Evanston’s first craft brewery is Temperance in name only

The city that was dry until the early 70's is charting a new course, thanks to the craft beer and spirits movement.

December 19, 2013

The first-ever craft brewery in the Chicago suburb of Evanston is officially going public.

Temperance Beer Company, which just started production this year, is opening its tap room tonight.

The space is small but smart, with sleek, light wood fixtures and exposed brick walls. That is thanks to owner Josh Gilbert’s first career as an architect.

But the brewery’s name is a reference to Evanston’s past. The city was founded as a “dry” community -- meaning production and sales of alcoholic beverages were forbidden. In the late 19th century, it became home to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Led by Frances E. Willard, the organization fought for social reforms, such as the eight-hour work day, and tried to stamp out tobacco, drugs, and alcohol.

That history had a huge and lasting impact on Evanston, which only issued its first liquor license in the early 1970s. Plenty of liquor stores and bars have come and gone since then. But even today getting alcohol into Evanston is not easy.

The path to Temperance was first cleared by Paul Hletko, who owns the craft distillery Few Spirits in Evanston. Few just opened in 2011, but Hletko’s products already have won a number of major awards.

In fact, his rye whiskey was just named craft whiskey of the year by Whiskey Advocate magazine. To get there, Hletko had to persuade Evanston officials to change the city’s laws so a distillery could be set up and licensed.

“I lost track of the hearings after 15,” said Hletko. “But I never took a ‘no’ vote.”

Gilbert says he got the same treatment from lawmakers, which he described as much better than in the bigger city next door.

“Dealing with permits of any kind is way more difficult in Chicago than in Evanston,” said Gilbert. “Here, there was no pushback. Everyone was helpful and in favor of the project.”

Gilbert grew up in Evanston, which is probably best known as the home of Northwestern University. He started thinking about a brewery in 2008, when he says the economic downturn “gave me a lot of free time to explore other projects.”

He found head brewer Claudia Jendron at a bowling party hosted by the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild. Jendron’s ball got stuck halfway down the lane, and Gilbert watched in horror and awe as she walked down the lane to get it.

“It was great, I’m such a good bowler,” joked Jendron. “I killed it.”

Jendron at the time was brewing at Goose Island Beer Company, long the dominant craft brewery in Chicago (and, since 2011, a division of mega-beer corporation Anheuser-Busch InBev). It was a skill she picked up after starting out as the company’s receptionist.

She and Gilbert found they had similar tastes in beers, and thoughts about how to run a brewery. Despite Jendron’s tenure at the famed Goose Island, Temperance’s recipes came from Josh’s experiments in home brewing.

“Home brews are home brews,” said Jendron. “But I saw something in them. The flavor was awesome.”

Jendron and Gilbert say they will serve all of the Temperance beers in the tap room (there are six, including a wheat beer, an ESB and a porter) and small “tastes” made from local foods.

And though Evanston has changed, Gilbert still sees a connection between their current efforts and the Temperance movement of the past.

“I think we are reformers on a micro scale here in Evanston,” said Gilbert. “Because it was historically dry. And we’re dampening it.”

Temperance Tap Room opens tonight at 2000 W. Dempster Street.

Alison Cuddy is the Arts and Culture reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on TwitterFacebook and Instagram