MAKERS: John Barley, Solemn Oath Founder and New ICBG President

In Makers by Karl

This Q&A is part of an ongoing series highlighting “Makers,” those who make beer, make decisions and make the policies impacting you — the craft beer drinker.

It’s been a decade since anyone other than Haymarket’s Pete Crowley has called themselves President of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild.

All that changed recently when Solemn Oath founder and ICBG board member John Barley took the reins at the most recent meeting and became the new president of the guild, at a time when craft beer’s profile has never been higher, their industry never busier.

Since that’s a pretty big change — the only other person to hold the position was John Hall in the late nineties, but at this point no one honestly remembers who was before Crowley — we wanted to check in with the new POTICBG as a sort of “entrance interview,” if you will.

Over the course of a long conversation, we asked what his plans for the role were, what he’ll be continuing to push forward, the future of the Guild’s legislative efforts in Springfield, and why he got into it in the first place.

Guys Drinking Beer: So, we saw on Twitter that you were announced as the incoming president of the Illinois Craft Brewer’s Guild — is that completely official? And is there a handoff?

John Barley: It is official. Pete [Crowley, Haymarket Pub & Brewery] is out as of our last board meeting which was two weeks ago. Pete and Josh [Deth of Revolution Brewing] were officially done. So, the way our bylaws work is that we elect officers [and] when I got elected, I take over immediately.

GDB: Who had the role before Pete, anyways? He’s been in there for so long that I don’t even know who it could possibly be.

JB: He was on the board for 14 years, and I want to say he was president for — you’d have to ask him, but I want to say he might have been president for ten of them. It’s totally possible that no one was before Pete. That far back, it might have been a couple of guys getting together to drink beer as opposed to something as formal as taking legislative action or anything.

GDB: So, was there any sort of transition team, or Presidential Book of Secrets, anything like that? Or was it basically just a handshake and the job was all yours?

JB: Yeah, a little bit more of that. You know, we’ve had a couple of meetings, we’ve got a couple more…the thing is that because [Pete’s] been doing it so long and has been doing it so well for so long, that a lot of the things that just got done were muscle memory for Pete. You know, it was…to get some specific elements of FoBAB done, he would be able to do it just because he knew exactly who to talk to when and all that kind of stuff.

There will be a transition, and Pete’s chairing up a committee that we’re establishing, an events committee. And he’ll still be heavily involved with things on the events side.

But I mean, I met with our staff – [Executive Director] Justin Maynard and Erin [Parchert, Guild coordinator] this weekend actually, for about four and a half hours, just going specifically over those kinds of things. I’ve been on the board for two years now, but there are lots of things that Pete handled just in a effort to get shit done, that he did really well. And learning what had to be done from those sides that I may never have known about. It’s definitely going to be part of the transition.

It’ll take a little while — technically my “reign” is…we elect two year terms for board members and then every year we select officers. So technically it’s a one year term, so I’ll be up for it if the guys want me to do it again, a year from now. That’ll be it – whatever the board selects at that time, the new board gets elected every year. About half of them are pretty well balanced between the two year terms. So every year about half the board is up for reelection.

GDB: You must have taken the job because you felt like you had something to get done. What is your main objective in this role going to be?

JB: When I came on board — and I’m not saying it’s because of me — but the last two years have been just so vital to our industry, particularly here in Illinois and all of us are growing like crazy, and we’ve had a lot of legislative hurdles. You know, the Guild itself has turned into a pretty successful business in its own right with the success of craft beer, and the fans who have gotten into it via FoBAB and all of our other [events]; Beer Under Glass, Oak Park last week. They generate revenue and now it’s so much more organized.

We’ve been getting pretty serious, pretty professional the last couple years. My objective will really be a continuation of that. I’m sure I’ll have my style, my own opinion on things, but it’s more to lead the ball down the court. We still have a full board that’s heavily involved with all the major decisions. I’ve been involved with Josh and Jim Ebel and everybody for the last couple of years; about a lot of our legislative stuff and I see that as one of the primary objectives for me for the next twelve months, and really for the next three years — solidifying a solid relationship with Bob and the guys at ABDI and making sure we can garner support of the legislators.

You know, one thing that we’re good at and have been good at for a long time is building support of our consumers — the actual people out there drinking our product. But just in the last couple years, we’ve gotten a lot more organized with using that to our advantage. We haven’t even scratched the surface of that yet.

GDB: We have noticed an increase in the level of political outreach on the ICBG’s side. How do you plan to build on those legislative relationships?

JB: I can’t tip my hat on all the plans we’ve got in action, but the new leadership who’s taken over at ABDI…it’s been a completely different ballgame. It’s no secret that we didn’t have the best relationship with them for a long time, most of that predates me by a longshot. But you know, their new leadership over there is very much willing to…we had a sitdown, having meetings, that sort of things. As simple as an idea as that sounds, it’s unprecedented for us as an organization. We’ve got objectives and communication between us and the ABDI is pretty solid, but I can’t tip my hat on all of this.

GDB: And the ABDI has a new craft beer committee, correct? Have you communicated with them at this point?

JB: No, we have not been in touch with the “task force”, as they call it. We were able, through Bob, we were able to pass along a memo of what our objectives are. They’re doing the same thing we are right now — they’re analyzing a sector that’s growing like crazy; how do they put that to the best advantages for their constituencies while we do the same thing for ours? They want to maintain that three-tiered element, we’re not against that but we want a little more flexibility there to grow our businesses in the way that we feel the market is telling us to grow them, and we might need to take some legislative action to be able to do that.

They’ve got their missions and we’ve got ours, and we to a point seem like as recent as the last 6 or 8 months, it seems like for the first time ever they’re overlapping instead of going head to head with each other.

GDB: That overlapping that you’re talking about — is that regarding the ILCC brewpub cap interpretation?

JB: Yeah, and that’s kind of kicked off some other conversations. We’ve been operating — and this predates me being on the board, and really before our brewery really opened — we’ve been operating and putting bandaids on a lot of stuff, and we’re at a point where we don’t want to have to worry about that.

Revolution became a symbol of that with the brewpub concept and went in front of the ILCC a few months ago, and rather than just fix it for Rev who’s going to be the most highly impacted by that right now we wanted to propose and start working with them. The ABDI approached us and [said] “let’s figure out something long term” and that’s going to be better for everyone. So we don’t have to go back once a year and we’re not going to piss off the legislature; we don’t want to burn too much political capital by going back to the guys once a year. It’s a lot more difficult if we have to go over and over and over again; and, “well, why didn’t we solve this last year if you knew it was going to be a problem.”

So we’re really trying to figure out what’s going to be the best growth pattern for us, where do we see all of our beer in the next five years or even ten, and let’s plan for that. We’re not going to take a small step, the next one’s going to be a pretty big leap. And the ABDI seems to be on board with that as well.

 GDB: The ABDI has a lot of strength in Springfield because have a lot of established relationships…and they have tons of money. Has there been any discussion amongst the ICBG about creating a Political Action Committee [PAC] to support craft beer friendly legislators and candidates?

 JB: It’s definitely something we have been looking at actively, I’ll say. Some of our biggest hurdles are legislative elements and it’s time to get serious about that. It’s definitely something we’re strongly considering, I’ll say.

 GDB: You’ve mentioned that for a while now it’s been Pete and Josh at the forefront; Pete has a brewpub and Josh started with a brewpub and now has his feet in both camps. Solemn Oath is a production facility first and foremost. How does that inform what you plan to do instead of the world those gentlemen are coming from?

 JB: Well, for myself and my crew at Solemn Oath, we’re very very focused on flexibility. It’s no secret that within the middle of last year we got pretty serious about opening up a city location. Under current law, we would have to kind of become all brewpubs and that was a  suggested ILCC workaround. Then we’d have more flexibility there, and it wouldn’t be a problem because we’re so small. But I like the flexibility of being able to run our business how we should, and how we deem proper.

Flexibility is a huge part of that. We shelved the idea until about 2015 and instead decided to focus all our capital on expanding Solemn Oath which we announced about a month ago. It’s definitely something that we’re hoping to get off the ground again in 2015, we’re going to see if it makes sense there, if we should continue to build the infrastructure.

We want a city location – it’s no secret. Some sort of brewpub type element. And we didn’t want to poach our own draft accounts that we worked so hard to build;  to be able to supply our own brewpub with beer we have to couple it with a growth phase. So we wanted to instead shift out more beer first, then have the flexibility to be less of a pain and we have so many great accounts that have worked with us for the last two and a half years now; we didn’t want to say “hey, we’re opening another section of our business, and unfortunately we can’t get you any more beer.”

It’s no secret that within the middle of last year we got pretty serious about opening up a city location.

John Barley

We wanted to grow that way, but you know, my legislative goals have been very much in line with what we’ve been trying to do for a couple years. Particularly with Josh at Revolution — their model is a fast-growing model, they’ve got a brewpub, they’ve got a production facility; that’s a proven model here in Illinois from the days of Goose Island. That’s something that I think is a right that we should have — and there’s so much grey area that we want to fix that problem so we can grow.

 GDB: Was it that particular sticking point that made you want the job of President?

JB: No, I was going to be in the conversation regardless, just because I like to stay heavily involved in the legislative efforts. Luckily, we have an office staff right now that can keep the organization running from an events standpoint which is great. It’s not going to be a focus of mine — I think we have some awesome events, we’ve got our stable of events that go on every year.

We’re looking at possibly adding one in the winter, and that side of things is a well oiled machine at this point. That’s a testament to Pete, and all the work he’s put in over the years, building up FOBAB, building up Beer Under Glass and Oak Park and our relationship with Seventh Generation, and the success of Chicago Craft Beer Week over the last few years, growing like crazy. That’s something that we run as well — I don’t know if people realize that, but we get sponsors and we’ve really turned that into quite a thing. Justin’s really worked his ass off on that and done a great job.

The next three years are going to define our next ten, from a legislative point of view. We gotta get it done. And that’s going to be a focus of mine, not just for Solemn Oath. The success of my business, given our size, while it seems like there are a ton of Illinois breweries, we’re pretty undersaturated market when it comes to market share.

We get to Chicagoland for example, across the 10% threshold. You go to Oregon and Washington, you’re looking at 40%, 50% sometimes. You know, picture the same amount of breweries growing 400% and us finally catching up to the Northwest. It seems like a new brewery opens up every other day, and the market’s been able to bear it for now, I wanted to take the reigns not because I wanted to make sure Solemn Oath is in a solid place — although I do — really, my success depends on Jim and Jason Ebel [and others] and what we’re able to do for each other. The collaborative component of craft beer is really a cliche but it’s not all bullshit.

We battle for handles, of course, but there’s a lot of doors to get open. When Lagunitas builds a facility like they have on the South Side, you’re going to see so many more markets that had five handles with shitty beer that are gonna have Lagunitas break the ice and get in there — and all of a sudden the guys are gonna be like “okay, we’ll keep our Miller and we’ll keep our Bud, but maybe with the other three handles we should do something else.” How many doors get opened with these large breweries expanding? They’re building bridges all over the place.

“]The next three years are going to define our next ten, from a legislative point of view.

John Barley

 GDB: Other than the aforementioned brewpub cap rule, what are some of the policy challenges you’re looking at?

JB: We have some caps that are in place for our Craft Brewers license that comes with certain elements with self-distribution, stuff like that. Raising the amount of self distribution is not a focus of ours, I can tell you that much. 7500 barrels right now, noone’s near that. That’s a lot of beer to distribute yourself. There’s only a couple breweries in the country who’ve been able to even surpass a number like that — Sun King, somewhat vocal in Indianapolis being one of them, the infrastructure that they have in place…but is that what you want to invest your money in?

It was something that they wanted to do, and I can tell you that when we guilt our model at Solemn Oath, we built our model to self-distribute. And about two months before we brewed for the first time, just so we knew what we were saying “no” to, we took meetings with all the major players at the time, primarily Glunz and Windy City. We decided that with Jim and Jason Ebel running the business at the time, we decided they were gonna sell our beer better than we could ourselves.

It’s a hell of a thing, self distribution. Pipeworks is an example of it done extremely well. I can’t imagine managing that area — with them growing the way that they are, I can’t imagine managing that element of the business — a driver picking up checks, you’re talking about a 15 minute interaction maybe to drop off a keg. Is that really worth it if we’re trying to scale? From a legislative point of view, we’ve got some caps and restrictions that we need to work with. From a long term point of view, and that’s going to be an effort of ours as well. There are a couple other things that we’re looking at I’d prefer not to get into.

But like I said, the ABDI seems like a whole different beast right now. That door has finally opened to conversation, and when it comes down to it, they’re already partners of ours. We have a history of butting heads in some areas, but I work with Windy City now, we work with Reyes. What they’ve done for our brand has been incredible, so we want to make sure that we’re on the same page and able to grow our businesses together.

 GDB: What’s your position on growler fills outside brewery taprooms?

JB: You know, I’m torn with it. I hate the idea of the growler. We do ‘em at Solemn Oath, but I don’t like the idea of a growler, period. We put all this money and effort and time in to QA and QC and then someone brings in their dirty growler for me to put my beer in? It’s not my favorite vessel, I would say. We’ve talked about it as a board fairly often. We’ve looked into a bit last year — there’s not a lot of data points, but we wanted to find out from like, brewers in New York for example: What is that ability for like, a gas station, to have a growler fill station — what has that done for their business?

Imagine Walgreens in the Bucktown, Wicker Park area. Imagine how much Daisy Cutter they’d move for a growler fill station. It’d be unbelievable.

I don’t like the idea of a growler, period. 

John Barley

 GDB: You mention Walgreens; they started that line of conversation when they were opening their downtown flagship location. Word was they wanted to be able to fill growlers, then they went silent.  

JB: Right — we’ve taken the position thus far…there’s been some splits but we have taken the position thus far that we are not a fan of it. We may reach a point a few years down the line where it’s something we want to look at again, but for the time being, we like that privilege that we’ve earned to have people come out to the tap room instead of at a retailer. Obviously that’s a huge piece of our business, all the taprooms — and that’s something we’re going to hold for now.

GDB: As the President of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild instead of just the Chicago Craft Brewers Guild, have you been downstate very much? Have you visited places like Scratch and Big Muddy? 

JB: The northern half of the state, I’ve got a good relationship with pretty much everybody. Part of what I will be doing is…looking at creating some different task force committee style things of our own to make sure that there’s a point person, for example, for the southern third of the state, would be excellent for everybody in that area to reach out to, and then we have one point of contact as well.

Building those bridges; it’s not that they’re disconnected because a lot of them make that trek up, but really trying to unify because these are issues that affect all of us. We’re an advocacy group for a large state; we’ve gotta make sure we’re representing our entire constituency. There’s definitely gonna be some effort to expanding some better relationships. On the other hand, I know I’m only a couple weeks into this, but Justin’s down there quite a bit, and makes sure he gets down into Springfield, visits those breweries. We’ll divide and conquer that portion of it as a board.

GDB: So with all that said…are you ready?

JB: I’m excited. It’s a privilege, it’s an exciting time for beer here in Illinois. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s pretty exciting. And when it comes down to it, we want consumers to have a lot of local beer options that are well made and have a quality that they can be proud of on a national level. That’s the underlying thing of all of it — get good beer into people’s hands and keep the ball rolling.

Find John on Twitter at @solemnjohn and the ICBG at @illinoisbeer. This interview has been edited and condensed (but only a little).

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About the Author



Karl has written about food, travel and beer for Chicago Magazine, Thrillist, Time Out Chicago, AskMen and more. His book, Beer Lovers Chicago, is now available via Amazon and other booksellers.If you're buying, he's likely having a porter or a pale ale.

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