A small hometown brewing company in Lake Bluff won its first gold medal at the 2013 U.S. Open Beer Championship, competing against breweries from around the world and more than 2,500 beers in 68 categories.
Participating in the competition for the first time, the Lake Bluff Brewing Co. snatched gold in the Wood Barrel Imperial Stout category with its Kosmonaut Russian Imperial Stout.
"We knew it was really good," said co-owner Rodd Specketer. "It was one of the community's favorites. It's probably the best beer we've ever brewed, and I think a lot of people would say the same."
The subtly complex Kosmonaut is a dark beer that consists of several flavors, including toffee, banana, vanilla, chocolate and coconut blended with whiskey.
The winning brew was made by Lake Bluff Brewing Co.'s master brewer, Mike Dorneker, who aged it for nine months in whiskey barrels instead of traditional bourbon barrels.
"The flavors in it, even though they were so big and complex, went so well with each other," Dorneker said. "Everything was well-rounded and went together with each other."
The co-owners, Specketer and David Burns, worked on two other recipes to be brewed in whiskey barrels for the competition, Dorneker said.
An American barley wine called Cosmic Speculation and a house-styled Black Squirrel Bourbon Stout as well as the Kosmonaut were aged in six whiskey barrels purchased from Koval Distillery, a local company in Chicago.
"I wanted to do something a little bit different," Dorneker said. "I wanted to source the barrels locally."
Dorneker said he tested the Kosmonaut every month to determine how far along the flavors were coming until at nine months he determined that it was perfect.
Some bottles were set aside for the competition while the rest was put on tap for sale at the pub, Dorneker said.
With word of the gold medal spreading, Lake Bluff Brewing Co. has seen an increase in business, including visitors who have traveled from as far as Wisconsin and Chicago.
"We've gotten a lot of feedback, and people want to come in and see what we're all about," Dorneker said. "It's the people that are up there too. Everybody is really outgoing and nice."
Burns and Specketer, home brewers who were members of the Lake Bluff Home Brew Club, opened the brewery in March 2011 at the request of friends and family as the quality of their recipes continued to improve.
"We did pretty well right out of the gate," Specketer said. "I think Lake Bluff was looking for something like that, and I think we really helped make the village more of a destination."
Specketer said the pub's most popular brew of the summer is the light Honey Badger Golden Ale.
In addition to locally crafted brew, the pub serves appetizers, pizzas, paninis, sausages, pretzels, hummus and other food.
Amid consistent support, the Lake Bluff Brewing Co. does not forget to give back to its community
"We contribute to the school systems, baseball leagues and a number of other charities in the community," Specketer said. "We also throw block parties for the community every couple of weeks."
Specketer said his favorite part of the business is getting to drink a lot of good beer as well as interacting with customers.
"A brew pub is just a fun place, and I like hanging out there with friends and customers," Specketer said.
The Lake Bluff Brewing Co. is at 16 E. Scranton Ave., Lake Bluff.