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Sketchbook Brewery is not abandoning its alley origins but finally is inviting its patrons to use the front entrance, 821 Chicago Ave. While the maze-like warehouse in the back will remain the place where dozens of unique beers are blended and fermented, a new storefront taproom is opening for those who appreciate a little local music and art along with their hops and malt.
The enterprise began as a collaboration of Evanston home brewers in 2013, with a tasting room and a small membership willing to wait a while to see which flavors they would get in their monthly package. Customers would find the orange door in the back, then follow the arrows to the goods, which could be sampled and brought home. Up to now, the brewery has been a sort of secret hangout for those in the know, despite the fact that the public has always been welcome.
Sketchbook was mostly the brainchild of Shawn Decker and Cesar Marron, who from the very outset envisioned the place as a true community-supported brewery. Mr. Decker is an award-winning media artist and musician and a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is married to poet, artist, and educator Alice George. Mr. Marron is a Brazilian native and is married to Amy Wilkinson. Ms. Wilkinson has a degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in museum studies and likes digging for artifacts.
Co-founders include Sean Curry, Mike Ensdorf and Kathy Pilat, Matt and Tara Kosloski, and Ted Perez, many of them home brewers in their own right who have won awards nationally.
Mr. Decker and Mr. Marron already had full-time jobs and in the early days sometimes found themselves there at midnight. It was decidedly a do-it-yourself operation, and most of their customers lived practically around the corner.
“We had a Kickstarter program, and it became apparent that the most interest was coming from people in the immediate neighborhood, practically a square mile radius,” Mr. Decker said. “They wanted a variety of tastes and to just be able to walk or bike over here. It’s a little like the 19th-century, when a family brewer would basically support himself by selling to his neighbors. Every town had a different brand.”
“We’re not trying to compete with Lagunitas and other large-scale operations,” Mr. Marron said. “We really consider ourselves a nano-brewery which is even smaller than a microbrewery.”
Sustainability is part of Sketchbook’s ethos: sale in reusable growlers (64-ounce brown or stainless steel bottles) and howlers (half the size), very minimal transportation and refrigeration and, they say, “inherent localness.” Many components of each flavor come from the Evanston downtown farmers’ market.
Batches of a particular beer are typically seven barrels, which equates to 240 gallons. The fermentation process takes anywhere from 12 to 20 days. They do not filter out the yeast, which would be faster, instead allowing each recipe to take its course. And for traditional styles, Sketchbook likes to do it the way it was originally done – without any shortcuts.
With so many options for combining elements in new ways, there is a new brew every month. Names like Kedzie Street Red, No Parking, Et Tu, Frogtown, Smoke Signal and Lapwing have been the order of the day. One of the contributing home brewers is a birdwatcher, so a few have been named after various species of birds.
The new taproom, located across from the Main Street L station, will serve 10 to 15 kinds of beer for consumption on the premises. The bar has been constructed from re-used wood from the lanes of a defunct bowling alley and a demolished hundred-year-old house in Wilmette. The establishment will be open from noon to various nighttime hours Tuesday through Sunday. (The website lists specific hours.)
Memberships represent a contract for monthly supplies of various blends and concoctions, along with other discounts and incentives. It seems to be favored by the many grad students who live nearby and by culture-oriented folks, who are abundant in Evanston.
Situated in an area of South Evanston that has seen a lot of change, the new place hopes to bring another aspect of creative community to the bustling district. The website states, “Sketchbooks are intimate little tools of invention and inspiration.” Neighborhood folks will no doubt amble in for a pint, have a pleasant conversation, and mull the next intriguing idea that comes to mind.