Who are you?
(L-R) Paul Slayton, Taproom Director; John Szopa, Head Brewer; Emily Slayton, Brewer / Strategy and Stuff
We are a brother, sister and husband team from the Chicago western suburb of Lombard. As you can see, we’re all devastatingly good looking and way humble.
Why “Skeleton Key”?
A skeleton key is a single key that can open many different doors—which is also what we aspire to be. Our taproom is one such door, through which you can find delicious beer, camaraderie and community. Our classes are another, through which you can develop an even deeper appreciation for craft beer and get into the nitty-gritty of what goes into making it. And our incubator is the third, through which a selected individual can gain access to the tools they need to make their own dream of opening a brewery a reality. We’ve got more doors in mind, too…but those are further down the line.
What’s your beer philosophy?
We make the kinds of beers that we enjoy drinking – classic styles, with a twist, so that what you taste is at once both familiar and new. We enjoy experimenting with different yeast strains and natural adjuncts, often as variations of our established recipes. Recent variants include: Trouble Won’t Trouble You black IPA infused with chanterelle mushrooms, Saudade Belgian wit with chrysanthemum and sage on tart cherries, and a Mexican hot cocoa version of our porter.
So can I brew my beer at your brewery and then sell it myself?
Short answer: no, unfortunately.
Long answer: Only those selected to participate in our one-on-one incubator program will be able to sell the beer they help make here, and even then, it has to be under the banner of our brewery. (Because liquor licensing laws.) If you are a brewery or contract brewer looking for extra capacity, we simply don’t have it. If you are a homebrewer who wants to sell your beer legally, you need a license or two first — and then you need to find a brewery with extra capacity. Someday we hope to have a brew-on-premises facility as part of our offering, but even then you can’t sell the beer you make, you can just take it home and drink it. Which is more fun anyway.
What is a “brewery incubator” then?
It’s a place where someone who wants to open a brewery can get hands-on, immersive experience with the actual day-to-day of running a brewery and taproom. As you can imagine, there’s a lot to it, so it’s something we can only do effectively one on one.
Originally, we thought we were going to open a shared-use commercial kitchen. We’re not chefs, but we loved the idea of being part of other small businesses’ origin stories. We thought it would be cool to be a springboard for their success, you know? But as we discussed it further (usually while brewing a batch of beer), we started to realize it wasn’t the right fit. None of us had worked in a commercial kitchen before, and we didn’t feel confident that we could support our clients the way we’d want to.
Beer, though…beer, we knew.
So we asked the federal government if we could do something similar, but as a brewery. We figured if we provided a commercial brewery, maybe homebrewers could make beer there and sell it, like how food trucks and farmers market vendors use commercial kitchens. But the federal government was clear on the distinction between food prep and alcohol production: they said, “no, don’t do that. It’s illegal.”
So we rethought our plan, and the brewery incubator program was born. Learn more about it here.
What qualifies you to run a brewery and taproom?
Sweat. Passion. 30 combined years of homebrewing experience. Siebel Institute certificates and supplementary coursework. Co-internships at Echo Brewing (now Mirror Image Brewing) in Colorado. A willingness to take on an extraordinary amount of debt and put our houses on the line. Possible insanity. 17 years of hospitality/bar management experience. An undying love of craft beer. Cicerone certification. 14 years of working with finance and the agricultural sector. North Dakota State University’s amazing Barley Field School. More beer classes, seminars and events than we could count. Determination. Perfectionism. 17 years in creative marketing. Beer program development at one of the city’s busiest gastropubs. An obsessive dedication to cleanliness. Imagination. Enthusiasm for collaboration. Comfort with chaos. Curiosity.