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Back in the mid-1990s, Oak Parker Brian Keyes bought his first make-your-own-beer kit. Since then, it's become a preoccupation, one he hopes to take to the level of occupation by opening his own brewery right here in his hometown.
Keyes, 38, is calling the venture Off Key Brewing, a play on his last name, and plans to brew unusual beers.
He and his business partner, St. Charles resident Jon Freedlund, hope to offer some of their signature homebrews, including Harry Knuckle Rye (described as spicy and floral with hoppy notes) or Mr. Hyde (a "breakfast stout" with hints of coffee, oats, chocolate and vanilla).
There's not a ton of money to be made in microbrewing, Keyes said. It's more about the love of beer for him.
"Nobody gets into beer for the money," he said. "I'm a family man. I've got three children and, ultimately, I need to do what's best for them, not what's best for me as far as starting a company. The reality is that it's a huge financial risk to put everything on the line like that."
So, Off Key Brewing is starting off small, what Keyes calls a "nano-brewery," looking for a storefront location where they can brew about 300 kegs a year. Bottling is expensive, so they plan to just sell kegs or 64-ounce jugs called "growlers" for walk-in customers. They already have a logo designed, a website in development and a business plan completed.
Realistically, Keyes believes they're 12-18 months from opening. Right now they're scouting locations in both Oak Park and Berwyn. His preference is to keep it local, but real estate has proved to be expensive.
It's not 100-percent certain that the brewery will come to fruition, said Keyes, who works by day as a computer programmer for an investment firm in Chicago.
"I'm not quitting my day job yet," he said. "It's something I want to do. I do feel like I'm standing on the side of the pool looking in, trying to figure out how cold it is. But I know once I'm in that pool, the swim's going to be great."
Freedlund will focus more on the business side of Off Key. The 38-year-old marketing company owner gives the brewery an 85 percent chance of opening, with the main hurdles being legislation and finding an affordable location. If and when they get off the ground, he thinks Keyes' watermelon brew and other "drinkable" recipes will help build a following.
"Brian is the artist here," Freedlund said. "He really can form a beer that isn't so scary or isn't on the periphery of beer drinkers."
The small, "boutique" beer makers are gradually becoming the rage, said Beejay Oslon, who is opening Pipeworks, which he believes to be the first nano-brewery in Chicago, by the end of this summer. According to the 29-year-old Humboldt Park resident, a nano is loosely defined as brewing up to 2,000 kegs a year (in contrast, Goose Island Brewery in Chicago brewed 260,000 kegs in 2010).
"As you see more home brewers wanting to take the plunge to make this a profession, the nano-brewery model makes a lot of sense just because it's a lot cheaper," Oslon said. "Opening up a full-scale microbrewery can be a very expensive endeavor."
Virginia Cassin, 87 — the Oak Park village clerk from 1973 to 1993, who helped oversee the community's transition from a dry town in the early '70s — worries that a brewery might not fit Oak Park's image. Back then, the village was careful and tasteful in crafting its liquor ordinance, making sure that only businesses that serve food could sell alcoholic beverages.
"I don't know that [a microbrewery] fits the image of Oak Park," she said.
But members of the village board and village staff have expressed enthusiasm for seeing a brewery open here. Village Manager Tom Barwin thinks such a business fits with Oak Park's efforts to become a greener community.
"Anybody who wants to open up a quality microbrewery we will meet with at the drop of a hat and do everything we can to facilitate that kind of investment here," he said. "It's the most sustainable beer. You don't have to truck it in. You don't have to recycle bottles and cans. We're hoping to see this kind of investment here in the not-too-distant future."