweries, there’s an opportunity to build relationships with bars and restaurants that rotate their beers often. They can send a couple kegs one week and it’s ok if they don’t have it the next week or have a different product instead. But retail outlets and convenience stores or grocery stores don’t want to order from a distributor and be told that there’s no product this week.
John points out that it’s important that the beer be consumed as fresh as possible, and that means being concerned how long the beer has been sitting around. “We’re trying to walk the narrow line between having enough to say yes to our distributor, but not so much that we have to start worrying about the date.”
“It’s especially hard starting out. Next year if we brew four times as much as this year, that line may not be as narrow as it is now,” says Ben.
They currently have about five people – including themselves – who work either full or part time in the brewery. For now, Atlas is only available in Illinois, but distribution outside of the state is a possibility. Out-of-state and international distributors like what they see and have already approached them.
“We have a lot of space at the new brewery, and expansion would be possible,” says Ben. They anticipate brewing about 1,000 barrels for the six months since starting production, and have capacity for about 8,000 barrels per year. The brewery has enough floor space to increase to about 60,000 barrels but that would require more equipment and a larger commitment – neither of which they are ruling out and, of course, depend on how things go.
“There are quite a few underdeveloped beer markets in the U.S.,” John says. “Getting in on the ground floor of an emerging beer market sounds like a great idea.”
Along the way, they’ve learned the canning process and have become diligent about working with their distributors, their team, and outside vendors on sales and marketing, including package design. Surprisingly, the increased volume and brew work itself was not the biggest challenge they faced going from a brewpub to full operations.
That distinction belongs to quality control. They depend on stores to manage inventory and bars or restaurants to clean their tap lines. “We have no control how long it will sit after the purchase. When someone has stored the beer at home in a hot hallway for four months or is served a beer from a dirty tap and the beer tastes bad it reflects on us,” says John.
So what’s the optimal time from production to drinking? “As fast as possible,” he says. Although most breweries allow for a 90- to 120-day shelf life, he hopes that people are drinking it before then. “It’s just not going to taste as good at 90 days as it does after 20 days.”
Working with family can either make or break a business. John and Ben have found a way to make it work, and there’s been a natural evolution to who does what.
While they both stay involved in all aspects of the business, including recipe development, John spearheads research and quality control, and Ben handles more of the day-to-day operations at both locations.
“We argue and piss each other off, but it rarely carries over at the end of the workday,” says Ben. “There are benefits to being able to speak openly with each other and discuss and reject ideas without any politics. There have been difficult patches just like any small business, but we know without a doubt that we both have the same motivation.”
Which is? “To make good beer that makes people happy and to pay off our investors.”
And like any brother would, John finishes Ben’s sentence – with a bit of reality for many small businesses:
“Because our investors are our mom and former roommate and our neighbor…”
Find retail locations or visit the brewpub located at 2747 N. Lincoln, Chicago.