Have you taken the Dovetail Brewery tour? You should. Here’s why.
We’ve been on tons of brewery tours. You’ve probably been on a few too. Truth be told, they’re all pretty much the same. Here’s the brew house, here’s a bunch of stainless tanks, here are some barrels, occasionally you get to meet some cats (what up, Empirical) and here’s your pint glass and a few beers and have a nice afternoon.
Recently, however, I went on a brewery tour at Ravenswood’s Dovetail Brewery that we went into with high hopes for some new and interesting wrinkles, as they are a new and interesting brewery. In fact, we’ve already said as such after our first visit back in June of last year, and we quote: “they’re going to have a hell of a brewery tour.”
Well, I finally went on it. And we were right. It’s pretty rad.
Owners Bill Wesselink and Hagen Dost lead the tours themselves each week, and we lucked into a morning where they were both leading the morning tour (usually it’s one or the other). It’s one of the longer, more involved tours we’ve been on — and it’s definitely got some very cool stuff to show you.
Here’s why I liked it. First off…
It Starts With A Water Tasting.
Most brewery tours start with the same old “beer is made of four ingredients can anyone name what they are yes that’s right water barley hops and yeast” blah blah blah. Not this one.
Dovetail’s tour starts with a taste test of three different waters. It makes sense — up to 95% of beer is water, so it makes a big difference in the beer you drink. First you get to taste some basic tap water as a baseline, then they pour you the water that is completely distilled, which tastes dramatically different from the standard Chicago H20.
Finally, you get a taste of the water that they have specifically engineered to replicate the water of Bavaria that they believe works best for their beers, which has a surprisingly “dry” feel to it (yes, “dry” water). That dryness contributes to the feeling of wanting to immediately take that next sip to keep your palate refreshed. Clever stuff — and if they’ve thought this much about the water, you can imagine the kind of thought that goes into actually making the beer.
There’s This Awesome Century-Old Copper Kettle.
We don’t need to get too into the weeds about their brewing setup, save to mention it’s measured in hectolitres (tres European, of course) and they are able to utilize a decoction mash for some extra-special-fun brews. To my knowledge, only Church Street and maybe one other Chicago area brewery that I can’t think of right now uses a decoction mash for anything. Tweet at us if you know.
So that said, in addition to the usual array of stainless you see on most brewery tours, there is also this big, hunk of copper also attached to the brewing system. Basically, Hagen and Bill pulled it off the floor of a Munich beer equipment warehouse in two big pieces after moldering there for years. They shipped it home, had it welded back together and now it’s part of the brewing process.
Why should you particularly care about this big ol’ copper kettle? Well, not only is it about 110 years old, but it was used as part of the pilot system for the world’s oldest brewery for the vast majority of its lifespan — ever heard of a little beermaker called Weihenstephan? Yeah. It was originally theirs. And now it sits in a building between two sets of train tracks on the north side of Chicago making lager and bocks and rauchbier and such.
So that’s pretty cool.
How Often Do You Get To See a Coolship/Koelschip?
Outside of like, Cantillon, I mean. Not often, right?
I don’t particularly care how you spell it — I prefer the latter just because it’s more fun to type — but there aren’t a lot of breweries in the Chicago area that have one of these. In fact, I can’t think of anyone else currently using one regularly. Whiner is building one, as I understand, and Penrose has experimented with a mobile one from time to time, but if you want to see the only one getting regular use in town, Dovetail is your place. Everything runs through this thing, and they can explain why better than I can. (Gotta take the tour to find out.)
Now, it’s fairly unlikely you’ll ever see it actually in action during the tour, working to cool the wort — and in the case of the lambics they’re making, hang out overnight with the windows wide open to grab that sweet, sweet wild yeast floating around the Chicago air. But, you can probably imagine what it looks like full of what will soon become actual beer, steaming away like crazy in the sunlight. If you time it right and keep your eyes open, you can probably occasionally catch some steam pouring out while you ride by on the Brown Line.
And this koelschip leads you right to the part where you…
See The Beginnings of Chicago Lambic
Yes, if you have a koelschip, why the hell wouldn’t you try to make a spontaneously fermented type of beer like, say, a lambic or a methode gueuze of some sort. Well, it’s still going to be a few years before anyone will be able to give the Dovetail version a shot, but for now, when you wander upstairs to check out the koelschip you are also going to get to wander amongst the many racks of barrels holding beer that is slowly, steadily working its way into a wild, funky, tart, fruity, naturally-fermented brew that will someday be blended into a Chicago lambic.
There are also plans for a kriek beer and other fruited blends, as I understand, so sometime around 2018 or 2019 it’ll be fun to see just what the hell happens with this grand experiment. Right now, it just looks like a bunch of wood.
Remember, however, that you are also on the second floor of a brewery that’s holding literally tons of beer. Thanks to the building’s industrial heritage, the Dovetail team knows how much poundage per square inch the floor can hold and that’s why they can keep these things hoisted upstairs — good luck finding that in many other places. I’d be willing to bet more than a few bucks that there’s solid ground-floor concrete beneath like 99.9% of all barrelled beer around these parts.
Another nifty thing?
It’s Led By the Owners Themselves.
I know we already mentioned this up at the top, but all these little bits of information we’ve just told you about? Well,these two guys are the ones that actually did this stuff and know what they’re talking about and you can bug them with questions and we’re just some website that has a few pictures and a bunch of words so you can see how a tour with them is superior to just reading about it.
When you watch them interact, Bill and Hagen have a sort of Mythbusters vibe going on between the two of them — Hagen is the more outgoing, jocular one (the Adam Savage of the pair) whereas Bill is a bit quieter and more reserved, and also has some wicked facial hair and generally wears a hat (obviously the Jamie Hyneman of the two). There’s no explosions on the tour, sadly, but the occasional myth may be busted if your myth in question is that dark beer is always stronger or something.
This is in distinct contrast to some of the more…shall we say, low-touch tours we’ve seen.
Maybe you, like us, have been on a tour or two where the person leading it is, for example, a completely hungover college student just showing a video and then walking people through a few different rooms on the way to the free beer, which was our experience at the Miller Brewery Tour a few years back. Maybe you’ve been underwhelmed by a similarly low-level taproom employee who’s run a few dozen of these before and is basically on autopilot. Having the owners on hand is a completely different thing.
Also, I’m not saying these guys will be leading the things forever, so maybe you get while the getting is good, huh? (They’ve told me that they do want to lead them for a while, though.)
This leads us to the final and perhaps most important part, which is that…
…The Beer is Really Good.
I imagine there are still a number of people who haven’t gotten the word that Dovetail isn’t about making the next big triple IPA or adjunct stout or the juiciest of the juicy NEIPAs. If you spent your afternoon drinking the many fine highly-hopped creations at Begyle, just a block away, you might stop at Dovetail and not even be able to taste the lager or holiday bock with your scorched palate.
If you wander in with an open mind, free of preconceived notions that an American brewery has to have 8 IPAs on draft at all times, you might find some of the nicest, well-made old-world Bavarian-style beers you’ve had in a while. A good fresh hefeweizen is truly something to behold (even if it still weirds me out that they describe the color as “yolky” – I know it’s accurate but raw eggs aren’t necessarily what I want to think about when I’m drinking), and I’m already looking forward to what their future offerings, like, say an Oktoberfest, might taste like on future visits.
There’s a reason the beers earned a Best New Brewery nod from BeerAdvocate, as well as the attention of USAToday’s 10Best roundup/poll for the nation’s Best New Brewery as well. Not all beers need to be crazy as hell to impress. Real good, real clean beers full of flavor and balance can kick ass too. And if you need something super-hoppy to mix things up, well, Begyle is just a block away and they’ll be happy to hook you up.
You should go. We’ve given you a few reasons why. Maybe we’ll see you there some upcoming Saturday. You can tell us about all the other cool stuff we forgot to mention.
Dovetail is located in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood and you can learn more at their website.
Since this is apparently a thing that happens on other beer sites, we received no compensation for this admittedly glowing coverage of a local brewery. We just liked our experience and wanted to tell you about it. Isn’t that the way this is supposed to work?
Aside from the Instagram posting, all photos in this post are via the author.