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 Tom White.
Changing Perceptions: Beers with Shawn Decker of Sketchbook Brewing Co.
INTERVIEWED AUGUST 13, 2017
AT THE SKETCHBOOK BREWERY & TAPROOM
Evanston, Illinois has a long history with alcohol, most of it spent avoiding it all together. The home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, itself a significant factor in the passing of Prohibition in the United States, has historically created an at best unwelcoming, often hostile environment for anyone looking to promote “the devil’s agent.” It wasn’t until 1972 that the city’s government finally approved the sale of alcohol, ending a ban that lasted more than 120 years.
More than 40 years later, the city of Evanston is finally seeing changing perceptions and is experiencing its own craft renaissance. The city is now home to a cidery, a distillery, and several breweries. One of those is Sketchbook Brewing Co., a brewery founded on the premise of bringing together a community that’s still not totally convinced beer belongs. Co-Founder Shawn Decker is working to bring together neighbors and visitors from all reaches of life, while educating and innovating along the way. We stopped in to chat with Shawn to find out what it takes to open a brewery in a city like Evanston, how it’s been received, and where they’re headed next.
We first stopped into Sketchbook shortly after you opening in 2014. You’ve clearly been busy since.
It’s been a pretty wild three years. Back then, you would have been in the brewery in back. We had basically no employees and no one was getting paid. Cesar [Marron, Co-Founder] and I were both still doing our regular jobs. The brewery would be open Thursday through Sunday and we weren’t able to serve pints back there.
I’m pretty sure we drank some beer…
We would give away free beer, two ounce tasters, so they could figure out what beer to take to go. It became a real destination for a lot of people.
I remember it being pretty difficult to find.
It had a real speakeasy quality to it. There was a really barren hallway, but you’d turn the corner, and there’d be all these people, tanks, and a bar set up. The model was supposed to be that you’d come in for five minutes, figure out what you want, we’d fill your growler, and you’d take off. Very quickly, it became a community point where everybody would come hang out.
And it was in the brewery itself, right?
Yea, it was kind of like a party where everyone was in the kitchen. There’s something about that, I think, that really attracted people. We understood that when we moved here, it was going to be a big issue for a lot of people. They would miss being able to go back and hang out in the brewery.
Do you still have people back there?
We do tours, like all breweries, and those have been crazy popular.
Tell us about how you got started.
We are a CSB, or Community Supported Brewery and we started with a Kickstarter campaign that went well over our goal. We used friends and family as investors. Then we went ahead and had a CSB membership drive. We had 150 members pay in advance for a year. They’d buy a growler or two for a month for a year.
And that’s still going today?
Yes, we continued that when we moved up front. We have events for them twice a year. We’ll go into the brewery and have a big party so they have a chance to get back there.
Why go the crowd sourcing route to start out?
Our whole goal here is to be a community brewery, to practice sustainability, to get people interested in DIY stuff, to get people interested in craft… craft anything. Getting people involved like that is a pretty effective way to build a community around the business. The taproom is really crowded a lot and a huge number of them are neighborhood people. That’s what we’ve wanted from the beginning.
You have a great space here, right on a Chicago Ave. and across from the L. How did you come across this place?
The search was hard. Quite frankly, starting a brewery in this location was very hard. Much harder than it would have been if we’d located somewhere with cheaper rent in a bigger footprint. We’re in a mixed use zone here which means we had to get special zoning permission to put a brewery here. That meant we had to go in front of city council many, many times. We had to get the approval of all these different agencies. It was really challenging.
How receptive has the city of Evanston been?
They’ve been great. It was just hard because you have all these neighbors who are concerned. We have one neighbor who was running interference constantly and made us spend all kinds of extra money. Then you have the politics of things. The city feels it has to take seriously even a single concern or complaint.
Every brewery in a residential neighborhood needs to have at least one crazy neighbor.
In the beginning, some of the neighbors were painting images of drunken people staggering out the back door down their alley, and peeing on their bushes. You have to remember, this is a town that used to be dry. There’s definitely a couple of different cultures at work still. One of those cultures is a very old school — practically a prohibition culture that still exists here. In a neighborhood like this, you’ve got people living right across the alley who are still very much in that place.
Craft beer is still very new in a lot of ways in Evanston. Was there an education component needed with the local community?
To some degree, for sure. Evanston has really changed over the last ten years. I would say the whole culture here is changing. There’re breweries and a cidery now. There have been so many really good restaurants opening up here. It’s become really hard to open a restaurant because the competition is so good. I think all of that has really changed people’s expectations.
Who is the typical Evanston drinker?
Well, as you’d expect, there’s a pretty serious non-drinking crowd. There’s a serious wine drinking crowd too. There are a lot of drinkers that just really aren’t interested in beer. We’ve converted some of them. I think their notion of what a beer is was Budweiser. They start trying some of our things and their opinion is changed.
At the brewery, our clientele is really mixed. We don’t have this really strong focused 20-40 age dynamic. We get a lot of different ages here, and it’s pretty diverse in every regard. To me, that’s always been really great to see. You can sit and talk to people and they’re not necessarily exactly like you.
How has that dynamic changed since you first came to Evanston?
I’ve been here 30 years now — I started living here in the late ’80’s. When we first came, the only option to get a drink was to go down to Howard Street to the Tally-Ho Pub on the south side of Howard, which is still there… or you could go to Jarvis Liquors, or the Candlelite. There were just a few nearby places you could actually get to. Basically, if you wanted to drink, you got on the L. Then for a while, you could only get drinks at restaurants that have food. Still technically we have to have food here. We’re probably the closest thing you’re going to find in Evanston to a bar, because the food we have is so minimal.
Sounds rough. So we know you’re a teacher. What’s your subject?
I teach and chair the sound department at the Art Institute of Chicago. My background is in electronic music and I do large scale installations that involve sound. Some of them are kinetic and involve movement, some will have hundreds of little speakers… things like that.
Sounds like we could have an entire conversation just about that. How did you balance your two commitments at the beginning? Starting a brewery has got to be time consuming.
When we first started Cesar and I were doing all the brewing. He had his day job which was doing online tech support. I was teaching two days a week and here the other days. Typically what would happen is he would start a brew about 5 am and would work until about 8 when he had to go online for his job. I would show up then and take the brew through to the end. We would both clean up afterwards. That was a typical day for us. It was pretty hard to do both those things.
Wow, that couldn’t have been easy. Things are pretty different today.
Now, we have two brewers and about ten employees all together. That’s changed the dynamic quite a bit. Cesar will be here most every day managing the people working the floor. He keeps on eye on what’s going on in the brewery. A lot of the management of the company falls to me. One of my big projects was building this taproom. I managed the construction company that built it and all the craziness that was involved in putting this place together. I’m more of the project guy. We’ve signed with a distributor and I’m busy getting contract brewing together for us so we get some additional capacity.
Why start a brewery in the first place? You’re coming from a pretty diverse background.
Well I was teaching a summer school class for the Art Institute near Saugatuck, Michigan, just down the road from the brewery. I had textbooks that I was taking, and rather than making them all order them, I just bought a whole bunch on Amazon and was just going to sell them to the students then buy them back. I got there and most of the students didn’t have any money. They began bartering me homebrew beer they’d made there. It turns out the cook there had been running a homebrew club and teaching all these guys to homebrew. Of course, this is why they all didn’t have any money. They were spending it all on ingredients. Some of these beers were actually really good.
And this was your first exposure to homebrewing?
I really didn’t know you could do this. So I immediately came back and bought a bunch of books. I was quickly all-grain brewing, and just got totally hooked. I had 20-30 books and I was brewing different styles every weekend. I joined the Evanston homebrew club and that’s where I met Cesar. At the same time, I was reading the book Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan about big agriculture, sustainability, and the environment. The idea of local production, the idea of DIY, locally sourced ingredients; they all kind of gelled for me into what I would consider a local art project. So that’s where I started focusing on a community based project. The conversations, the space you generate, the certain sense of coming into the brewery, you see this idea of making things yourself. You get to talk about where it’s coming from. It’s a gateway drug into bigger issues like agriculture and how and what we eat. And of course, there was a fascination with beer.
You recently moved from bottles to 16 ounce cans. What was the motivation behind finally making the jump?
We started with bottling, in part, because we had some uneasiness with the plastic lining on the inside and the fact that it leaches out over time. But I think we ultimately realized that just wasn’t as big of an issue. The beer was moving so fast it wasn’t even in these cans for very long. It’s really good from the point of view of sustainability, in particular, the recyclability and they just weigh a lot less. That means when they ship them here, when we ship them out, when they’re hauled to the recycling center — every single part of that trip there’s just a lot less weight to haul around.
We heard something about a hotdog beer…?
Yea, it’s a beer we made last year for the BeerAdvocate Extreme Beer Fest in Boston. It was our first time there. They invited us over and told us it must be extreme… they wouldn’t accept anything else. So we came up with that. It was basically a gose. This time we did a Grodziskie, giving it a meat smoke, along with celery salt, and sport peppers. We’ve got a really good response. Good or bad, people talk about it.
What’s in your fridge at home that’s not Sketchbook?
There’s a six pack of Dunegräs from Greenbush. There’s a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. There’s at least one bottle of Champagne. There was a 4-pack of Allagash Tripel in there, until last night anyway when I drank it. I love that brewery.
For someone who hasn’t tried Sketchbook or has yet to spend much time in Evanston, why give your brewery a try?
We have a nice, small, cozy taproom where you’re going to meet some people. We don’t play loud music here, and no televisions. The second reason is for the beer. We usually have a dozen beers on tap and they’re really fresh.
Photography by Hilary Higgins.
Thank you to Shawn for walking us through the brewery, sharing a few beers, and reminiscing about days past in his home of Evanston. Visit the Sketchbook taproom at 821 Chicago Avenue and follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for upcoming can special releases and openings in their CSB program.