Validation came early for Matt Geary when he opened Public Craft Brewing six years ago.
“Going back to the first time I exchanged a pint of beer for $4, I watched the guy go all the way back to his table and sit down and drink it. He nodded his head and handed it to somebody else and came back and ordered two more; I was like, ‘this might actually work,’” he laughs.
Geary’s nanobrewery was part of a new phase within America’s brewing landscape.
“The idea of starting a brewery this size, all of the experienced guys in the industry said, ‘That’s not a good idea, you can’t do it, it’s not feasible,’” he said. “And there was a bunch of us little guys, we’re like, ‘Well, we’re boot-strapping this. We’re not sitting on a million dollars, but we want to try.’”
Production has increased 20 percent each year and he’s optimistic about moving into bigger digs with a larger brewing system soon. “We don’t have a lot of space, so we’ve expanded creatively,” he said.
But the house was big enough for a lively sixth anniversary party two Saturdays ago.
While the ’80s themed “Sixteen Candles” celebrated fashions and music from an era during which most attendees were well underage — or not born at all — the beer offerings were thoroughly cutting edge.
The star attraction, with good reason, was Chocolate Birthday Cake Stout. A snifter of this hefty 9.5 percent alcohol treat is worthy of anticipation and savoring. It smelled and tasted precisely like chocolate cake — with frosting! Like having your cake and drinking it, too.
Pineapple Weisse City, the day’s other release, offered proof of yet another fruit that complements this sour wheat beer style Berlin brewers unleashed on the world about two centuries ago.
Public had another iteration literally explode in popularity over the summer.
Inspired by the Fourth of July holiday, Bomb Pop Sour “just took off on us,” Geary recalled. “It was an insane release.” It sold out in less than two weekends. The second release was canned and sold out in a few hours.
Geary lists lactose for creamy texture, raspberry and cherry puree with lemons and limes as the key ingredients to hit the three colors in a Bomb Pop popsicle. A final keg tapped out during the summer’s Border War beer festival, and one attendee commented, “The man who made this is an evil genius.”
Brewer Mike Owens, a big fan of sours, takes that as a compliment. “To me that feels like a brand new exploration in what can be considered a beer.”
Geary admits that challenge comes with the territory.
“The industry changes really fast with the trends, the different styles and things come and go,” he said. “People always want what’s new. When we first opened I wanted to get people to understand the basics of craft beer. There was a plateau of hoppy beers at the time that I think a lot of people were sick of, and I was one of them pushing back against it saying, ‘Here’s what malt tastes like.’”
He admits that has changed again during his six years in business.
“Even those of us who were kind of looking for something new were able to find something new within those hoppy realms,” as he referred to Bits and Pieces IPA, Public’s most popular beer. The signature ingredient is Mosaic hops, a variety that wasn’t available to small brewers until hop farms increased acreage to meet the demand.
Geary adds that Bits and Pieces wouldn’t fit the description of IPA six years ago “because people were trying to see how bitter they could make the beer, for some reason — like hot wings — how hot can we stand it?” he laughs. “For better or worse, I don’t think that the American craft beer industry really cares too much about styles and rules,” he said. “We just want to make stuff that tastes good and people will enjoy.”
At age 27, Owens is the youngest member of the Public team. Geary points out that beer ideas come from everyone on staff, including customers, but Owens carries the load in the brewhouse and cellar.
Trained at the famed Siebel Institute in Chicago, like Geary, Owens wanted to join a small brewery after nearly one year brewing at Three Floyds, one of the world’s most famous craft breweries.
He wanted to develop his own recipes rather than following someone else’s, so he submitted a post on ProBrewer and Geary immediately responded. Owens was hoping to stay in the Chicago area, so Geary told him Kenosha was the most northern suburb.
More than two years later, Owens is excited about Public’s progress. “When I first started working here, we were doing the whole English Ale thing and since then, we’ve ventured out,” he says. “We’ve been trying to go along with all the trends that are in the craft beer market now.”
Kenosha’s craft beer following “is way bigger than I thought it would be,” Owens said. “Everyone in Kenosha wants a big brewery they can brag about and say, ‘Yeah, I know the brewer, I know the owner.’”
And Geary is thankful in return.
“It’s been fun to look back and see how we’ve been able to be involved in the community and doing events and supporting different things,” he said. “It’s inspired me to be confident enough to go ahead and take the next step of building a bigger brewery and expanding and becoming a big destination spot for Kenosha craft beer.”