For years, natural light hadn’t graced the space that houses Half Acre Beer Company’s new taproom at 2050 W. Balmoral Avenue, which opened on September 9. Under the previous tenant, a lighting company called Duray Fluorescent, the space had been taken up by a dozen small, blacked-out rooms used to test light bulbs and fixtures; all the windows were completely covered. Now, it’s airy and welcoming instead of flickering and dark, with light pouring through an open pale wood trellis onto blond wood tables, blue benches, and a polished concrete floor.
Like the vibrant art that distinguishes their 16-ounce cans, the taproom was designed by Half Acre themselves. Co-founders Gabriel Magliaro and Maurizio Fiori spent the past six months working with in-house woodworker Sean McDougall, who has a workshop in the building, to conceptualize the space, which has 22 taps and can fit around 120 people (an outdoor beer garden has room for approximately 130 more, while there’s also a 50-person private space). “There is not one single nail in the trellis,” Fiori excitedly points out. “It all just interlocks.”
Fiori’s enthusiasm extends to the taproom’s menu by head chef Nick LaCasse, who is also responsible for the food at the Lincoln brewpub. Instead of that location’s burritos, the Balmoral taproom focuses on roasted meats and vegetables, from Brussels sprouts to ribs to salmon to beef. Fiori was especially eager to show off the porchetta and the varieties of freshly baked bread, dreaming about the possibility of incorporating malt or yeast from the brewing process into future loaves.
Although the taproom only just opened, Half Acre bought the 60,000 square-foot building – which was originally a laundry facility, then sat vacant for some ten years after Duray left – in 2014, moving its offices there from its Lincoln Avenue brewery in North Center, which remains open, and shifting the majority of its beer production to Balmoral in 2015.
“At the apex of production at Lincoln, we did 15,000 barrels out of a 10,000 square-foot facility, of which only about 7,000 square-feet were used for production,” Fiori says. “That is an incredible Tetris game, and it didn’t leave room to do much else other than meet our commitments to retailers.” The company even had to impose limits on how much a retailer could buy, given the constraints on production.
But the Balmoral facility has allowed Half Acre to almost triple capacity in just a couple of years: last year, they produced 40,000 barrels, and there’s still physical room for growth if demand continues to increase. The added space also lets the brewers experiment more. Now that retailer commitments can be filled at Balmoral, the Lincoln brewery has begun to brew “wyld beers,” which are beers fermented in barrels with a wild culture of yeast or bacteria. Keeping that program at Lincoln prevents the wild cultures from “contaminating” the more standard beer at Balmoral, Fiori explains. Balmoral has its own special brews: Half Acre’s barrel-aging program is housed there.
This is all a long way from Half Acre’s beginnings. When Magliaro first came up with the idea of starting a brewery about ten years ago, he, Fiori, and one other original founder were the only employees. The trio enjoyed home-brewing, and discerned a growing desire for craft beer in Chicago. “At that time, Chicago had only Goose Island, Two Brothers, and Three Floyds,” Fiori recalls. “You’re looking at the third largest city in America, and we were bringing in craft beer from other cities.”
But their knowledge of commercial brewing was scant. They started out with a test batch at Goose Island, then went to Sand Creek Brewing Company in Black River Falls, Wisconsin to brew their first production run. “It was very beneficial for us to go to an already established facility where they could help with quality control and procedures,” Fiori says.
Soon after the release of that first beer – their Lager, which occasionally makes a comeback – an engineer named Matt Gallagher called, saying he wanted to come help brew. Gallagher became a partner and, for all intents and purposes, a co-founder, taking on the role of head brewer. Fiori now describes him as a “co-captain” of the company with Magliaro, who is the president.
The success of that first run showed the co-founders that this was a viable business opportunity. Within six months, they had committed their own capital and started to set up their own brewery. In 2008, they began renting the space on Lincoln from the family who own Murphy’s Bleachers in Wrigleyville, and bought it about a year later. In that first year, they produced 600 barrels of beer. They added the taproom in 2012 and food in 2016.
The opening of the Balmoral taproom is just the next, long-awaited step in Half Acre’s growth – the plan for it was first announced in 2015. For now, the same beers are available at both locations, but each taproom will eventually have a slightly differentiated list, to give each a unique identity. “It feels like a different place, but you know it’s the same company,” Fiori says. “It’s still us, but a different vibe. Now there are two ways for you to spend time at Half Acre.”