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.
OAK PARK, IL
It seems like every beer fest we go to – and we go to quite a few – Cahoots Brewing is there with the longest line in the place. When your everyday lineup includes barrel-aged beers, it seems that beer drinkers certainly take notice. When those beers win best-of-show at multiple fests, we take notice. And so we jumped at the chance to sit down with the people behind Cahoots. On an August afternoon at Delilah’s, over whiskey and beer, we sat down with founder Dustin Adkison and his brewer Ryan Merritt to find out the story behind the brewery and what Cahoots has in store.
Cheers guys, and thanks for coming by. It’s not easy to find details on Cahoots. What can you tell us about your background?
Dustin Adkison: I started brewing when I was six with my dad, so I’m a long term homebrewer. There was a lot of cleaning involved. I learned young and just got more and more into it. My dad wasn’t a big beer drinker but every Saturday after mowing the lawn, he would drink two of his home brews. That was it. I’d get to try them too.
Part of Cahoots’ philosophy is collaboration, and the fact that we are all in this together. It’s supposed to be “beer for the people, by the people.” We set out early to judge homebrew contests and giving the winners a chance to brew with us. Ryan [Merritt] was our first winner. A BJCP judge was on hand and he said it was the best homebrewed lambic he’d ever had…and I’d have to agree.
You brought a lambic to a homebrew event? Bold.
DA: [Looking toward Ryan] And he won!
Ryan Merritt: I was really happy with how that turned out. I’m a big sour head. I’ve been brewing for about seven years, and two years of that was for the lambic! My wife went out one day and bought me a kit and John Palmer’s How to Brew. It was awesome, I was just dragging my feet on the idea. I brewed this American Blonde which came out undrinkable but I knew I could do better. I just fell in love with the process and kept upping the ante every time I brewed.
Why the name Cahoots?
DA: When we started the brewery we wanted to be a collaborative brewery. Brewing with others, brewing with homebrewers. Our beer names, logo, tap handles all came from social media votes. Everything we do is all about collaboration.
We’ve seen you around at a bunch of the local fests, when did Cahoots officially launch?
DA: We signed our LLC papers in January of 2013 and our first beer came out in January of 2014.
Correct us if we’re wrong here, but your first beer was a barrel-aged Stout? That’s quite the way to start.
DA: No S’more Imperial Stout barrel-aged, that’s our flagship. The regular version has sold the most and the barrel-aged is the highest rated. We haven’t made a pale or a lager or anything like that yet. Our lowest alcohol beer is 9.1%. What we have on tap today is 9.7% and it’s a double IPA with raspberries called Raspberries Gone Wild.
Are you self distributing your beers right now?
DA: We actually signed with Heartland Beverage. I had my first kid basically a week before the first beer was ready and I quickly realized I wasn’t going to be able to self-distribute. Brian Kerby had just started a new distribution company so I invited him up to taste the beer. He ended up buying all of it. He told me he’s been in the beer business for 12 years and he never had a beer launch like ours. He took it to his 30 favorite beer bars and got 30 straight yeses. That was the first batch of the Barrel Aged No S’mores.
As you’ve gained your footing as a new brewery, where have you been brewing?
DA: Right now we’re at Ten Ninety and we’re going to start shortly at Church Street. We’re gonna do some of our lower-ABV beers there and keep the barrel-aged things at Ten Ninety. There’s gonna be a gap in brewing so we need to ramp up while we wait on our own place.
RM: Any brewer wants to have full control over their brews, that’s always the end goal. I don’t think anyone wants to be a gypsy brewer forever.
And we’ve heard word of a new space in the works. What’s the word there?
DA: I can tell ya a lot about it, just not the address…yet. It’s in Oak Park, right across from the the Green Line and a Metra stop. It’s about 7,000 square feet and we’re doing a 20-barrel system there. If you research really hard, it used to be the original movie theater in Oak Park. It was converted to an office space but we’re going to convert it back to a balcony so you can overlook the brew space. It’s going to be a two-story tap room in the front. No food, but we’ll encourage food trucks and also let people order in food from local restaurants.
Are you taking any inspiration in your build out from other breweries you’ve visited?
DA: Not officially. We’ve visited a few different places. In terms of the size we thought, how big do we want to be? We decided on a system that can support us going up to ten thousand barrels a year. Last year we were only 120 barrels. This year we’re pacing for just shy of 500. By the time we fill up the space we hope to be 20 times bigger. A big but slow leap.
That’s quite the jump. When do you see Cahoots getting to that 10,000 barrel goal?
DA: Right now, based on demand, we’re under-producing. At 480 barrels, we know we are under-producing. Next year we hope to be at 1,500 barrels with the tap room. Our thinking is 40% of that would be out of the tap room. Then the next year, ramp that up to three to five thousand; the year following, five to seven thousand; and then up to ten thousand the year after. A four year plan to get up to 10,000.
With your current lineup – do you embrace the high ABV beers as your brewing identity?
DA: No, we’re about to do a Kolsch. We’re about to find out if we can brew or not. It’s easy to hide mistakes in big beers.
What plans do you have for beers in the future?
DA: We’ll do something with the lambic in a barrel in the future. We just can’t take up a tank for that long. We’ve also got a beer coming out called Dark and Stormy which is a beer with molasses, lime zest and ginger and we’re gonna age that in rum barrels. Test batches so far have tasted just like the cocktail. We’re still waiting on formula approval for that one. For some reason lime zest isn’t on the pre-approved list. Lemon zest is on the list but lime isn’t.
RM: We’ve got a few things lined up in the future for Cahoots. Berliner Weisse and that lambic. There’s a lot of logistics that come in when you introduce those bugs to a brewery so we’re going slow with that. Our hope is to brew that (Berliner Weisse) in fall for a release in early winter.
So let’s say a year from, what is Cahoots up doing?
DA: In seven to nine months, we should have our own place. I’d say we would be at about 120 barrels a month. It’s crazy how fast we’ll be doubling things up. We have a third brewer, Lucas Moser. He’s a friend I taught to brew and he brewed the first few batches with me. He’s the one who came up with the Dark and Stormy recipe.
Who would you really want to do a collaboration with?
RM: Yeah, um Cantillon – that would be amazing!
DA: I have been emailing with Mikkel from Mikkeller, so that’s pretty cool. I think we need to be bigger before we could do anything together, and obviously we would need our own place. He met with me last time he was in town brewing with Half Acre. So that would be a dream collaboration.
Where can we find your beers around town?
DA: In Oak Park, Lake Street Kitchen and Bar. The owner there is Gerald and he’s awesome. They were the first place to ever sign on to take our beer. Since then we’ve had a dedicated tap there. Our weekly meetings have been there. Kinderhook carries us on tap. Chris the owner is one of the nicest guys you will meet. He’s huge into craft beer. In the city, Bottles and Cans in North Center, Maria’s Packaged Goods in Bridgeport, and then Binny’s obviously. And of course right here at Delilah’s.
What are you drinking when you don’t have a Cahoots beer in your hand?
DA: I probably drink bigger beers than Ryan. Right now I’m drinking a lot of Molotov Cocktail. I drink bourbon. Wathen’s is my favorite right now. It reminds me of Elmer T Lee. If you haven’t had ETL you have to try it. He was Master Distiller for Buffalo Trace. My wife likes wine so I drink a lot of wine too. Beer wise I’ve been getting into hoppy beers lately. Lots of Double Crooked Tree, Grapefruit Sculpin, and some Zombie Dust. Come winter it will all be barrel-aged stuff.
RM: Our own beer on nitro! I have a historic soured old ale homebrew and a mango IPA that I’m drinking. One of the things I’m really enjoying is Down to Earth by 21st Amendment. That beer is outstanding. And always Domaine Dupage.
A huge thanks to Dustin and Ryan for heading into the city and sharing some beer and whiskey with us while talking shop. Keep a close eye on Cahoots as they work toward the opening of their own downtown Oak Park former-theatre space. And be sure to get in line early for their barrel-aged goodness at your next beer fest.