Brewer Brian Taylor learned barrel-aging techniques during his time as a brewer at Goose Island, Flying Dog and Boulevard; Ria Neri brought a beer-and-food sensibility she’d honed as a Cicerone and manager at Chicago bars Bangers & Lace, Lone Wolf and Pub Royale. The two blend those focuses at their coming-soon brewery, Whiner Beer, located in a vertical farm and eco-incubator called The Plant in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood.
“Obviously that was our number one goal: to have some sort of barrel-aged beer, because barrels and oak just make the beer taste so much better and more complex,” Taylor says. “We want to emulate the Belgian styles, where each barrel is its own little ecosystem.”
When the taproom opens in December, it will pour a cabernet wine barrel-aged, lactobacillus-spiked saison called Le Tub, the first in a series of seasonal saison variants that will become Whiner’s signature.
“I love saisons for their versatility,” says Neri. “There’s versatility in adding different adjuncts, or brewing hoppier saisons, spicier saisons … there’s so much you can do with it. I love the refreshing quality of them and the nice malt background to support whatever spices or ingredients you add to it.”
In addition to Le Tub, Whiner will debut with Rubrique-a-brac, a biere de garde dry-hopped with Hull Melon hops. But wait, why no barrel aging to that beer? As a new brewery, Taylor explains, Whiner needs to grow its barrel inventory before it can release all barrel-aged beers. Both Rubrique-a-brac and Le Tub will be available on draft and in cans around Chicago, while other coming-soon, draft-only brews will include a Belgian-style IPA and a barrel-aged, Belgian-style sour wheat.
Packaging Le Tub wine barrel-aged saison in a can is unconventional, but Taylor and Neri say it fits the brewery’s mission to blur the line between highbrow and everyday beers.
“A lot of these barrel-aged beers, when you put them in bottles, they’re perceived as fancy and you wait to drink them till you have a nice meal,” Neri says. “A can is like ‘Oh, if I have a barbecue in the backyard, I”ll have this barrel-aged saison in a can.’ It allows us to approach a wider audience.”
The brewery is also pioneering in its choice of location: The Plant, a net-zero energy incubator that also houses a coffee roaster, a kombucha maker, a mushroom farm and bakery.
“If there was ever a zombie apocalypse, we wouldn’t have to leave the building,” Neri says.
“They’re excited to have us use their products in our beers,” Taylor says, adding that Whiner will likely trade with other Plant businesses for ingredients and services.
It’s not just the tenants, though, that drew Whiner to The Plant; it’s the building’s physical setup. The building is arranged to conserve energy and reduce waste through the use of an anaerobic digester, which converts brewery waste to methane gas, which can then be harnessed to heat the boilers. When the brewery pressurizes its tanks, it can even send the carbon dioxide to The Plant’s greenhouse, where algae will convert it back to oxygen. In the future, the building hopes to add further wastewater treatment facilities as well.
The 17,000-square-foot brewery and taproom will open to the public in December, with a look that Whiner says will evoke a cross between a traditional beer hall and a French countryside vineyard. Ultimately, the team hopes the brewery lands in that sweet spot between high- and lowbrow beer culture. Taylor says the brewery’s signature style, saison, fits the mission perfectly.
“We want to make great beer but it has to be drinkable. Saisons are a perfect style to get people excited about what we’re doing,” Taylor says. “Obviously there’s an infinite amount of things you can do with saisons. They’re a little high in alcohol but other than that, they’re approachable.”