Altered State: Beers with James Bigler & Mark Hedrick of Alter Brewing

INTERVIEWED January 15, 2017

Downers Grove is likely not the first place beer drinkers think of when planning a Chicagoland beercation. The historically alcohol averse suburb, surrounded by towns that have embraced the craft revolution in recent year, is now home to Alter Brewing Company. A beautiful new taproom and brewhouse showcases one of the fastest growing suburban breweries.

At the helm of this growth is co-founder and brewer Mark Hedrick, who abandoned a successful self-made corporate career to pursue a passion in the beer industry. Along with sales and operations manager James Bigler, the two are making a name for Alter in the crowded Suburban beer scene. We made the trek out to Downers to sit down with the dynamic duo and find out what led them to make the leap into beer, where they draw inspiration, and what’s next for the brewery.

How did Alter come to be?

Mark Hedrick: Leaving the corporate world, I knew I needed to be in this industry. Just knowing how cool of a comradery it actually is. Whether I was going to be taproom employee, work at a bottle shop somewhere, be a keg cleaner — whatever I could do to get in. I was just proactive. I went to Siebel in 2010. I went through the BJCP program and started the Cicerone program. I got involved with planning festivals. Then I got really lucky.

What happened?

MH: I knew a couple guys who shared the same goal of opening a brewery. They had the means to help with the funding, but not only that, Dave [Yob] is the engine. He’s running the business. I’m sure you know this from talking to other breweries, but it’s a daunting task. The brewing is the fun part. It’s everything else that comes along with it.

James Bigler: There are a lot of unknowns.

MH: A lot of unknowns, details, laws… it’s definitely a daunting task.

James, you handle sales and operations. Have you been here since the beginning?

JB: Not the very beginning, but it was before we opened. I came on to work at the taproom. Two or three months in, Dave asked me to come on full time. That was mostly operations and I slowly moved into sales.

How did you swing that?

JB: Early on, I figured out what these guys were into. It was finding what you can do to help out. I listened to everything Mark said and made it my duty to do those things. I’ve been here for almost a year now full time.

MH: James is really passionate about this industry, which is exactly what we need. Passion is very contagious. When you walk into an account as a brewery rep, versus a distribution rep, excited about a product, buyers like that.

JB: I think of it as “brewery to table.” I can tell people I was here when they made that beer. I helped clean a keg or scrub a floor. I’ve counted kegs in the cold box. I’m there from the beginning to the end, and I’m bringing the person to the beer. I think that helps make a stronger connection with people.

We’re not really worried about other breweries. We just want to keep chipping away at those macros.

We know Downers Grove has a history of being pretty strict on liquor laws. Why here versus every other ‘burb that might have easier barriers to entry?

MH: The Village worked with us on that. In Downers Grove you’re required by law to serve food if you’re going to have a liquor establishment like a taproom. Well we’re not restaurateurs yet, but we brought it to the council. The mayor was great and a craft beer fan. He loved the ideas we presented board meeting after board meeting and we got them to change the ordinance.

That can’t have been easy.

MH: We have John Barley of Solemn Oath to thank for that one. He got Naperville to change their ordinance to let them run a taproom in a production brewery. We basically gave those documents over to our council.

So why Downers?

MH: All the partners live in the western suburbs. We wanted a location that would be convenient for all of us. We looked for 14 months, west of La Grange, east of Aurora, and within a mile of a metra station. Fourteen months of looking at every town in DuPage county. There weren’t a lot of buildings that suited our needs, but this one did. It’s a brand new construction, tall ceilings, and a warehouse. We found this spot and ran with it.

What was day one at Alter like?

JB: In downtown Downers Grove there’s some good restaurants, but I wouldn’t say we’re super hip. But a nice beautiful taproom opens, and I think people really dug that. We got a lot of young people, people bringing in their kids when they’re home from school, and I think we attracted people looking for that thing to do in Downers Grove. We were pulling people from all over the place but now I think we’re looking to focus more on Downers Grove. Looking at Alter Fest, people were coming from all over the suburbs. Our focus is going to be making sure everyone in Downers Grove knows who we are.

MH: We had a great reception from locals. We’ve got a ton of regulars coming in here, but there’s still a huge part of Downers Grove that don’t even know about us yet. That’s what we’re going to start focusing on even more — getting involved in the community. People that live here really love to support Downers Grove. Now we’re starting to get people from Lyon, from Glen Ellyn, Naperville, and the even the city now.

And you’re surrounded by a ton of breweries in neighboring suburbs. That makes for an easy day out for those looking to venture outside the city.

JB: Yeah, I think Illinois should have a little more credibility for beer tourism. I don’t think they’re advertising themselves as well as they should be. When you think of Michigan and Wisconsin. There are places in the Midwest that people know of. I think in Illinois, and especially the Chicagoland area, we have a lot of breweries popping up and great places to visit. I don’t know if Illinois has the recognition yet.

I think people are starting to recognize Chicagoland as a place that makes good beer. But it’s not a destination yet.

MH: You look at why New Glarus does so well in Wisconsin. Well it’s because they “own” Wisconsin. Well we don’t want to own this area. We just want to be the brewery in this area. Even if another brewery popped up next week, I think there’s room for another one. You look at the population of Chicagoland, it’s the same as the population of the whole state of Wisconsin. So there’s room here. We’re not really worried about other breweries. We just want to keep chipping away at those macros.

There are so many great places out there with great beer where people can spend their money. Why do they come here? We want to have the complete package.

Speaking of other breweries and as a relatively new brewery to the market, what’s your thoughts on the “craft beer bubble” and the many doomsday predictions out there?

JB: People aren’t going to stop liking craft beer. That’s not going to happen. What is going to happen is there’s going to be a lot less room, so there’ll be changes. Breweries are going to have to figure out their place in a constantly changing market.

MH: And there’s not going to be room for mediocre beer.

JB: That’s good for us!

MH: There are other brewers that don’t even own a brewery. They do the gypsy brewing and they have fulltime jobs. I could live here, sleep here, and still feel there’s work to be done. If you’re doing this part-time, I just don’t see how they survive.

Describe Alter to people who haven’t been here and thinking about making the trip.

JB: It’s tough, because we’ve been open for a year now and we’re still trying to figure out who we are. The name came into play because we wanted room to grow and still constantly be changing. When Mark makes a beer and the next recipe might not be exactly the same, he looks at it as art. He’s extremely technical in what he’s doing and very detail focused, but at the end of the day he’s making the best beer he can possibly make. Alter is constantly changing and adjusting and it’s what we all are feeling at that moment. We won’t be the same thing a year from now.

MH: You have to be constantly evolving. Most breweries go in there with a gameplan and there are some adjustments that have to be made. When we first opened, we had five beers on tap. Now we have 12 beers on tap, but of those 12, five of them are new. We’re trying to introduce a new beer every three to four weeks, while maintaining the core beers that are selling very well. It all starts in our taproom.

How do you describe your beers?

JB: Balance is a big thing with our beers. That’s probably overused, but when we’re making a beer, when we’re tasting it, you’re not looking for big hop bombs that will wreck your palette or a big imperial stout that’s high alcohol burning your mouth. That artistry comes in when you’re taking those flavors and coming up with something unique.

MH: We do brew some things that are outside our comfort zone, like when we did our chamomile saison. We’re doing a collaboration beer with a brewery out in Colorado that’s going to be way out of our comfort zone.

Who’s that with?

MH: Living the Dream Brewing Company. We’re adding pecans and vanilla, and some ingredients that we’re really not focused on at the brewery.

Any breweries you’ve taken inspiration from when building Alter?

MH: We model ourselves after some breweries we really respect. Places like Goose Island, Firestone Walker, Sierra Nevada, Bell’s, Founders.

JB: They really paved the way.

MH: Those guys are putting out experimentals, but they’re brewing some really good consistent beers.

JB: The more I drink, I find myself experimenting less. If I see Firestone Walker Union Jack, I know it’s going to be an awesome beer.

Are you tracking trends in the local industry? It’s a constantly evolving marketplace.

MH: We see what’s in the market. We see what some of our fellow brewers are doing. But really I think it’s a collaboration thing with our staff.

JB: Definitely. It’s easy for people to look at this place and think, “That’s a really nice bar.” But in the end it’s a tasting room. At the end of the day, our taproom is here to work you through that beer and educate you on what we have. If that means they’re going to give you 50 tastes, that’s fine.

MH: That’s part of our culture here. It all came down to our standards here and our pursuit of excellence, and trying to get better every day. Probably every business out there has that same attitude but we’re really proactive in communicating that with our staff. By the end of the first quarter of this year, every one of our staff is required to be at least first level Cicerone certified. There are so many great places out there with great beer where people can spend their money. Why do they come here? We want to have the complete package. We want to have great beer, a great atmosphere, and a great staff. If you’re a novice and don’t know about beer they can explain it to you. Or if you’re the biggest beer geek out there, we want them to be able to add value to that conversation.

Talking about trends, how do you feel about New England IPA’s?

MH: I’m adamantly against them.

JB: The last time we talked about them, Mark brought up the term “colloidal stability.”

MH: Hey, it’s a real thing man! There are some great New England IPAs out there, there really are. I just don’t understand people who intentionally try to cloud a beer. We intentionally try to make it nice and bright — a beautiful beer.

So we’ll never see an Alter NE IPA?

MH: No sir. Not happening. There’s a couple styles we won’t do.

What else?

MH: Well there’s a style we will do, but we’re going to name it something different. We’re not going to do a Black IPA — at least we’re not going to name it that. We would do an India Black Ale.

Tell us about the logo, it’s an ambigram correct?

MH: Coming up with a name was very difficult. We had a dozen different names we liked better than Alter but for one reason or another, whether it be a partner didn’t like it or it was already taken, they just didn’t work. But I look at that (the brewery) as my alter sometimes. Long story short, a friend of a friend owned a marketing company, RPM Advertising, and asked if they could design a couple logos for us, free of charge. So once we decided on a name, we asked for five or six logos. They came up with about 26.

JB: I think what they did was have everyone on staff develop a logo. It was insane.

MH: Yea, so there were three or four logos we thought were pretty cool. We didn’t even like this one at the beginning because we thought it was hard to read. Then I got it.

You’ve talked about wanting to go pretty big, pretty quickly. What’s changed in your first year? Where do you see yourself going in the next year?

MH: We do have grand plans. Every brewery has a little bit different take on what their goals are. Our goals are to utilize our space fully. With the new space we’re going to be building, we’re going to be adding a canning line and expanding our barrel program. We do have aggressive plans for growth and hopefully we can hit those numbers. We’re in over 100 accounts on draft right now, all self-distro. Once we’re in a can, I can see us getting into more retail accounts. I see us going from 900 barrels to 2000 barrels this year, and 4000 barrels next year. Those are lofty goals and we understand the challenges. So we’ve been doing our homework and talking to everybody who will listen to us. We think we have a pretty good plan for that.

What are you drinking at home?

JB: Well he never goes home.

MH: Hey, grain sacks actually work pretty well as a bed.

JB: I just bought a house in Wheaton. So my cooler is a bunch of Coors Banquet and a howler of Hopular Kid.

MH: I drink a lot of Alter beer. I’ll take my crowler home. If it’s non-Alter beer, I love Firestone Walker, Rev, I love Sierra Nevada. Their Pale Ale is still one of my all time favorites. I like to visit the local guys. Solemn Oath, Skeleton Key, Noon Whistle, Pollyanna, Miskatonic. If I have time to run over there before I go home.

Off the record stuff….

M: There are a lot of misconceptions about us out there. Someone wrote that we’re just two rich guys and a homebrewer. We’ve heard that a few times and we’re not just sitting around here drinking beers. Money that was put into this place was hard earned money. None of the partners were spoon fed. Everybody that came into this worked their asses off.

J: That’s the important thing. There’s not someone sitting up there saying, “That’s my money, do what I say.” You guys are running this place, you guys are owning this place, that’s it.

M: Right, and it’s not nothing to them if they lose their money. This is real. My first job was cleaning toilets at a tavern. From 13-24 I worked in liquor stores and bars. I got better jobs, better hours, but I always missed this whole community of beer. So it’s good to be back. There’s a lot of assumptions when people walk in here because of what was written. They don’t know my dad was a factory worker. My Mom was an office person part time. We worked our asses off to get to this point.





Photography by Regan Baroni of Up Close & Tasty.

Thank you to Mark and James for coming in early on their day off to talk shop over a few pints of their fantastic beers. Look for Alter draft handles in and around Downers Grove and at a growing number of spots in Chicagoland.