Rich chats with three friends behind Noon Whistle Brewing
Saturday 31 July 2021
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Growing up, Noon Whistle’s brewmaster Paul Kreiner and his extended family spent summer vacations in a small town in central Wisconsin, where every day at noon the town whistle blew, signalling that it was time to crack open the first beer. While it may raise the odd responsible modern eyebrow, this tradition feels as quintessentially midwestern as Garrison Keillor drawling through Lake Woebegone, and more importantly makes for an excellent and evocative brewery name.
Continuing the charmingly folksy feel of the whole endeavour, it’s hardly surprising that Paul and his two co-founders, sales supremo Mike Condon and business savant Jim Cagle, have been friends since they were in short trousers, inseparable through middle school and high school, and keeping in close touch throughout college and university.
“Paul and Jim are from Southside of Chicago, but moved to what we call the suburbs, and that's where we all met in the fourth and fifth grade,” says Mike. “I ended up going to college with Paul, while Jim went to a different university – he’s the smart one you see, the brains behind the scenes.
“Every time we got together we’d wind up having that conversation. You know the one: ‘How great would it be to start a business together, buddy? We should open our own bar’. Obviously, nothing came of it, until Paul started really getting into homebrewing. He began working in the beer industry for a distributor, then went to school for professional brewing, and finally approached me and Jim around 2011, saying ‘I'm gonna do something with this, come along with me’. My thinking was always to ask whether we were passionate enough about something to take that leap of faith on a small business. I don’t know if I was absolutely passionate about beer at that point, but I knew Paul was and that was enough for me and Jim.”
With a 5000 sq ft site in the town of Lombard, housing the brewery and a tiny, informal tasting room, Noon Whistle Brewing opened at the end of 2014. Initially, the brewery decided to focus exclusively on sessionable beers in a variety of styles, all at 5% ABV or less, including – confusingly – a Belgian-style dubbel. “The flavour profiles were all there, so it was all good,” admits Mike. “The whole idea is that these are beers you can start drinking over lunch and not ruin the rest of your day.
Mike continues: “Since then, we’ve been busy growing. We brew everything from hop forward beers to sours and everything in between. We try to make a point to be a brewery that's known for a multitude of styles, and for our quality. We’ve never felt comfortable being pigeonholed like a lot of breweries are nowadays, just brewing hazy IPAs. Don't get me wrong, we were one of the first breweries in the greater Chicagoland area that brewed that style, before it really started taking off, and it’s really what put us on the map.
“But there's definitely breweries just now where 80-90% of their portfolio is hazy IPA, and Chicago has become one of the very best places for that style; one, two, three years in a row a Chicagoan brewery has picked up a silver or gold in the hazy category at the Great American Beer Festival. Chicago, all of a sudden really quickly became spot on the map that was like, oh, by the way, some really good hazy IPA, then that continues to build from there.”
Where the past 18 months have been a time of quiet reflection for most breweries, an ambitious expansion plan has kept Noon Whistle busy throughout. Despite being widely recognised as one of the fastest growing craft outfits in the US, Noon Whistle in 2018 was, at least on paper, still relatively tiny in terms of capacity. As Mike explains, the team found itself at something of a crossroads.
“Basically, we were very tiny… too tiny,” says Mike. “It got to the point where we either had to accept we were happy staying at that size or commit to dramatic and rapid expansion. We chose the latter, and found an amazing 30,000 sq ft site in Naperville to house a brand new brewery and taproom, while at the same time expanding the space at our existing brewery in Lombard. We were about 60% of the way through that build-out when Covid hit, but of course we had to just keep going at that point.”
Naperville finally opened its doors to customers in summer 2020, including a smart new 2500 sq ft taproom. The dramatic bump in capacity has already allowed Noon Whistle to expand its horizons, now serving accounts across the entire state of Illinois, as well as pushing into neighbouring Wisconsin.
Moving main production to a fancy new home has also given the original Lombard location a new lease of life. After investing in extra floor space there, Noon Whistle has turned the site over to more experimental brews, including mixed, wild and spontaneous fermentation.
“Wild fermentation has always fascinated us, and we've played around with it a lot over the past year. But now we have a space that is completely dedicated to fun one-offs, including, you know, the funky stuff. Now that things are slowly getting back to normal after Covid, we’ll hopefully see a lot more of these brews reaching the taproom for people to enjoy,” says Mike.
And this kind of local, taproom engagement remains central to Noon Whistle’s ethos and its continuing success. Community support, word of mouth, loyalty and local pride are how Noon Whistle gained a foothold all those years ago.
“I guess we try to have a little bit of that Midwest hospitality, if you will. I have a friend that lives in New York who came here recently, and he was just really struck by how nice everyone here is. And we didn't think we were really that nice! That’s definitely really important to us though, to be in three friends who are basically family. And when we bring somebody in to work for us, it's kind of like bringing them into that family too. As we grow, hopefully quickly, over the next couple of years, we absolutely need to make sure that mindset stays with us.”
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