Why Alter Creates Unique Taprooms for Each Location

When Alter Brewing opened in the Chicagoland area of Downers Grove, Illinois the thought process was more along the production model with retail stores selling the beer along with the brewery’s lone taproom.

“But now, you know, 7-8 years later, we’re kind of on a model of setting up different taprooms and selling our beer that way,” explained Alter Head Brewer Matt McCowan during an interview for the March/April Last Pint feature in Brewer Magazine. “One, it’s nice to have a lot of different arms where you can transfer your beer to. It’s better for business because you make more money on that.

“But also with distribution… I like it, but at the same time, it’s a really hard game to get into. It’s like trying to find billboard space in Times Square. It’s not good for us, it might be good for some other people, but it’s not good for us. So we’ve kind of moved to this model of having different taprooms.”

For a few years, they did try to get into grocery stores, which they did and still are.

“You can find us in the local grocery store and in the bars,” he said. “We still do that but we’re trying to focus on the taproom sort of thing.”

McCowan said for the most part, everyone in the industry kind of does the same thing.

“If you go to a brewery, you’re gonna see a smattering of Lagers, a smattering of dark beers, a smattering of hazies, and we’re all kind of doing the same formula,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve always said that we all kind of shop at the same grocery store. It’s what you do in the kitchen that makes a difference.

“So when people say like, what makes your beer different? I really don’t have a great answer for that kind of question.”

That’s why having diverse taprooms can be just as important as a diverse or unique portfolio of beer.

The newest location in Oak Brook, McCowan said they are trying to shake things up a little bit, by creating a Solera system to start making Sours and have wild fermentation and mixed fermentation.

“I was not doing that in Downers Grove, because I’m deathly afraid of any of that getting into my clean beer,” McCowan said. “I have been holding off on that until we had a location like this where it can be completely separate.

“It’s nice and freeing knowing that I can kind of do whatever I want. I don’t have to worry about infecting anything else. I’m probably a little crazy about it.”

McCowan even said he plans to use one-way disposable kegs instead of the brewery’s cooperage already in circulation to cut out the possibility of contamination.

“It’s probably like really anal of me. But if something goes bad in Downers Grove, that’s a shutdown for us,” he said. “That costs more than what the disposable kegs cost.”

Both Oak Brook and St. Charles have kitchens, unlike the original location in Downers Grove.

“Downers Grove is more of just like a straight, mid-2000s taproom, where there’s a big space, you can see the brewery, you can order in food,” he said. “We have lots of like pizza joints, sandwich shops that will bring in food so you can sit down and have your beers and play games, stuff like that. That’s a really cool spot because it feels very open. You definitely get all the sounds of the brewery and you see what everyone’s doing. So that’s really cool.

“But the food that we have here, our executive chef Adam pumps out some really good food. He’s always coming up with some new things.”

The newest taproom in Oak Brook is located near a Gibson Steakhouse and Fogo de Chão (a Brazilian Steakhouse)  so they didn’t really want to do anything too fancy.

“That’s already there, so we kind of focus on just good solid, any time of the day, food,” he said. You don’t have to feel like you have to get dressed up for it. It’s good food and good beer. And that’s kind of the whole thing.”

As Alter continues to grow with its 25-barrel production facility creating beer for all the taprooms, McCowan, said he could see them maybe doing a distillery someday.

“Every location that we open, I want to do something a little bit different,” he said. “It’s gonna be hard to manage eventually. Because at the end of the day, we are a brewery. But we’re trying to shake things up and try to just differentiate ourselves a little bit.”

Photo courtesy Alter Brewing-Oak Brook

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