An urban experiment is underway on Chicago's South side that is transforming the old Peer meat packing plant into Chicago's first vertical farm. As WGN's Mark Suppelsa reports, the building already houses a tilapia farm, aquaponic gardens, and the beginnings of a micro-brewery, all food-based businesses that will feed each other in a closed eco-system.
Samuel Evans is director of operations for New Chicago Brewing Company and shows WGN around. "This is the main hall of the brewery that we're in right now. This building was built in 1896. But this particular room used to be outside."
His brother Jesse is co-owner of the brewery. "It's really fun to tell people that we're brewers!"
There's not a lot to look at yet in this building known as "The Plant." Jesse Evans says the ground level space will house the New Chicago Brewing Company. "Chicago's a really good beer town already, but it's got a long way to go. We're gonna produce something we feel is under represented and that's the strong ales."
The building holds relics from it's meat packing past, old signs, random butcher knives, and there are stacks of empty beer bottles. But the Evans brothers have a vision. "This building when you walk into it you'll see these giant windows. You'll be able to see all the brewing equipment in front of the windows. These stainless steel tanks are gonna be lit up. It's gonna look like a work of art in here." Jesse Evans adds, "We've had to convince a lot of people this was a good idea. We've had to do a lot of like physical labor to get the building ready."
The Evans brothers grew up in the Champaign area, moved to Chicago when they turned 18, then headed to California wine country. Turns out wine wasn't their thing. So Samuel says they began experimenting with home brewing. "And we went to Whole Foods with our recipes and showed them what we were making in California and they absolutely loved it. And that was the catalyst for growth for our whole brewery. We moved on from that brewery and moved back to Chicago to build this. "
But they needed a home. They found one when they read an article in Metropolis Magazine about John Edel. He had bought the plant and was looking for socially conscious tenants who could work together to create their own power and handle their own waste. "We are creating something out of nothing essentially here," says Jesse Evans. When John Edel found this plant this building, it was meant to be something that was torn down. So first of all it's sustainable cause we're saving this building and making it new. Secondly like when we're making the beer, it's gonna be almost 100% off the grid."
With the help of insanely creative students and staff at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the production processes of building tenants are being combined. For instance, the tilapia will feed on the nutrient rich by-products of beer production in a system that also grows microgreens, mushrooms, and herbs. "They're growing spices and chilis for us downstairs. So we'll have all these crazy ingredients that will be made in this building that we can use in our beers." The green thumbs in this place also do the demolition work for free, though volunteer nights are being planned which will involve free beer. Sam says, "A lot of people just want to be near a brewery, and we understand completely what that's like."
The Evans brothers' childhood friend, Jim Alsmeyer, drives up from Urbana often to help out. "They're just imaginative. You know nothing stops them. They just have so many ideas and and and they're not afraid to try it and whether it succeeds or not they get back up and try again."
So, if all goes as planned, the kettles will arrive in the fall, the Evans brothers will restore jobs to this Back of the Yards neighborhood, and an all new industrial revolution will see the sign change from Peer to beer. Jesse Evans; "It's like validation that you know like John Edel's not crazy, we're not crazy, we're doing something big here."
The New Chicago Brewing Company hopes to pour the first beer next March 4th, Chicago's 175th anniversary. You can sign up for updates and special events on the New Chicago Brewing Company Facebook page. Or click here for information on how to volunteer and learn much more about how the plant processes work. We'll also send you a video link to this story if you text the word cover to 97999.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun