CHICAGO — Few Chicago-area breweries are as underappreciated as Two Brothers.
It has never been the trendiest or flashiest brewery during its 25-year run. While Two Brothers tried to faithfully re-create European beer styles in its earliest days, Three Floyds carved a niche with intensely bitter, fruity India pale ales and Goose Island pioneered aging stouts in bourbon barrels — both industry hallmarks today. Even without such an innovative feather in its cap, Two Brothers has quietly led in its own way.
Two Brothers was one of the first breweries in the area to make an India pale ale with freshly-picked wet hops (Heavy-Handed, in 2001) and an annual Oktoberfest beer (Atom Smasher, in 2005). Two Brothers was even early to a concept as simple as brewing to the seasons.
A year after launching in suburban Warrenville in 1996, Two Brothers produced its first winter seasonal, the inky, rich Northwind imperial stout. The following summer it was replaced by Dog Days lager. When the weather cooled again, back came Northwind. And so on.
Most breweries rotate beers seasonally these days. But Two Brothers was among the first locally to get beer fans drinking to the seasons, an idea light years from how most Americans approached it at the time: picking a favorite light beer and drinking it all year long.
More important, Two Brothers beer has generally been good, and oftentimes excellent. Look no further than its flagship, Domaine DuPage, a French country ale that’s as unflashy as a flagship beer gets.
Between the nation’s two preeminent beer festivals, the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup, Domaine DuPage has won seven medals since 2007, including gold in 2014 and 2016. And it is tasting as good as ever: bready, grassy and fruity with a wisp of bitterness in the finish. It’s an elegant and interesting beer that’s also approachable — everything a flagship should be.
As its name suggests, Two Brothers was launched by two brothers, Jason and Jim Ebel, who grew up in Wheaton and became enamored with beer culture while traveling in Europe in the early 1990s. Both brothers worked as architects before switching to beer after a few years of home brewing and operating a home brew store.
Jason, 50, is president of Two Brothers and oversees beer production; Jim, 54, is vice president and handles business operations.
The Ebels sold a meager 164 barrels of beer their first year in business. Last year they did about 22,000 barrels, which makes Two Brothers a mid-sized Chicago-area brewery in terms of production, even as the COVID-19 pandemic devastated business.Half its sales dried up in March 2020 after bars and restaurants closed and it still hasn’t fully recovered, Jason Ebel said.
But growth is strong in 2022, he said, and the brewery will celebrate its 25th anniversary — which technically was in October — at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora. The event features live music, Two Brothers’ 25th anniversary double IPA and retired beers returning for the milestone.
We talked with the Ebel brothers ahead of the party to look back and ahead. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q: What were you intending when you started Two Brothers? What led you to get into a business that was still years from the mainstream success it eventually found?
Jason Ebel: I was a 24-year-old who just thought this would be a lot of fun. I didn’t have a lot of preconceived ideas of where the industry was going or where we were going. I probably should have had a better grasp on it. But we did it for the pure enjoyment of making beer and making other people happy.
Jim Ebel: When I grew up, beer was what dad drank when there was a football game on. In Europe, it was like it is here now — people would gather around a dinner table and drink beer. That lifestyle component was really interesting and encouraging.
Jason: We were draft only for the first two years, and in those days you’d walk into a bar or restaurant to make a sale and they’d say, “What the hell is this? This doesn’t look like Budweiser.”
Q: I think of Two Brothers as one of the essential Chicago breweries a decade or so ago, but things have changed a lot since then. The number of breweries in the Chicago area has ballooned from about 15 to 250. What has it been like to keep up and remain relevant?
Jason: It’s a constant battle. We’re always trying to innovate and come up with new events and reasons for people to come by the brewery. It’s definitely a different world. We’ve been through three cycles. When we started, no one knew what craft beer was and we were trying to create awareness. Then there was the sweet spot of being relevant just by being there; there was interest, but not many breweries. Now there’s this wine-like saturation. There are so many wine labels when you walk into a store, you think “Well, I guess I’ll just pick this one.” The same thing has happened in beer and in Chicago beer.
Jim: We always try to walk the line between keeping our traditions alive and holding on to the things important to us while trying to be creative and stay modern and relevant. But that can be tricky sometimes.
Jason: Our mission statement and heritage is to buck the trend a little bit, and sometimes that can be a challenge. We know we have to produce these beers to pay the bills, but these beers we make for ourselves. Our joke is that we make beers we love and we hope you love them too — not beers we hope will double our sales. We’ve never been fascinated by having to get on the bus with everyone else, or to make the same beers they do.
Q: Twenty-five years is a long time in the craft beer industry, and I wonder how you view the evolution of Two Brothers during the first half of its existence versus the second half.
Jason: We were there seeing this huge boom in the craft beer scene in Chicago and around the country, a change from those first few years of no one understanding it to great acceptance and everyone looking for what you’re coming out with next. More recently the question is, “How close is that brewery to my house? What’s my local brewery?” It’s more about where the beer is made than what it is. In the first half, it was all about the liquid inside the bottle. Now I hear more about whether it’s local, and that’s interesting to me.
Jim: Our out-of-state business has struggled a bit. Used to be you could ship your beer anywhere because there weren’t many options. Now leaving your home market is really hard.
Jason: Chicago has become a challenge to keep up in. It’s definitely frustrating, but you just keep putting your head down and try to stay relevant. Craft beer drinkers aren’t loyal to specific beers — they’re loyal to the category. If four out of 10 times someone grabs a Two Brothers, they’re a humongous fan. One out of 10 times, that’s a solid fan.
Q: You guys were ahead of the curve locally on several beers. I think of Northwind, Heavy-Handed, Atom Smasher and Cane and Ebel, a hoppy red ale that has always been among my favorites. Domaine DuPage remains a classic, and is unlike most anything else made around here. Do you think you get enough credit as an influence on the Chicago beer scene, alongside other veterans such as Goose Island and Three Floyds?
Jason: I’d say there’s more than enough to make a case for us to be in that group. We take a lot of pride in our role in evolving the Chicago beer scene.
Jim: I think we get overlooked sometimes. We’re not in Chicago; we’re off the beaten path in this little town called Warrenville (about 30 miles west of Chicago) and we’re a small family company.
Jason: It’s just not our style to be bold and out front on things. Greg Koch (of Stone Brewing) was awesome at it and look where it got him. Maybe we should have done that. The biggest thing I think was that we’re not in Chicago proper. It’s been a little disappointing, but we’re proud of what we’ve built, so we’re OK with it.
Q: What’s the engine of Two Brothers at this point?
Jason: Its super funny to me: Domaine DuPage is the No. 1 seller and has been for 20 years. We put very little emphasis on that beer from a marketing standpoint, yet it’s always the top seller. I think it’s really cool; it’s not like it’s this newfangled thing with 85 ingredients and pours like molasses. But it’s unique. You walk into a bar with six IPAs that are relatively the same and Domaine DuPage stands out. It’s very full-flavored, pairs great with food and is very different from an IPA.
Q: What do you expect the next 25 years hold? Where do you see the company in the long term?
Jason: My son is 22 and graduating from Arizona State University in about three weeks; I’m looking forward to welcoming him into the family business. He’ll have a different viewpoint on things, I’m sure. He grew up coming into the brewery and he knows as much about the company as I do at this point. He’s been working on the sales team as a sales rep in Arizona. He’ll initially continue that path, but next spring, he hopes to go to brewing school. He’s all in. We’re very family oriented and he looks forward to working with me. That’s as exciting as anything you can ask for as a father.
Jim: We always saw this as a legacy family business. We never had the mindset to build and sell it or anything like that. Maybe that’ll happen, but hopefully our kids will be excited to be part of the company. It’ll be theirs soon enough and then they can do what they want with it.