The vision of a trio of local brewers and a local designer came together to create Kinslahger Brewing Company, which opened its doors at 6806 West Roosevelt, on March 11. It’s the first brewery to open in the historically-dry village of Oak Park. Partners Steve Loranz, Neal Armstrong and Keith Huizinga purchased the commercial building, which dates back to the Roaring ’20s and joined forces with designer, Jef Anderson, of Yearbook in Forest Park, to create a craft brewery with the feel of a speakeasy. It took a year of hard work to transform the former copy repair shop into a homey tap room, with a state-of-the-art brewery in back.
Huizinga is the “beer geek” of the trio. His passion was born during his senior year at Michigan State, when he did an overseas study of suds in the Netherlands.
“It opened my eyes to possibilities,” he recalled. “I always liked cooking, so I started home-brewing in the early ’90s.” The commercial Realtor knew right then he wanted to start his own brewery.
He met the like-minded Steve Loranz and Neal Armstrong at a home brew club in Oak Park.
“We found we had similar visions,” he said.
The three formed an ideal team.
“Steve wanted to be the brewer,” said Huizinga. “I didn’t want the job because it’s hard work and I’m lazy.” Instead, he took on the role of PR person, while Armstrong, an accountant, took over the finances.
After they bought the long-vacant building, they were pleased to find the original tin ceiling intact. This spurred them to create a tavern atmosphere from 100 years ago. Back then, German and Czech immigrants brought their recipes from the Old World and used American hops and corn to create robust lagers and Pilsners. Prohibition put a stop to these independent brewers. After the Volstead Act was repealed, however, these small producers were consolidated into brewing giants like Anheuser-Busch.
“Bud used to have a lot of flavor,” Huizinga explained, “but taste has been engineered out of it.”
He may be a geek, but he’s no snob.
“I admire how they produce millions of gallons of ‘Lite’ beer with no flavor,” he noted. “It’s a technological achievement.”
The partners had their own production goal: to brew a variety of distinctive lagers. “There’s a difference between lagers and other beers. It requires greater attention to detail. The flavor can’t hide behind hops.”
Before the brewing could begin, the brick building had to be essentially re-built. This included replacing exterior walls and the roof. They worked closely with Elements Architectural Group and Heartland Construction to build a 600-square-foot tasting room and a 2,600-square-foot distribution brewery. As in the days before Prohibition, potential clients can taste the brew before ordering it in large quantities.
The brewery is filled with gleaming metal equipment but the partners had no idea of how the tap room should look. They turned to Anderson, who is a partner in the Forest Park shop that markets products with old-fashioned designs. He was asked to come up with his own ideas and the ceiling was his starting point. He had the original ceiling tiles refinished to a “dark pewtery” color. He offset this dark color with ivory anaglypta on the walls. It’s a wall-covering from England textured like the tin.
Using a palette of blacks and grays, Anderson’s design called for a polished concrete floor and a zinc countertop on the oak bar. For seating at the bar, he found a dozen vintage Toledo factory stools.
“They’re the real McCoy and hard to find,” he said about the pewter metal stools from the 1930s. For seating at the tables, he found chairs from the ’40s that had been used at a Firestone Tire factory.
“They were in terrible shape,” he recalled. The aluminum frames had to be sandblasted and the wooden seats refinished. Rescuing items like these was in keeping with the spirit of Anderson and the partners. “We’re very into recycling,” he noted.
Using recycled materials extended to the hutch behind the bar. It features transoms rescued from the front of the building. To make this glass stand out, Anderson used dramatic backlighting and also used under-lighting for the hutch.
On the opposite wall from the bar, Anderson installed a 24-foot bench, upholstered in faux leather, which gives the room the look of an old club. The wall above the bench called for a grid of vintage photographs, divided by sconces. These milk-glass cylinders evoke the Prohibition era.
“We were going for a slightly industrial feel,” he said, “not too soft.” This motif extends to the factory-style lights that illuminate the front.
The biggest decision in Anderson’s design was not to have floor-to-ceiling glass showcasing the brewery. He saw this as a micro-brewery “cliché.”
“It would have clashed with the speakeasy,” he decided. Instead, Anderson used a door with a porthole to view the brewery equipment. He added matching portholes to the bathroom doors. The bathrooms are decorated with white subway tiles, which, Anderson said, “were very specific to the period.”
Indeed, the space feels like a place where workingmen could down drafts and unwind with their buddies.
“Beer is a social beverage to be enjoyed in good company,” Huizinga observed. “We wanted to create a comfortable, classy community space for conversation.” This means there are no TVs to distract patrons. If the absence of screens isn’t startling enough, the brewery does not allow tipping.
Kinslagher also strives to keep its pours affordable. It’s no wonder the cozy room has been filled with beer-lovers since the day they opened.
The space does not allow for a kitchen, so the brewery offers an array of artisanal snacks, including Sourdough Rye pretzels, Farmstead Gouda and a sausage called Landjaeger — the kind of snacks enjoyed by beer drinkers a century ago. So far, business has been brisk.
“We show our production facility to potential clients and tell them how we could provide their patrons with something new,” Huizinga noted. Their brand is now being stocked by several local drinking establishments.
As for the source of their brewery’s curious name, Huizinga explained they were trying to combine “kinship” with “lager.” To further personalize it, they included the letters “lah” in the middle, the initials of the three partners.
Anderson’s design certainly promotes kinship.
“Jef had such a sense of detail,” Huizinga said. “This included installing coat hooks under the bar, perfect for hanging a purse or a jacket.” His sense of design even extended to the coasters and business cards. They bear the logo designed by Brian Doherty, reflecting the pattern in the ceiling tiles.
The Kinslahger partners are hoping to snag more clients for their craft brews and are always looking to expand their line. Perhaps in autumn, the visons of designer and brewer will come together again.
“We’re working on a recipe that will include maple syrup from Yearbook,” Huizinga said. “It’s very fermentable and adds a very subtle flavor.”
Spoken like a true beer geek.