Brewery with a distinctly unusual business model
Saturday 31 July 2021
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Having profiled a fair few breweries for Ferment, it’s not often that we come across anything that makes us think “…eh?” But that was definitely our reaction to Great Central’s distinctly unusual business model.
Established from the outset as a ‘collaborative brewery’ Great Central is simultaneously a contract brewery, a technical brewing consultancy and a deeply traditional German-style beer brand. It’s the brainchild of David Avram, who recognised back in 2010 that Chicago’s craft beer scene was experiencing some pain from its sudden and dramatic growth.
David says: “So many of our brewing friends were dealing with just different growth struggles, whether it was access to expertise, access to equipment, the right type of real estate to support a facility, funding. You know, there’s just so many, so many obstacles that can get in the way when you’re trying to grow a business. So I thought to myself, if we created a collaborative brewery focused on supporting the craft community – if we could bring the power of that community together under one roof – then we could have a really good impact on the quality of beer going out, but also give people the versatility to really accelerate Chicago’s development.”
As is often the case with rapidly developing scenes, Chicago saw a huge explosion of adventurous and creative brewing in the 2010s (and to be honest this continues to be a hallmark of the City). However, with such passion often coming up against a lack of hard knowledge and harder experience, Great Central was perfectly placed to partner with small breweries and realise their vision.
“We have clients come to us with really interesting ideas that are very creative, but the brewing science side needs a little bit of extra math behind it, if you will,” says David. “And that’s where our staff can really add the knowledge they’ve gained from deep experience, the industry, training, and then apply that to innovating in a precise, calculated way.”
Over the years, Great Central has supported its peers across the city and environs, from niche producers to household names, but with a particular focus on craft beer entrepreneurs. But there’s another side to this business, which is probably of more interest to thirsty UK beer lovers: its line of expertly brewed German beers, released under its in-house Great Central brand.
“I’m a Chicago native, but I’ve always been a big European beer guy, with a German and Belgian focus. And then I watched the craft beer scene grow, and I fell in love the classic West Coast IPAs; I think they have that same classic, timeless quality.”
Great Central’s brewmaster, Andreas Miller, has been central to the entire project since its inception. Born and raised in Bavaria, Andreas trained at Munich’s legendary Doemans Academy, and was very much the missing piece in David’s puzzle.
“I’m a big believer in the energy of the universe,” says David, “so I think someone just figured the two of us needed to connect so we could make some really good German beer here in Chicago. When he and I came together at the outset of the project, and we both talked about wanting to pay homage to really classic, true to style, German beers and make sure that we were making just really technically sound beautiful, clean beers for people to enjoy.”
And it’s not just Andreas. Great Central has technically expert brewers in key positions across the operation, including the head of its quality programme: a fourth-generation brewer with a PhD in brewing science from Scotland’s renowned Heriot Watt University.
Feeling that traditional German styles were clearly underrepresented in Chicago, and therefore poorly understood, David felt it was really important to showcase the tradition as well as the technical potential for deriving complexity and depth of flavour in a beer, using just the four key ingredients.
“So, say we want to coax this beautiful banana aroma out of our hefeweizen, and then get some coriander or citrus in the background,” he explains. “How can we get that without adding coriander, which a lot of American brewers do? For us, it’s just an expression of the malt, governed by the temperature we mash in at, whether we use decoction, what are the cell counts on our yeast pitches? Are we trying to stress the yeast a little bit? Are we tweaking the fermentation temperature just a little bit, in order to get a different flavour compound out of it? I think we take a lot of pride in trying to figure out how to get there with just those four key ingredients.”
Today, Great Central is one of many Chicago breweries that have their own unique, distinctive vision, and there’s certainly a great deal of healthy competition in what has become a pretty crowded market. Nonetheless, this city rooted in progressive politics and community activism has, unsurprisingly, given birth to a craft scene where someone is always on hand to provide a leg-up or a lifeline.
“There’s a lot of people here with something to say creatively, and they gravitate toward beer and the beer community as a way of expressing that,” says David. “So, while there’s a lot of competition, there’s still a very strong sense of community too. A great example: we just had some very bad storms pass through Chicago, and one of the breweries was actually hit by a tornado and destroyed. Within two days, half the brewing community was already helping them kind of pick up the pieces; people have been brewing their beer for them to keep them in the market, there’s already a fundraising campaign to help them get rebuilt. So, people show up for each other out here, because I think they take a lot of pride in the fact that so many great beers and great breweries are coming out of Chicago.”
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