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From Pulpit to Pint Glass: How One Former Pastor Created a North Side Brewery

Meredith Francis
Brent Raska at Burning Bush Brewery next to brewing vats
Brent Raska is the founder of Burning Bush Brewery. Image: Burning Bush Brewery

For a former Chicago area pastor, the biblical story of Moses and the burning bush—in which God speaks to Moses through a bush that is aflame, though not consumed, and tells Moses to lead his people out of Egypt—is one that is all about faithfulness and leading a community. It turns out the story also makes a pretty cool name for a brewery.

“It’s one of my favorite stories,” says Brent Raska, the founder of Burning Bush Brewery. “It's catchy. It’s easy to remember. The b-b alliteration…from that kind of practical side, even if people don't know anything about the story at all, anybody can get on board with it. It’s cool.”

Raska, a former Presbyterian pastor, was an avid home-brewer for years before opening the brewery, which is located just off Irving Park Road in Chicago’s North Center community along the Chicago River. Originally from Spokane, Washington, Raska and his wife (who is also a Presbyterian pastor at another church in Wilmette) moved to the Chicago area in 2011. At the end of 2017, Raska’s church closed.

“We did our best to keep it going,” he said. “During the lead-up to [its closing], it’s like, what am I going to do now—another church to continue on this traditional path, or something else?”

In early 2018, he decided he wanted to try to open a brewery. His wife, he says, was a “true saint,” given that they had a two-year-old at the time, and his wife was nine months pregnant with their second child. Two years later, on January 30, 2020, he opened Burning Bush. Of course, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Raska’s original business plans came to a halt.

“That was quite a shock to the system, but somehow, we found a way to survive,” Raska said, crediting the ability to deliver growlers of beer to customers, as well as getting permission from their landlord to create a safer outdoor space with a “makeshift” patio comprised of Costco tables and folding chairs.

The brewery has come a long way since then. The patio that overlooks the river across from Horner Park has expanded and now has picnic tables and other seating in lieu of the Costco setup.

“We really did score on the location. We didn't realize at first how much the river would be a huge bonus,” Raska says, adding that the completion of the 312 RiverRun trail and bridge just south of Irving Park Road has been a nice draw for their outdoor space.

Earlier this year, Burning Bush also opened up an adjacent event space called the River Room, and Raska says they finally feel as though their feet are firmly on the ground.

While the brewery itself isn’t religious, many of the names of their beers serve as a tip-of-the-hat to Raska’s background, and he has fun with the theme: there’s Lion’s Den, Sour of Babel, and Sermon on the Malt, to name a few. He says that lately, when a new beer is ready, he’ll text the staff group chat for their input on a name.

“It's been fun to actually get the staff more involved and they've had lots of good ideas. And then they’re proud, like, ‘Oh, I named this beer!’ And they get to brag about that,” Raska says. Earlier this year, for example, they released a huckleberry sour, and Raska wondered how they were going to get a biblical reference out of it.

Beer cans stacked in a pyramid Many of the beers brewed at Burning Bush draw inspiration from biblical stories. Image: Burning Bush Brewery

“Emma, one of our bartenders, she nailed it and came up with ‘Huckle Be Thy Name,’ like after the Lord’s Prayer,” Raska says with a laugh.

All of their beers are brewed in house, and even the basil they are using in a new beer was grown in planters that line their patio.

“We really pride ourselves on having a little something for everybody,” Raska says. “We do have a pretty wide range, from lagers to sours.”

After a few years of running the business, Raska often gets questions about the stark contrast between his prior profession and his current one, but he’s used to it by now. There’s more in common between them than people might think, he says.

“The fellowship and community that you have sitting at a bar, sitting in a brewery, the relationships you build—having that kind of community is really cool,” he says.

In a free community room at the back of the brewery, all kinds of gatherings occur: church groups, book clubs, and birthday parties. Raska says part of the brewery’s mission is to create a friendly, open place. They give some of their proceeds to local nonprofits, too.

While he definitely misses parts of his life as a pastor, he has found that there are a lot of ways that calling has prepared him for this newer one. He didn’t realize how much useful experience he was getting as a leader of a small church.

“You do a little of everything. Sometimes you have to clean the bathroom, you oversee budgets, you’re overseeing staff, you're managing people. I’ve bartended. I’ve done social media,” Raska says. “Whether it's staff or church members or customers, being in a very minor but public leadership position has helped a lot.”