One look around the new 5 Rabbit brewery in Bedford Park, and you’d almost think the world wasn’t about to end.
There’s a bubbly excitement in the air, making the sprawling 25,000 square foot warehouse feel almost warm and cozy. Steam rises from shiny new equipment as staff brew, test and perfect some of the first batches produced in the new space. In the opposite corner, a handful of journalists and beer bloggers gather for a preview tasting of the Latin microbrewery’s newest limited edition beer, Ki’Chun Chanterelle Ale.
The beer’s launch playfully coincides with the end of the Mayan calendar, but the brew is neither dark nor heavy the way one might expect a doomsday drink to be. Bright, fruity and honey-hued, it has a remarkable lightness that belies its 9.5% ABV. The deviation is intentional––5 Rabbit co-owner Andres Araya is quick to dismiss the end-of-the-world conspiracy, preferring to focus on what the calendar’s end really means: a fresh start. That optimistic view is reflected in his new beer’s name; Ki’Chun literally means “tasty start.”
A new and tasty start is exactly what 5 Rabbit is embarking on. For the first time, the craft brewery will be making its year-round and seasonal brews without relying on contracts with outside breweries in several different states. It’s a big deal. A home base for brewing means more control over the final product, as well as more freedom with which to realize the company’s “no rules” philosophy when it comes to beer.
“Do you know what ‘piixan’ is?”
The question is given to me by beer expert and author Randy Mosher, who plays a crucial role in developing 5 Rabbit’s recipes. He explains how the Mayan term––which loosely translates to “free spirit”––serves as the driving force behind the company’s willingness to experiment with unusual, often exotic ingredients. The Ki’Chun, for example, owes its singularity to dark Thai palm sugar, New Zealand Rakau hops, and––of all things––chanterelle mushrooms. The chanterelles are something Mosher, the author of Radial Brewing, has experimented with before in his home brews. “The Germans used them to make schnapps,” he says of the golden mushrooms, growing ever more passionate as he cites their apricot-like aromas and subtle spiciness, both palpable in the Ki’Chun.
The chanterelles seem even less radical when you consider the other ingredients lining the shelves of the 30 bbl brewery. Tanzanian pepper berries, white “ceremonial” sage and jars of bright pink pickled ginger flank a single coffee grinder. Nearby, containers of local honey are perched one shelf below an ingredient I find particularly eyebrow-raising: buckets of dulce de leche. The Latin milk caramel, I learn, is a crucial ingredient in 5 Rabbit’s Vida y Muerte, a loose interpretation of an Oktoberfest-style beer with a spiciness likened to that of graham crackers. Spicy graham crackers? Yes, please.
To really make Mosher giddy, you only have to ask what sorts of experiments might be in the brewery’s future. The ideas spill forth in rapid succession, all influenced heavily by Latin flavors and, in some cases, history. A “mission series” is currently in the early stages of development, an idea Mosher says would focus on the ingredients missionaries carried with them, as well as the native crops that were prominent in the Pre-Columbian era. “What I want to know is, what did these people have in their own gardens?” he says. Wine grapes will almost certainly factor into the mix, as could almonds, figs, wheat and pomegranates. The idea lends itself to so many possibilities that Mosher predicts they could release a different beer every season, each one influenced by a distinct mission.
Other ideas are starting to take shape as well: a beer that incorporates rare ingredients from the Amazon, for example. Or, another series inspired by paletas, the Mexican popsicles often sold from push carts during the summer months. When you combine the “piixan” ideal with the richness of Latin culture and history, the brewery finds itself with endless ideas to explore.
That “anything goes” attitude is exactly what attracted head brewer John J. Hall, formerly of Goose Island. Hall is excited about the creative possibilities he’ll encounter working for the smaller brewery, even while his immediate focus is on getting 5 Rabbit’s staple beers––among them 5 Rabbit Golden Ale and 5 Vulture Dark Ale––ready to hit store shelves. He’s optimistic it could happen as soon as Christmas but is quick to point out that the holidays have a way of disrupting even the best laid plans.
Still, exciting things lie just on the horizon. While not yet open to the public, a brewery tap room and retail shop is in the works, and Mosher even points out a pile of wood––packing materials from a recent shipment of bottling equipment––that he says will be repurposed into tables.
Those yearning for a taste of Ki’Chun would do best not to wait, though. The limited release, draft-only beer was released this week at six select bars including:
- Hopleaf,5148 N. Clark St.
- Fountainhead,1970 W. Montrose Ave.
- Bad Apple,4300 N. Lincoln Ave.
- Simone’s,980 W. 18th St.
- State & Lake at the Wit Hotel,State St atLake St.
- The Owl, 2521N. Milwaukee
What better way to celebrate making it to December 22?