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Sixty years ago, when Evanston was still a dry town with liquor sales prohibited in restaurants and stores, no breweries, distilleries or other alcohol manufacturers had ever set up shop in town.
In 1855, as Northwestern University prepared to open its doors to students for the first time, the Methodist founders of the college helped ban the sale of alcohol within a four-mile radius of the university. Later on, women’s suffragist Frances Willard brought to Evanston the Temperance Movement, which sought to combat alcoholism-fueled domestic violence.
But more than 100 years later, the Evanston City Council, hoping to improve business for local shops and restaurants, voted in favor of a liquor ordinance in 1972. Still, no local brewery would open its doors in the Chicago suburb for another 40 years.
That all changed in 2013, when Evanston-native Josh Gilbert founded Temperance Beer Company on Dempster Street, in a World War II-era building that once housed the Sentinel Radio Corporation. Gilbert told the RoundTable that he came up with the name of the brewery as an ode to Evanston’s complicated history with alcohol.
“I like to say that Frances Willard was trying to make everybody’s life better, and so are we. We’re just doing it with beer,” Gilbert said. “As the first brewery in Evanston, we had to have a nod to her, but it’s not a middle finger. It’s not even tongue-in-cheek. It’s a part of our history. The good thing about having the name is people ask about it, and they didn’t know that we have this rich history of teetotalism.”
Gilbert, a graduate of Evanston Township High School, went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut before getting a master’s degree in architecture at the University of Illinois in Chicago. After having two kids, he and his family moved back to Evanston while he continued to work in a small, two-person architectural firm.
But when the 2008 recession hit, his firm was not getting enough business to sustain itself. He was an avid homebrewer at the time, making his own beers as a hobby. At that point, the idea crept into his head that he could be the one to bring the brewing business to Evanston.
“The thing about Evanston that I knew from growing up is that there’s a lot of hometown pride, so I thought if I could do this right, Evanston would say, ‘Oh, we’ve got this brewery now. You’ve got to come try it,’” Gilbert said. “It helped being the first one, too, because people got really excited.”
Several years later, after taking a class on starting a brewery and making different connections in the business, he found the location on Dempster where he could make Temperance a reality. The first head brewer he hired for the company was someone he met through the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild bowling league, which he joined to find people who might be interested in coming to work for the new Evanston brewery in the works.
The Temperance taproom officially opened its doors for the first time on Dec. 20, 2013, making Evanston history by serving beer brewed locally. Gilbert recalls being blown away by the turnout from community members that night, with the brewery so busy that his mom even had to help clean glasses and clear tables all night.
In the intervening years, Temperance has grown into a community staple, hosting frequent fundraising events for nonprofits and serving crowds of customers gathered on its outdoor deck on hot summer days. Once a month, the brewery hosts Temperance Trikonasana, a $30 yoga class that raises money for different local nonprofits. Participants get to enjoy a beer after the class while they hear from leaders from the nonprofit beneficiary for the month.
“We knew that we weren’t going to be raising thousands of dollars, so we sought out smaller nonprofits who would benefit from a few hundred dollars,” Gilbert said. “The last one [in March] was the Childcare Network of Evanston, which is two blocks away, and a ton of people showed up. So they got much more money than they were expecting.”
The most recent yoga class in April raised money for the Justin Wynn Fund, which works on youth outreach and child mentorship in Evanston.
Additionally, Temperance recently brewed a new beer called “Where I’m From,” a Hazy India Pale Ale. Of the proceeds, 100% goes toward the City of Evanston Reparations Fund, and Temperance has raised more than $15,000 for the fund through sales on the beer thus far.
The brewery also has a beer on tap called “Things We Don’t Say,” which is part of a national effort among craft breweries to raise awareness and funds for suicide prevention. Part of the profits from that beer go toward Hope For The Day, a nonprofit focused on building mental health resources for people in need.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Gilbert said he really did not know if the business could survive. He and his team set up a drive-through service immediately for regular customers to pick up beer directly from the taproom, and Temperance eventually opened outside and in the parking lot behind the building, but the indoor taproom itself was closed for 447 consecutive days before reopening in May 2021.
He said that Temperance only lasted through the darkest days of the pandemic thanks to community support and government aid through the stimulus packages passed by Congress.
“The community was incredibly supportive when we were in the real s—, when it was just the drive-through,” Gilbert said. “People were buying gift cards and buying more beer than they needed or could drink and handing them out to neighbors. Hopefully, we won’t have to go back to that, but at least, we know that we have a very supportive community.”