Today’s US craft beer drinker lives in unprecedented times. With over 4,000 breweries in operation and new ones popping up every day, options are everywhere. But as anyone who’s visited many a small brewery will tell you, not all of those options are good ones. Store shelves are now littered with enough sub-par, run-of-the-mill beer to make your purchase decision a bit of gamble.

It’s always refreshing, therefore, to see a brewery trying to do something a little different. Whether it’s the multitude of chefs making the jump to culinary brewing, or a brewery jumping into old-world style ciders–the need to differentiate your product has never been greater than it is today. With that idea seemingly front and center, Dan Schedler founded Around The Bend Beer Company. Currently brewing out of the shared space at Ale Syndicate’s Logan Square operation, the two-year-old brewery has been popping up all over Chicago as of late. With big things clearly on the horizon for the as-yet tiny brewery, we caught up with Dan to discuss steampunk, Ale Syndicate’s partnership, an out of state Head Brewer, and a potential future move for ‘ATB.’

Dan, you’re clearly trying to do something different with Around The Bend. We’ve spoken to a few “culinary brewers” of late. Is that the thinking here?

Rather than being culinary focused, I think all our beers play really nicely with food. I think of it more of as “thoughtful experimentation.” How do we take a classic style and do something different to it? To be interesting to ourselves, and hopefully to the folks who drink the beers. All of our labels use steampunk imagery as the core visual language. Steampunk is all about Victorian futuristic gadgets. It’s kind of what we’re doing with our beer. We’re taking classic styles, and experimenting—doing something different, new, interesting, and innovative. Thoughtful innovation really sums up the goal of what we’re trying to do.

That’s very apparent from the beers we’re drinking today.

The best example of that is Silk Road. It’s a pretty classic American pale ale, except we use this crazy spice called galangal. It’s a lot like ginger but it’s a bit sharper and more flowery in nature. It’s used in a lot of Thai and Southeast Asian cooking. So it brings this tremendous, floral, spicy nose to the beer. It pairs really nicely with the hop we’ve chosen to put in there. It starts bittering with Chinook, late additions of Amarillo, Ahtanum, and Simcoe–and we dryhop with Citra. So we get nice, deep, orange and citrus characters to it. A lot of floral perfume notes as well. That’s the epitome of that thoughtful innovation. How do we take a style that’s well loved and launched the craft revolution, and do something that’s different?

Are you coming across ingredients you want to brew with first, or are you starting with a base beer and then experimenting with it?

It works both ways. With Silk Road, it was a case of finding Galangal and going, “I have got to find a way to use this stuff!” I thought about many different styles. I really kind of narrowed it down to a pale ale and started experimenting there. The first time I used galangal, I put it in the end of the boil. The resulting beer came out screaming hot. I mean, it was so spicy, I could hardly drink it. Well that wasn’t the right way to use it, but I didn’t want to give up on it. I moved it into the second fermentation and it was still a little overpowering. Next time I did a six-gallon batch and split it out into six, one-gallon batches. I put different amounts of galangal into each one until I could really narrow in on what’s the exact right level. It’s there, but it’s not overpowering.

We’re taking classic styles, and experimenting — doing something different, something new, interesting, and innovative.

Getting that balance must be the biggest challenge with beers like this–based around an unusual ingredient.

There are two things I hate with craft beer. One, you have this beautiful label with verbena, lemon, Szechuan peppercorn…and you taste the beer and there’s none of that in there. I equally hate when you taste a beer and all you can taste is the peppercorn, and there’s no character from the base style left. There’s no balance.

Is there an ingredient you have your eye on that you haven’t had a chance to use yet?

Our Head Brewer, Joe Cuozzo, and I sat down right before the holidays and mapped out a game plan for seasonals and one-offs for this year. We ended up developing 12 different beers that we wanted to do. We talked to our salespeople and the consensus was that we were crazy to push that many. But we’ve got a lot of interesting things in our hip-pockets for upcoming beers.

What got you into brewing?

I’ve been homebrewing for the last 22 years. I was in the advertising and marketing world for 20 plus years–first in Minneapolis, where I was born and raised, then later here. I was recruited to come to Chicago in ’98 by Leo Burnett, so I worked for them for six years. I then left to run advertising departments client-side. All along, especially toward the end of that journey, the entrepreneurial bug kept biting me a little harder each year. There were certain things about corporate politics that began to naw at me over the years. Finally I said, “It’s either now or never.” It had always been in the back of my mind…maybe I could retire a little early and have a nice second career in craft beer.

And that’s when you made the leap?

Yea, when I started investigating the market in a more serious fashion and I started to write the business plan, I came to the realization that if I don’t do this now, the window is going to close. That was about three or four years ago at this point. There was still a window–back then especially–in the Chicago market. Four years on now, that window has closed a little more. I think there’s still an opportunity for brewers who are getting into the game today. For those guys who are looking to open in 2018, 2019…it’s going to get real tough. It’s already a really cluttered marketplace.

Where did the love for unusual ingredients come from? Do you have a culinary background?

Well, that’s a big part of how I got into brewing. I was probably a junior in high school when we had an assignment to go home and cook a meal for our family. There was this lady back home in Minneapolis who had a restaurant called Mama D’s. She was an old Italian lady cooking authentic Italian food. I opened up this cookbook and saw a picture of this chicken cacciatore. I whipped it up for my family and they went nuts. I realized, I can get praise and attention for this! Psychoanalyzing it years later, that was a big moment. That’s what got me into cooking. In high school, I was throwing dinner parties for my friends and did that through college. I don’t really remember how it came to beer, but I’d heard it was like cooking…and here we are.

Let’s talk about your relationship with Ale Syndicate. What does it mean for you to have this partnership?

It’s fantastic because it’s allowed us to get up and running, get beer to market, and start developing a following, without having to invest the major upfront cost it takes to build a brewery straightaway.

But what does it mean to me? It’s special for other reasons. Jesse [Evans] spent so much of his time, freely and willingly just helping me figure out what the plan looked like. I have a specific set of skills, and launching a beer company was not one of them before starting here. There were lots of things that he was critical in helping me figure out. Sam [Evans], likewise, once we’d been here within these four walls, he’s kind of the more operational lead inside the brewery. He’s been immensely helpful to us.

It’s special to me that they asked me, that they thought enough about what I was doing. They wanted me and respected what we were doing. I’ll be grateful to them for that forever.

Is there ever going to be an Ale Syndicate-Around the Bend collaboration?

I would find it hard to believe that we’d go our entire existence without brewing a beer with Ale Syndicate. I don’t know when, but I’m pretty sure it will happen.

We’ve heard rumors you might be moving your operation to suburbs–Bedford Park?

That’s what we’re looking at right now. It’s not 100% locked down but we’ve been in discussions with someone down there for quite a good period of time. We’re looking to execute a second round of fundraising in the “now” time period.

So relocating is top of mind for you.

It’s more than top of mind, it’s my number one priority…among the long list of priorities.

So you’ve already been eyeing a specific location, yes?

We’d be working with a guy who has a 65,000 square foot warehouse down there. He’s using half of it for another company that he owns. The other half is empty and he’s said to me that when we’re ready we can put the brewery in. Bedford Park has great water, and it’s in the industrial corridor–so, low rent. But more importantly, 30,000+ square feet is way more than we need to start with, so we can grow in place. We can put in an appropriately sized system and keep adding fermentors to add capacity. We could put a taproom in over there, we could put in cold storage, we could have a corner earmarked for the barrel-aging program. All of that without having to pick up and move all that heavy stainless steel in 2-3 years time because, guess what, we outgrew this tiny little space.

The other half of that space is an indoor farm, correct?

Yea, the thinking is to take CO2, which is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, and pipe it over into their grow room to help their plants grow more efficiently.

Will you be growing any beer ingredients there? Hops maybe?

Potentially, yea. But one of the big things that they grow and sell over there is basil. He asked me, “Can you make a beer with basil?” Sure, of course you can! Our brewer Joe and I kicked it around and I brewed up a couple of test batches of Belgian Golden Strong Ale, which turned out great.

Can you talk about your relationship with Joe Cuozzo, your Head Brewer? He lives in Las Vegas?..

Yea, he commutes to brew! Joe and I met through a classified ad that I placed on ProBrewer when I was developing the business plan. It became clear that it was time to start assembling the team. Joe was my first hire. Being that I had 21 years, at that point, of homebrewing experience, I knew that I knew just enough about making beer to be dangerous in a production setting. Everything about Around the Bend is meant to be a world class organization. So when I decided that I was going to hire somebody to be a Head Brewer, and not try to do it on my own, that was part of the criteria. Joe fit that bill to a T. He started brewing in the San Diego market. He worked at a couple little breweries you might have heard of: AleSmith, Pizza Port, Green Flash, Coronado. More than his resume though, every time we would get on the phone to talk, we were so similar with what we wanted to do in terms of the thoughtful experimentation thing. He was finishing my sentences as I was trying to tell him what I wanted to do.

What made him want to come all the way here? That’s not a short commute.

When we met, Joe was kind of out of the brewing game. He had taken a swing at opening his own brewery, and he told me, “What I found out about myself is that I’m a better brewer than I am a businessman.” I said, “There’s no shame in that.” That’s what teams are about–putting together a team of folks who have different strengths, to make a whole greater than the sum of their parts. It’s been a great relationship over this first year. Joe comes here, we brew, then he flies back to Vegas.

It takes some humility to admit that you want to have a brewery, but that you’re not a business guy. As a brewer yourself, how do your skills complement each other?

I’d say I bring a very specific set of skills to the team that have been honed over 20 years–so branding, marketing, business strategy and the financial acumen that’s required to run a craft brewery. As I said, I also bring just enough brewing knowledge to be dangerous. When he first tried my original recipe for Silk Road, he immediately told me to change up the hop bill. When we tried his–oh my god–it was a different beer. It was night and day better than what I’d been working on. That’s where it’s a really great partnership between Joe and I. I’ll come up with these wacky ideas and then he has the technical expertise to say, “Ok, I understand what you’re going for now, here’s how we get there in the brewhouse.”

A quick word on your brand. After everything we’ve learned here, the steampunk theme really seems to fit the bill.

Yea, well the credit for that goes to Otis Gibson over at Gertrude. He and I hiked the Machu Picchu trail together back in 2001. Otis and his team did all of the brand development work, from logo design to all of the labels, to tap handle design, to website development. The look and feel is all one element because it was all designed by a master designer, all at the same time.

Last one–what’s in your fridge at home?

I just picked up Urban Chestnut‘s Zwickel. I love that stuff! How did they pack that much flavor into a beer? My wife is obsessed with Fistmas, so that’s definitely been in there for a while now. When I was on a business trip recently, we stopped into a World of Beer, and we had Boulevard’s Rye on Rye. Holy cow, that’s intense and will knock you on your ass. I just had the porter from Empirical recently, I quite like that too. Lotsa good beers.




Photography by Hilary Higgins.

Cheers to Dan for staying late on a snowy winter evening to chat with us over a few thoughtfully innovative beers. Keep an eye out for Around The Bend‘s steampunk style tap handles and bottles around the city and watch this space for news on their move to Bedford Park.