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Chicago’s Craft Brewers Make Last-Minute Push For Relief Funds As State Lawmakers Finalize Budget

“We're trying to hold on and hold the roof up for our businesses, for our employees and for our communities,” one brewery owner said. “I think it’ll take us at least five years before we pay off the debt we’ve taken on.”

Left to Right: Clint Bautz, Lake Effect Brewing’s owner, and Eric Ullrich, Lake Effect's brewer.
Alex Hernandez / Block Club Chicago
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RAVENSWOOD — Chicago’s craft brewers are asking fans to call their legislators in Springfield and urge them to support a bill that would send assistance to brewpubs, distilleries and other businesses throughout the service industry.

State Sen. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago) introduced a bill in February that would set aside $125 million from federal relief funds for restaurants and bars in Illinois. The hospitality industry is the state’s largest employment sector, and at least 11,000 Illinois restaurants, bars and other venues have closed during the pandemic, Feigenholtz said.  

The state budget is expected to be voted on Thursday night.

“They have a very short window of time to advocate for this,” Feigenholtz said. 

Credit: Provided
The taps at Solemn Oath Brewery’s Logan Square taproom at 1955 N. Richmond St.

Gov. JB Pritzker ordered all Illinois bars and restaurants closed for in-person service to slow the spread of the virus in March 2020. That dine-in ban and subsequent fits and starts have hobbled efforts to recover from the financial strain, Begyle Brewing owner Kevin Cary said.

“We’re trying to hold on and hold the roof up for our businesses, for our employees and for our communities,” Cary said. “But the toll that COVID has taken on a lot of businesses is far and wide. I think it’ll take us at least five years before we pay off the debt we’ve taken on.”

Any financial support from the state to assist small businesses would be welcome news, said Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rudy Flores.  

“This group of businesses have a challenging financial recovery ahead as many could not sell their product due to health restrictions or closures of bars and restaurants during the past two years,” Flores said.

Only about 20 percent of breweries received Restaurant Revitalization Fund support before money ran out, according to the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild. Many more are waiting to see if they’ll get relief under Illinois’ Back to Business grant program, according to the guild.

Begyle Brewing is among those that applied for but have not yet received Back to Business support, Cary said.

“There’s only so much to go around and we were left out of the restaurant relief fund,” Cary said. 

Begyle derives a lot of its revenue from its Ravenswood tap room and the restaurant relief money would have helped the business get on better financial footing after taking on debt to navigate pandemic disruptions. 

But his brewery didn’t get that grant or another lottery grant it applied for in Chicago to help the business, he said. 

“I’m applying for these grants, keeping tabs on them but then you look at your balance sheet and you’re approaching substantial dollars for loans you took out to survive COVID,” Cary said. “There’s days when it’s really hard and you ask ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I a small business owner?’”

Credit: provided
Spiteful Brewing is one of the breweries being promoted by Big Teeth Productions Beer Hero campaign.

Lake Effect Brewing Company’s owner Clint Bautz has been working on opening a Jefferson Park taproom for years, but has remained a production-only brewery while navigating the pandemic.

“We got the [federal Paycheck Protection Program loan] in the first round but that’s pretty much all that we got,” Bautz said. “There were some other grants we applied for but we never heard anything back.”

Lake Effect lost about 10 percent of its delivery business of kegs and cases of beer to other hospitality businesses when the pandemic hit, Bautz said. 

“And in 2021, a lot of the restaurants and bars were still really skittish about ordering,” Bautz said.

Brewers got a temporary boon when the Illinois Liquor Control Commission allowed them to deliver beer from their production facilities directly to people’s homes. That allowance has since expired, Bautz said.

Spiteful Brewing co-founder Jason Klein also said it’s been frustrating to navigate different grant applications while also trying to run the brewery.

“We’re not anywhere close to where we were in 2019, obviously. We’ve had to open and then close and open and close. All of that has really taken a toll on us,” Klein said. “It’s hard to have the right amount of resources available. It’s hard to plan.”

Some brewers also have been limited in the types of business relief they could receive based on whether they have a full restaurant or taproom, or are a production brewery. Eris Brewery and Cider House in Old Irving Park was among those that stayed afloat because they also have a restaurant, co-owner Katy Pizza said.

“The the only reason we’ve survived this pandemic is due to the various relief programs. As a brewpub, we were eligible for the restaurant revitalization funds,” Pizza said. “But if we didn’t have that restaurant component, it would be a huge struggle.”

No action has been taken on the bill since it was introduced. Feigenholtz invited owners of bars and restaurants to Springfield last month to explain to legislators why the aid is still so desperately needed, she said.

Aside from breweries and distillers, restaurants, bars, food trucks, caterers, bakeries and others would benefit from the legislation.

“Our industry has only started on the road to recovery,” Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten said. “We are all still fighting to keep our doors open. This relief means we can survive.”

Credit: Alex Hernandez/ Block Club Chicago
Katy Pizza, co-owner of Eris Brewery & Cider House, stands in the building’s cellar.

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