From Bloomingdale to Brewmaster: Josh Deth's Revolution
By Doug Padilla
For so long the pickup truck in a sea of Rolls Royce adult beverages like wine and cocktails, beer is growing up now, and with people like UIC graduate Josh Deth, its resurgence seems to be in good hands.
The road that got Deth (rhymes with teeth) on track to fully realizing Revolution Brewing Co., the upstart beer maker and restaurant in Logan Square, is long and winding, but started to straighten once the University Michigan undergrad finished the Masters in Urban Planning Program (MUPP) at UIC.
A career in non-profit work isn’t the typical route to brewing success, but it is what sustained Deth after his 1996 graduation from Michigan, where his homebrewed concoctions were a hit among roommates and friends alike. All along, though, a wild dream of owning his own brewery never left him, even after one attempt stalled before it could even get started, and his own wife told him it might be time put the fantasy to rest.
Persistence can be a fickle trait. For one person’s bold determination, there is another’s reckless, ill-advised gamble. Sometimes the difference between the two is mere fate, luck, or uncanny timing that couldn’t always be predicted.
Deth had the intangibles on his side, for sure, but his experience and education provided him with advantages like a knowledge of development finance, a business acumen and an ability to put together planning concepts that took into account the opinions of others as well his own.
When Deth got Revolution’s brew pub going in 2010 his instincts said it would be a success. He could never have predicted two-hour waits for tables on the weekends that remain to this day, or an expansion just two years later that skyrocketed brewing production from less than 10,000 barrels at the outset to his 2014 aim of nearly five times that number (one barrel is the equivalent of two kegs of beer).
“We’re part of the whole craft beer movement,” Deth said. “This is a tribute to that in a lot of ways. We’re standing on the shoulders of breweries like Goose Island, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, the people that came earlier. Even some of those breweries that failed like Golden Prairie, where I used to work. They came early and failed so that I don’t have to fail. People are a little more ready for (craft beer). It’s a tribute to that in a lot of ways..”
That he estimates his yearly output to be about a half percent of all the beer consumed in Illinois, shows there is more market share to be had. The next major challenge: Convincing state legislators that the independent brewers of Illinois should not have their growth restricted.
BEER AS HOMEWORK
Considered by many as a top-five brewing state in the country, Michigan has produced many an acclaimed brewery and individual beer. It also is where Deth started to develop beer recipes while in college, although the inspiration was more to have something to consume rather than get the ball rolling toward owning a business.
Deth lived in the University of Michigan’s housing cooperative program. Students not only get affordable housing, they share responsibilities of cooking for the group, cleaning and even home maintenance. It was the perfect setup for a budding brewer.
“That’s where I learned,” Deth said. “There was a big commercial kitchen with big pots ready to go and that’s where I first brewed beer. It was easy. One piece of the puzzle was already provided and there were plenty of eager people to taste the recipes.”
Give Deth credit for admitting the truth: The beer wasn’t very tasty at first. But he quickly realized that every batch was starting to taste better than the last. Then came the summer of 1995, a period that started Deth on his brewery path.
While in Chicago, working an internship at a non-profit organization that concentrated on affordable housing, Deth was looking to fill more of his free time. On the side he talked his way into a job at the now defunct Chicago brewery Golden Prairie, which produced about 1/20th of what Revolution brews now.
“I caught the guy on a good day, caught a break and I got the job,” Deth said so matter-of-factly that it was as if he was describing the moment that led to his destiny.
By 1997 he was working at Chicago’s Goose Island Brewing Co., surrounded by co-workers who, like him, would go on to be some of the movers and shakers of the current craft beer explosion
They were all putting together their plans to own their own brewery one day, young and naive enough to think it was as simple as putting your mind to it. Deth found out the hard way that it was more than just having the ability to make great beer.
A REVOLUTION IS BORN
Figuring he was ready to break out on his own after three years at Goose Island, the overly ambitious Deth left Goose Island in his mid-20s. He had his own brewery logo (which would eventually become the Revolution logo) and a ton of great beer recipes, but little else.
Among the issues that surfaced, Deth easily ticked off like a checklist of failures burned to his brain: real estate, building size, zoning, liquor license laws and most importantly, financing.
Around the year 2000, asking a bank for money to make your own beer wasn’t considered a legitimate investment. Sure Goose Island was around, but there weren’t many others to point to that would make it seem like a sound risk.
Deth was sunk. In need of a well-paying job, he gravitated toward his other passion of non-profit work. The irony was thick.
Often, the precursor to success is failure. Deth was now working with city councils, he was learning business law principles and getting an understanding for zoning codes. He wasn’t blind to the concept that they were all things that could help a businessman who wanted to, perhaps, opening something, like an operation that provided a certain carbonated adult beverage to the masses.
Fresh off his brewery failure, Deth was gaining strength toward another run at it. But not everybody shared his optimism.
“My wife kept telling me, ‘It’s not going to work out. Give it up for a while. I’m sick and tired of hearing about it,’” Deth said. “And that was probably the same for my friends too at this point. Some people probably believed in it, but not many. I even had doubt sometimes.
“You go in waves. It’s hard. You have to build the momentum up for a while. It takes a lot of energy and force to get something going and you have to take a break and back off it for a while. In the interim I had a good job that pays, supports the family and all that kind of thing.”
To help suppress the fantasy and to further his career in the non-profit world, Deth enrolled at UIC to take part in the MUPP program.
“One of the things you can do with that degree is to go work at one of the many non-profits or you can go work for government,” Deth said. “In Chicago, the city is a laboratory. History and culture are always rebuilding our city and re-thinking it. There is a lot of social science and study of poor neighborhoods. You have some lower segregation, you have rich and poor. And then we have strong mayors.
“It made sense as a program for me to do, to continue my studies. I was kind of figuring that the beer thing wasn’t going to work out.”
While in the MUPP program, Deth undertook yet another side project. He decided to open a bar that focused on craft beer, with his wife Krista, but his concept also needed to offer food. The Handlebar in Wicker Park was born, serving drinks and specializing in vegetarian and vegan food.
His food offerings might have been light, but Deth’s figurative plate was full. He still wanted more and took on the responsibilities of the executive director of the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce.
Finished with his graduate degree, Deth poured more time into the brewery concept when his duties with the chamber of commerce brought him to a building on Milwaukee Ave. It eventually would become his brew pub.
It was the exact space he was looking for, although there was the drawback of it not being in an area that had many food or nightlife options. Revolution would have to be a concept dynamic enough to bring customers to him. It has been that and more.
In fact, now the area around Revolution is in a full uprising.
“With that block being one of the most up-and-coming stretches of commercial corridor in the country, I think is just an amazing thing,” said Rey Colon, the alderman of the 35th Ward, which includes Revolution Brewing Co. “It’s a testament to Josh and many people like him that really believe in this community and want to set their roots here not only with their family but with their business.”
A TRAIL IS BORN
When it comes to the impact on the city of Chicago, Revolution Brewing Co. is not Deth’s only dream-turned-reality.
To finish his degree in the MUPP program, Deth worked closely with professor Janet Smith on a project that piqued his interests as an avid recreationalist and community activist.
Deth elected to revive an old proposal to turn 3 miles of elevated train tracks, no longer in use, into a place for recreation. The thin strip of property on the northwest side, that extends from the Chicago River at Elston Ave. on the eastern end to N. Central Park Ave on the western end, has long been used by area residents for hiking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing.
From his MUPP program project, came the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail that Deth co-founded, only to step away in 2008 when his plans for Revolution started to take off. Ultimately, the city embraced the plan, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel leading the way, and the $54 million Bloomingdale Trail project is scheduled to be completed this fall.
The elevated park, with a trail for cycling and jogging, will have five street-level parks that will be used as access points.
“I was able to spend my time, and I was able pay tuition, and put it toward something I cared about,” Deth said. “I was able to sculpt my own project and now it’s happening and it’s pretty awesome to see the bulldozers knocking things down to make it happen. It’s going to make a huge impact on the neighborhood when all is said and done.”
Community leaders understand what Deth has meant to the project.
“Back in 2002, when the Bloomingdale Trail was just an idea, he was busty moving forward and organizing around it, getting people to draw attention to it, getting an organization formed around it,” Colon said. “Yeah, he’s really a big part of the success of our community. He’s one of the reasons that what is happening is happening and he is very much a part of it.”
Perhaps Deth can christen the trail with a 3-mile bike ride, followed by cracking open a can of Revolution Bottom Up Wit to honor two projects that have been his gift to Chicago in many ways.
“I have kids so I hope to take them,” Deth said. “That was always an argument, that it would take five years to build this thing. But you build it for the future of the people in the neighborhood as much as for ourselves. It will be great to take my son and daughter up there and ride our bikes, head down the trail and come back.”
TESTING THE LIMITS
Since Revolution Brewing Co. opened in 2010, the brew pub has added a second-floor brewers’ lounge. In 2012, Deth opened Revolution’s production brewery and tasting room after taking over a nearby warehouse space.
Revolution now has the capacity to zoom past the 40,000-barrel-a-year mark, but a sticky situation has developed. Revolution sells some of its product directly to consumers, which means it is able to sidestep some of the rigid policies of the three-tier system of alcohol distribution.
Enter a new law that clearly benefits the interests of the powerful distributors and corporate brewing conglomerates. Illinois brew pubs are limited to producing 30,000 barrels a year, a restriction that Deth feels is anti-business. He was aiming for a 200,000-barrel agreement.
“There is not much that justifies a limit on your business’ ability to grow,” Deth said. “We’re doing what people are trying make happen all across the economy which is build business, make jobs, pay taxes, give people what they want, make something people like, make it close to home. The local piece is huge for us.”
Revolution has its own revolutionary indeed.
Deth plans to appeal to the good nature of legislators in the state capital at Springfield. What he doesn’t plan to do is to slow down production of year-round beers like Anti-Hero IPA, Bottom Up Wit, Eugene Porter and Cross of Gold, a golden ale. Seasonal offerings include, A Little Crazy (a Belgian pale Ale), Fistmas (a spiced red ale for the hoidays) and Jukebox Hero (a black IPA), among others.
There are ways for Deth to comply with the technicalities of the laws, but it will take a major investment, like starting a second restaurant at his new production brewery. Instead of sounding discouraged, though, Deth is embracing it all as his latest challenge. And why not?
“The market is loving craft beer right now and sucking it up,” said Deth, while finishing a burger and a Belgian quad in the middle of Revolution’s brew pub that was once a sign-making company. “It’s growing hard and fast. It’s a great time to be a craft brewer.”
About the author: Doug Padilla is a full-time writer at ESPNChicago.com and a radio correspondent at Chicago’s ESPN-1000 AM. He is also a homebrewer and former contract employee at Hangar 24 Craft Brewery in Redlands, California. Follow him on Twitter @ESPNChiSox and @DougPadilla.