If someone had made an Eater-style heat map of Chicago's craft breweries in 2005, only one spot would show up: Goose Island. Ten years later, as if someone had flown over the area and dumped buckets of craft beer makers and purveyors, hundreds of breweries and bottle shops now dot the map.
But if someone were to make a heat map of Chicago craft breweries specializing in lager, only one spot would show up: Metropolitan Brewing, the lager-based production facility Tracy Hurst started in 2007 with her then-husband Doug Hurst.
Tracy, an experienced business-owner with a penchant for creative projects, and Doug, a home brewer schooled at Chicago’s Siebel Institute, were among the first to see an opportunity for craft beer in the Midwestern metropolis in the early 2000s. They were the only ones to fully embrace the region’s German immigrant heritage and their lager-loving ways.
Lager is the kind of beer that tastes most like beer, Tracy has said. Fermented at lower temperatures, the flavors are pure and clean, deriving primarily from the malts and hops in the brew, rather than the various flavors yeasts can create when fermenting at higher temperatures. The result is something bready or biscuity, and to many, what you think of when you think of beer. (Because ales don’t require such specific temperature control and typically ferment faster, they’re what most craft brewers tend toward.)
In the first installment of a two-part interview, Tracy, who begins every day with meditation and yoga, reflects on what drew her to the craft beer community and how beer is both poison and pleasure. In part 2, she talks about whether or not sexism exists in craft beer and Metropolitan’s role in helping newer breweries get off the ground.
“I’m outspoken and opinionated and I have very definite ideas of what craft beer is and what I want to keep alive in craft beer, so I use my voice to say these things,” Hurst says. “The bottom line is, I will work with just about anyone to help craft beer be better.”
What’s Metropolitan’s origin story?
I founded the brewery with my then-husband Doug Hurst in 2007. We met when I was in my early 20s and he was already home brewing at that point. We moved around the country together, then ended up in Chicago where he went to the Siebel Institute.
I had been running businesses of my own, and actually I was working on a project of my own when he decided to go to the Siebel Institute. That was in 2004 and 2005. He went to Germany, studied, came back, thought about getting a job, couldn’t. Brewing jobs were hard to get, they didn’t pay well, and there were no benefits. He was kicking around the idea of starting a brewery, so I said, “You know what? Fuck it. Start a brewery. What else are you going to do with your time?”
I love beer. I’ve been a beer consumer for half my life at this point, and, you know, it seemed like a good idea to me. We’d done a lot of beer travel together, met lots of great people, and I thought, of all industries to be in, this is a great one. The people are great. And the foundations of it—of being homegrown and regionally focused—really appeal to me.
Around the time you were starting Metropolitan was when the local food movement was really gaining momentum.
I agree. In Chicago, we just had Goose Island for craft beer. We looked around and thought, “Everybody in the country and around the world ships their beer here. We’ve always had a great supply of beer and variety of beer thanks to the fact that we’re centrally located. Why not brew beer here in Chicago?”
We did get a lot of flack for opening in Chicago. The stereotype was that Chicagoans don’t like decent beer. And we called bullshit on that from Day 1. We like good everything: sports, art, photography, theater, music, food, cocktails. The list goes on. Of course we’re gonna like good beer.
And now, Chicago is often listed as one of the best food towns in the country, even the world.
I would agree. And we’re becoming one of the best beer cultures in the country as well.
How involved are you in the brewing process at Metropolitan?
I did brew in the beginning, but I wasn’t really a brewer before that. When Doug was home brewing, it was his thing. I brewed when we were forming the business so I could learn, and then because it was just Doug and I doing all the work in the beginning. I sort of phased into and out of brewing itself, even though I’m a very active member of the brewing community. Now I don’t brew any more. Now I run the brewery and I drink a lot of beer. In fact, it’s my job to drink beer with other people. Which means my life is pretty awesome.
Your path to becoming the head of a craft brewery included a lot of dabbling in other fields, first.
I like to call it being bohemian.
You were even a bellydancer, right?
My first degree is in psychology. I worked in that arena for a while, in group homes and residential treatment with young people—young criminals, actually—which has a souring effect on a person.
So I went back to school in upstate New York for photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. I did photography for a long time. I had a studio. When I quit smoking cigarettes, I put on weight and wanted to lose it. I’ve always been physically active, but in a fun away. Never like a runner. No offense to the runners. I’m sure it’s fun. But for me it’s not fun. So, I started studying bellydance with a mentor here in Chicago, studied with her for two years, and she started giving me work. So next thing I know I went professional. Mostly I did traditional gigs dancing for Arabic families, weddings, and clubs. Stuff like that.
I’ve kind of followed my heart and found a way to make money doing what I was doing. It’s never a great living. You’re always counting your pennies and wondering where your next check is going to come from, but to me that was worth it. I’d had day jobs before, and I did fine, and I made good money. But I was always miserable. I’d rather be poor and chasing my dream.
I figure, as a woman born into privilege the way I was, it’s up to me to take advantage of my situation. So instead of taking the easy road, I’ve always tried to do something that really meant something to me. I feel like I owe it to everyone in the world who can’t live this kind of lifestyle.
I’m an educated person. I can make money in a lot of different ways. I’m sure we’ve all been told we’re really good at something we don’t really want to do. I always listened to myself in terms of what makes happy on a day-to-day basis.
Why do you think Metropolitan is what “stuck” for you?
I’ve got some other things that I think about, but this is it for me. This is what I’ve dedicated most of my career and personal development to, so it’s gonna stick around for a while.
Really it wasn’t opening a brewery, per se, it was about opening a small business with someone, doing something unique, and entering a community of people I really liked--and still do.
That unique thing you’re doing is brewing lagers, and not the ales that we’re more used to seeing from craft breweries. Is there a special place for lagers in the hearts of Midwestern beer drinkers?
We had a lot of German immigration here in the Midwest--along the lake, here in Chicago and Milwaukee--and these folks brought lager beer with them. So the background is there. Also, lagers are the most consumed beer in the world, so even though American craft beer is ale heavy, that’s not indicative of what the rest of the planet does.
We’ve known people love lagers. Lagers have been making people happy for centuries, so of course they’re going to do well here. Even if it’s not right now, it will develop into that. Plus, differentiation is critical. You’re not finding anyone else making lagers, so we’re holding out 7 years in.
Because we make lagers but price them as ales, we rely on volume. So in order to make our business profitable, we have to sell a little bit more. That’s a lot of pressure sometimes because teaching people about lagers is challenging. But it’s taking hold. We have faith in it. Bottom line, we have faith in what we do and we’re really good at it.
It’s so funny because everyone says you drink lager in the summer when you’re mowing your lawn. OK, first of all, we live in the fucking city. Nobody is mowing their lawn. So just chill out with that. Secondly, we make killer lagers in the winter to prove a point. Our Oktoberfest, our Schwartzbier, and our Doppelbock are absolutely on point, good beers. They’re hard to even keep it on the shelves. That’s our point: lagers are year-round beers.
Did your upbringing have an effect on how you approach drinking as an adult?
Both of my parents drank beer, but my memories reside with drinking my dad’s beer, and he drank PBR. This was 30-odd years ago. So my earliest experiences were stealing sips of his beer—and liking it. I believe PBR was craft-made at the time, and not cut with corn, so it was probably a better experience than drinking it now.
I grew up around alcohol, in a good way and a bad way. We have alcoholism in our family, for sure, but it was also a part of celebrations. My family would sit around and play cards together, and drink cocktails and drink beer. So I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with drinking. Even though I had some ugly moments with my family and the prevalence of alcoholism, by and large the experience was quite positive.
And it makes sense. Humans have been searching for a way to catch a buzz ever since we crawled out of the swamp. Enhancing our experience of daily life is a part of what we’ve done forever. To me, it seems natural. You can hurt yourself with myriad things in the world. Alcohol just happens to be one of those things really interwoven into our social fabric.
Health matters to you. You’re vegan and regularly practice yoga. How does that rub against your job running a craft brewery?
I think that in an industry in which you make and consume something that is at it’s core, poison, no matter how interwoven into American culture it is, you have to recognize that.
If you look at my team, you can tell they all take good care of themselves. One plays hockey. One weight lifts. Our head brewer is very active and cooks a lot of his own food.
I really hope that the people getting involved in our community take good care of themselves and make good decisions because it would be so easy for someone to point at us and say, “See this is what alcohol does.” If we mitigate the damage alcohol can cause and make good decisions, we’ll continue to put our message forward.
I take good care of myself, because I’m a hedonist. And at any point, I can drink enough beer to feel like shit, but I want to feel good all the time. I think as I move on in my career and become more public, I might take on a little bit more of that responsibility, talking to people about taking good care of themselves and being healthy, being active, using your body and using your mind. When your mind and your body are sharp, you can do more good work. You can be more innovative, and you can do your job better and further craft beer. DW