Craft & Code: A Look at Chicago’s Tech and Craft Beer Industries

A few months ago, a new report came out from the Brewers Association, announcing that Chicago has more breweries than any other city in the U.S.: 167 in the metro area, nine ahead of second place Denver. It’s a proud milestone for our city, but probably not a surprising one to most of us who live here — the proliferation of local craft breweries over the past decade or so has been astonishing.

We also happen to work in another space that has boomed here over the past 10 years: the Chicago tech industry. Chicago has work ahead to be considered the top spot for tech amongst American cities, but technology’s recent growth here has been just as notable as craft beer’s. It got us thinking — what other overlaps or connections exist between the two industries? What part have they played in each other’s growth spurts?

To explore these questions, we spoke with a few friends of the firm in both industries. On the tech side, we talked with Trisha Degg (VP, Talent Programs & Operations at the Illinois Technology Association) and Brian Mehta (CMO at Trading Technologies, a 3Points client.) In the brewing world, we sat down with Curtis Tarver (co-owner of Vice District Brewing, as well as an attorney and state representative) and Tracy Hurst (co-owner of Metropolitan Brewing, as well as Board President at the Chicago Brewseum). Here’s what we found.

Before looking into their intersections, it’s worth looking at the growth of each industry on its own. Metropolitan’s case is instructive when looking at Chicago craft beer. The brewery just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, making it only about a year older than 3Points. However, while we’re still relatively young amongst Chicago PR firms, Metropolitan is one of the oldest currently-operating breweries in Chicago, and is the oldest independently-owned brewery in the city. That’s how many breweries have opened here within the past decade.

“Goose Island [which opened in 1988] was the only one, but they are not independent [anymore],” said Hurst. “Piece and Rock Bottom were around, but those are brew pubs. In terms of production microbreweries, it was us. We opened about the same time as Half Acre — they were initially brewing in Wisconsin.”

The success of Metropolitan and other local pioneers helped pave the way for new breweries to open, creating a cycle of innovation that would make the tech industry proud — as Hurst puts it, “having more variety [of beer] certainly fed the beast of people wanting even more variety.”

Tracy Hurst at Metropolitan Brewing’s riverfront taproom in Avondale. (Photo: Mina Bloom, DNAinfo)

Vice District opened in the South Loop (they now brew out of Homewood) in 2014, recognizing that even as more local craft breweries began to take flight, there was still a massive opportunity in the space.

“When we were putting together our business plan in early 2013, Chicago was #6 in terms of beer consumption, #36 in production — we’ve always drank a lot of beer, we just weren’t necessarily making it here,” said Tarver. “Also, IPAs became extremely popular around that time, which created a new wave of people going into the space, as the barrier to entry is lower with ales compared to lagers.”

Tarver and his co-founder, Quintin Cole, had been homebrewers before they decided to open their brewery, but entering into an increasingly crowded craft beer space, it was time to bring in a professional.

“We went to Chase to take out a loan, and told them our plan and how we had been brewing. They said, ‘that’s cute, but get someone who knows what they are doing.’”

Hurst doesn’t find much importance in Chicago’s record number of breweries (“Who cares how many there are? What I want to know is how good the beer is”) but she does point out a few factors that might have played a part in the city’s ascendence in the rankings. One is the high-quality water source we have in our front yard, Lake Michigan. Another is our location in the middle of the country, which has led to Chicago becoming a hub for products from all other regions — and beer is no exception.

“We’ve always been a ‘dumping ground’ where everything goes through Chicago,” she said. “Anyone who ships their beer anywhere is going to route it through us, so we’ve seen everybody’s beer come through here. It’s a Chicago thing to be knowledgeable.”

Of course, local pride plays a part as well. Hurst notes that Chicagoans tend to have a great deal of civic pride, and that extends to the drinking world — a point that is emphasized by the large Chicago flag hanging over the bar in her Metropolitan taproom.

The recent growth of the city’s technology sector may not be as dramatic as the growth of its beer industry — and it may not be as unique, as tech has boomed even more in other locations — but tech has made its presence known in Chicago over the past decade.

For those who have been part of the tech scene for several years, the growth has been very evident. “Having worked in the local tech industry for a while, I would say it’s blown up a ton in the past decade,” says Degg. She would know — Degg’s organization, the ITA, is dedicated specifically to the success of the city and the state as a leading tech hub.

There are a few key moments that showcase Chicago’s growth as a tech hub: for example, Groupon launched in late 2008, 1871 opened its doors in 2012, and Google moved into its new West Loop Midwest HQ in 2015. Those three milestones represent three key factors that Degg notes for Chicago’s recent tech growth: small Chicago companies finding success, the rise of incubators, and national/international firms taking an interest in Chicago, respectively.

In terms of local success stories, Degg singles out Groupon and Grubhub (2004) as notable companies that made it big, inspiring the new round of startups and entrepreneurs; as she puts it, “you can’t really have big tech companies without small tech companies starting first.”

That is why 1871 has made such a big difference. The incubator, based in Merchandise Mart, has been not just a home for those small tech companies, but a resource for growth as well. Today the incubator is home to “nearly 500 early-stage, high-growth digital startups,” according to its website; it has also inspired the formation of numerous other tech incubators in the city.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Chicago’s tech renaissance has led numerous national tech giants to expand their presence here — something Degg notes has been strongly encouraged by former Mayor Emanuel. Google is perhaps the best example, and the biggest name of the bunch. The company’s Midwest HQ now hosts over a thousand employees, and is planning to expand further.

“What started out as a small sales office has now grown to house some of Google’s most critical teams with roughly over 1,000 employees working across product, engineering, technical infrastructure, advertising and more,” said Karen Sauder, who leads Google’s Chicago office, in a statement to the Chicago Tribune last year. “Chicago is considered an innovation hub for the greater Midwest and attracts incredible talent from across all industries.”

It’s also important to note that the tech growth is not just a combination of local startups plus established tech giants moving into the city. There are also many long-established Chicago companies that have shifted to bring in more tech talent, and one of those is Trading Technologies. TT is 25 years old and has always had the word “technologies” in its title, but recent years have seen the company move even further in that direction.

“The [recent] growth hasn’t necessarily been in our overall number of jobs at TT; the growth has been in the type of talent here,” says Mehta. “We don’t have as many people in sales roles anymore, instead we have tech talent, software engineers for leading edge technologies… It’s the same talent that the Googles of the world are competing for.”

So, with all the growth in both the beer and tech industries here, where do the two intersect? In a number of places, it turns out. And one of those places is the tech office itself.

“I joke when I give tours of Tech Nexus, there’s two things that qualify a company as a startup — craft beer and a ping pong table,” says Degg. “I don’t have data or research or to support that, but as I visit every tech office in Chicago, it’s something I notice. It makes sense — as tech companies are striving to attract and retain talent, a keg in the office will help.”

Craft beer taps are commonly found in the city’s ever-growing list of coworking spaces, which cater to small startups. But they are also found at more established companies as well — for example, Hurst notes that Metropolitan is now on tap at numerous offices around the city, including at Google.

Trading Technologies was in early on that trend, and today stands as a prime example of the overlap between tech and craft beer. One of the office’s defining features is its “Tech Tap,” which serves as an IT Support desk during the day and a bar with numerous beers on tap after 4pm.

The TT office went through a major rehab starting in 2013, and the thought process behind the renovations, according to Mehta, was to create a workforce that was cohesive and had a positive culture, and [to have] a physical environment that would promote teamwork and camaraderie. Additionally, the company wanted a space that would be good for hosting industry events. The idea for a “tech tap” actually came from the IT staff themselves, many of whom are craft beer aficionados. Now, the Tech Tap forms the center of TT’s community.

“The area is buzzing with people eating, laughing, and having meetings,” says Mehta. “It creates a social environment, as bars are inherently social. Now, there is an informal tradition to meet at the Tech Tap on Thursday afternoons — it happened organically, it’s not a scheduled event. And non-drinkers are not excluded, there are plenty of options available [such as kombucha] to have meetings and make work fun for everyone.”

Trading Technologies’ “Tech Tap” functions as both an IT support desk and a craft beer bar. (Photo: Chait Goli)

For a while, the Tech Tap stocked almost entirely local beers, but over time, the selection has expanded regionally and seasonally. Now employees can submit suggestions online, and the selection is constantly changing. That desire to explore does not surprise Mehta.

“I can’t say if there’s a direct correlation [between technologists and craft beer lovers] — however, what you do find is that people in dynamic tech environments are naturally more inquisitive and creative, and would be more interested in more unique options,” he notes. “People in growing tech companies are naturally open to discovery. If we are pushing our employees to find new ways of doing things in their work, it would translate into their social preferences and demands as well.”

While more and more techies can access craft beer on tap without having to leave the office, their desire to explore further still sends them out to the city’s various brewpubs and taprooms. Tarver talks with many of the customers who visit his taproom, and has found that many of them are technologists; he estimates that at least a quarter of his constituency work in something related to technology. He echoed some of Mehta’s thoughts.

“We have free WiFi in the taproom, and a lot of people like to come there and work,” he says. “The technologists come from communal environments, they’re friendly, and they’re fairly knowledgeable about beer.”

“The reality is, if one of your hobbies is craft beer, you probably need some disposable income, so that’s another reason we see a number of customers from the tech world. They’re also curious — they’ve tasted beer from all over. They seem to be more likely to try flights as well.”

It seems obvious at this point that technologists are into craft beer, but looking at it from the other side, technology has also helped breweries in similar ways as it has helped other types of companies in the past decade. Tarver mentioned how new technology has helped Vice District scale up recipes, track keg locations, and quickly note payments and deposits, among other things. Hurst points to the strong social media following that Metropolitan has built through its accounts, and notes that it is now easier than ever to learn about and connect with your local community.

“The internet connects us better with our local environment,” she says. “We know more about what people are doing and what they like, so we can seek out [those same things]… We can better engage with what they are doing.”

The internet has also helped to create a more sophisticated “beer nerd.”

“For my generation, being a beer nerd meant going to beer festivals,” according to Hurst. “Now, that’s nothing — everyone does that. Now beer nerds are collecting, discussing, and trading beers online.”

While all of these connections between craft beer and tech tell a positive story, there is, however, also overlap in some of the challenges that both industries face as well. One notable challenge for both industries has been diversity — or lack thereof.

Even if you don’t follow the tech space closely, you’ve still likely seen numerous articles pointing out the industry’s struggles with racial and gender diversity. These issues are present on a national level, but local organizations are trying to make a difference here in Chicago. Degg points to a variety of initiatives, focused on various types of diversity. EvolveHer (a creative workspace in River North) and 1871’s WiSTEM program both support female entrepreneurs. Code Platoon is an affordable coding bootcamp for veterans and spouses based in downtown Chicago. The ITA itself just launched Tech Forward, which focuses on K-12 technology education, particularly in middle school. There are other Chicago-based organizations like Black Tech Mecca, which advocates for inclusion of black people in tech, and I’m Black in Tech, which supports and educates Black and Latinx founders and professionals. Most of the above-mentioned initiatives have launched in the past five years.

And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention T4Youth, our charity table tennis tournament that brings together the local technology community to support the Chicago Tech Academy, a charter high school in University Village dedicated to promoting a diverse next generation of tech leaders in the city.

The craft beer industry industry has faced similar diversity issues — in fact, Tarver estimates that not only is Vice District the only black-owned brewery in Illinois, it is one of just 10–20 in the country. But it’s an issue that extends beyond just who is making the beer.

“People talk about food deserts — there are craft beer deserts as well,” says Tarver. “It’s not that people have different palettes, there’s just less opportunity to try this stuff depending on where you live. If your local liquor store just has malt liquor, that’s what you’ll drink. People will drink what is on offer to them.”

Neither Tarver nor Hurst mentioned specific initiatives designed to increase diversity in the industry, but both seemed encouraged by how the industry is expanding organically.

“With breweries expanding into more neighborhoods,” says Tarver, “we’ll continue to see a more diverse group of beer drinkers, which should lead to more diverse brewers as well.”

Curtis Tarver (left), with his Vice District Brewing co-founder Quintin Cole. (Photo: Vice District Brewing)

To that end, we can expect to see continued growth for craft beer in Chicago, and the tech boom shows no signs of slowing either. Based on our interviews, they will continue to grow together as well.

“I think the cross-pollination of craft beer and the tech industry is really cool,” says Tarver. “Both really promote what’s best about society — being communal, and being connected with others. Breaking down barriers.”

Whether it’s an office Tech Tap bringing coworkers together or technology like social media enabling breweries to connect with customers, we’ve seen firsthand how the two industries combine to enhance communities here in Chicago. If you’ve noticed any other interplay between tech and craft beer, we’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment — or better yet, let’s discuss over a beer.

PR & Communications for Fintech & Chicago Tech. www.3ptscomm.com