Proposed craft brewery sparks debate in Chicago

Craft beer is booming business in Chicago. So why is one neighborhood trying to keep it out?

January 23, 2014

Even in a city with a number of new craft beer ventures, Forbidden Root stands out. It will soon be what its owners say will be the nation’s first “botanical brewery” … if it can overcome the opposition of some Chicago residents who do not want it in their West Town neighborhood.

Co-owners Robert Finkel and B. J. Pichman say they’re reviving an early, if now unfamiliar, American beer tradition of brewing with botanicals --  from flowers to fruits and nuts.

Finkel says that was a necessity for early Americans, who didn’t have a “beautiful vat” of grain and hops at hand.

“They took whatever was in the ground and experimented,” said Finkel. “They came up with some really cool recipes, and botanic beer sort of ruled the day, until the CO2 cartridge was invented!”

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So far, Finkel and Pichman have come up with four beer recipes using ingredients ranging from key limes to black walnuts. Pichman says they’ll brew a stout with “chocolate mass, toasted pecans and a hint of magnolia flowers” for a forthcoming series of beers made with “single origin exotic chocolates.”

The question is where Forbidden Root -- which has thus far functioned as a gypsy operation -- will open. Pichman says he and Finkel found a spot on Chicago Ave., on the stretch between Ashland and Damen, which once housed a small movie theater. Forbidden Root plans to construct both a brewery and a tasting room in the space, along the lines of Half Acre Beer Company on Chicago’s north side.

Pichman lives in the neighborhood, and he says he likes the area’s small business atmosphere.

But that’s where Finkel and Pichman have come up against some obstacles. They need package and tavern liquor licenses to serve beer on premises and to sell it to go. And that stretch of Chicago Ave. currently has a liquor moratorium, which bans most new liquor licenses.

Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno could lift the moratorium, and has done so recently in other areas of the ward. But in a previous debate around liquor sales in the area, he promised a local community group, the East Village Association (EVA), that he would not lift any liquor moratoriums before the end of his term in 2015.

The EVA plays an active role in zoning and other development issues in the neighborhood. EVA President Neal McKnight said his group, about a year ago, surveyed some community members about liquor moratoriums. Though he could not tell me how many responses he got, McKnight said “overwhelmingly, the result was people did not want them lifted.”

McKnight chalked that up to a concern about “divisive liquor issues,” including “vagrancy, substance abuse, increased automobile traffic, public urination.”

“I’m not saying that everybody who goes to a brewpub does that,” said McKnight.  “But as you get those concentrations of nightlife, and people who are attracted that and are using alcohol, that becomes a problem.”

Forbidden Root’s Finkel says he understands those concerns and even supports liquor moratoriums for communities to block “undesirable development.“ He just does not think it was meant to keep a high-end brewery such as his out of the neighborhood.

“It doesn’t attract that, it actually attracts a much more discerning clientele,” said Finkel. “It tends to be foodies, and people who like organic food and people who love beer. It’s a different crowd.”

McKnight stresses he is not opposed to Forbidden Root coming into the neighborhood. He is more concerned that granting the brewery a liquor license – or a zoning change that would allow it to operate as a commercial rather than a business enterprise – would open the door to less responsible developers.

In an interview, Alderman Moreno called that concern a “red herring” and says he has not seen any evidence of it, at least in his ward. Moreno did agree with McKnight’s assertion that licensing and zoning are “very blunt instruments” that likely require some kind of reform.

“I can’t just lift that address, by law I have to lift the whole moratorium,” said Moreno. “And I didn’t put any of these moratoriums down. They precede me, and I bet they precede the former alderman.”

The reform of Chicago’s liquor laws has become a bit of a hot topic lately, from licensing of BYOB establishments to Sunday morning sales. And Moreno says he is willing to lift the liquor ban to allow for a brewery, if he sees “broad support” from the community for Forbidden Root’s proposal.

Forbidden Root’s Finkel says the owners are “happy to work with community groups and the alderman to do what we need to do” to gain support for their enterprise. They will start down that road Thursday night, when they convene a community meeting at the site they hope will one day soon be their brewery.

The community meeting on Forbidden Root’s proposed brewery takes place at 6 p.m. Thursday at 1746 W. Chicago Ave.

is the Arts and Culture reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.