This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Robert Battista.
A sentiment shared by the entire Local Option staff and an attitude which has led many to dubb them an “Island in Lincoln Park.” Local Option has been a staple in the Chicago beer scene since it’s current owner, Tony Russomanno took over in 2006 (the bar began as ‘LO’ in 1986). Located in a heavily residential neighborhood, just blocks from DePaul’s campus, the metal-inspired bar may not be exactly what you expect. This unassuming three-flat houses some of the best local beer events like Pi Observance Day or the upcoming Taketh Me Down to Local Option. No matter the day you go, you are always going to find one of Chicago’s most diverse and ever changing beer lists.
Need another reason to visit? Not only are they tapping great beers from around the world, but as of late 2010, Local Option offers a selection of their own beers in house. We were able to sample the Local Option lineup with owner Tony Russomanno, brewer Noah Hopkins and brand ambassador Alexi Front and find out more about where they’re headed.
Thanks for having us guys. So, tell us a little about your backgrounds and how Local Option came to be?
Noah: I moved here to go to DePaul, I’m originally from South Bend, IN. I’ve been coming to Chicago for much longer than I should have. We used to come here for concerts and other “fun things” when I was in high school. Tony was in the graphic arts industry and he bar tended part time at Pequods, just down the street. That’s where I would drink and I eventually started working there. Tony ended up buying this bar and I came back intending to do something like the Map Room… have a cafe during the day with breakfast and brunch and a bar at night. It sort of morphed into he and I getting more aligned on the beer side of things. Very quickly after I started working here, we started brewing and then doing bar/brewery collaborations. This was in 2006.
What’s the story behind the name Local Option?
Tony: In 1985, this district was trying to vote itself dry because this bar was a huge problem with drugs & bikers. The owners were selling the bar to a new operator who was obviously not a negative person but the neighborhood just wanted to end this problem bar. The district collected enough signatures so the people who were in the process of buying the licence had to start over. Once that went through, they went before the city council with a vote to decide whether the district would be dry. The name of that vote is called the Local Option vote. The guys who bought the bar won the vote. To stick it in the ass of their neighbors they named the bar Local Option because all of the neighbors knew what the name of the vote was.
You’ve stuck with the metal theme since day one. That’s in stark contrast to the rest of neighborhood.
Noah: Yeah, it’s always been somewhat aggressive. That’s sort of our theme, we kind of do what we do, our rules are our rules. We aren’t dicks or anything. People call us an island in Lincoln Park. They don’t expect this kind of bar to be where it is so you have to be assertive in what you do.
Tony: This is what we do, I don’t care if people don’t like it. We certainly do want them to like it because we’re in business. But at the same time you have to be consistently unliked by a lot of people in order to do what you like. We had no problem doing that because we’re patient, skilled, and we work.
It seems like you play by your own rules in the styles of beer that you brew as well. We see Local Option putting beers out that really aren’t easy to find around the city.
Noah: We are trying to fill some gaps; making people think about what they are drinking. And it’s, you know, being able to put our own stamp and our own interpretation on something. There is no interpreting a fuckin’ American Pale Ale, you’re not going to revolutionize that style.
We are always here to educate and explain. We have a couple core principles. Why did you make this beer? and making something that is balanced and drinkable. We trust people that drink our beer. We don’t need to beat you over the head with something. In Morning Wood (an oak aged coffee amber), there’s coffee flavor in there but it’s also still a beer. It’s not like drinking an espresso shot that will get you fucked up. There still has to be that balance where it’s like I’m drinking fuckin beer. And we don’t really ever want to get away from that.
You’ve got these IPAs, and it’s just liquid hops. I get extremes. It’s progressed the craft movement as far as it can. And now I think people need to start thinking about what they are drinking. The essence in the beginning of craft beer was to move as far away from macro beer as possible. Its kind of like rebelling against your dad by getting your ear pierced or dying your hair green. It’s just to differentiate yourself as much as you can and I think that’s great, and there is still room to do that. But at the same time, I think that people have lost sight, and they are educated in beer enough to come back to see what a good pilsener can taste like.
Tony: I think we’ll be ahead of the game as far as the market swing in future. We’ve been doing this, we continue to do it. We make very reasonable beers and when everyone really starts to come down off of this “I don’t need a 9 % beer anymore”, we’ve got beers positioned ready to go. They’ve been rated, they do exist, and they are going to be exciting flavors because they’re built to be. And they always were.
How does that influence what you brew and offer at Local Option?
Noah: Outlawger, our North German style pilsener is a good example. Ever since we started brewing we’ve been brewing lagers. The whole point of this beer, the “why” of this, on the label its going to say in German, German Flavor, American Soil. We worked really hard at mastering the actual technique in the brew process. This beer is simple, its two malts and two hops. But everything that goes into the brewing process, there are so many variables whether it be mash temperature, hop additions, fermentation temp, packaging. There are so many things that are really important in making this beer what it is and are really differentiating in making it taste the way it does. I think we have differentiated ourselves enough that we can come back and be humble enough to be like, well this is our German style Pils. If you blind fold yourself and have been to Germany, this tastes like beer from Germany and it’s fresher since it wasn’t on a boat for two months, then tied up in customs for another. So it’s three months fresher than any German Pils you’ve had.
What’s the regular beer lineup like?
Noah: We don’t really have one. We really brew what we can brew since we currently don’t have our own brewery. If there is a window available we brew. Now if we have eight beers in the market we have eight beers in the market. That’s just where we are at. I don’t think the paradigm of we have four seasonal beers and four one offs fits us.
How did you get started with commercial brewing and where did you brew?
Noah: There’s a place in Maryland we brew called Pub Dog. We became familiar with them through Twelve Percent Imports who visited us when they came to Chicago. I’d just made a fresh batch of Damf Loc and one of the guys was in and said “This beer is crazy, how do you not brew your own beer?” I was like “We are a bar” to which he replied “You need to brew this.” We thought it was going to be a one time thing. Then the guys at Bluegrass told us if we wanted to make any beer their door is always open. We started brewing there once a month and that got the ball rolling.
We’ve seen your beers on shelves all over lately. Did you always intend to get this big?
Are you brewing in other locations as well?
Tony: We’ve also brewed out of Central Waters, Dark Horse, and Against the Grain. What is unique about all the breweries is that they have taken on the responsibility of trying to help us build this and, at the same time, they have watched it help them build their own brand awareness in Chicago. To this day we have been able to maintain all those relationships, and have been able to get all that beer out. It has put us in this position of becoming a large brewery on day one. It’s exciting and nerve wracking since we have to keep up this supply while working on other people’s schedules.
Can you get Local Option beer outside of Chicago?
Tony: At this point, the brand is very strong. It’s being sold in over 250 locations in Illinois. The relationships we have with most of these people are very strong. Then you take New York City which is about 100 consistent locations and then twenty other states. We have this tiny brain and body but these tentacles that are crossing the entire country and overseas. It’s a very deceptive but real thing. No matter how small the demand is in some places, it’s been maintained for a while now.
Local option is available outside of the country?
Tony: Yeah, a few places. The Schmetterling Gose made it to Warsaw. Sour beer is no stranger to them. We were also in London where we got some of the harshest reviews our shit had ever got. Some one said the beer tastes like I just ate a bunch of Fettuccine Alfredo, puked it into my glass then drank it again. It’s a sour beer man. They just aren’t used to it. It’s just enemy territory for sour beers.
Any plans for your own brewery now that the demand is there?
Tony: Definitely, we’re trying to get it as “urbanly” as possible. We’ve been looking for two years now but we’re perfectionists. We made the mistake in the beginning looking at old buildings where we, by the time we’d have been done planning everything, we would have been better ripping the whole building down than maintaining anything. A lot of our movements now have been toward just land and putting up a barn or something. I don’t care if it can withstand a tornado or something, it’s just a shell around a brewery.
Has brewing at multiple breweries given you an advantage when it comes time to build your own place out?
Tony: Our luxury is that we brew at six different breweries and we know every single flaw that they have. We know everything that’s wrong. We work with six brewers who are always telling us “don’t even fucking do it like this. Look how stupid this is. I can’t wait until we tear this place down and build it right.” Between us, whatever we build is going to be so ridiculous because we have six different layers of problem solving from the places we do brew. I’m not saying there’s going to be no mistakes made. But I guarantee you we’re not going to be the same mistake any of those other places made.
The other part is that we constantly don’t know what size brewery we need. At first we wanted 10,000 barrels per year. 10,000 barrels doesn’t even supply Chicago correctly. Ok, let’s do 15, 25. What me and Noah know is that we cap out at 50,000. If we make more than 50,000 barrels per year, it’s a factory, it’s not a family, it’s not fucking real anymore. But that’s ridiculously big. I have no intentions of operating with people or things I do not know. Look at how I dress. I carry a switch blade. I’m a dude who does what he does and that’s it. When we see that line crossed into a factory, to us that’s not beer anymore. It’s not creativity. There’s too much debt and liability lined up to compromise rather than to create. If we don’t create we are fucking dead fucks. We’re not doing shit. We have to create.
Speaking of creation, who does the bottle artwork?
Tony: We’ve got a couple different guys. One is our main man Axel Widén from Sweden. He’s my number one go-to right now. We’ve had him redo things to kind of create some more consistency. All of the stupid ideas come out of my head.
How did you get connected with him?
Alexi: Before I worked here, I owed a metal record label focusing primarily on Scandinavian death metal. Axel was a singer of one of the bands I’d been working with for a long time. He left to form Zombie Krieg and he did all the artwork for their labels, albums and promotional material. He understands, somehow, what we are without ever having been here which is kind of a scary thing.
Tony: I talked to him on Skype for the first time this past week. We were blood brothers.
The other crazy guy is Steve Cox. He’s just kind of super out there artist. Listens very well but has such a strong signature. You can see his stuff all around the room. He’s just a friend of mine and also a real skilled artist.
What’s in your fridge at home?
Tony: I have a great answer. Nothing. I don’t have any beer in my house. Everybody is absolutely amazed. They think they’re coming to my house and they’re going to get great beer but this (points to the bar) is my house. The true answer is also Dr. Pepper. Because there is no beer in the world that is better than Dr. Pepper. If Dr. Pepper were 6%, oh man!
But seriously, in 2013, 873 beers came out of these lines at Local Option. 873 different labels. If you want to find my private stash, it’s right here.
Probably the best, and most honest, answer we’ve ever gotten!
Local Option is truly unique in Chicago and, as we found out, so are the guys behind the magic. Stop in to see Tony, Noah, and Alexi at Local Option, 1102 W. Webster in Lincoln Park. Look for their beer on an ever increasing number of shelves country wide and find out about their upcoming events through Facebook and Twitter. & Thanks to the guys at Local Option for sitting down with us – like most times we’re in the neighborhood, we’ll be sure to drop back in.