Drew Fox of 18th Street Brewery

Going Pro by | Jan 2017 | Issue #120
Photo courtesy 18th Street Brewery

When Drew Fox launched the 18th Street Brewery, its location was met with skepticism. Who would go to Gary, Ind., to drink beer, people wondered, when they could just drink in Chicago? Three years later, 18th Street has torched any skeptics. The brewery is growing at a blistering pace, quadrupling its square footage (a second production facility and pub opened in nearby Hammond last year) and beating Fox’s five-year business plan projections by year two. Fox has brought a hard-charging, heavy metal brand of brewing to northwest Indiana, turning out a huge variety of hop-forward IPAs, Pale Ales, Stouts, and sours. “If you take care of beer and treat it right, [it’s] never one-dimensional,” Fox says. “That’s always been intriguing for me.”

1. Discover something
There was a time when Drew Fox drank the same macro-brewed lagers that once defined the upper Midwest: Miller Lite and High Life. That all changed a dozen years ago, when Fox took a trip to Belgium. At an abbey around the corner from his Bruges hostel, an unfiltered wheat beer opened his eyes to what beer could be. He dove deep into the brewing culture of Bruges and Ghent, tasting every local offering he could. Upon Fox’s return stateside, an introduction to Saison Dupont at Chicago’s Hopleaf Bar sealed the deal. “It blew my mind,” he recalls. “It still does.”

2. Get cultured
Unhappy with his job making “corporate douchebags rich” as the food and beverage manager at an upscale Chicago hotel, Fox seized his passion for beer as a chance “to change my quality of life.” On nights and weekends, he explored pubs and drank Three Floyds. During work hours, he pumped his distributors for leads on promising new brands and recipes. Volunteering nights on the packaging line at Pipeworks Brewing turned into two-and-a-half years working in their brewhouse. After building a sophisticated pilot system in a garage, Fox began test batching recipes for the brewery he wanted to launch.

3. Execute
Fox recalls the 2010 Pipeworks crew as “flying by the seat of our pants, brewing cutting-edge beers, and just mind-fucking people.” Yet the biggest lesson Fox took from those exuberant, extreme-beer-slinging early days was how to buckle down and deliver like a pro. Pipeworks founders Beejay Oslon and Gerrit Lewis taught him to plan ahead, set a path that allows for growth, and value consistency. That doesn’t mean Fox sits at the helm of a soulless brewing machine; he won’t let his brewers work weekends, and stresses quality of life in company culture. But when the crew is on, they’re really on: “We execute at a high level, at all times.”

4. Redraw the map
When it came time for Fox to open the 18th Street Brewery, he launched over the Indiana state line in Gary. “I lived there at the time, and I really wanted people to know that craft beer has no boundaries,” Fox says. “Chicago would have been taking the easy route, for me. […] We believed in the [Gary] community, and people saw the positive force behind what we were doing. Customers saw we were pushing the envelope. We came in with that swagger, and people knew what’s up, that we were not going anywhere.”

5. Hit the deep cuts
The brewery’s full-throttled IPAs, Pale Ales, and Stouts are worlds away in flavor profile from the Belgian beers that Fox first fell in love with more than a dozen years ago. But his recipes remain spiritually linked to Belgium in their layers of depth. “We’re not looking to do anything one dimensional,” he says. “We always want to be on the cutting edge, and anything we do starts with quality.” A heavy-metal ethos runs through 18th Street, from the brewery’s unapologetically unrestrained recipes, to its branding and label art. “We try to be genuine about who we are,” Fox says. “It’s about culture, music, art—our pure love of what we do. We’re having fun.”

6. Set the tone
Sinister Double IPA was Fox’s first brew for 18th Street. Bright orange in color, it manages to bridge the resinous, piney school of massive IPAs with contemporary tropical fruit hops. “This beer was a statement that our brewery wasn’t a pipe dream. It had to be big, and blow some minds,” says Fox. But it also only exists because Fox’s first pitch nearly got him laughed out of Pipeworks: “My first beer was going to be a Blonde, and Beejay [Olson] said, ‘What are you thinking? Nobody’s drinking a Blonde! You have to come in stronger than that.’ So I wrote this recipe in three minutes, and it set the tone for what we want to be.”

7. Give it some sugar
Hunter, 18th Street’s flagship Stout, is a series of classic style transgressions rolled into one delicious glass. It’s far sweeter and lighter-bodied than the imperialized Russian styles popular with brewers building a massive Stout. Loaded with lactose sugar and cacao nibs, Hunter is also far bigger than a Milk Stout normally has any right being. Fox wanted a sweet, balanced beer with heft behind it, and the recipe’s 11 grains add up to a sensory experience similar to biting into a marshmallow.

8. Hit new notes
Sour Note, 18th Street’s sour side project, began as an attempt to conquer Berliner Weisse and Gose, and as a change of pace for a crew used to churning out tongue-blistering hoppy ales. Early on, Fox recalls, his crew dumped more beer than they sold. But through creativity and persistence, they’ve made alchemy happen with wild critters, fruit, and oak. “It keeps me feeling creative, and asking, Are we pushing the envelope hard enough? I love giving people something different and beautiful,” Fox says. “The delicate, sexy-ass beer that comes off this wood is really remarkable, if you do it right.”

9. Raise the bar
The biggest swing Fox will take in 2017 won’t be in a glass, but on the plate. By bringing on chef Andrew Dering to overhaul the food program at 18th Street’s Hammond brewpub, Fox plans to debut a hugely ambitious menu to “rival some of the restaurants in Chicago.” He’s building a farm-to-table program with local suppliers, and plans to grow vegetables on the brewery’s roof. “We need this region to know there’s more than just Jimmy John’s out there. I want to elevate that game to a high level.”